Beekeeping: You will probably get stung, but it's worth it!

January 6 2014 | Guest post by betsyohs
Hi! Wanna give me a home? (Photo by: ruben alexanderCC BY 2.0)

I started keeping bees two summers ago. My husband and I had moved to a duplex (with a yard!) the year before, and I started a vegetable garden. We didn't get a very big yield that first year, so I thought "I know what I need — more pollinators!" Sadly, it turns out that our upstairs neighbor is violently allergic to bees, but by the time I found that out, I had two hives coming my way. Fortunately, I found a woman who lives about five miles from me who wanted bees in her yard, but didn't have time to keep them herself. So now my hives live there, pollinating her garden (and terrorizing her son).

Bees are fascinating creatures, and learning about their social lives — the workings of a hive, how they make group decisions, and how to help them thrive — has been a highlight of the last two years for me.

Did you know that honeybees perform tasks based on how old they are? So when bees first hatch, they work cleaning the honeycomb. As they get older, they start feeding brood that hasn't hatched yet. A little older still, and they meet the bees coming back from trips to flowers, where the house bees accept the pollen or nectar that the field bees have brought back and store it in the hive. Finally, the oldest bees become the ones that fly out into the world and bring back nectar and pollen for the hive.

Or did you know that a healthy hive has about 90% female bees and 10% male bees and that the male bees do nothing except mate with queens? They gather no food, do no cleaning or maintenance on the hive, and are kicked out of the hive to freeze or starve as winter sets in.

Or that the queen leaves the hive just once in her life, to mate, but that she can live several years? (Unless the hive swarms, then the queen leaves with the bees that are going out to find a new home.) I could go on and on… bees are amazing!

But beekeeping is not a hobby for everyone…

First, it can be expensive:

I spent about $700 the first year, and about $100 the second year. The first year included a very heavy-duty electric bear fence, which should last me 20 years. If you live where there are no bears, you should probably budget about $300 to get set up with two hives. That said, if you have even minimal woodworking skills, you can build a top-bar hive and save yourself at least $100. You'll only have to buy bees ($75-$100 for one hive's worth), and a small amount of equipment (a veil, gloves, smoker, and hive tool are the bare minimum).

You'll probably get stung, at least a couple of times:

Sometimes you're going to do things that they don't like, which will make them even scarier. When you upset a colony, they make an angry and intimidating buzzing roar. If what you've done is bad enough, they boil up out of the hive and fly around dive-bombing you. If you're allergic or phobic, this probably isn't the hobby for you.

Those two warnings aside, beekeeping can be an awesome hobby:

Like I said before, learning about bees is absolutely fascinating.

Beekeeping also can tie in with several other hobbies — I've used beeswax in some of my homemade soap, my furniture-maker husband uses it as a finish on some pieces (and I use his wood shavings as fuel for my smoker), and when we move away from our allergic neighbor, the bees will be very welcome in my garden.

I have also become much more aware of the natural environment in my town — I'm learning what plants flower when, and I notice native pollinators in my garden much more.

Most awesomely, beekeeping has connected me with a whole group of people, many of them old men with a lifetime's worth of riveting beekeeping stories that I love soaking up. All of them are thrilled to welcome new members to the fold.

Here's how I would get started:

1. Find your local club. Search "beekeeping association near YourCity". Go to meetings.

2. Start in the winter. Bees don't fly when it's colder than ~45F, but many bee suppliers sell out by early February. There's also a lot of equipment to collect, and tons of information to learn before your bees arrive in April or May. Your club might also be able to connect you with a local bee supplier, which will mean your bees are already adapted to your climate. Most commercial bees come from Georgia and Florida, and they struggle mightily with my New England winters.

3. Start reading. There are a bazillion beginner beekeeper books — my library has a whole shelf of them. You only need one or two of these because they all say the same thing. Then you need a big reference guide or two. Also take advantage of the interwebs. Several of my favorite beekeeping websites are The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally, Linda's Bees, Honey Bee Suite, and Scientific Beekeeping.

4. Find a mentor. Your club is an excellent place for this. Many clubs have mentoring programs in place, but even if they don't, ask around, and someone will help connect you with an experienced beekeeper who will be happy to help you set up and care for your hives. My mentor helped me catch a swarm this summer!

phew!  such excitement
Swarm catching!

5. Take advantage of every opportunity to inspect hives with someone more experienced than you are. Do this even before you get your own hive. Many state Extensions offer beekeeping classes. I didn't take one, but I suspect they're an excellent way to learn a lot in a short amount of time.

