Keeping honeybee hives means swarms. A natural reproduction process, it can happen to any beekeeper, experienced and inexperienced, so you should be prepared when it occurs, as well as excited. It is a sight to behold when the swarm is in full flight. The season of swarms is nearly always in April and May here in the Mid-Atlantic, when bees are building up quickly from all the available nectar. Check out my post on Honey Bee Nectar Flow.
You can hear the humming bees from at least 100 feet away and they come out in a wave that bursts from the hive.
Extra Equipment On Hand
As a beekeeper, I have at least two hives, sometimes, three, but an experienced beekeeper will always have additional hive boxes on hand when a swarm appears. This is your opportunity to increase your bee population free of charge! The problem is catching the swarm as it can be quite tricky. Over my twenty years of beekeeping, I have caught about one half of the swarms that appeared out of my hives, and several that people have called me about on their property- maybe a dozen in total.
Honey bee start-up colonies are expensive to buy – in the neighborhood of $150 a pop- and when a swarm emerges from a newly installed hive, like it did to mine recently, you see your honey harvest evaporate into thin air. Literally the hive will decamp, taking at least 1/3 of the population along with the queen and move to greener pastures.
Close is Better
Those greener pastures might be close enough for me to capture, but more likely than not, they fly far away to land in a tree 60 feet high with no chance of hiving them up for a new colony. The remaining bees are a much smaller population and have little chance of producing excess honey for me to harvest.
Capture the Queen
Last week I had a swarm land on a nearby tree and I simply climbed a ladder and lopped the branch off and brought it down the ladder with all the bees attached and knocked them into the hive box. The key is to get the queen into the hive box and all the workers will automatically follow. For once, the whole procedure of moving the swarm into the hive went like clock work!
Sometimes secondary smaller swarms can emerge after the primary one accompanied by virgin queens. The virgin queens must then mate with drones to start producing eggs for her new colony. If you have afterswarms, you are left with a ghost-like remainder who probably will die off.
Before the swarm leaves the original hive, the queen lays eggs into “queen cups” or larger cells that can accommodate the larger growing queen larvae. After the swarm leaves with the old queen, the new queens will emerge from the queen cups and if there are several that emerge, they will fight to the death, until the stronger one and usually the first one to emerge, is victorious.
Way Station Cluster
Queens are too heavy to fly long distances so the swarm usually will form on a nearby structure or tree branch which scout bees have already scoped out beforehand. They cluster in the chosen spot for a few hours or a few days, until the scout bees determine where the final nest site will be.
Then the entire swarm will fly off never to be seen again by the beekeeper unless you have set up swarm traps or you are able to capture them before they leave. Their final chosen site could be an old tree cavity or between the walls of a house.
Swarm Traps to the Rescue
Tired of losing all my bees to swarms that disappeared, I had two swarm traps made last winter, which are simple plywood boxes with an entrance and lid, that has been baited with five frames and lemon grass oil, a natural attractant of bees. Painted a green that camouflaged the box, I hoped that these traps would attract some scout bees looking for a new home. And this spring, it worked! I noticed the other day that bees were coming in and out like they were there to stay. I don’t know where the swarm came from. I am surrounded by properties that have bee hives, so I am crossing my fingers that I captured a good hive population to start a new colony or combine with one of my weaker ones.
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 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 a local beekeeping club classes 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. There are free on-line courses available and excellent books on the subject, but I found that personal hands-on help was the most valuable. For ‘Wannabees’ who have sat on the fence for years, and pored over glossy bee catalogs, my bee journey might help you take the first steps. But be warned, you have to order bees now, for the spring. Most bee suppliers are sold out of bees by early March.
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 which includes tools, hive bodies, and equipment. That doesn’t include the most important part though – your bees. Bees could run you anywhere from $130 to $200 per colony, depending upon colony size. So, we are talking about $500 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 granulated sugar to make up 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 of bees, hovering worriedly over your new babies, and feeding them sugar syrup every day to get them going. See my post on Installing Packages or Nucs of Bees or Honeybee Nuc 101.
