When people find out that my husband and I keep bees, they always ask why. Typically the question is phrased, “I’m not asking to be rude, I really want to know, why would anyone want to raise bees?” I’ve learned a lot about honeybees over the last two years, so I am saying this in the least condescending manner possible: people just don’t understand bees. To be honest, when we first started to get interested in the idea of bees I knew the following things:
– Bees fly, pollinate flowers, and sting
– Bees make honey.
– Winnie the Pooh ate honey. (ok, this one isn’t really about bees so much…)
But now, when someone asks me anything about bees, I have a hard time not babbling on and on about all the amazing things honeybees do. My purpose in starting this blog is really two-fold: to share these endlessly fascinating tidbits about bees and to provide some how-to help for new beekeepers.
So, Why Keep Bees?
The first thing I tell people is that I keep bees for the same reason someone fills a bird feeder in the winter.
Is it necessary? No.
Would the birds all die off if you didn’t do it? No.
But does it help the environment in some small way? Yes.
It’s the same reason I recycle. It’s the same reason I don’t litter, or why I turn the water off while I’m brushing my teeth. We, as humans, have only one world and I like to act in a way that preserves my small piece of it. It is now becoming common knowledge (in that, the mainstream news is finally covering it) that the bee population is declining. This matters because one-third of our food supply is reliant on these little pollinators, so I like to think that I’m doing my part to help revive a struggling species.
Some Pros of Beekeeping
1. It Can be a Pretty Easy Hobby – Bees are pretty independent little creatures. They’ve obviously survived for thousands of years without the help of humans, and a hive in your backyard could probably do pretty well if you only want to work it once a month. During the summer, you can poke around more if you want, but your hives can pretty much be as hands-on as you’d like. You can put in as much or as little time as you want (or have). I know beekeepers who can’t seem to keep their hands out of the hive, and I know some who practically neglect their hives.
2. It Doesn’t Require Much Space – Contrary to what your neighbors might say, having a hive or two in your backyard will not greatly increase the bee traffic in your yard, or their’s for that matter. Bees typically travel up to two miles from the hive, in any direction, but can travel up to five miles if necessary. This graphic helps to illustrate a bee’s flight range:
My point, is that you don’t have to live in the country and you don’t need to own acres and acres of land. The bees aren’t going to hang around your back door, they will be out and about searching for new nectar supplies. Now, my neighbor has a huge garden in the lot behind our house and apple trees in his side yard and he did notice an increase in bees on his plants. However, he also said he had more produce in the first year we raised bees than he’s ever had. So he felt that the trade off was well worth it. I will say that directly in front of a hive entrance is like a landing strip at an airport. If you stand in front of the hive, about three to four feet out, the bees will buzz back and forth past you like planes coming in for a landing. You run the risk of one of them flying into the side of your face, but not attacking you.
3. Pollination – As I mentioned earlier, apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches, avocados, beans, cucumbers, cabbage, and broccoli are only a few of the many, many crops that rely on honeybees in order to prosper. Raising bees can help your own garden as well as the local farmers in your area. In addition, they pollinate many types of wildflowers and perennials that are important to soil health, prevention of erosion, and are, of course, pretty to look at!
4. Honey – Honey is an obvious byproduct of raising bees. Originally we didn’t get into the whole beekeeping venture for the honey. I assumed it would be difficult to process and expensive equipment would be needed. Also, in terms of hive maintenance, there are different things people do who are keeping bees for honey versus those who are keeping bees for bees. But then our first beekeeping fall came and my husband said we needed to reduce the hive and that meant taking out a couple frames of honey. We were able to get about 8 cups of honey (from only 2 frames) and we collected it using only a spatula, 9×13 dish, and coffee strainer. Our second summer we took more because the hive was overflowing with honey and then again that second fall. So in our second year of beekeeping we ended up with about 80 lbs of honey from 3 hives. One of them was our main hive and two were small splits we made. And this is only honey that we took in order to give the bees room for growth. If we were in the “honey business” could probably take even more! So, my point, is that honey is a pretty easy byproduct and, it turns out, your friends and family will happily buy it from you!