I am somewhat sad to report that I haven't been able to harvest any honey yet, even after two seasons. But I still have two hives, who hopefully will make it through the winter. And, if all the stars align next summer, will make enough honey for me to eat some while still leaving enough for "my girls" to eat well the following winter.

I have harvested beeswax, and propolis, and I've enjoyed myself immensely, so I don't consider my lack of a honey harvest a critical failure.

  1. This is so awesome! Beekeeping is on my "maybe one day" list.

    And I love that you were able to work out a deal with your upstairs neighbor and the woman where you keep your bees. Some farmers hire keepers to deposit and check on hives on their farms, so maybe that's another option for you in the future.

    How much land does it take to sustain a hive?

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    • Bees fly an amazing distance to gather food and water – some have a radius of 5 miles! But you don't personally need to own very much land at all to keep bees. Urban beekeeping is on the rise, and city bees often are more productive (as in, produce more honey) than hives in the country. There are many hives on roofs in NYC – http://www.nyc-bees.org/, which I think is just totally awesome. And just think – no bear fence needed!

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      • I was just thinking about the urban bee keepers and if there would be enough food for all of them if everyone had a hive on the rooftop? I would assume it would not be a problem in the country like it would in a very large city. I don't even know if how much land per hive is something that you can figure out, I was just curious!

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        • yeah, definitely the bees would run out of food eventually. People in my club (I definitely live in the country) have rules of thumb for how many hives are ok in a given beeyard, but it's still hard to estimate how much land each hive needs, since you can't know if your neighbors are also keeping bees. And actually – what really matters is how many flowering plants exist within the hive's foraging radius. Apparently that's why city hives are more productive – there are more people gardening flowers, and more landscaped public places with flowers, so the bees can gather more food more efficiently.

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  2. Thank you for this! My dad has been wanting to get into beekeeping for a while – I'm definitely sending him this article.

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  3. If you live in the United States, you probably have a USDA Extension Agency nearby. Contact them! They'll be glad to give you more free information on beekeeping, hook you up with other local beekeepers and possibly find you some grant money to keep you going.
    Many states also have official apiarists. They will often be able to schedule a hive inspection to check for disease.

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    • I agree on the Extensions! They are an amazing resource. Your local bee club is also an excellent resource for identifying and managing diseased hives. My mentor has reassured me several times that whatever weird thing we're seeing in my hives is not actually dangerous. One time I brought a whole frame of weird-looking comb to a club meeting, and we passed it around and all the really experienced beekeepers said it was just mold and that I should put it back in the hive and let the bees clean it up.

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  4. Yeeeah…I have all sorts of interest in crunchy hobbies, but I just. Can't. With beekeeping. I once watched a special on beekeeping on PBS and had nightmares for two days. I am with bees, regular bees, the way most people are with giant spiders.

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    • oh, gosh. I had a giant (ok, not even all that giant…just a small-to-medium-sized) spider in one of my hives once. It took me ten times as long to get up the nerve to poke at it with a stick than to do the hive inspection that involved taking out and looking over 8 frames of honeycomb crawling with bees. I understand phobias!

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  5. I cannot wait to have bees. My horrible city has restrictions on all things urban farm so until we find a perfect plot for our homestead/goat farm I can only garden my heirlooms. Sigh. I am filled with jealousy. Awesome thank you!

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    • I don't know how hard it is for you to get out of your city, but you might be able to find a club nearby, where you could potentially connect with an experienced beekeeper who would be very happy to show you around his/her beeyard (and will probably even invite you back for more inspections, if you ask!). There is *so* much to learn, and so much practicing of being calm with your hands stuck in a box full of tens of thousands of bees, that if it's possible at all to start early, and you have the time, I'd do it!

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    • I don't know where you live but don't forget to see if your state has a comprehensive Right to Farm Act (Michigan does!), which supersedes local ordinances.

      • I do live in Michigan! But alas, there are obnoxious loopholes or something that are preventing a lot of the people of Grand Rapids from starting urban farms. We have such a beautiful city for it. I have been wanting my chickens for so long. We have a group of us working on it but as of now we can't do much. They JUST started allowing us to have compost piles! I do feel a little sad that my compost pile is no longer illegal…

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        • I wanted chickens, but decided that bees were less work and so an easier entry into keeping animals. Hives need to be inspected a couple of times a month during the summer, less in the winter. Chickens have to be fed EVERY DAY! Someday, though, we'll both have chickens, and it'll be awesome. And good work with your compost pile not being illegal any more…I live in a right-to-farm community, and I can't imagine not being able to compost!