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.
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. See my post on Spinning Honey or Beeswax-Honeybee Gift.
A few hours is involved in Fall and Winter, wrapping your hives for winter, and feeding more sugar syrup. I am using a new product for wrapping called, Bee Cozy which streamlines the winter process greatly. 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. 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. I learned what plants were beneficial to pollinators and established a meadow around my bee hives to supplement their foraging diet. See my post Grow These For the Bees Garden Plan.
I still love opening my bee hives -thrilling to the sight of their collected honey full of 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, if you are still thinking about it after reading about the cost and time, look up your local beekeeping club and get started!
It happens every August – honey extraction! After babying the bees, feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them, now is the moment of truth. How much honey did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? I won’t leave you in suspense – I extracted 50 pounds from one of my three hives. Two were Nucs and one was a package. Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. The other hives didn’t have enough to extract as the bees need collected honey to survive the winter.
My two nucs and one package were humming along with our wet weather bringing on a consistent supply of nectar. It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over very quickly and we are mopping up the mess.
To remove the wax cappings, a heated knife is used to melt away the wax and a fork that looks like a hair pick is used to further open up the cells so that the honey can be flung out.
Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have an honey extractor. A motor attached will turn on the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve into a mesh sieve for bee parts and then into a collection bucket.
The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking. Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey is luscious!
Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard. I am sure to not have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees!
We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning. The wax cappings are set out along with everything else for the bees to clean, and then I take the wax in to process in preparation for making beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.
Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.
Beekeeping, especially urban beekeeping, is picking up steam and buzz! When I first attended my “Beekeeping Basics” class put on by the local beekeepers club twenty years ago, older men in coveralls dominated and the joke was that the average age of a beekeeper was “from 57 to dead”. As a younger woman in the class, I was definitely in the minority. Sticking with beekeeping for over twenty years has seen lots of changes in the apiary. A new generation of beekeepers have arrived which has injected a revolution in how beekeeping is practiced. Hipsters, young mothers, and middle-aged couples, have taken up the practice in greater numbers than ever before.
The practice of “we have always done it like this,” is slowly but surely disappearing. Beekeepers with new ideas, energy, and ways of doing things are transforming the apiary yard to something that beekeepers from 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize. When problems started to arise 10 years ago with the advent of mites and colony collapse, beekeepers wasted time hoping to return to 1940’s beekeeping. The old guard still wishes that. But with the new crop of beekeepers, they don’t know the difference and attack the problems with renewed vigor and novel solutions.
An apiary’s female dominated society should be especially attractive to women. Historically, people assumed that the bee queen was actually a “king”. Even Shakespeare referred to the head of the hive as a “king”. Females in a beehive basically do all the heavy lifting with the males (drones) kept around for only one thing-inseminating a queen bee.
Women are increasingly becoming beekeepers in the traditionally male dominated field. But this isn’t easy for young women because of the physical nature of beekeeping. Try bench pressing 65 to 75 pounds or more of dead weight! – which a full hive body of honey can weigh. Women tend to embellish their hives more. Check out the blog Beekeeping Like a Girl for great ideas on decorating your beehive to stand out from the crowd.
From a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed, a working hive is incredibly diverse and organized and gets the job done efficiently. Pollinating one in three of our agricultural crops, honeybees are hugely important to our economy. But only until Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007 became publicized, did people sit up and take notice that bees were in trouble or realize that they were vital. A result of that realization is a huge welcome influx of brand new concerned beekeepers, most of them under thirty, to start their own hives in concern for the environmental impact of the decline.
A steep learning curve will hit any newbee, and even though I have kept bees for twenty years, I still feel new to the field. Disease, parasitic mites, low winter survival rates, and the high startup cost is still an issue, but I find that new beekeepers are enthusiastic and eager to learn. Inevitably, some people upon learning about the time and money involved drop out. And be prepared to get stung and have swarms on your property!
