Learn the basics of keeping backyard bees to increase garden productivity, and reap sweet rewards.
Main photo by Rick Wetherbee. Inset photo by David Cavagnaro
While honeybees’ sweet byproducts are delicious, their value extends far beyond providing golden honey. Beans, tomatoes, onions and carrots are among hundreds of other vegetables, herbs and fruits that depend on bees for pollination. Bees pollinate about one-sixth of the world’s flowering plant species and about 400 agricultural plants. And when plants are poorly pollinated, they produce fewer fruits and less seeds and thus affect the quality, availability and price of food. So, what can bees do for your garden? Well, quite a bit. Bees in the garden ensure better pollination, so your plants will grow stronger, fuller and healthier. And keeping bees is not a difficult or intimidating task once you know a bit about it.
The Joys of Beekeeping
The picture of a serene individual calmly tending to the “little golden folk” in his or her beehive presents a rare and heartwarming example of how humans can work in cooperation with the natural world. But while experienced beekeepers may lyrically praise the sweetness of both their labors and their harvests, most people find the idea of actually tending a hive to be quite intimidating.
Many people are frightened by the mere thought of approaching a colony of 30,000 to 80,000 stinger-laden and venom-carrying flying insects. And those who do want to learn this seemingly mysterious art find that many beekeeping how-to guides plunge into such bewildering barrages of complicated explanation that they actually add to the readers’ muddle.
But despite the fact that bees have stingers, that many texts do seem (especially at first) to be almost unintelligible, and that no beginner can become an expert beekeeper in a single honey season, it is quite possible for an interested novice to learn to work bees and harvest honey.
As long as there are nectar- and pollen-bearing flowers in your area, you can become a hobbyist beekeeper. Many urban beekeepers keep hives of honey makers on apartment house roofs or in attics. (Before doing so, however, city dwellers should check their local ordinances.)
While much of the information on backyard apiculture can be gained solely through study and experience, this article should give you a feel for what’s entailed in the endeavor and, perhaps, a desire to try your hand at tending bees.
But What About Stings?
So let’s address this concern right off and admit that if you keep bees, you will get stung. Many days you’ll not receive a single poke, but odds are that someday you’ll make a careless mistake — such as working with the insects under unfavorable weather conditions — and get stung good!
However, getting stung is not a disaster. Sure, it hurts. But most beekeepers soon build up immunity to the venom and suffer little or no pain when stung. Of course, those especially allergic to bee stings should not even attempt to keep bees. If you have neighbors very close by, check to make sure none of them are highly allergic before beginning your beekeeping endeavor.
When you do get stung, use a fingernail (or some other thin-edged object) to scrape the “bee needle” out immediately. Otherwise, the stinger’s venom sack will continue to pump poison into your flesh for a minute or more. (Don’t try to grab the stinger with your fingers — as so many people do — or you’ll actually squeeze even more venom into your system.)
Still, your goal will be to get stung as little as possible while tending hives. And the following tips should greatly reduce the number of “injections” you receive.
• Wear a snug (“beetight”) veil and light-colored clothing. Eliminate crawling spaces between your garments and skin by tucking your pants legs into your socks and, possibly, wrapping rubber bands or Velcro around your shirtsleeves. Do not wear wool. During the first few months, you may feel more comfortable with protective gloves, but eventually you probably will find that it’s easier to work a hive without crushing bees when you’re barehanded.
• Do not wear clothes that have previously received stings. Bees release a banana-scented pheromone when they strike to alert their comrades to the threat and to summon other bees to sting the same area. So wearing garments that are still scented with that alarm odor is literally asking to be stung.
• Always use a smoker. The portable bellows/firebox combination (a standard piece of beekeeping equipment) enables you to puff plumes of smoke into the beehive. For some reason — perhaps because they believe they’re getting ready to flee from a forest fire — whenever bees smell smoke, they engorge themselves with honey and become much less aggressive toward intruders. (A smoker is also useful for temporarily covering up the scent of a bee’s alarm pheromone if you do get stung.)
• Whenever possible, visit the bees on a warm, sunny, windless day when plenty of nectar-bearing flowers are in bloom (or, as beekeepers say, when there’s a honey flow). Many of the insects will be out working in the fields, and the stay-at-homes will be so busy with their own labors that they’ll hardly notice your presence.
• Don’t block the hive entrance with your body. Tend the bee house from the side or back.
• Try to make all your movements calm, evenly paced and efficiently purposeful. Of course, such poise may not come naturally at first. Keep trying, and your skills and demeanor soon will improve. If at all possible, get some experience working with other beekeepers — a lot of their self-assurance will rub off on you.
