Beekeeping 101

Taking off a perfect frame of honey

The best way to jump-start a conversation at a party is to tell people you are a beekeeper. Inevitably, people will barrage me with questions about my hobby and how they always thought of becoming a beekeeper themselves. Most people don’t have a clue of what is involved and for people who are intrigued but don’t know where to start, the following pointers should help you decide.

Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifer...
Honeycomb of Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) with eggs and larvae. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

How To

If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics from experienced beekeepers.  Oregon Ridge Nature Center conducts a local course by the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping‘. It starts in the early spring for 6 weeks and concludes with a delivery of a package of bees which you take home and install. There are hands on demonstrations outside which will give you a good idea of how to set up your own apiary. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology, management of colonies, and extraction of honey or as he describes it ” a full year of beekeeping”. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and encouragement and mentoring from experienced beekeepers. Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. If you don’t live in MD, just search for a local beekeeping group to take courses from.  Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper.

Cross section of a standard hive
Peeking into the spinning extractor

Cost

The expense of starting up a hive are considerable.  Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.  For all the bells and whistles, it will cost considerably more. A good extractor alone could set you back $800. I don’t own an extractor as I rent it for $10 from our local beekeeping association.  I would advise starting with two hives so you have a backup if one bombs. I sell my honey but only collect a fraction of the cost of what it takes to set up and maintain my hives.  Also, don’t forget that you will be buying several 20 lb bags of sugar a season to feed your bees! So, don’t consider this a money-maker –  more like a money pit!

The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as solar wax melter, which you won’t need right away.   You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but make sure that the equipment is disease free. The cost of your initial package of bees with a queen will run around $75. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started.

Setting up and leveling two new hives
Knocking the package bees into my newly set up hives
Just hived up two packages of bees

How much work is involved?

Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies. The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy. I spend at least a couple of hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames. Later when there is a ‘honey flow‘, which means the favorite flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies  to your hives to handle the extra honey.  Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out, but will produce extra in subsequent years.  In the fall, I spend time taking off the supers, extracting the honey and feeding and medicating them to get through the winter.  I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Throughout the winter, I clean and renovate my old hive bodies which become gummed up with propolis that the bees deposit on the boxes to seal them tight.

Adding feeders in the fall

Will they sting?

I have noticed a greater presence of honey bees in my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. The bees use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house.  I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response.  But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either.  Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business. I have noticed improved production of my veggie garden and love that aspect of beekeeping.

Bee on butterfly weed

How about my neighbors?

Neighbors are definitely a consideration when you start your own hives. The best way to approach this is to let them know of your intent and to educate them about bees, i. e. – they rarely sting and will not cause problems with their family. I also screen my hives with some spruce trees so that they are not out front and center of my property and there is a buffer between my bees and the neighbors. It also helps if you present your neighbors with a gift of honey! Most people are fascinated with beekeeping and are quite curious about what you are doing.

Smoke gun
Smoke gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you get honey? 

I have 2 hives now on 2 acres of property.  I normally will harvest about 150 pounds of honey from my hives each season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a fascinating hobby that you can practice on smaller pieces of property, even in a city.

By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources  that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes.  Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it increases the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Beekeeping is a big investment in time and money.  Hopefully, reading this will help push you to the tipping point in deciding if this hobby is for you.

Remember, that the honey bee is not native. Honey bees were brought over with the early colonists across the ocean to join the native American bees. But the European honeybee is the only one that produces honey.

My honey

Pets

If you have dogs, especially black dogs, bees seem to target them. My previous border collie Gypsy, was so terrified of bees that as soon as I got my bee hood out of the shed, she fled! My current Border, Tori is totally unconcerned when I look at the bees but I have seen the bees go right for her and burrow into her fur and drive her crazy. So, now I just put Tori in the house when I open the bees up so that she is not tormented.

Bees do not like border collies!
Bear sneaking up on hives in Vermont!

If you live in areas where bears are common, beware! Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food was “Hunney” and bears are drawn to honey like kids to candy. The picture above was taken with a video camera in Vermont of a juvenile bear trying to wreak some havoc with the hives located on a deck.

All the bad stuff

Yes, there are lots of drawbacks.  Your bees will get diseases and mites.  Mites are like little ticks that suck their blood and weaken the bees. As for disease, I couldn’t believe the number of maladies that bees can contract and pests that they attract! There is foulbrood, chalkbrood, colony collapse, wax moths, small hive beetles, deformed wing disorder, and numerous others. The list goes on and on and every year, it seems that a new malady is added! There are various chemical remedies and some organic ones also.  But it seems you are always trying to stay ahead of the latest disease!  You deal with these problems as it happens.

If that isn’t enough, queens are notoriously fickle and hard to find in your hive. The overall health of your hive depends on the state of your queen.  She must be young and fertile to lay those thousands of eggs a day!

To be a good beekeeper, you should not have a fear of being stung and you should also be strong! The hive bodies when full of honey can easily weigh more than 50 pounds. You have to be able to lift them up and move those heavy boxes around by yourself.

But beekeeping is such a rewarding and fascinating hobby, I continue to do it. I have been a beekeeper for 10 years and feel that I have only scratched the surface in learning about this hobby. Maybe in another 10 years, I will feel that I know more about what makes bees tick, but I doubt it. It is always an adventure!

Ugh! A mite on a bee larvae

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7 Replies to “Beekeeping 101”

  1. I love this blog post…so nice to hear of what it takes to be a beekeeper. My Austrian great-grandfather in Croatia had bee hives…from what my mother told me…he had many of them….they used the honey mainly for sugar on their estate….She told me that he never wore protective clothing…and had bees covering his face and arms…apparently they never stung him….

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