But many are sticking with it and they are in it for the long-term. Committed newbees really want to become beekeepers even after hearing about all the recent setbacks in the bee world. Check out my post on How to Jump Into the World of Beekeeping.
BroodMinder-Technology In Beekeeping
And technology has entered beekeeping. I am using BroodMinder which uses the latest in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and integrated circuit temperature and humidity chips, to monitor my hive. By placing the small bee resistant wrapped monitor with a battery on top of the frames, any heat and humidity created by the bees is recorded as it rises to the top of the hive. Relaying the information to an app on my phone, I can monitor how the hive is doing and even email it to myself. Yes, there is an app for everything!
If the temperature and humidity plummets during the winter, I will know that the beehive needs my help with supplemental feeding. See BroodMinder for more information. They are also developing a monitor that will weigh your hive. I would love this feature to inform me as to how much honey is being stored during the summer so you know the best time to harvest!
Full Disclosure: BroodMinder gave me a unit to test out, but I only post reviews about products that I really like and use.
Beekeeping has moved from the pastime of fusty middle-aged men to young urban couples and singles. It is trendy now to become a beekeeper! Who could have predicted that? When I worked at the bee booth at the Fairgrounds recently, I was amazed at the young (under 25!) people, both male and female who were into beekeeping! I was also surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions about beekeeping, who were seriously considering jumping in, but just weren’t sure if it was for them. And yes, it does change your life. I categorize my life as BB (before beekeeping) and AB (after). It is kind of like having children. You are changed from the experience whether you like it or not.
So, I thought I would do a post on what to expect as a newbie beekeeper, because by now I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!
Don’t Try To Do this By Yourself!
If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics. Contact your local beekeeping association; they are all over the U.S. My local one, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association conducts a comprehensive course which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. Starting in February each year, the evening classes are well attended by prospective beekeepers. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations and you can order your starter hive from them. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology and management of your colonies for the first year. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and personal encouragement from experienced beekeepers.
Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. There are local beekeeping associations everywhere. Just do a google search and you are sure to find one close by. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper. I have found that the most successful beekeepers are ones who have taken the course and continue to go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others. The association is kind of like your cheer leading section- when you become discouraged and frustrated, you have someone to bounce ideas off of and give you support. The internet is a resource that I use a lot but there is nothing like talking to real hands-on beekeepers. Don’t get me wrong, experienced beekeepers have vastly differing opinions and practices that vary greatly but the advice is invaluable. There are no right or wrong solutions, so you need to listen, check your references, and then do what you think is best.
When I contemplated starting a hive, I had no idea of how much it would cost and if I had known, I might not have taken the plunge. The expense of starting up a hive is considerable. Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.
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 an extractor, which you won’t need right away. Or you can rent an extractor like I do from the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association for a nominal fee.
You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but it is important to make sure that the equipment is free of disease. The cost of your initial package of a couple of thousand bees with a queen will run around $100.
By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started. I mostly order my new equipment on-line for convenience. There are a few local providers of supplies that I use also.
Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies….. a lot! The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy, installing new bees, feeding them, and monitoring them. 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 eggs, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.
Later when there is a ‘honeyflow’, which is when the particular flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies on your brood boxes 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 for harvesting in subsequent years. Check out my post of Honeybee HoneyFlow.
In the late summer and 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. Check out my extracting post at Spinning Honey.
Will they swarm? Yes, of course and you have to deal with it! I have 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 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 hives but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to Swarming of the Bees to see how I deal with that.
Will they sting?
With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honeybees my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. They 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 2 hives now on 2 acres of property, but have had as many as 4. I normally will harvest about 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each hive every season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a hobby that you can practice on much smaller pieces of property, even in urban locations.
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 only, and 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, like soap and body butter. See my recipe for Honey Scented Soap and Body Butter.
Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it improves the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Observing and managing your own hives is endlessly fascinating!