The Hive: Parts and Members
In 1851, L.L. Langstroth devised the modern beehive, which incorporated two vital features that are standard today: movable, interchangeable frames and uniform “bee space.”
The mobility of all the interior parts makes precise and nondestructive manipulation of the hive possible. And since all the internal pieces of equipment are separated by 5⁄16-inch spaces (the size of passageway that bees naturally prefer), the insects usually won’t be tempted to close off their “halls” by sticking the hive parts together with extra comb or bee glue (propolis).
The basic parts of the bees’ home are a hive stand, a bottom board, inner and outer top covers, and — most important — open boxes, or supers, that make up the body of the hive. Inside every one of the bee-housing boxes are eight to 10 frames (or racks). Each of these removable rectangles give the bees ordered starting points for drawing out either egg or honey cells.
The main hive body, or brood chamber (sometimes called a deep super) is 95⁄8 inches high and houses the queen and her eggs (brood). Many beekeepers like to keep two brood chambers in each hive.
The shorter boxes, or shallow supers (most frequently referred to simply as supers), are 5 3/4 inches tall. They are stacked on top of the brood chamber and used primarily for storing honey.
The members of a hive colony are one queen bee, thousands upon thousands of worker bees, and a random (but, in the most productive hives, small) number of drone bees. The queen, the longest-lived member of the colony, resembles a worker bee with an enlarged abdomen. After her few youthful mating flights, she spends the rest of her life (as long as seven years) in the hive, performing one function: laying eggs — to the tune of more than 1,500 a day during the peak of each season.
The worker bees are all females that lack fully developed reproductive organs. These multitudes of industrious insects run the hive, feed and clean up after the queen, gather honey, pollen and water, keep the internal temperature of the hive constant (they can both cool and heat their enclosed environment), feed the larvae and build all the honey and brood comb. (No wonder they’re called workers!)
In contrast, the drones — very large, very indolent male bees — never lift an antenna to help out around the place, but simply eat honey (that’s why you don’t want too many of them in your hive) while waiting for an opportunity to mate with a young queen (a fatal — but, one must hope, fulfilling — experience).
How to Get Started Keeping Bees
To begin raising bees, you’ll need equipment. Several U.S. suppliers offer beekeeping beginner’s kits that contain everything you need to get started — usually except bees and honey supers — and range in price from $125 to $325. (Some kits include bees and/or honey supers and cost more, while others cost less but require a honey-making supplement kit in year two. See our resource box below for some good options.)
To obtain your winged livestock, you can mail-order a nucleus of “package bees,” buy a working hive from a local beekeeper or catch a wild swarm.
Catching a swarm isn’t as difficult as you might imagine: The tight, homeless clusters of bees usually seen hanging from tree limbs, posts or shrubs tend to be remarkably mild-mannered. Still, if you’ve never handled bees before (or if you don’t want to depend on the chance occurrence of finding a swarm), you may prefer to start out by purchasing your honey-makers.
It’s often possible to buy a strong, established colony from a local beekeeper. A working community should cost between $125 and $150, and include about 50,000 bees along with a complete hive (you’ll still have to purchase such gear as a veil and smoker), and — if subsequent weather and honey flows permit — you ought to be able to harvest 50 to 100 pounds of honey your first season.
Many states require that a bee inspector examine your newly acquired colony (contact the agent through your county agricultural extension service) for signs of highly contagious bee diseases, such as American foulbrood. If you don’t have an inspector look into your hive, you should expect the seller to go through the hive in your presence and do enough research to spot problems yourself.
If you choose to go the package route (a cluster costs around $25), place your order as early as possible because most bee suppliers will become quite busy as spring approaches. Your package will be shipped four to six weeks before the first spring bloom and will contain a healthy, mated young queen, two or three pounds of worker bees, a can of syrup for the insects to eat en route and complete instructions for both installing the colony in your hive and feeding its members until the first honey flow. This method costs less initially than buying a working hive, but remember that starting with a small nucleus means your new bee community may not make any surplus honey (beyond their own wintering food needs) during the first year.
Gathering the Sweet Stuff
After your bees are in place and prospering, you should consider adding your first honey super to the hive. But first, you’ll have to decide whether to harvest comb (chunk) or liquid (extracted) honey.
As a beginner, you’ll probably find comb foundations simpler and less expensive. With comb foundations, you’ll be able to harvest your golden goody by simply cutting the honeycomb out of the frames. Then, you can smash all the comb cells with a kraut chopper (or a beater from an electric mixer) and let the honey drain out through a small-mesh screen lined with cheesecloth.
