Pandemic Passion: Backyard Beekeeping 101
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bee America is highlighting entrepreneurs who have embraced some aspect of honeybees and their life cycle and provide them with a platform to talk about their “pandemic passion.” In the first of this series, we would like to introduce you to Rocio Espinoza, who has been inspired to take up backyard beekeeping.
Bees are wondrous little critters, environmental warriors tasked with pollinating the plants that give us avocados, cherries, melons, broccoli, squash — and thousands of other foods we depend on. But these important pollinators are quickly becoming endangered. Honeybees are suffering from habitat loss, infestations of tracheal and varroa mites that kill them in large numbers, and other environmental challenges.
Backyard beekeeping is an interesting hobby that goes a long way toward promoting healthy honeybee populations. More and more people are being drawn to beekeeping as they strive to live and eat more sustainably. A beehive at home brings your garden to life as the bees pollinate your plants for optimum yield. And, of course, your efforts are well-rewarded with a bounty of pure, golden honey straight from the comb. This raw, unpasteurized honey is far tastier and healthier than grocery store honey, which is pasteurized — a process that kills many of the beneficial nutrients in honey.
If you’re considering becoming an amateur apiarist to save the bees and enjoy home-raised honey, this guide will give you an overview of what’s involved in starting a bee colony and how to get the most out of it.
Is beekeeping right for you?
Beekeeping is enjoyable, but it isn’t a simple hobby. Getting started requires a certain amount of knowledge, and you’ll need to invest some time and money to get your colony going. Before you dive headlong into beekeeping, make sure you:
Learn all you can about the nitty-gritty details involved in beekeeping: Choosing hives and bees, managing the colony, harvesting honey, and keeping your bees healthy. Different parts of the country have different ideal timing for starting a hive, depending on the climate and geography. There’s a lot to know upfront, so seek out information from dependable sources. Are there any beekeepers or beekeeping organizations in your community? Does your university’s extension have information and resources on beekeeping in your region? Reach out and ask for advice. Having seasoned beekeepers in your contacts list could come in handy.
Check your city’s laws
Before you invest a dime, check with your city’s laws on the subject of beekeeping. Most cities have specific ordinances regarding keeping an apiary and sometimes require a permit to practice beekeeping.
Consider your neighbors
Some states require you to get your neighbors’ blessing before moving forward with beekeeping. Take into consideration that they or their family members might have an allergic reaction to bee stings, which can be deadly. Ask your neighbors if they’d mind, and if they seem a little hesitant, try persuading them with the promise of organic honey straight from the hive.
Find ample space
The amount of backyard space you’ll need depends on what type of beehive you choose. A general rule of thumb is to have six to eight feet of space around your hive. This gives your bees enough room to fly around the hive without getting in anyone’s way, but if your yard is on the smaller side, putting a tall fence in front of your hive will encourage the bees to fly upward and stay out of your hair.
Prepare to spend some time and money
A two-hive setup is ideal for a new beekeeper. For the first year of beekeeping, expect to spend upwards of $1,000, including the hives, bees, protective gear, and supplies. You’ll probably need to spend an hour a week tending bees. Keeping bees is a complex hobby, and many beekeepers admit that the more experienced they become, the deeper they fall down the beekeeping rabbit hole and end up spending an inordinate amount of time reading, researching, and taking classes about all aspects of this hobby.
How to build your bee colony
All bee colonies start with woodenware, which comprises the bottom and body of the hive and the top cover. With proper care, these bee boxes should last 10 to 20 years.
There are two main types of beehives you’ll choose from when starting your colony:
Langstroth hive. The most common hive and a favorite of new beekeepers, the Langstroth is a series of stackable boxes, each with square frames for bees to build comb in.
Top bar hive. This is the world’s oldest hive design. Top bar hives have bars that lay horizontally across the top of a long wooden box, and the bees build their comb downward from the bars.