Painting hive bodies a boring white was the norm when I started beekeeping 20 years ago. Fast forward to the present and everyone is trying to outdo themselves with wild and beautiful designs decorating the bee yard. Art and beekeeping?…. Great combination of two of my favorite past-times and I can give you some pointers on how to accomplish a beautiful beehive even if you have no artistic abilities. Stencils, spray paint, and stickers can all be used to come up with a design that people will think you spent hours on!
Inspired by the designs seen at Beekeeping Like A Girl and IzzabellaBeez on Etsy, I am now thinking about how I can jazz up my apiary. In the past, I have used stencils as a quick pick-me-up for my hives. Once you paint a base coat, it is so easy to apply stencils and you are done! But I would like to do a full makeover of free-hand painting of my hives.
If you have lots of hives placed together in a row that look-alike, customizing your beehive makes it easier for your bees to find their proper hive and eliminate ‘drifting’. Drifting bees can get confused if all the hives look-alike and need a special homing designation to get to their particular hive.
For functionality, start with a neutral base coat and add at least 2 coats to get good coverage to protect the beehive from the elements to last for years. I troll the paint sections of the big box stores for quarts or gallons that were returned and you can pick up for a fraction of the cost.
Everyone paints their beehives to protect them from the elements, but why not make it beautiful and eye-catching? The bees don’t care, and this is your chance to express yourself. Lasting longer in the heat, sun, and, and bad weather that we can get in the Mid-Atlantic region, paint makes your wooden ware last a whole lot longer.
Paint the outside surfaces of the beehive and leave the insides where the bee live free of paint. Use a gloss paint on top of your primer or base coat as it seems to slough off dirt better than a satin or eggshell paint.The color of the primer is not important. But primer is important to seal and protect the wood, and it enables the final coat of paint adhere better, and helps the surface paint resist moisture and mildew.
I want my painted beehives to last. And if you don’t want to bother with painting it yourself, just browse IzzabellaBeez and order one of her gorgeous hand painted hives on-line.
Good raw unpasteurized honey tastes very different from the plastic clover honey bear that you purchase at the supermarket. I compare it to processed cheese vs. a home made varietal cheese. Honey bears are simply an accumulation of many types of honey that have been mixed together, heated and made into a homogeneous mixture which lacks any hint of ‘terroir’.
Raw honey has a sense of place of where the honey bees gathered and deposited the nectar. As complex as chocolate, wine, and olive oil, honey deserves a greater appreciation with many layered notes or flavors. The video below shows how a frame of honey is uncapped, prior to extracting.
Honey tasting is like wine tasting – you wait for the bouquet and flavors to cascade over you. Honey is not just ‘sweet’, there are floral notes that are hard to describe. Butterscotch, caramel, florals, dried fruit, mineral….you name it, honey has it all. The flora, climate, and nature of the terrain determine the flavors of local honey. Below, are the seven geographical regions in the U.S. that determine the taste of honey.
My state of Maryland falls into the Southeast region. And according to William P. Nye of Utah State University, he describe my region as:
” In the mountainous area, sourwood is the prevailing
source of quality honey, along with tulip poplar
and clovers. Sourwood honey is almost
water white, does not granulate readily, and is so
esteemed that it usually passes directly from producer
to consumer at far above the price of other
honeys. Various other honeys, from light to dark
and from mild to strong, are produced in the
There are some sourwoods around here, but the predominant source for me is clover, tulip poplar, and black locust. Go to my post on Black Locust.
Black Locust, not to be confused with Honey Locust, produces a fruity, fragrant honey that ranges from water white to lemon yellow. The lexicon of honey flavors are as varied as the floral sources that it comes from. It can smell fresh as grass or tarry and dark as molasses. Honey varietals are becoming increasingly popular with honey tasting events of local and not so local honey on the menu. These varietal honeys come from primarily one source of nectar such as clover or orange blossoms. More than 300 varietal honeys are produced in the United States. Worldwide, it is in the thousands.