Because bees use a lot of honey and energy while building their combs, you can harvest about 50 percent more honey from your hive if you extract the sweetener and reinstall the still-intact cells in the hive rather than cut the combs out altogether. But there’s a rub: The smallest hand-cranked extractors cost around $150 — more than all the other one-hive start-up expenses combined.
However, if you want the increased yield possible with extracted honey without the full expense of purchasing the necessary machine, you might be able to share the purchase cost of an extractor with some other small-scale beekeepers, or pay (with honey) a nearby commercial apiarist to do your comb/honey separating.
A Visit to your Hive
To give you a better feel for what it’ll be like to tend a “flock” of insect livestock, let’s pretend that it’s a sunny day in June. Wildflowers are blooming like crazy, your hive seems to be prospering (in fact, you added a honey super to it two weeks ago), and you’re a mite curious as to just how well those bees are doing. In short, it’s a perfect day to inspect your little apiary.
With beetight garments and a steady fume-producing smoker, you approach the hive from the side and watch for a moment. Plenty of bees are flying in and out of the wooden home and the ones coming back are so laden with nectar that they almost “droop” their way through the air.
So, you put the tip of your smoker right in the mouth of the hive’s low entrance and puff a couple of clouds into the brood chamber. Soon, most of the bees go into the hive.
A minute later, you lift off the hive’s outer cover and blow smoke down the narrow hole in the inner lid. You wait for a short time after this, then, using your handy hive tool (an inexpensive crowbarlike implement that’s an indispensable beekeeper’s aid), you pry the inner cover’s corners loose and lift that thin top off.
You now carefully pry up each corner of the first spare frame until you can grab it and lift the entire bee-covered frame out of the hive. Some of the cells you examine are capped with white beeswax (indicating the presence of ready-to-harvest honey). Most of the hexagonal units, though, are unsealed and contain clearly visible honey. Since such ambrosia needs further curing by the bees, you know it’s not yet time to make your first harvest. You also know that to truly assess the health of your hive, you need to examine the brood chamber. Here you will find your queen, or at least see that the colony is full of brood and thus know you have a healthy queen.
To give this tale a sweet ending, let’s come back to the scene a week later. By now, your honey crop is 80 percent sealed and ready to harvest. Of course, you could leave a “one-way bee escape” (a gateway that lets bees out but not in) under the super, walk off, and reap insect-empty racks in a day or so. But you’ve just got too much of a hankering to wait for some homegrown honey, so you pull out the sweet-filled frames one by one, simply sweep all the bees off with a soft-bristled brush — the bees don’t seem to mind, either — and take your golden gatherings home.
Beekeeping's Vital Season
Every beekeeping season entails tasks. Summer work includes such jobs such as adding supers and perhaps harvesting. Fall is the time to make sure your bees have all their winter stores built up. And, before winter hits, you need to add some hardware cloth to your hives’ entrances (to keep out mice) and start assembling gear for next year.
But the most crucial beekeeping season is surely the spring. Many colonies, having made it through the winter on their own supplies and ready to begin foraging anew, are then faced with a few change-of-season weeks when no harvestable flowers have yet bloomed. If the nectar-gatherers don’t have enough extra stores to see themselves through this increasingly active period, you’ll have to provide some sugar or honey syrup (and perhaps some pollen or pollen substitute). Otherwise, your bees may have survived the winter only to starve in the spring.
The warming weather brings another threat to your colony’s productivity: swarming. In the wild, bee colonies reproduce annually by division. Many of the workers and the old queen emerge from the hive and fly off to find a new home. If your bees swarm, a new replacement queen and some workers will be left behind to carry on. But much of your best winged livestock will have flown the coop, so the hive probably will not produce a good honey crop the following season.
Although you can take some hive-saving steps, you won’t prevent all swarms from occurring. You might, however, balance your losses with gains, since spring is also the season to catch stray runaway clusters and thus increase the number of hives in your apiary.
The danger of swarming — as well as the quality and number of bees that do desert the hive in such instances — decreases as spring turns to summer.
If you take up beekeeping and manage your honeymakers with care, you’ll have the pleasure of learning about one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. (The intricate patterns of bee behavior provide continual discoveries to the most experienced apiarist.) In addition, you’ll begin to understand how to cooperate with — rather than lord over — the only livestock whose wills have never been crippled by domestication.
And although this article has emphasized the commitment and labor that beekeeping will require of you, the colony’s caretaker, you’ll probably learn to feel humble when you compare your efforts with those of your winged partners. For, as longtime beekeeper Richard Taylor has artfully phrased it, “The truly monumental work of apiculture is always done by the bees themselves.”
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