Where to put your beehives
Install the hives in your back yard as far away as possible from the patio, play equipment, and other high-traffic areas. Place the hives so the openings face the south, east, or southeast. In the morning, the warm sunshine gets the bees moving, and in the evening, cooler shade brings relief when it’s time to rest.
Essential beekeeping equipment and supplies
Hive tool. A hive tool is like a crowbar for your beehive. It’s used to pry apart the boxes or lids of the hive, which get stuck together with beeswax.
Smoker. We’ve all seen these in the movies. Smokers calm down the bees, making it easier for you to get into the beehive to extract honeycomb or do maintenance.
Scraper. Scrapers help scrape away the built-up beeswax from your beehive.
Uncapping scratcher. In order to release honey, the comb needs to be uncapped using one of these tools.
Honey extractor. These are used to extract your honey from the comb. They come in various styles, and you can choose from manual or automated extractors.
Must-have protective gear
Veil. A veil protects your face and neck from any rogue bees and their painful stingers.
Gloves. A pair of long gloves staves off stings when you’re handling your hive.
Bee suit. The iconic, white one-piece we all associate with beekeepers protects your body from bee stings. A long-sleeved jacket and pants will also do the trick.
How to choose your bees
Once you have the hive and the equipment, you’ll need bees! All honeybees fall under the genus apis, of which there are 44 subspecies. The most commonly kept species in America is apis mellifera, or the European honeybee.
A starter colony, also called a nucleus —or nuc — colony, is the easiest way to populate your hives. A nucleus colony is a very small hive containing several frames of honey and brood, plus one queen and enough workers to expand the hive. You can transfer the small frames to your larger hive boxes, and the colony will build up fairly quickly since the eggs, larvae, and honey stores are included.
Honeybees have three social castes:
Queen bee. Each hive has one queen who takes care of all the reproduction in the colony, laying all of the eggs and choosing when to lay drones and workers.
Worker bees. These sterile female bees do all of the work. They forage, care for the young, produce and store honey, make wax, clean the hive, and defend it against predators.
Drones. The only male bees in the colony, the drones have one sole purpose for existing: To mate with all of the virgin queens from other colonies to spread their own colony’s genes far and wide.
Harvesting and using honey
You’ve got your bees and your beehive, so when do you get to start harvesting honey? Traditionally, you should wait until around 90 percent of the frame cells of the honeycomb are capped. For modern beekeepers, a refractometer can be used to test the moisture content of the honey — harvest it when it reaches 18.6 percent.
You’ll want to thoroughly read up on harvesting honey before you extract your first batch. In a nutshell, you’ll don your protective gear, calm the bees, remove the comb from your hive and take it to your work station. Using the uncapping scratcher, you’ll remove the wax cap from the comb, which can be used to make candles or added to homemade cosmetics. With your honey extractor, you’ll separate the honey from the comb, leaving the comb intact and ready to be put back in the hive. The liquid honey will settle in a container for a few days, then it’s ready to bottle and enjoy!
Benefits of organic honey
Organic honey is truly the nectar of the gods and has been used as a folk remedy for thousands of years. Honey is packed with phytonutrients, which boost the immune system and fight against a few diseases. These powerful phytonutrients are responsible for honey’s antioxidant properties, which help protect your body from cell damage due to free radicals. As a prebiotic, honey promotes the growth of good bacteria in the gut for better digestive health, and its antifungal and antibacterial properties make it an excellent emergency salve for wounds. Organic honey may also help improve cholesterol and boost immunity.
Home uses for honey
Honey can do more than just sweeten your tea:
- It’s a great moisturizer for dry skin — including your scalp — thanks to its ability to retain water.
- Honey’s antioxidant and antifungal properties can help treat acne, pimples, and blemishes.
- Soothe minor burns with a slather of honey, which will cool and promote healing.
- For a sore throat or cough, add a few tablespoons of honey to your hot tea.
- Use discarded beeswax to make lip balm, deodorant, or candles.
Beekeeping is a beautiful way for humans and nature to support each other. Bring bees into your backyard, and help boost a declining population while enjoying the sweet, fresh honey they leave behind for your toast and tea.