Wannabees Thinking About Honey Bees

A bee swarm is a thing of beauty
My honey bottles
My honey bottles

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.

Pulling out a perfect frame of honey
Pulling out a perfect frame of honey

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.

You can order bees by mail
You can order bees by mail
One of my newly installed nucs last spring
One of my newly installed nucs last spring

Cost   

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.

I recommend that you start with at least 2 hives
I recommend that you start with at least 2 hives; the tall one has supers on top for excess honey; the shorter one isn’t as strong

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.

Time

I use entrance feeders
Entrance feeders full of sugar water

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.

Beeswax that I have poured into molds
Beeswax that I have poured into molds; Go to my post on Beeswax Sachets

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.

Inspecting an open beehive
Inspecting an open beehive

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.

 

Straining raw honey
Straining raw honey

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.

Bee Cosy on hive
I love using the Bee Cozy, which is insulated,  in the winter
Setting up hives in the spring
Setting up hives in the spring

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.

A bee swarm is a thing of beauty
A bee swarm is a thing of beauty

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.A meadow surrounds my beehives

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!

After extracting, the hives go crazy
After extracting, the hives go crazy

So, if you are still thinking about it after reading about the cost and time, look up your local beekeeping club and get started!

Beekeeping Start-Up, Jump Into the World of Keeping Bees

Swarm in my yard that formed on a tree

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.

Prize Winning Honey at the State Fair in Timonium, MD

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!

New type of hive that combines top bar with traditional langstroth- The influx of new beekeepers is shaking up the traditional way of doing things

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.

Cross section of a standard hive

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.

My honey is my reward for beekeeping

Cost

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.

To save money on beekeeping equipment, I use a painters outfit that costs about $12

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.

I rent my extractor from my bee club for $10

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.

A queen bee comes in a small cage along with a package of bees
A package of bees with a queen sitting in my car ready to be installed

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.

I bought my smoker from a local source, but they can be bought on line

Work Involved

Hiving a package of bees the first time

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.

Checking on a frame of capped honey

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.

I ordered a package to be delivered by U.S. mail several times

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.

Extracting honey by spinning it out
Putting feeders on the hive in October when there isn’t much nectar for foraging

Swarms

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.

Knocking a swarm into a hive body

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.

 The Good

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.

My honey harvest is all jarred up

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.

Honey soap
Beeswax candles from my hives

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!