Do you like to drizzle amber honey on your morning toast or in your green tea? Apiculture, or beekeeping may be the perfect hobby for you. Basic beekeeping doesn’t require a lot of money, time or space. It can be done anywhere flowers bloom.
Popular in the 1970s, beekeeping declined due to urbanization, pesticides and parasitic mites caused decreased production and increased costs. According to Troy Fore, Executive Director of the American Beekeeping Federation, there are 100,000 hobby beekeepers in the United States, down from 200,000 in the 1970s.
The popularity of hobby beekeeping is back on the rise. Just a few healthy hives will produce pounds of honey for you to savor, share with your neighbors or sell at the local farm market.
Not only can you enjoy a new hobby, but honey bees foraging in your backyard garden will help pollinate plants to help them reproduce. Backyard beekeeping is vital to reestablish lost colonies and offset the natural decrease of pollination by wild bees.
The Hardworking Honey Bee
Apis mellifera or the honey bee (except for the drones) is the ultimate workaholic. A native of Europe, Asia and Africa, the honey bee lives in a complex three-caste society composed of thousands of bees.
Although, by human standards, their lives are fleeting, queens, drones and workers keep their colony from year to year and swarm to create new colonies.
The worker bees nurture their egg-laying queen, keep their hives queen, protect the colony from raiders and fly thousands of miles to gather food.
Unlike the bad-tempered yellow jackets that buzz around your picnic, the honey bee is a vegetarian. They get their protein from pollen and their carbohydrates from nectar. While they perform their work, the workers communicate through the emission of pheromones and by performing dances in specific patterns.
Once the worker bee gathers the provisions, they are handed off to a younger worker to deposit in the hexagonal wax cells of the hive. The bees add enzymes to the nectar and fan the concoction with their wings to evaporate water producing thick, sweet honey.
During the winter, the bees use the food stores to generate heat, contracting their wings to keep the hive at a warm 92 degrees Fahrenheit.
History of Bees and Honey
Cave drawings from Spain created around 6000 BC depict human figures scaling cliffs to get honey from wild hives. Later, ancient Northern Europeans, the Middle East and the Mediterranean realized the bees settled into dark spaces after swarming. They built hives out of logs, pottery vessels, straw and keps or wicker containers. Unfortunately, the bees had to be killed to extract the honeycomb.
Europeans brought hives to America in 1622. In 1851, pastor Lorenzo Langstroth of Philadelphia created the first wooden hives with moveable frames so colonies could be managed. The hives eventually reached America’s west coast and the rest of the world. Today, the Langstroth hive is the most common used around the world.
Tips for Beekeepers
Before starting your backyard apiary, check if your community prohibits or restricts beekeeping. You may need to file a permit to start your apiary. Next, get a good, easy to follow book about beekeeping basics.
Once you are ready, choose a sunny spot for your hives. If you live in a hot climate, you’ll want some shade. It should also have good air circulation and drainage. You’ll also want to pick a spot where the hives won’t disturb your neighbors. Make sure there is plenty of water nearby.
The workers will need a lot of water to regulate temperature and moisture levels in the hive during summer. You don’t want the bees searching for water in your neighbor’s yard.
Worker bees zoom up as they exit the hive, so be careful not to place the hive close to where children or pets may play and away from pedestrians and traffic. Face the hive opening away from these places.
Winter is a good time to order your beekeeping paraphernalia and your bees so you can start the hive in the spring.
You can order equipment new or used, but experts recommend first time beekeepers get new equipment which will be less likely to fail and less likely to harbor second-hand disease.
Equipment, including the hive, medication, suit, jacket and gloves will cost about $200-$400.
Bees will cost about $140 for a Nucs, or nucleus colonies or about 11,000 bees. Honey bees come in a variety of types and hybrid strains.
Experts recommend the productive Italian race or the mellow Carniolan bees for beginners.
Beginners may want to start with one hive and add a second the following season. With 2 hives, you can observe the hives and borrow equipment from the stronger hive if necessary.