When black locust blooms here in Maryland, I know the nectar season for honeybees is ramping up in full gear.
Many beekeepers use the blanket term “wildflower” for a honey gathered from different kinds of flowers, but what “wildflower” means, varies by region. I label my honey ‘Wildflower’, because it is a variety of flowers that my bees visit for nectar. In my Maryland climate, that means, goldenrod, clover, berries, and sumac; the western Rocky Mountains have cactus, yucca, agave, alfalfa, and mesquite. So a Maryland and a Western wildflower honey will be very different.
Honey overall is enjoying a renaissance. Among the world’s oldest foods, “nature’s sweetener” has been rediscovered by consumers interested in natural foods or locally produced ingredients.
Changing seasons also affect a honey’s taste, texture, and color. A plant only has so much sugar that goes to its blossoms. In spring, when those blossoms are just budding, the resulting honey tastes less sweet. Later on in the season, when plants are competing like mad for pollinating bees to pay them a visit, they disperse more sugar and nutrients into fewer flowers, producing darker, more full-bodied honeys, like the late-season buckwheat and goldenrod.
Buckwheat honey is almost black and I can only describe the flavor and aroma as ‘earthy’. It is an acquired taste but it promotes healing in the body, supports immune function, and boosts antioxidants. It’s also great for soothing sore throats and coughs.
Crystallization occurs in three to eight months after harvesting honey and is not a sign of spoilage nor does it change the taste or healthful properties of honey. It simply changes the texture and color. I notice that honey suppliers are selling crystallized honey as ‘raw honey’. After going to Stockin’s website, they explain that all honey crystallizes eventually and that it is just as good as syrup honey. I don’t agree. When my honey crystallizes, I heat it a very low heat to make it syrup again.
My favorite tasting choice is ‘Chunk Honey’, fresh honey with a chunk of honeycomb floating. Just cut off a chunk of the honeycomb and chew it like chewing gum to get all the goodness out.
Here are some common honey notes:
Floral: Flowers like violet, rose, peony, honeysuckle and jasmine.
Fruity: Tropical fruits like pineapples and mango; berries; citrus (is that a lemon, lime or grapefruit?); and dried fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots. Beyond that, are those fruits ripe and sweet or unripe, like green figs or bananas?
Warm: Burnt sugars like caramel, marshmallow, and butterscotch; creamy notes of yogurt or butter; deep flavors of vanilla and chocolate.
Fresh: Crisp flavors like citrus and herbs like thyme and mint.
Vegetal: Fresh plants, raw vegetables, wet grass, hay and straw.
When I extract my honey, like the above video, it is not heated, just removed from the frame by centrifugal force and strained though a paint strainer to remove bee parts and debris. Pure heaven! For a post on extraction, go to Spinning 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.
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’. Starting in the early spring for 6 weeks and concluding with a delivery of a package of bees which you take home and install, this will jump start your hobby. Hands on demonstrations in a communal beehive 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”.
An excellent starter course with lots of reference materials available and encouragement and mentoring from experienced beekeepers, I was primed and ready to go when completed. 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. Increasingly, they are being held all over the country. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper.
The expense of starting up a hive is considerable-hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $600 to $1200. For all the bells and whistles, it will cost considerably more. A good extractor alone could set you back $1000. I don’t own an extractor as I rent it for a reasonable sum of $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 many 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, honey strainer, pollen/propolis traps, and a long list of beekeeping paraphernalia, 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 $145. A Nuc, which I prefer, is a miniature beehive with a laying/working queen will run you more like $170. By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started.
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 4-5 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. Go to my post on Honey Flow to see exactly what this means. Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out building a new home, but will produce extra in subsequent years. In the fall, I spend time taking off the supers (honey storage boxes), extracting the honey and feeding and weather proofing 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.
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.
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.
Do you get honey?
I have 3 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. Read my post about buying honey. 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. Find out which plants to plant to attract bees at Planting these For Bees. 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.
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.
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. I have relatives in Vermont who are always battling black bears.
