Bees are endlessly fascinating, selfless, hard-working pollinators that capture sunlight and ferment it into the gold, naturally anti-bacterial, perfect substance we call honey. What better time to buy local honey and consider taking up the hobby for yourself than Earth Day and springtime. Here are a few things to think about and tips on getting started.
From the hive to our kitchens, the honey-making process starts with the humble honeybee and their flower-to-flower quest for nectar and pollen. Honeybees account for 80% of all insect pollination. Without such pollination, we would see a significant decrease in the yield of fruits and vegetables and nuts like almonds, strawberries, melons, zucchini, avocados and so much more. If you’ve done any reading lately, you’ve likely seen something about the struggle of the honeybee and the potentially dismal long and short term effects on our country’s agricultural system and on human life in general.
Supporting local beekeepers can only help in giving more pollinators a chance and local honey has tons of health benefits from soothing coughs and burns to easing seasonal allergies. As Smithsonian.com reports, the earliest recorded use of honey as a remedy comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which convey that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions at the time. The ancient Egyptians used honey regularly to treat skin and eye problems, as did the Greeks, Romans, and a number of other cultures.
My curiosity in Apis mellifera, or the European strain of honeybee, began on an apiary tour in Aix-en-Provence, France, while I was studying abroad. Tucked into the French countryside were healthy, bustling hives in an apiary that belonged to a family. In their farm shop were samples of chestnut, lavender, orange blossom, and wildflower honey – each with their own distinct flavor and origin. I was hooked.
When I first started getting into bees in the U.S., I got lots of weird looks. You? People’s fishy glances seemed to question my age or gender or personal-toughness. Yes, me. I believe in contributing to saving bees and responsibly enjoying some honey and hive products. Even if it is only a few hives at a time.
It’s nuanced, intricate, blaringly hot and sweaty, rarely (but sometimes) painful – but most of all, it’s not as hard as you think. Here are five steps to becoming a beekeeper (you can do it!).
1. Get curious & read up
So many people ask me how I got started with beekeeping. When I reflect over the last ten years, it’s really a whole mix of things that got me going – the apiary tour in France, I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, ordered catalogs and magazines, asked beekeepers at farmers markets if I could follow them around for a day or two. I sought out community resources, too. There are tons of back yard beekeepers in Western Connecticut, so many in fact, that there is a Backyard Beekeepers Association which was and continues to be an invaluable resource for getting started and keeping healthy bees. Go to the library and take out books like The Beekeepers Bible or The Backyard Beekeeper or anything that strikes you – just get ready for the project by reading up on how it all works.
2. Finding space & getting comfortable
While honeybees are docile creatures and aren’t interested in stinging people (it’s a fatal act so they try not to …), they still need a safe place to reside that won’t worry your neighbors. It’s best to have your hive facing east for early sunlight and to keep them in full sun. Some beekeepers argue, though, that dappled light is superior. If you’re not able to keep bees where you live, investigate a local farm or school to see if they might be amenable to lending space (their garden’s yield will quadruple). Make sure to purchase appropriate clothing – long pants, socks and closed-toe shoes, long sleeves, and a sting resistant suit or jacket with a veil. Many people prefer wearing kidskin gloves until they get more comfortable handling frames with their bare hands. But, eventually, you’re bees will recognize your calm, confident mannerisms and you won’t need gloves at all.
3. Buying equipment & gear that works for you
When I first started out, someone told me that if you ask ten beekeepers a question, you’d get 11 different answers, which, I have actually found to be true! I think that’s because beekeeping is both an art and a science. I’ve found, through trial and error and lots of advice, certain products really work for me while others are much better for different types of beekeepers. For instance, I like being able to lift everything myself, so I opt for a slightly smaller hives and only really need a jacket and veil. If you’re interested in alternative beekeeping – maybe an African top bar will work best for you and your garden.
4. Ordering & hiving live bees
If you’ve been reading up, ordering catalogs, and attending local club meetings – you might be ready to order your own bees. Start with your local club to find a purveyor or call the customer service center of one of your catalogs. There will be several options from buying a local “nuc” or nucleus hive to ordering three pounds or 10,000 live bees that are shipped through the U.S. post. Finally, the best time to start your hive in the Northeast is really in later March or April, so that they have plenty of time to build up their honey stores through the summer months into the early fall.
5. Scheduling inspections & keeping a log
When you look at the honey frame or the “dance floor” can you tell by looking at the brood stages the last time the Queen was there laying? If Varroa mites are spotted on the brood, do you know how long the mites will last based on their life-cycle? Remember that time you saw that baby bee that didn’t seem like it had fully-grown wings? Keeping a good logbook will help you sort all of this out and remember exactly what happened and when. Keep it however you would like — small notebook that travels around with you, a binder that you keep out at the hives, or keep all notes and photos in a blog/online platform. Make sure to seek advice from experts and regularly inspect your bees.
You’ll always be learning something new with beekeeping. I find I’m trying something new every season and have the chance to connect with scores of unique people who all love the humble honeybee. Before the month is up – make sure to buy local honey to support your area beekeepers and get started on making your own plans for spring.
It is time to digitize beekeeping. We empower beekeepers to understand their bees better. Moving from calendar-based decisions to data-driven solutions helps optimize beekeeping operations and keep healthy bees.