Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beginning Beekeeping - An Introduction

We've got bees in our yard, yall. And we put them there on purpose.

We have a huge backyard, and I've always hated that we don't do anything with it besides put a party back there a few times a year. I've lobbied unsuccessfully for chickens for years. I've waged on-and-off campaigns for yard-dwelling goats and alpacas, but gained no ground against steadfastly anti-livestock Allen. I bake, I love sweets, I love food. Why not use our yard for something interesting and fun that makes food?

I've brought up beehives here and there, and Allen decided he kind of liked the idea. I researched and started making serious plans to start a hive in the yard. Six weeks after buying a book on beekeeping, we've got a hive with worker bees and a queen.

I've been reading a lot online about bees and beekeeping, but the fact is, unless you're looking for very basic information, or researching a very specific problem, books are your best resource. LA's Backwards Beekeepers recommend buying this book, which is very valuable. The authors are advocates of organic approaches that largely leave the bees alone, manipulating them physically as little as possible, and chemically not at all.

(Incidentally, I was in the middle of this book when I visited Jessica in Boston. Jess had a big jar of raw honey, given to her for helping with the Boston Public Market. The honey was so good, and so unlike commercially available honey, that I was eating it by the spoonful. Then I read the label and realized that it was from the authors of my book, the proprietors of Golden Rule Honey.)

Even without the delicious by-product of their labor, honeybees themselves are fascinating. I’m underselling beekeeping by not going into any depth on the bees themselves - their communication amongst one another, their strange relationship to the queen, and the crucial role that they play in allowing all of us to eat. Here are some basic facts about bees, and any good book on beekeeping will have a wealth of information on the habits and mysteries of honeybees themselves.

Bees’ social structure is not a hierarchy, and their queen is not a monarch. The queen is important not because the other bees need a leader, but because they need someone to lay eggs. If the queen underperforms or becomes injured, the hive may kill her and raise a new queen. The fact that no one is in charge actually makes it more amazing that such complex processes take place within the hive. Each bee – and the hive superorganism as a whole – are constantly responding to hundreds of different stimuli and adjusting their behaviors. NPR's science correspondent just ran a story on how bees lobby for and vote on new hive locations.

Commercial farmers depend on pollination by bees so much that plenty of beekeepers make their livings simply by transporting their hives to different farms and pollinating crops; the honey is just a by-product. The reactions I've encountered when I mention beekeeping to people have varied from bafflement to excitement: The garden specialist at my favorite hardware store exclaimed, "I thank you for that! Do you know how long we can survive on this planet without bee pollination? Five years!"

I’m hoping that by interspersing bee-related posts in between cake recipes and sewing projects every now and then, I can make keeping bees in your yard – and reaping the benefits – seem less odd. When I told my brother that I was building a hive, he said, “That’s a big step towards becoming … really … weird.” I disagree, and so do national trends. Now that I have bees on the mind, I feel like every third person I talk to keeps bees or has a neighbor who does. The small high school that Allen and I attended now offers a class on beekeeping. (Oh, Decatur.)

And why not? There is a $200-$300 initial investment, a bit of work at first – mostly in assembling the hives – and then an on ongoing commitment of an hour or two every couple of weeks.

One important factor to consider: Are you allergic to bees? Yes? Probably don't order a three-pound box of them. Not sure? You might want to get an allergy test. Even if you weren't allergic to them the last time you were stung, allergies can change. I got an Epi-Pen to keep on hand just in case. I hope our backyard never plays host to a Pulp Fiction adrenaline injection in the heart (or epinephrine in the thigh, whatever), but I do want to be prepared in case of anaplylactic shock.

So read the bee posts as they come along - the next should be up in a few days - and see if they pique your interest at all. (I’m not going to make a “bee in your bonnet” joke. Sorry.)

Oh, yeah. Another thing:


  1. I remain very jealous. Where did you get your hive?

  2. It's coming soon, Francina! Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, but I'll get all the details up in a couple of days.

    PS. Thanks for the eggs.

  3. Yay for bees, I've been wanting to get bees for years but sadly that's not an option as I live in a small garden-less flat. Looking forward to reading about your adventures.

  4. My husband's parents are starting beekeeping, I am going to pass this post on!

  5. The bee clip didn't show up on my iPad and I was planning on coming in here and commenting on the lack of AD clip - but you've got it. I can't beelieve I thought for a moment that you'd forgotten. Thank goodness.

  6. Bees? BEADS! Haha, I just listed some bee beads on etsy and have thought about editing the listing to include a quote from that clip. Also, I want bees!! I checked the free craigslist from work the other day and someone had posted a swarm that was on their property...I wanted to go grab the branch and run home with it!

  7. Clara, that is such a good idea! I didn't think to check the free CL section. I checked just now (do I need a second hive?), but no luck.

    I WILL post on how to obtain bees pretty soon - but unfortunately I have no experience with adopting feral swarms. I'll be keeping an eye out for them!

  8. You would keep bees, you would. I'm going to have to start a goat farm here just to keep up.

  9. That is the only time I've ever seen a swarm on craigslist, but I think it's how my aunt got hers. Not on craigslist specifically, but someone in her neighborhood alerting her that there was a swarm on their property and knew she wanted bees. It's supposed to be kind of easy if they are on something like a branch that you can move, since they are all groggy and stuffed full of food while the scouts look for a new home.

    I am loving living vicariously through your crash-course in beekeeping!

  10. Thank you! You are inspiring.