Fueled in part by an alarming decrease in the honey bee population in 2015, beekeeping has rapidly caught the attention of hobbyists and new bee farmers across the U.S. Is beekeeping for you?
The importance of bees
Bees are pollinators. As they flit from bloom to bloom, they carry pollen that perpetuates plant life. According to Bee Built, one-third of the U.S. food supply depends on bee pollination. That includes 70 major food crops valued at over $10 billion.
In 2015, a nearly catastrophic number of the country’s bee colonies — an estimated 42 percent — died. Bees are so essential to the food chain that if that decline had not stabilized, it could have caused food shortages.
The causes of this decline are multiple. Widespread use of agricultural pesticides, the loss of flowers because of climate change, the spread of bee parasites such as the varroa mite, and diseases such as American foulbrood combined to push bees to the edge.
Fortunately, beekeeping has surged in popularity, and the bee population is rebounding.
The amazing life of bees
The life of a bee colony is truly a thing of wonder.
A bee colony is a matriarchal society composed of 10,000 to 30,000 bees, almost all female. The queen is the pinnacle of the colony. Virgin queens will take flight, and male drones will mate with them in mid-flight. From that one flight, the inseminated queen returns to the colony and begins producing thousands of eggs over her lifetime of up to five years. The drone dies shortly after the mating. Unmated drones within the colony play an important role in regulating the colony temperature by beating their wings.
The average person never sees the queen or drones. The bees you see buzzing around flowers or your sugary drink at lunch on the patio are female workers. New workers are called nurse bees and remain in the colony to feed the queen and newly hatched larvae. After a period as nurse bees, these workers become foragers and leave the colony by the thousands daily to find and bring back pollen and nectar for honey production.
One bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers in a single day.
Bee communication is especially fascinating. Bees communicate through the production of pheromones, through touch and by motion. They use pheromones to communicate tasks between workers and the queen and with one another. When bees believe an intruder is violating the colony, an alarm pheromone sends workers swirling out of the colony to attack the invader. When foragers find good fields of flowers, they return to the colony and use an incredible motion called the waggle dance to tell other foragers about their find. The angle and duration of the dance combine to tell the others the direction and distance of the flowers.
Benefits of beekeeping
Becoming a beekeeper means doing your part to perpetuate the food chain and protect the environment. You’ll be able to harvest your own honey and beeswax. And you will be awed by the organization, intrinsic knowledge and preservation skills of these amazing creatures.
Two levels of involvement
If you decide that beekeeping would be a fun and educational hobby, you can educate yourself through books and online videos. The gold standard in books is The Beekeeper’s Bible, so start there. You can begin beekeeping with as little as one colony, or two or three. More than that could be hard to manage if you are beekeeping only part-time.
You may love beekeeping so much that you decide to turn your hobby into a business. If you’re interested, grow your knowledge by becoming a Master Beekeeper through a certification course. A beekeeping business will also require more equipment.
If you live on rural acreage, your beekeeping could earn or retain a break in your property taxes. This is known as an agricultural exemption. You could grow into a commercial honey producer or raise colonies to sell or lease to other beekeepers.
Locations to keep your colony
Bees need a quiet area where they can live peacefully and nurture their colony. You can set up colonies within ten yards of your house in a neighborhood, or in an undisturbed place on rural acreage. You can even grow colonies on an apartment building rooftop in the city. As long as you have purchased the more docile breeds such as Italian honeybees, your bees will not attack people who stay safely away. Bees attack when they believe the colony is under threat. They generally do not sting unprovoked.
Before launching a beekeeping enterprise in a suburban neighborhood or city rooftop, check with any homeowners association or property deed restrictions to make sure it is not prohibited.
Here are some basic tools and resources you’ll need for beekeeping.
- Colony boxes come in different sizes and shapes. Most common is the Langstroth Deep Hive. This comes with top and bottom boards
- Bees gather on hanging frames inside the box to build the cells to lay eggs, to hatch larvae and to store honey for food.
- Other basic tools include a bee protection suit, hive tool and brush, a smoker and a frame grip.
Of course, you also will need the bees themselves. You can search online for beekeepers wishing to sell their bees, or you can buy a nucleus of young bees to start from scratch.
Diseases and pests
You might think that a colony of bees would be completely self-sustaining. But bees have adversaries. Pests such as varroa mites, small hive beetles and wax moths raid colonies and can decimate them. Insidious diseases such as foulbrood and colony collapse disorder can make bees sick and cause the death of a colony. Educate yourself about these and learn how to prevent them.
Face it — you will get stung. Occasional stings are inevitable, but you need not fear them unless you are allergic, in which case beekeeping is not for you. It’s a good idea to keep an Epi-Pen in your supplies, or at the very least some Benadryl to counteract the histamine of the sting. When you get stung, the bee leaves the stinger behind in your skin. You must pluck this out since the venom sac stays with the stinger and will continue to pump venom into your skin until it is removed.
Related – Carpenter Bees: Should I Be Concerned?