5. Comb – You can do all sorts of things with honey comb. You can cut it up and sell it with the honey (people like to chew it), you can melt it down and turn it into lotion, soap, lip balm, or candles. It is, however, fairly labor-intensive and messy. In addition, it’s quite flammable, so it has to be melted down with a hot plate or double boiler and preferably not in your kitchen. These things have resulted in us doing very little with ours, but other, more motivated people, might find this to be a pro of beekeeping. You can also use it to make new comb (which I think we’ll attempt this spring – stay tuned!)
6. Education – I am a teacher after all, so I, of course, would list “education” as a pro of beekeeping. I’ve always been moderately interested in biology, but I have and English degree, so that tells you what I mean by “moderately interested.” However, after we work the bees, my husband and I come back in the house and sit on google or youtube forever. After the kids go to bed we watch videos on youtube and we’re each always in the middle of some book about beekeeping and that’s because the little buggers are so dang fascinating. Whether it’s trying to figure out what a new shape in the comb means or wondering how they stay warm in the winter, each trip to the hive leaves us with 100 questions. Bee hives are so incredibly complex that just figuring them out is a hobby in itself.
Some Cons of Beekeeping
There are a few cons, of course, some might be more significant to you than others….
1. Cost – There is some cost initially in order to get started. Your upfront costs include (and may not be limited to): a bee suit, a smoker, various hive tools, boxes, frames, and a package of bees, of course. You can peruse supplies and prices on the Dadant’s website, but I’m sure there are others. When we started I think we spent $300-400 in start up and that included the bees. You can buy a nuc (which is a small starter hive) from a local beekeeper, or you can order a package. The nucs run between $150-175 and packages between $100-125. I personally think you’ll have better luck with a nuc, but that’s a discussion for another post.
2. Physicality- When you buy bee boxes you can order “mediums” or “deeps” the only difference is a medium holds 8 frames and a deep holds 10. A frame full of honey and comb is heavier than you’d think. A medium box that’s mostly honey can weigh up to 40 lbs and will a deep you’re around 50 lbs, maybe a little more, so moving the boxes around is something to consider. If you want to get into the middle box, you have to move the top box, so lifting is a physical reality that you might want to consider. Additionally, there is a fair amount of bending required to work the hives.
3. Production – I mentioned earlier that a bit of work is necessary in order to procure honey and usable comb. If you are only processing a frame or two of honey, you can definitely do it by hand, but if you are going to process 5 or more, I’d recommend an extractor. These start out around $200.
4. Stings – I do feel obligated to mention this, even though I don’t think it’s a real concern. In terms of working the bees, if you wear a suit, hood, and gloves, you’re not going to get stung. In fact, many people don’t wear gloves and they don’t get stung. I have been stung one time in two years and it was because I went out without my suit to quickly place a feeder inside the hive. I didn’t use a smoker and I quickly brushed the bees off the top of the hive to place the feeder. You can imagine that the bees felt fairly threatened by this invasion and I received on sting in the leg. It was my own fault. I also have a four-year-old and our hives are currently in the back corner of our backyard. We have not noticed an increase in bee traffic around the yard and we simply taught our son to stay away from the hives. Most likely, if he was to walk up to one, he’s likely to step on a bee and get stung – they certainly aren’t going to attack. And here’s my last example. A while ago my husband and I went to a sale where hundreds of hives and beekeeping supplies were being auctioned off. As we stood in the field around the stacks of hives there were bees buzzing everywhere. There were men, women, and children of all ages (and even a few dogs) standing around participating in the auction and I don’t think one person got stung. Obviously these were beekeepers, who are comfortable around bees, so there was also no swatting, screeching, or flailing about, but I thought it was interesting that we were all over the place and the bees just left everyone alone.
You can probably see now why I felt I had enough to say about bees to start a blog devoted to them! I’m hoping this space will be interesting, entertaining, and helpful to those keeping bees, thinking of keeping bees, or those who are just interested in these amazing little creatures!