Top 10 Reasons for Starting Beekeeping
Best Practices for Buying Bees and Caring for Your First Hive
Jerry Hayes – I have been in the beekeeping industry for more than 25 years. My goal is to spend some time with you to help you on your journey to starting beekeeping.
For those of you who read Countryside regularly to learn from others with the same goals, desires, and aspirations as you, I hope you realize how different you are. You are a subset of the population. Not that the rest of the population is bad, or wrong, they just put their efforts elsewhere and don’t really want to understand how they can make a difference in the fundamental principles of their lives and the lives of the rest of the passengers on this lump of rock we call Earth. Just as I have little desire to understand the stock market or nuclear physics, others chose different paths. This diversity is what makes life interesting. And because of the tremendous diversity in nature (we are included) our paths to the future are different and yet the same. We are all linked whether we like it or not.
Those of you who are now or will decide to become backyard beekeepers are a very small subset of those reading Countryside. And an even very smaller subset of the rest of the population. You will be thought of as perhaps unique, interesting or even weird. Remember that the whole population, even beekeepers, can be entomophobic — afraid of or disgusted by some insects. Some people find it hard to believe there is this small but valuable group that likes this particular insect, the honeybee, and even more incredible to your neighbors — it’s an insect that can hurt you.
As we go down this path together only 1 percent or less of you will embrace honeybees and pursue starting beekeeping. As the author Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Let us invent a future and a stronger more resonant future for you and me that includes honeybees.
Why are honeybees important? Honeybees are important not because of honey, which certainly is a tasty, nutritious and more importantly, environmentally neutral sweet but honey is simply a by-product of pollination. Pollination is the most important thing honeybees do. Pollination is the transfer of pollen (male) to structures (stigma) on another flower of the same species. From here under normal circumstances the pollen deposited on the stigma will grow a channel or tube (pollen tube) down to the ovule/egg and the sperm will travel down this tube to meet up with and hopefully fertilize the egg and seeds will form. When a seed is fertilized then the plant will devote the resources to build a fruit or fleshy vegetable around the seed to protect and nourish it. This could be something familiar like a blackberry, apple or cucumber. Or not so familiar like a lychee, longan or some other exotic fruit. Ever seen a crooked or curved cucumber? Or how about an apple that was flat on one side? These are examples of incomplete pollination and thus incomplete fertilization. A seed was not fertilized so the plant did not expend the energy to produce a fruit at the site. These incomplete fruits are less valuable on the market and provide less food value for the consumer. And, for those seed and nut crops that require honeybee pollination (buckwheat, canola, almonds), if the seed is not fertilized that part of production is lost.
Honeybees are the fundamental keystone pollinator species. Yes, some pollinators like bumble bees or solitary bees are terrific pollinators. However, honeybee colonies can be managed to have tens of thousands of individuals that can be transported and moved to a particular crop and out again, something that is not possible with other pollinators. They can blanket a crop with redundancy and then move on under the beekeeper’s direction.
The standard rule of thumb is that if honeybees ceased to exist today, approximately one third of the food you and I eat everyday would simply disappear. An example I use when I speak to school groups is ice cream. I ask the kids how honeybees are responsible for ice cream, and of course they don’t know, which is good or my talk would end more quickly than planned. I tell them that honeybees pollinated the thousands of acres of seed alfalfa which is used to plant and produce high-protein forage alfalfa hay for dairy cows. Of course, the dairy cows make the milk which makes the ice cream. See, it is all connected.
I was able to address the NAS (National Academy of Science) last year on the subject of a loss of pollinators in North America. The NAS had been tasked by the federal government with producing a report on this issue which has strategic consequences. The basic question is if we turn our food production over to other countries because it is easier, quicker or cheaper, and not devote attention to the slowly shrinking population of honeybees in the U.S. that produce a third of our food, what does that mean? Do we want a significant portion of our food production to be in the hands of foreign nationals? Do we want food production in our growing population to follow the same short-sighted route of energy production so that there will be a fruit and vegetable cartel that controls and distributes food to us just like oil is now? Good questions for those who see to the horizon and non-important to those who choose not to see to the horizon.
