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!
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.