Beekeeping Basics: Could Keeping Bees Be Right For You?

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"Homemade Living: Keeping Bees with Ashley English" is a guide for those interested in beginning beekeeping. Ashley English covers key issues, from space and time considerations to the basics of acquiring, housing, maintaining and caring for bees year round.
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"Homemade Living: Keeping Bees with Ashley English" is a guide for those interested in beginning beekeeping. Ashley English covers key issues, from space and time considerations to the basics of acquiring, housing, maintaining and caring for bees year round.

The following is an excerpt from Keeping Bees with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Tend Hives, Harvest Honey and More by Ashely English (Lark Crafts, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 2: What to Consider: To Bee or Not to Bee.

What to Consider: To Bee or Not to Bee

The siren song of beekeeping can be difficult to resist. Honeybees are fascinating to observe, essential to the pollination of over one-third of foods enjoyed by humans, and produce a number of desirable items such as honey and beeswax. Although the craft is not necessarily difficult, not everyone is a good candidate for honeybee caretaking. Like any form of stewardship, beekeeping requires investments of space and time as well as money. You’re reading this book, so your interest is clearly piqued. Let’s examine some preliminary considerations before you get your heart set on an adorable Italian or intrepid Russian (honeybee, that is!).

On Location

Compared to other forms of animal husbandry (dairy cows come to mind), honeybees require very little space–just what is needed for a hive and a little room to work. You can keep honeybees everywhere from urban rooftops and quarter-acre backyard plots to vast, rural expanses. Honeybees are skilled foragers and will travel miles from the hive searching for nectar and pollen.

Urban bees seem to do quite well in cities where a fairly good degree of biodiversity persists. Public parks, landscaped office buildings, antiquated churches planted long ago with ambrosial roses, rooftop gardens, backyard veggie patches, potted herbs on balconies–the amount of urban flora and fauna is profuse. Packed into such dense spaces, nectar and pollen available from these sources, along with water from lakes, creeks, rivers, birdbaths, and puddles, provide ideal foraging grounds for our buzzing friends.

Honeybees are capable of surviving and thriving in a wide range of climates and terrains, albeit with a little assistance from you. You can find honeybees in rugged hillsides and flat valleys, from locales where winter means pulling out the snow shovel and layering on wool sweaters to those where flip-flops and a beach towel are all that’s needed. Provided there are plants that bloom and flower, honeybees will hang their hats wherever you hang yours.

As you are considering where to place a beehive or two, keep in mind that while bees don’t take up much room, the area where you locate their hives will need to meet a few key criteria. It will require some sort of windbreak, a bit of morning sunlight, and some degree of shade. You will also need access to water and room for you to navigate around the hive for examinations and extraction. We’ll discuss these needs in greater detail in chapter 3 when we examine hive components and where best to situate your hive.

Money Matters

Unless your preferred pastime is cloud watching or counting raindrops, the hobbies you already engage in most likely incur a bit of expense, either at the outset or over time. So, too, with beekeeping. When you factor in the cost of the hive itself, protective gear, equipment such as a smoker (used for calming the bees), and the bees themselves, in addition to food (should you need to supply it), medications (should you opt to use them), resource materials, and vessels for holding honey, the initial expense of beekeeping can seem daunting. While I will admit that the startup costs are considerable, there are a number of ways to begin beekeeping without breaking the bank.

A local beekeeping chapter is a great resource. Such organizations may have periodic giveaways or be recipients of donations from larger organizations looking to fund novice beekeepers. When I first began my foray into the world of Apis mellifera, I attended a two-weekend-long beginning beekeeping school sponsored by my regional beekeeping organization. All attendees were entered into a contest for a litany of apiary goods to be given away at the conclusion of the school. I won an expertly written book on beekeeping, while other attendees went home with everything from smokers to full hives. Many chapters have more costly equipment, such as honey extractors, available for rent. My local chapter rents out its mechanized extractor for a mere $11–the same equipment costs hundreds to purchase.

It might be tempting to purchase secondhand beekeeping equipment or hives. While something like gently used protective clothing and gear poses no threat, used hives might harbor disease. This is where your local chapter can assist you in connecting with a reputable seller in your area. You could also contact the regional governmental representative for beekeeping concerns, such as a state or county bee inspector, to solicit advice on used bee goods. If you elect to buy new, I’d encourage you to shop around. When first buying my hives and equipment, I found a great variety in prices between suppliers. Search for deals, but don’t scrimp too much. When it comes to beekeeping equipment, it pays to start with the best. Going cheap all around will only require greater investment later when bargain gear begins to break down or fall apart.

After you’ve got the major infrastructure in place, the ongoing expenses of beekeeping are relatively small. You’ll need sugar for feeding them when nectar isn’t present for foraging; additional supers for when the honey starts coming in; new queens when the occasion merits it; jars and labels for the honey; and additional hives, if you decide to acquire more bees or split an existing hive (more on this in chapter 6). If you live in bear country, add bear fencing to the list. Overall, maintaining a hive of bees is quite affordable, especially when compared to the costs of food and veterinary care for pets such as cats and dogs.

Keeping Time

If you take a dog for a daily walk or clean a cat’s litter box regularly, you’re already devoting more time for animal maintenance than will ever be required in beekeeping. You’ll spend the largest amount of time with your bees during the first year, inspecting them, looking for problems, checking that a queen is present, feeding them if necessary (we’ll discuss that in greater detail in chapter 4), and other getting-to-know-you tasks. Thereafter, visits to the hive may be few.

Over the winter, you’ll visit your hive only occasionally, just to check in and make sure nothing has caused any structural damage (like a predator, strong gust of wind, or fallen tree branch). As the warmer months approach, it will be necessary to stop by every week or two to check the hive’s progress. When honey is available, several hours will be required for removing the supers, extracting the liquid, and cleaning the equipment when done. A bit of fall maintenance to prep your hive for the impending cold weather closes out a year’s activities for the beekeeper. I’ll offer more information about the best time of year to get started with bees, as well as seasonal upkeep, in chapters 6 and 8.

While there isn’t a great deal of daily care involved in beekeeping at any given time, bear in mind that your bees will need to be looked after regularly. If you’re the type to take lengthy vacations during the summer months, or get pulled away at work for weeks at a stretch, it would behoove you to find a beekeeping friend before setting up your hives. A reciprocal arrangement with a fellow beekeeper, whereby you offer to care for one another’s hives when life calls you away from home, can be especially advantageous. A “bee-sitter” can drop in, inspect the hive, provide food if needed, and add a super or two if honey is beginning to fill up.

Reprinted with permission from Homemade Living: Keeping Bees, © 2011 by Ashley English and Lark Crafts, a division of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

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