Keeping a Healthy Hive
Beekeeping chores change throughout the season. Getting the hive going in the spring and settling it down in the autumn are busy times for beekeepers who will have to check the hive frequently during those times.
A beekeeper should check the hive for the health and productivity of the hive. Frames need to be inspected, and the beekeeper should check if the queen is alive and laying eggs: capped brood in a compact pattern and tiny white eggs at the bottom of the cells.
Depending on the time of year, you’ll want to check the colony for food stores, nectar storage space, ventilation, medication, swarm control, a new queen and more.
Your colony will need protection from disease, pesticides, parasites and predators. Varroa mites arrived in the United States from Asia in the 1980s and can destroy a colony in a few seasons.
Foulbrood, a bacterial disease kills larva and pupae. The protozoan disease Nosem targets adult bee intestinal tracts.
Many beekeepers medicate the colony with miticides and antibiotics in the fall and spring. If black bears are an issue, beekeepers will sometimes put hot-wire around the hives. Ants, rodents and raccoons are other predators that beekeepers should be aware of.
Aside from protecting their hives, Honey bees are relatively harmless. However, a beekeeper working with thousands of bees may get stung. Stings hurt, swell and itch.
A small number of people are highly allergic to bee stings. Experts report that typically, beekeepers build up a tolerance to stings and have little side effects.
Bee sting chances can be reduced. The most important thing is to wear your beekeeping gear including suits, jackets and gloves.
Start the smoker up before anything else and puffs once or twice into the bottom of the hive. Before opening the hive, puff once at the top. Make sure not to over-smoke the hive.
Experienced beekeepers offer other tips including the following: check the hive during pleasant daytime weather when bees are foraging, be calm and gentle, get a good grip on the frames so you don’t drop them and cause vibrations, wear clean, lightweight clothing, and don’t excite the bees by leaving open containers of sugar syrup or honey near the hives.
If you are stung, remove the stinger so it doesn’t squeeze more venom, puff smoke on the site so more bees aren’t attracted to the pheromones, wash and dry the area and apply an ice pack.
Antihistamines can reduce itching and swelling. Keep an EpiPen on hand if guests have allergic reactions.
Harvesting Honey and Types of Honey
No wonder Greeks and Romans loved offerings of honey. Ranging from hold to rich amber to brown, honey is sweet and fragrant. Honey was the first sweetener. It’s pure and natural and fit for human consumption.
Since ancient times, honey has been valued as successful folk medicine with its wound healing qualities and its antioxidant quality. Last year Americans consumed over 381 pounds of honey.
Beekeepers can harvest honey in several forms including comb, which requires special equipment, such as a Honey Extractor.
After the first season, if the climate is good, a hive can produce 45 to 100 lbs of honey a year. Harvesting equipment includes a uncapping knife to open the combs, anextractor to spin the honey out and a strainer to filter out wax bits and other debris. A 5 gallon bucket with a spigot helps when bottling strained honey.
Honey from varied nectar sources has different tastes, colors and aromas. Honey bees like lavender, fireweed and buckwheat. Beekeepers place their hives in the track of these flowers and extract honey soon after they bloom. When bees gather their nectar from a variety of plants, the harvest is called wildflower honey.
Other benefits of beekeeping
Beeswax that forms in the honey making process is often used to create long burning, dripless, honey scented candles. For every 100 lbs of harvested honey, 2 lbs of beeswax is made.
Propolis is a sticky, plant-derived substance bees use for hive improvements. Proplis has antimicrobial qualities. The Chinese have used it in medicine for centuries.
Beekeepers can make money renting out bees to pollinate crops. About 90 crops in this country depend on bees for pollination. These include apples, blueberries, alfalfa, cucumbers and cotton. Increased production due to honey bee pollination is estimated at $14 billion a year.
If you’re looking at Honey beekeeping as a hobby, don’t be discouraged. Talk to local beekeepers who will be happy to give you advice. All you need is the proper equipment including suits, jackets and gloves and the beekeeping basics to develop a successful apiary that produces delicious honey.