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 50-80 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 over 20 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!
Garden Designmagazine known for its in-depth articles and awesome images has a clean and easy to read design, free of ads. Over the years, I have started and stopped my subscriptions to different gardening magazines, but I will never give up this one. I don’t review many print publications, but I felt that this one richly deserved to be recognized. Not available at the grocery check out line, it is primarily available by subscription. But if you are interested in nature, ecology, cooking, design, gardening, traveling or simply beautiful images, this would be the magazine for you. With 132 pages, there is plenty of space to cover diverse subjects that would appeal to amateur as well as professional gardeners. Most garden magazines have brief articles and I often crave more. In Garden Design, the articles can run 10 to 12 pages long to really get an in-depth look.
What flower can reach 12″ across and up to 18″ long? That is Hydrangeas’ main claim to fame, according to Garden Design article ‘Old Reliable, New Tricks’. The commonly asked questions of how to prune and change hydrangea color is demystified in this informative article. These two questions are asked by many enthusiastic gardeners as there are so many different varieties and treatments for each particular kind.
Using Garden Design magazine as a great design resource, and also for stellar articles on plants, containers, and pollinators, it is always sitting on my desk. More like an add-free soft bound book, I welcome it to my house every season for eye catching photos of gardens, design ideas, and great plant selections. Printed every three months, I am not deluged with monthly issues but instead have a seasonal reference at my fingertips.
The design posts will make your mouth water with all the delicious combinations of plants and good design components. My design of a healing labyrinth made the on-line Garden Design magazine when the magazine went on a brief print hiatus a few years ago. The magazine came back stronger than before chock full of garden inspiration.
And the article by Janet Loughrey, ‘Spanish Lessons’, highlighted three Mediterranean landscapes that show the best of waterwise design. I drooled over these images!
Visiting different gardens is also covered and Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens is featured in the latest issue because of the fantastic new fountain show. Perfect timing, as I am visiting it this weekend.
Another mentioned event that I would love to go to is the Swan Island Annual Dahlia Festival. Located in Oregon, strolling and ogling 40 acres of dahlias in full bloom is my idea of a good day. I’ll make it there someday.
A find of a box turtle is always happy but all too rare, and the article by Doug Tallamy explained why. Habitat fragmentation is the main culprit that has placed this species on the Threatened Species list as “vulnerable”. Fulfilling the important job of seed dispersal, Tallamy gave pointers on encouraging these great little natives. Exceeding 100 years old if conditions are right, I learned how to make my property better suited to the colorful turtles.
After doing my post on Watering Like a Pro, reviewing Dramm products like ColorStorm hoses and Rain Wands, the current article about watering tools in Garden Design “elevated this perennial garden task into a real pleasure”. Quality of your tools makes a huge difference in your garden enjoyment and reaffirmed my watering tool selection.
As a beekeeper, I appreciated the article ‘Darwin’s Beekeeper’. Letting nature take its course reflects my policy on beekeeping perfectly. And the foldout on pollinators is pretty enough to be framed. The progression from early to late bloomers is essential information and includes both tree/shrubs, and perennials. Go to my post on Pollinators for more information on what plants to select to attract a wealth of winged beasts to your property- and keep them coming back!
Great Gardens Across America
Probably one of my favorite sections is Great Gardens Across America. Showcasing gardens anywhere in the country, the stories and material and plant selections are always interesting to me as a garden designer.
No matter what zone or coast you live in and what type of nature lover you are, you will find inspiration from this magazine.
Full disclosure: Garden Design magazine is not paying me for this review!
Planting peas by St Patrick’s Day is an American farming tradition that goes way back and I can remember my father relating this age-old practice. He spent his childhood on a farm and knew all the old-time ways. I didn’t have any beekeeping relatives, but if I had I am sure they would have told me to super my hives (adding extra storage boxes for nectar) when the Black Locust blooms. Beekeepers, like farmers, still look outside in the natural world to gauge how to manage their honey crop.
