I – Introduction
I started researching beekeeping as a hobby for several years before I got my first bees, mostly due to life’s circumstances. Once I settled down and had a piece of land to call home, I was able to get some bees and find it rather enjoyable. It’s quite unlike any other hobby, not the same as gardening, or NASCAR. Keeping wild animals in a wooden box isn’t for everyone. It has challenged me and I’ve learned a lot, and that’s what I find alluring – the more I learn about it, the less I know.
Beekeeping has been unpredictable, frustrating, weather dependent and has a steep learning curve. What little excess honey I have been able to capture from my bees, has been very warmly received by friends and neighbors. If it turns out you have the knack, good for you – don’t’ hold back! If you’re thinking this may be a great way to turn up a few extra bucks on your homestead – don’t count on it (though it may be possible). Initial setup costs and learning curve would make it a challenge to stay profitable. I’m fairly cheap by nature and tried entering into the hobby cautiously. I learned a few things along the way I hope to share here. This is by no means an authoritative treatise on the subject; my goal is to give you enough advice to feel comfortable starting down this road. I was very hesitant to pull the trigger on starting up in this hobby as it seemed so foreign and strange. Research and reading before hand certainly helped, but acquiring a hive and some bees, and spending time with them and working them has provided substantially more experience. I think you need a solid foundation of knowledge before starting, but hands-on experience has really made the difference for me. I decided to write this article with the hope that it will give some Survivorblog.com readers enough confidence to give it a try.
II – LIFE CYCLE AND HISTORY
Honeybees live in a colony with 3 types of bees: Worker bee, Drone bee, and Queen bee. The Queen bee is female, and there is only one per hive. The queen bee lays all the eggs, which become either workers or drones (and sometimes new queens!) Worker bees are typically +95% of the type reared, and are also female, but never reproduce. Drone bees are the only males and will fly outside the hive and attempt to mate with other queens. They provide no benefit to their own hive but do use resources/food. At the end of the season, the drones are all kicked out as the hive prepares for winter.
All bees start out as an egg laid in the bottom of a cell of honeycomb. After a few days of growth, the worker bees in the hive will cover the cell and the egg will pupate into a bee. Worker bees take about 18 days to cook, drones 21, queens take 23 days to develop, and she is fed a special diet called “Royal Jelly”.
Worker bees go through a variety of roles in and around the hive as they age. They start as nurse bees taking care of other young and cleaning the hive. Then guard bees and finally foragers going out and about to gather resources to bring back to the hive. Most bees typically live for about 40 days, and it takes 18-21 days to be reared from an egg. A complete lifecycle for most bees is about 60 days (egg to death). As winter approaches, the hive will begin rearing nurse bees to over-winter with (they live longer). All egg and honey production will shut down, and the remaining bees will attempt to cluster and keep the queen warm over the winter months. Stored honey and supplemented sugar are their only food. They will ball up around the queen and shiver, vibrate and flap their tiny wings to generate heat all winter long, attempting to keep the queen alive.
Once pollen and nectar become available in the Spring, the queen will once again start laying and expand the hive. The queen will expand the hive population as food sources and space allow and will slow down egg production when food is scarce. Spring typically has the most nectar and pollen available and is why you can only buy bees in the Spring – it takes a whole year to get the hive healthy enough to over-winter. There is often a dearth of nectar mid-summer, a flush in the fall, and then the hive shuts down for winter. That’s a year in the life of a hive. Queens live 3-5 years, but their best egg production is the first few. You can replace manually or let nature takes its course – which is far more complicated than I can tackle here.
Beekeeping has been around for centuries. Long before they were domesticated (and in certain parts of the world today), wild beehives were a known commodity and often poached by humans and animals for the sweet, golden honey contained within. European monks were the first recorded beekeepers – early hives were simple woven and earthen baskets kept near the fields, and over time man learned to live along side the bees, and vice-versa. Today there are several varieties of bees available to the trade. Each ‘breed’ has inherent traits that have been selected for centuries and offer some advantages and disadvantages based on your situation. It’s likely all types of bees can adapt to all kinds of environments, but some people develop a preference. Just about any commercially raised variety is likely to do well for you. A lot will depend on your environment and what is available.
While possible to ship packages of bees from all over, the ones that have demonstrated success locally are likely to give you the best chance. The best way to find out which bees those are, is to join a local beekeper’s club or organization. Check with your local agricultural extension, co-op, university, or just do a web-search. Where I live the clubs are organized by county and meet about once a month. Dues are very reasonable ($10-25 annually), people are incredibly friendly, and they are a wealth of local knowledge, experienced beeks (short for Beekeepers), and information on good deals on supplies! There is usually one or two people within the club that make and sell hives, it’s extremely simple stuff for experienced wood crafters (hint: here’s a good way to make extra money on your homestead), or people selling off old equipment at discount prices.
While used equipment is generally avoided due to contamination risks, for someone starting up in the hobby facing financial headwinds, it’s a possibility. Two of the local clubs here sometimes sponsor new members: buy them a hive, protective gear, and package of bees to help get them started – that’s about 500 clams! I cannot stress enough how important it is for beginning beekeepers to search out and connect with experienced local beeks. If you’ve seen hives in your area, but cannot find a club, stop and place a note on top of the hive (3×5 card in a plastic baggie, secure it with some tape, a stone or stick), with your phone number and contact info – offer to buy them lunch or a coffee and chat about bees! They won’t turn you down!
Reading online articles and books from the library created a base of knowledge for me to start from, but it’s been the one-on-one tutorials and hive inspections that have taught me the most. Get an experienced partner, get a buddy, find someone locally to help you, and shower them with thanks! One of my fondest memories of the hobby is finally giving a jar of honey back to my mentor (in the same jar he gave me some many years prior). For the record, it took me three years in this hobby before I harvested any honey at all beyond a finger full.
Getting started in beekeeping can be done on the cheap. Minimum investment is going to be around $500. Yes, you can shave that number down a little with used gear, but there are several diseases and pests that can be problematic, so it’s recommended to start out with all new. You will need to acquire 3 basic things:
- Hive – This is the box the bees live in. It is made up of multiple components we’ll discuss.
- PPE – Your Personal Protective Equipment (and tools) – aka bee suit. Don’t skimp here.
- Bees – your new Girlfriends!
You can shop locally if available (my farmer’s Co-op started carrying equipment), and there are several companies servicing the hobby via websites and warehouse stores. They all produce good equipment, you will find debate within (i.e. Ford vs. Chevy) – use what you can afford, get, or your mentor suggests. You may decide something else works better for you down the road, and that’s just fine, much of the equipment is interchangeable/re-useable, some you won’t like and get rid of (did I mention that cheap gear from your local club?)
Don’t let the complexity confuse you – there are ‘starter kits’ available at discounted prices to help people just getting started, look for the simple or basic one. I have used most of the large online retailers and found them all good to work with. If they have a warehouse/store locally or within a short drive, it’s worth the trip. You can often ask questions and get discounted scratch-n-dent products (hint: the bees don’t care what the hive looks like). Twice I’ve made short road-trips with beekeeping friends, once with the dog. They have all been very enjoyable days.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)