Top 10 Reasons for Starting Beekeeping:
10. There is very little winter time work with honeybees. If the beekeeper has helped prepare the honeybee colonies so they have plenty of food for the winter and has addressed pest, predator and disease issues in fall then there is nothing to do. They don’t need feeding, watering, shoveling, milking or anything else.
9. No cows, goats, chickens, rabbits or whatever to jump over, crawl under or knock down your homestead fencing, and get out to aggravate you and your neighbors.
8. Bees make honey. More honey than they need to survive a winter on their own. They share the surplus with the beekeeper. Flowering plants produce a sweet liquid solution called nectar to entice a honeybee to visit the flower and do this important thing — pollination — that we talked about earlier. This nectar is collected by the honeybees. They add enzymes to it to change the sugar profile and reduce the moisture level below 18 percent so honey will not spoil or ferment. Honey has been found in the tombs of Pharaohs, ready to eat.
7. Honeybees pollinate. Honeybees’ main foods are nectar/honey and pollen collected as they fly from flower to flower. Their hairy little bodies pick up the sticky pollen from flowers. This is the pollen that then transfers to the sticky stigma on another flower and pollination occurs. Flowers produce lots more pollen than they absolutely require because this pollination activity is still risky. The excess pollen stuck on the honeybee’s body is combed out by a structure on the bee’s legs and collected in small balls on the hind legs, easily seen in its bright orange, yellow, and even red and green colors. Bees collect pollen because it is their protein, vitamin, fat and mineral source of food. Nectar/honey is the energy carbohydrate food. But, bees don’t eat, can’t eat, pollen. These pollen grains are protected and encased in silica (glass) to protect the “sperm” inside from drying out, getting wet, etc., before they can fertilize a seed. This silica shell has to be broken open. Honeybees add various bacteria and yeasts to the pollen collected that when it is stored in the cells of honey comb, it starts to ferment and the silica shell breaks away releasing the food inside. This fermented pollen is called bee bread. Kind of like pollen silage for those of you familiar with that process.
6. Honeybee equipment, such as honey extraction equipment and a honey bee extractor, while having a cost, is far less expensive than other farm or agricultural equipment. A hive of honeybees doesn’t require oil, gasoline, diesel or anything else to run.
5. If your hive result in too many colonies of honeybees for your backyard, then unlike cows or something else big, you can simply ask a neighbor if you can put some of your valuable honeybees on his property in the unused place in the back. Most of the time, if you have done your PR (samples of honey and the pollination story), the answer is yes. No land to buy or rent.
4. The honeybee works for almost nothing. They feed themselves (a honeybee can forage for nectar and pollen efficiently in a 2- to 2-1/2-mile radius of their colony) and clean up after themselves as well. If you could develop a breed of goats that collected hay and brought it back to the barn to use in winter and then cleaned out the barn as well, you would have something almost as good as a honeybee.
3. You don’t have to get up at 2:00 in the morning to check if they are hatching or calving.
2. You don’t have to own large tracts of your land or barns or fences. You can live in an apartment building and have all your colonies located someplace else.
1. Honeybees are the keystone fundamental pollinator species of agriculture and for wildlife. They produce an almost perfect energy food, honey. They are a very forgiving livestock. You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect beekeeper. Honeybees do not necessarily require the management skills of a learned beekeeper for optimum results.
Honeybees still do extraordinarily well with the novice working toward being a master beekeeper. More has been written about starting beekeeping than any other subject except religion. Being no. 2 in that category tells you how fascinating and rewarding beekeeping is.
