Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’d love to have a few bee hives and be able to collect my own honey?” Many of us have, especially those of us who love honey. If the thought of being a beekeeper appeals to you, well, take heart, because with a little knowledge and monetary investment, you can become a keeper of the bees. Will this be the year you resolve to help protect bee populations in your community?
Bees are social creatures that work in harmony to establish a colony, reproduce their kind and, to our good fortune, produce the nectar of the gods known as honey. The hives where they live are known as apiaries.
Honey is known as the perfect food. In addition to its heavenly sweetness and all-natural health benefits, honey doesn’t spoil. Not long ago in an Egyptian pyramid, some crystallized honey was discovered. To everyone’s amazement, when heated, the honey returned to its natural state and was still edible. In other words, honey has the shelf life of gravel.
Besides free honey, there are other benefits to beekeeping. Beekeeping gets you outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air, and allows you to work hand-in-hand with nature. The payoff is pretty sweet, too—literally. Not to mention, our hard-working little friends need all the help they can get these days just to survive.
For untold centuries, bees have sustained agriculture by pollinating crops. However, commercial beekeepers report that since 2006, some 10 million beehives have been lost to what has broadly been termed colony collapse disorder (CCD). While it is difficult to point the finger at one particular culprit, many scientists, botanists and bee experts believe man-made pesticides are a leading cause of the honeybees’ demise, along with diseases and the varroa mite. Other people believe the cause of CCD may be an amalgamation of all these culprits.
While they are hardy little creatures, it is imperative you choose the right bees for your climate and purpose before you begin. If you live in a colder northern climate, you don’t want to buy a queen whose preferred habitat is Florida. Some bees handle wetter weather better, while some prefer drier climates. Some bees handle cooler weather better, so do your due diligence on what type of bees you want and which ones best suit your environment. You could be dooming yourself to failure if you don’t. More specific information about bees can readily be found in your local library or online.
The three ingredients necessary for successful beekeeping are knowledge, equipment and experience. The equipment you can buy immediately, the other two you must acquire over time. Of course, there are intricacies and specifics about bees and beekeeping, the equipment used, and how everything works that the limited space of this article simply doesn’t allow me to cover, so I will focus on a basic overview.
The Modern Hive
Before the invention of the modern hive, attempts to control bees and their environment for honey collection meant the construction of log gums, often made from black gum trees, or crudely made clay cylinders to entice the bees to set up shop. However, between 1850 and 1870, the invention and improvement of man-made beehives by three separate individuals made it possible for practically anyone to become a beekeeper.
When to Start
The best time to prepare for spring beekeeping is in the winter. The cold winter months give you time to familiarize yourself with the bees and their habits, and research which bee type is best suited to your location. You’ll also have a chance to learn how to construct and paint your hives, as well as how they work, so you will be ready to go come spring.
Complete beekeeping kits are available for both beginners and pros. They include everything you’ll need to get started, sans bees. The modern hive consists mainly of the following components:
The Hive Stand: The stand, upon which a hive is built, contains an angled landing strip that keeps the bees off the damp ground and also helps keep the cluster and combs drier in the winter.
Hive Body: This is a rectangular box with dovetailed corners for weatherproofing that holds the suspended, movable frames. It also contains the brood chambers.
Queen Excluder: This piece of equipment does what the name indicates: excludes the queen from accessing the honey by keeping her in the egg-laying chamber.
Supers: Rectangular flat boxes, called supers, are used as collection plates for the honey. They are easily removed and replaced.
Frames: The Hoffman or self-spacing frame is perfect for beginners.
Within this wooden hive there are a few more parts, but I’ll leave those to your discovery. Let’s get to the fashion show.
The Beekeeper’s Outfit
Wearing a beekeeper’s outfit for the first time is sort of like wearing your bathrobe when going to the mailbox. It feels a little weird, especially when someone sees you. However, while there may come a time when you evolve into the Bee Whisperer, it is best that you wear protective clothing in the beginning, Grasshopper.
Again, complete protective outfits can be purchased in a beekeeping kit. Here’s what you will get:
- White coveralls that tie at the ankle (white is important)
- A woven-fiber helmet with a mesh, face-covering veil
- Elbow-length protective gloves
- A smoker that will mellow out the bees when working with them and gathering honey
- An all-purpose, indispensable hive tool
- A bee brush with soft bristles for gently sweeping away the bees from clothing and the supers
When to Expect Honey from Your Bees
I recall once asking a beekeeper: “If I started a hive, could I expect honey the first year?” He burst into a little laugh and said, “Yeah…you can expect it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.” Meaning there are no guarantees. The first year of beekeeping is more about setting up and establishing your colonies for the future, although you may still get some honey.
The truth is, as with most hobbies or things we want to try, there is a learning curve and things don’t always go as smoothly as they did when we were running the movie through our mind. Then again, sometimes they do. A friend of mine got 60 lbs. of honey in her first year. Be patient.
Beekeeping is a fun hobby and one with a sweet payout at the end. In fact, the first law of honey is, there is no better honey than that produced by your own bees. Just remember, your connection to nature and your interaction with a colony can’t truly be measured by how much honey you harvest.
Getting sunshine, helping the environment and the bees, trying something new and different, and having an interest that excites you, are all things that make life more enjoyable.
Beekeeping is a peaceful, rewarding adventure waiting to be discovered. It’s an activity that reminds us that some of life’s greatest treasures are in the little details of everyday living.
But if all that is too Zen for you, think about how good it’ll feel bragging to your friends, smiling smugly at relatives and bonding with Preppers as you tell them the delicious honey they’re drooling over was made by your very own bees. Now that is sweet!
Written by Alan Ray
Alan Ray has written five books and is a New York Times best-selling author. Additionally, he is an award-winning songwriter with awards from BMI and ASCAP respectively. He lives in rural Tennessee with his wife, teenage son, and two dogs: a South African Boerboel (Bore-Bull) and a Pomeranian/Frankenstein mix.