Ummmm…..that’s sooo good! I hear that phrase over and over when someone tastes my home-grown honey for the first time. Their face lights up and a look of total delight transforms them when they dip their fingers into the sticky sunshine. Most people are used to the purchased plastic bear of generic clover honey (sometimes adulterated) available at the local grocery store. For me it was a taste of local honey which began my revelatory journey towards keeping bees over 20 years ago.
Attending local beekeeping club classes in person set me on the right path, with loads of information on bee biology, choosing the right equipment, and lots of help setting up my first two hives. But with COVID, there are excellent on-line courses available on the subject, and I highly recommend one from my friend Laryssa Kwoczak of Beekeeping Made Simple. Her course breaks down sometimes complex beekeeping into easy-to-learn steps or chapters. I wish that I had access to these when I started 20 years ago! An all-in-one beekeeping course that covers the basics as well as more advanced techniques, it really simplifies the entire process so anyone can become a beekeeper from the safety of their home in any part of the world. If you are interested in jumping into beekeeping using her course, an Introduction to Beekeeping would get you started. A full course is also available to delve deeper.
Mentorship which is so important to beekeepers is included with the course. Laryssa has extended a coupon offer for my readers of 30% off of the purchase price and you just need to enter GARDENDIARIES when you purchase either course at checkout. I loved the video on queen spotting. Check it out and see if you can spot the queen!
Beekeeping isn’t easy and these on-line courses break up the learning curve into easy segments.
To check out her website and maybe jump into beekeeping with one of her courses, go to Beekeeping Made Simple. I found the videos to be easy to follow and she explained some complex things quite simply and easy to understand. If you are still on the fence about beekeeping, I have tried to answer the most commonly asked questions below.
What does it cost to get into beekeeping? Costs can be steep the first year, as you are paying for equipment, plus your bees. But then it levels off. At a major retailer of bee equipment, you can pick up beginner kits for a complete setup for around $400-$500. That doesn’t include the most important part though – your bees. Bees could run you anywhere from $150 to $200 per colony, depending upon colony size. So, we are talking about $650-$700 per hive and I suggest that you start with two. You are more flexible with two (a stronger one could help a weaker one) and you won’t be devastated if one doesn’t make it through the winter. The total cost just doubled but the advantage it gives you the first year is worth it.
Factor in buying large amounts of sugar for sugar syrup for feeding. When floral nectar is in short supply or unavailable, like early spring or late fall, bees draw on their honey stores in the hive. During these times, it is important to feed your colonies because when stored honey in the hive is gone, the colony will starve.
Your first spring of beekeeping will suck up the most time. Everything is new, you panic over nothing, and you are driven to open your colonies a little too frequently. You will be installing new packages or nucs of bees, hovering worriedly over your new babies, and feeding them sugar syrup every day to get them going. Leveling off in the summer, your time is more likely to be spent observing and peeking into your hives, and adding extra boxes as the colony grows.
If you are using disease medications (I do it organically), you are spending time applying chemical controls, especially for the omnipresent varroa mite. Extraction of your long-awaited honey surplus will take a full day in the late summer. It involves removing bees and boxes, uncapping honey from frames, spinning the honey out, and the most time consuming of all – cleanup of a sticky mess.
How About Winter?
A few hours of work is consumed in Fall and Winter, wrapping your hives for winter, and feeding more sugar in the form of syrup or solid fondant. Over the entire year of beekeeping, I estimate that I spend at least 30 – 40 hours tending to them.
The wonder of the symbiotic relationship of flowers, bees, and nature continue to fascinate me and make it worth my time and money. When my bees visit my year round greenhouse in Maryland on a mild winter day, I am amazed! Amazed that they can zoom in on one orange tree that is blossoming from several thousand feet away in the dead of winter. And the unexpected events that happen (like swarming) causes me to marvel at honeybee behavior and never get bored with it.
My bee journey took me other places too – like becoming interested in all pollinators and how our native pollinators as well as the imported honey bee are in decline and need our assistance to survive. An avid gardener from an early age, I learned what plants were beneficial to pollinators and established a meadow around my bee hives to supplement their foraging diet.
I still love opening my bee hives – thrilling to the sight of their collected nectar and pollen foraged from close by. Smearing honey on my toast in the morning has given me a new appreciation for all their hard work; To produce 1 pound of honey, 2 million flowers must be visited. I savor the flavor!
So, after beekeeping for over 20 years, I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, the swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!
Will they swarm? Yes, of course, and you have to deal with it! I’ve had many swarms from my hives, some that I could catch and some that just were too difficult to hive safely. I have also caught wild swarms to increase my number of hives. Swarming is a natural mechanism for honeybees to find a new home when their present home gets too crowded. Sounds like a benefit for the beekeeper as he increases his hive, but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to Swarming of the Bees to see how I deal with that.
So, jumping into beekeeping will open up another world for you, but get on the right track and learn as much as you can before investing in time and money.