Raising honeybees is good for the environment and for you.
Photography by Mark Fonville and Kelly Quinn
[dropcap]You’ve[/dropcap] heard the saying “busy as a bee,” well, it’s for good reason. Honeybees 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 honeybees. Back in the day there was a virtual superhighway of activity that I could observe, but as we all know the honeybee 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 honeybee populations. Since 2007, about 30 percent of all honeybee colonies in the United States have been wiped out each winter. This isn’t just bad news for the honeybee; it’s bad news for us, too. Honeybees, along with other pollinators, are responsible for the majority of our food supply. That’s reason enough to do everything we can to help these beneficial insects rally.
It’s been almost 20 years since I set up my first beehive 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 provide 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 honeybees
In addition to bee conservation, the health benefits of locally produced honey, propolis (bee glue; it’s often used for medicinal purposes) and royal jelly make urban beekeeping very popular. Honeybee products are packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Then there’s the ease of beekeeping. You can set up a hive in limited space. Honeybees 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 your neighbors in a three-mile radius by pollinating plants, farming crops and orchards. Bees increase the abundance of fruit, vegetables and flowers around them.
What you need to get started
Research is your first step toward keeping honeybees. 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. Honeybees are not naturally aggressive and only sting in defense or when you are working in the hive.
The best resources are people who keep honeybees — 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.
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. Generally, 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. 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, such as the Carniolan, that doesn’t require a lot of food, won’t grow too fast and overwinters well. Your best bet when deciding on a bee species is to find a local source from a reputable supplier.
Starter colonies come as packages, with the queen and bees; nucs (or nucleus colonies), with the queen, bees and frames loaded with brood, honey and pollen; and swarms, with the 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 used to collect the honey, a hive body, a stand and the frame and foundation. You’ll also need a smoker, hive tool, gloves and helmet and veil.
What to expect the first year
It’s wonderful to have an abundance of honey as a beginning 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-to-4 gallons of honey in one good season.
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 in a variety of ways, such as 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.
Five Fascinating Facts about Honeybees
1. The essence of honey is flower nectar. Flower nectar is used to attract hungry bees so that cross-pollination of plants can occur, ensuring the survival of the species. Remember that talk about the “birds and bees?”
2. Bees keep the temperature of raw honey in the hive between 92 and 95 degrees, slightly below human body temperature.
3. Before refrigeration was commonplace in homes, honey was an essential preservative and antibacterial ingredient in early medicinal remedies. It remains popular today as a soothing sweetener to add to teas, cough drops and syrups.
4. Beeswax candles have been around since the Middles Ages. It became preferred over tallow because of its ability to stay solid in hot weather, in addition to its slow burn and light, sweet scent.
5. Honey and royal jelly are not the only products from bees used for medicinal purposes. Before modern medicine, bee stings were used to treat those with arthritis.