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  6. I blame My Girl for my terror of bees. And Nicolas Cage, although that was funnier than scary.

    I've never been stung, but I am terrified of it. Is it really that bad? Just people mentioning beekeeping makes me suspect bees are not the hardcore machines of destruction I thought they were

    • I've been stung 4 times since getting my hives, my husband once. His sting disappeared within 2 or 3 hours, and he never felt it again after that. My stings, on the other hand, raise a small lump on the part of my body where she got me, and then they're swollen and tender for a week or more (Benadryl taken within minutes of getting stung helps tons!). But the actual sting part doesn't hurt that much…maybe like a minor burn that turns red but doesn't blister?

      Bees also only sting when they are on the defensive. So when I make them angry, I can walk -literally- 10 steps from the hive, and they all stop flying at me and go back to the hive. Of course, if I've made them mad enough, they remember who I am when I walk back to finish whatever I was doing…

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      • Sounds like you might be mildly allergic, keep an eye on that cuz it can get worse.

        My bio-dad's allergic to bees, my mum told me each time he got stung the reaction would get worse until he ended up in hospital once. (don't know what he's like now, haven't seen him since I was 13) I've been stung 3 times in my life, first two times nothing, but last time I got stung on my finger, the whole thing swoll (is that a word? swelled?) up and stayed that way for nearly two weeks… so I'm a bit wary now….

        having said that, my Hubby has always wanted to keep bees, and apart from my probably being allergic, I have no problems with that… how allergic was your lady upstairs, what were the main concerns with that situation?

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        • I'm totally worried that it's getting worse. The good news is that benadryl still works for me, and, if I decide that I'm really in this for the long-haul and that I am having bigger reactions with each sting, there are therapies out there that you can use to get over allergic reactions. My mentor went through it…I'm not sure what it involves (probably administering small amounts of bee sting into your body somehow), and I'm definitely not sure if I'm hard-core enough about beekeeping to go through it if it turns out it's necessary. But I'm glad it's an option, anyway. Also, my doctor prescribed an epi-pen when I told her I was keeping bees, even though I also told her I wasn't allergic. She said better to be safe than sorry.

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    • Barring allergies, it's not as bad as you expect. And eventually, the more you get stung (and it happens) the less your body reacts to the venom.

  7. I'm curious if there's a safe(r) way to find out if you're allergic to bee stings? My fiance and I have been half-joking about beekeeping, and the unknown is the only thing stopping me from taking some of those first baby steps.

    Well, that and NOW giant spiders living in our hives.

    • I'm not sure, but I would think that you could be tested by an allergist for a bee sting allergy. Getting those tests that are injected under your skin can hurt as much as a bee sting, to me anyway, but since it's a more controlled environment, it might be worth checking that way–assuming you can be tested for an allergy to bee stings. Seems you can be tested for pretty much everything else, so I can't see why they wouldn't also have one for bee stings.

      As for the spider mentioned–wouldn't the bees take care of it themselves? I've heard of times where bees end up coating mice and other creatures in order to keep their hives clean, so I would think the bees would get rid of a spider themselves if it seemed a problem. (This is still coming from someone who isn't a huge fan of spiders and is trying to get over the fear, herself.)

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      • I don't know about the tests, sorry! But there are therapies for getting over bee sting allergies. (See my comment above.)

        On the spider: bees *can* take care of many issues in a hive. If the hive is strong enough, they might be able to kill a mouse before the mouse could cause too much damage (eat too much comb, for example). Then, once dead, the bees would cover the mouse in propolis, which keeps the badness from decomposing bodies from contaminating the hive. However, a weak hive would have no chance of killing a mouse, and a strong hive would have to sacrifice many workers (they die when they sting). I don't really know about a hive killing spiders, or even that spiders are a big threat to a hive. But I didn't want to be surprised by a spider again – sudden movements while your hands are in a hive aren't a good thing!

    • Your doctor can test you. It's a blood test, too, from what I understand, so they don't have to poke you with anything irritating other than the needle to draw the blood.

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  8. I want to raise bees, but it's against the law to have livestock (including bees) on my property. I told Husband we could put the bees somewhere else, and he pointed out that when I'm allergic to something, I get more allergic over time, not less. So beekeeping is out for me. But this is so cool, and I wish I could do it.

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  9. I once had a bee stuck in my bathing suit when I was a kid. It changes one's whole perspective on the little varmints. I could NEVER be a beekeeper.

    That being said, I love honey, so I appreciate beekeepers and their crazy, crazy passion. 🙂

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this information! I've always been intrigued by beekeeping. This is quite possibly my favorite Offbeat Home & Life post ever!

