A Honey of a Hobby
article by P. Allen Smith | photo by Mark Fonville
We’ve all heard the saying “busy as a bee.” Well, it’s for good reason. Honey bees are hard little workers—always bustling and buzzing around bright flowering plants, trees and shrubs. Since I was young, I have been fascinated by the life of honey bees. Back in the day there was a virtual super highway of activity that I could observe, but as we all know the honey bee hasn’t fared so well recently. Colony Collapse Disorder (caused by a variety of factors including pesticide use, the varroa mite and habitat loss) has resulted in a steep decline in honey bee populations. This isn’t just bad news for the honey bee, it’s bad news for us too. Honey bees, along with other pollinators, are responsible for one-third of our food supply. That’s reason enough to do everything we can to help these beneficial insects rally.
It’s been almost twenty years since I set up my first bee hive with the help of my mentor or “bee-tsar” as I called him, from the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association. If you want to raise bees, the first thing I recommend you do is find your own “bee-tsar.” He or she will provided a wealth of information and support to get you well on your way to raising bees. Until then, read through the following tips to help you get in touch with your inner beekeeper.
Reasons to raise honey bees.
In addition to bee conservation, the health benefits of locally produced honey, propolis and royal jelly make urban beekeeping very popular. Honey bee products are packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Then there’s the ease of beekeeping. You can set up a hive in limited space and the honey bees are self-sufficient, independent little creatures that pretty much care for themselves. Whether you have a small garden, urban homestead or farm, bees benefit you and all your neighbors in a three-mile radius by pollinating plants, farming crops or orchards. Bees will increase the abundance of fruit, vegetables and flowers around them.
What you will need to get started.
Research is your first step toward keeping honey bees. Check out the local ordinances regarding hives and share your plans to keep bees with neighbors. Beekeeping is not for people with bee allergies, but for most folks it is perfectly safe. Honey bees are not naturally aggressive and only sting in defense or when you are working in the hive.
The best resources are people who are already keeping honey bees, they are like living books. And the best place to connect with these people is at a local bee club, association or a nearby cooperative extension at the university.
You don’t need a lot of room to keep bees, but the area reserved for your hives will benefit from a warm and dry environment. Bees love the sun and they love it warm so find a sunny spot. I like to face my hives toward the south because this is what they tend to do in the wild.
Bees are not fussy about the climate, some species are more adapted to cold or heat than others. I raise Italian bees, which are excellent for long summer regions, but if you live in an area with short summers choose a type that doesn’t require a lot of food, won’t grow too fast and overwinters well such as carniolans. Your best bet when deciding on a bee species is to find a local source from a reputable supplier.
Starter colonies come as packages (queen and bees), nucs (queen, bees and frames loaded with brood, honey and pollen) and swarms (queen and bees collected from the wild).
In addition to the bees, you’ll need some equipment. Hives consist of a top cover and inner cover, supers, a hive body, frame and foundation and a stand. You’ll also need a smoker, hive tool, helmet and veil and gloves.
What to expect the first year.
Once you’ve done all the leg work and have your equipment ready, you need to decide how many hives you want and where to place them. One or two hives are a good start for beginners, because it’s easier to manage and allows you to compare which hive is doing well and which is not. And if one of the hives falters you can use frames and brood from a strong hive to save the weaker one.
It’s wonderful to have an abundance of honey as a beginner beekeeper, but try to have a realistic outlook on your honey crop the first year. Maybe if the stars align perfectly with a good queen and good weather conditions, you may exceed your expectations. A strong hive can produce 2-4 gallons of honey in one good season.
The lifecycle of a colony is seasonal consisting of tens of thousands of bees—usually from early spring to late fall. The life of the queen is three to four years; drones usually die or leave after mating; and workers tend to survive for several weeks in the summer and maybe a few months in colder regions. Be prepared to replenish your hives in the spring if it does not fare well over winter.
Joys of the Honey Harvest
There’s no doubt you will find your own raw honey tastes more delightful than any you buy off the shelf. Honey from your own hives can be used to sweeten your favorite tea or drizzled over fresh warm biscuits. Try simple home recipes to enrich soaps, lotions and balms with the waxes, royal jelly and honey from your hive. Locally produced raw honey is also good for the local community’s economy and makes the perfect gift for family and friends.