The Black Locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia, is famous for producing a fruity and fragrant light green honey. Native to the Eastern United State, I always look for this tree to bloom in the spring as a sign that “honeyflow” or “nectarflow” is starting for my honeybees.
An abundance of nectar sources blooming in profusion means a nectarflow is starting with the bees collecting excess nectar. When bees bring in more nectar than they need or can use, that is when a beekeeper rejoices and can remove the extra stored honey for themselves. Contrary to widely held opinion, bees only produce excess honey in the early spring or occasionally in late summer, and beekeepers harvest in July for much of the United States. In southern states, where native flowering is much more abundant over a longer time period, beekeepers can get two harvests.
The Black Locust tree is native to eastern and southeastern North America, but has spread throughout the United States and much of Canada and can be invasive. They grow quickly on roadsides and fields and now the creamy heavily scented branches are hanging heavy over a road that I travel every day. Most people would zip by and not pay any attention at all to these beautiful trees as the blooms are usually high up in the canopy. But I stop and whip out my camera to zoom in on these beautiful blossoms!
Last year, because of the fickle weather, Black Locust didn’t bloom in the great abundance that I see this year, so I am hoping for a good honey harvest. But this spring we have had lots of spells of rainy cold days when the bees can’t fly and that might cut short the nectar flow.
A warm and sunny spell during honey flow means that a strong hive can fill a honey super with nectar in two days! Remember…. that is nectar. Ripe honey has had its water fraction reduced greatly by bees fanning nectar to increase water evaporation to produce the sugar concentration necessary to produce honey. Once honey is ready, the bees cap over the top with wax.
Blooming for about 10 days between April and June, here in the mid-Atlantic, the racemes of blooms of Black Locust opened in early May. Even before the flowers opened, the bees started collecting pollen from the tree which they need to feed their growing brood or larvae. Worker bees will flock to the flowers for the abundance of nectar that they produce, once the days turn warm and sunny and browse from other flowering trees and vegetation, like the Black Cherry. With the onset of blooming, bees start producing wax which requires several times more nectar than honey. And bees need honeycomb built first before storing nectar. The purpose of a spring flow, for the bees, is to provide food for the rest of the year, not honey for the beekeeper!
After this big burst of native bloom, there is usually a summer dearth until goldenrod, asters, and other late bloomers appear. That is why gardeners should plant summer bloomers to supplement their diet. Plant those Zinnias, Sunflowers, etc. Go to Plant These For The Bees.
Healthy hives may produce queen cells in preparation for swarming, as the spring nectarflow builds; their normal method of making new colonies. The old queen and a large swarm of bees will go off and begin a new hive. See Swarming of the Bees.
Interesting and Surprising Facts About Black Locust
Abraham Lincoln, as a young man, built up his muscles splitting logs from Black Locust trees for firewood and fence posts
Extremely hard wood, one of the hardest and rot resistant in North America, the wood is valuable for floors, boats, fence posts, and furniture
A member of the Fabaceae (pea family), the tree has nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots which make it an excellent species for re-vegetating poor or damaged soils
Newly cut wood has an offensive odor which disappears with time
The flowers are eaten in Japan, France, and Italy, battered and fried as beignets or in tempura
The bark, wood, and leaves are toxic to livestock and humans, so farmers remove them from their fields
Black Locust blooms along with privet, multi-flora, blackberries, honeysuckle, and other native vegetation to produce the abundance of available nectar for pollinators; so even invasives play a role in supporting pollinators
Black locust is an interesting example of how one plant is considered an invasive species even on the same continent it is native to
Racemes of flowers can hang 4-8 inches long and intensely fragrant smelling like an orange tree
Highly tolerant of pollution, the tree is planted in Europe and produces the acclaimed ‘Acacia Honey’
One of the best woods for burning in wood stove, it has little or no flame and can burn when wet, burning at a comparable temperature as coal
Compounds in the heartwood allow the wood to last over 100 years in soil