What you need to do now is see if you want to go forward with starting beekeeping. The only way you can do that is by acquiring knowledge about starting beekeeping. At this stage, having access to a computer and internet is a good thing. There is a lot of junk information available on starting beekeeping and some very good stuff as well. The problem is separating the two. You can learn a lot about starting beekeeping, beekeeping hardware and beekeeping supplies by reading catalogs. Request a beekeeping magazine / catalog from Dadant Inc., www.dadant.com, 888-922-1293; Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, www.brushymountainbeefarm.com, 800-233-7929; Mann Lake, Ltd., www.mannlakeltd.com, 740-393-2111; and Glory Bee, www.glorybeefoods.com, 800-456-7923.
When you get these catalogs pick out a beginner’s book like First Lessons in Beekeeping, or The Beekeeper’s Handbook. There will be how-to videos available also.
Every state has a state beekeeper’s association. Google your state beekeepers association and contact them for information on local and regional beekeeper groups. There may be a beekeeper mentor out there with your name on him or her. Starting beekeeping is a lot like other activities in that seeing how something is done and having hands-on assistance the first time with your bee hive plans is good for some people. If you are a male neophyte beekeeper with lots of testosterone you can do it yourself and be successful also.
An example from a web search:
- Wisconsin Honey Producers Association www.wihoney.com
- Ms. Anette Phibbs, Wisconsin State Apiarist email@example.com
Two Weeks Later (If you have followed my suggestions)
If you are ready for starting beekeeping and have read the catalogs and books then you know what equipment you need and where you can purchase packaged bees. If you read the chapter in the how-to-book, you know the mechanics of installing the package. If not here it is.
Installing Packaged Bees
Packaged bees are sold by various bee supply companies and commercial bee producers. Orders should be placed early, so that the bees can be delivered during April and the first half of May (fruit and dandelion bloom). A three-pound package with queen should be ordered if you are going to introduce the bees to a foundation. The following steps should be observed to avoid problems with installation.
- When packages arrive, place in a cool dark room; ideal temperature is about 65 to 70°F.
- Feed bees by sprinkling or spraying sugar syrup (1:1 ratio of sugar to water) over the screen surface.
- A one-story hive (bottom board, deep hive body, 10 frames, inner cover and outer cover) must be ready before the bees are installed.
- Install bees in the late afternoon so they will settle down and not drift.
- Reduce the hive entrance with an entrance reducer or lightly stuff green grass in 3/4’s of the entrance.
- Shake the package vigorously so that the clustered bees will fall to the floor.
- Remove the wooden cover of the package.
- The feeder (a can) will then be exposed; remove this can.
- Remove the queen cage, found generally suspended from in the space where the feeder can was, and check the queen to make sure she is alive.
- Using a nail, carefully puncture the soft candy in the queen cage, so the queen can be released easier by the workers.
- Half of the 10 frames should be removed leaving five frames in the hive. Wedge or snug the queen cage with the candy end up between two frames in the hive. The cage screen should be exposed to the bees.
- Spray the package bees one more time with sugar syrup and then shake, and dump the bees out of the package into the large empty space in the hive. (Wear your bee suit.)
- Replace the frames which were removed so that there is a total of 10 frames.
- Then the package bee cage can be placed in front of the hive entrance so the few remaining bees will crawl into the hive.
- Next, provide the bees with an entrance feeder or internal frame feeder of sugar syrup.
- Place an empty hive body on top of the new hive.
- An inverted syrup can or jar with small holes in the lid (read your book) is then placed inside the hive body resting on the top bars of the frames. Put the hive top on.
- The feeder can should be checked in about five days and refilled if empty. (It is very important to provide sufficient food to the bees.)
- In about a week, inspect the colony for eggs and larvae.
- Remove the empty queen cage.
- If the queen fails, a new queen should be introduced immediately; if not unite the bees with another colony or package.
This is learning curve time. The important thing to remember is stay calm. We have had a relationship with honeybees for thousands of years.
What interests you about starting beekeeping?
Originally published in Countryside March / April 2007 and regularly vetted for accuracy.