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    • yay! and *blushing!*

      But really, I hope some other people submit posts on their hobbies. I think I'd feel the same way about a post on geocaching (hint, hint @Meg/Jamie/Natalie/Foxie/Melissa!) or letterboxing (hint, hint @Kelly :).

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  11. I look forward to the day when I can start beekeeping. I live in an apartment with no place to put any hives elsewhere but a friend of mine lets me go with her to check on her hives and that scratches the itch a bit.

    Someday I hope to have several hives, goats, chickens, and maybe some ducks. 😉

    • Ducks and chickens are high on my want list, too! My husband once worked on a farm that had 5 or 6 chickens and one duck who thought she was a chicken. I think she had the chickens convinced until she went swimming in the puddles in the driveway – the other chickens looked at her like she was completely out of her mind.

  12. Oh gods I want bees SO BAD. I just. I can't even. I want them

    Technically I could have them here in suburbia in New Zealand but we're in a split level house with people above and all around and not much garden to speak of plus I doubt we'll be here long.

    My main goal in life is to buy a lifestyle block, build my own sustainable house, return the section to native bush and grow all my own food. And also with goats, chickens, and definitely lots of ducks.

    Bees are a reasonably big issue here as so much of our economy is based on primary industry (mostly dairy and beef). We've got the varroa mite here which is a huge issue for beekeepers – can't remember the percentage but there has been so much colony collapse and bee numbers are so down because of that and pesticides and probably other things. It's pretty scary stuff.

    There are tonnes of clubs and stuff here and I'm on a mailing list or two, but really I don't think I could cope going to visit other hives for the same reason my partner banned me from watching Grand Designs. I can't cope with the wants. And a mortgage has suddenly been plucked out of our reach by our dick government changing the rules 🙁
    But I can dream. I do spend a lot of time when I can hanging out in the public horticultural gardens which includes a permaculture garden with hives.
    And live vicariously through your awesomeness OP. Thanks so much for sharing and I *Love* your enthusiasm
    Oh and my next tattoo is going to be a bee on the inside of my wrist. I've been planning it for years

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  13. Is there anything I can do to provide a home for a swarm without having to actually cultivate them in any active way? I like bees and I know they're important for biodiversity, but I'm not sure how well animal husbandry would fit in with my veganism. (Side note: let it be known that I am absolutely a non-judgy vegan and think it's great that there are active, responsible beekeepers like yourself in the world.)

    I know about insect hotels for solitary bees, but I'm specifically wondering about swarms. Thanks for any advice 🙂

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  14. So in my limited experience, I would guess that providing a home for a swarm of honeybees would be really, really hard without any involvement from you. There are so many challenges that honeybees face (diseases, parasites, pesticide stresses, etc) that without active participation by a beekeeper, many hives would die in their first winter. Adding to the difficulty, convincing a swarm to set up home in your yard is really hard – my mentor (who has 8 hives in her yard already, one or two of which swarm every year) has a baited (with pheromones) swarm box hung in a tree, and she's never caught a swarm that way. It just seems like the likelihood of a swarm finding your box is low.

    I have two thoughts for things you could do. The first is start being a beekeeper and never harvest any honey or propolis, and add any comb that you have to remove to your compost pile rather than melting it down for beeswax. (That might take some funny justification – but it also seems a bit like keeping a goat or something as a pet.) The other thought is probably even better: start a pollinator garden. Check out the Pollinator Partnership's planting guides for what kind of plants attract pollinators that are local to you. Local pollinators are in decline just as much as honeybees, and they need all the help they can get, too! HoneyBeeSuite has quite a bit of information on what kind of houses native bees in Western Washington prefer. You might be able to find similar info for wherever you live.

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  15. Can I suggest that people consider planting native species that are good for bee food. All species need more food, so even if you can't have a hive, you'd be helping.
    also, seriously consider having a bee hotel in your garden or on a wall. Solitary bees and bumble bees need places to live and that's keeping bees without needing hives!!

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  16. I'd love to try beekeeping, but we have a backyard the size of a postage stamp, and my sister-in-law is allergic, so if we had hives, she'd never visit again.

  17. We're planning to set up homes for mason bees in our garden this coming year. Mason beekeeping is similar to traditional beekeeping, but there's far less chance of being stung (since there's no hive involved, so there's no "protect" instinct if you get too close) and colony collapse disorder isn't as great a concern (again, there's no colony involved). We're not interested in harvesting honey from them, simply in increasing pollination of our fruiting trees, so this would be a wing for us and for the mason bees!

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