Beekeeping isn’t the kind of thing you can learn on YouTube. It takes real training, the right equipment — and plenty of patience.
Honeybees are our most famous pollinators — a crowd that includes ants, bats, birds and butterflies — but they’re not native to North America. So although threats to honeybees posed a real challenge to commercial agriculture, “colony collapse” never threatened the environment. In fact, if left unchecked, honeybees can outcompete native bees for pollen and nectar.
Even so, experts believe that a few well-tended hives won’t hurt, and beekeeping typically generates stronger advocates for the natural world.
“Keeping bees in your backyard doesn’t directly help the environment,” Day says. “But as a beekeeper, I’ve found that I’m much more in tune with the plants in bloom, changes to local weather, and the importance of planting native species for all the other pollinators. And I know other beekeepers have followed the same path from awareness, to action and advocacy.”
Although a backyard hive may yield as many as 50 pounds of honey in a good year, beekeepers will tell you that’s not why they do it. (And novices should know that a hive likely won’t yield any honey in its first year or two.)
“Beekeeping is a really meditative practice,” says Meredith May, an author and fifth-generation beekeeper, who helped her grandfather tend his hives when she was 6. “You have to move slowly when you’re doing it, so you don’t get stung and so that you don’t upset the bees. It’s very quiet, and you typically do it alone. And bees are just fascinating.”
In a typical hive of 50,000 to 80,000 of them, each bee has a clearly defined role: The queen lays up to 1,500 eggs a day; drones, which represent roughly 5 percent of the hive’s population, mate with a different queen outside their own hive, providing genetic diversity; the remaining “worker” bees are sterile females who spend their days gathering nectar and pollen to feed the hive, making honey and tending to the next generation. Worker bees typically fly up to three miles from the hive, about 15 times a day, hitting as many as 100 flowers per trip. They cruise at roughly 15 miles per hour, and with 3 million hairs on their bodies, they can carry 30 percent of their own weight in pollen.
As a beekeeper, your job is to make sure those bees have what they need at every stage. Start your journey with a quick web search to make sure your city and/or homeowner’s association allow beekeeping — some areas require you to get a permit and notify neighbors. (Either way, you should probably give your neighbors a heads up, since your bees may buzz over to their property).
Beekeeping isn’t the kind of thing you can learn on YouTube, so you’ll need to find a class: Try your local beekeeper’s alliance, the city’s agricultural department or a university’s extension courses. A typical class includes eight sessions totaling 16 hours, a textbook or two, and a connection to an experienced mentor.
Classes are typically held in the winter, and new beekeepers get their bees in the spring. Setting up your first hive will cost $500 t0 $600, including: the physical structure — essentially a wooden chest of drawers or “frames”; a beekeeper suit and gloves; a hive tool (to separate the frames); and a smoker, which calms the bees so you can do your work. A nuc (pronounced “nuke,” short for nuclear hive) contains about 5,000 bees and a mated queen, and costs about $200. You can mail order your bees, but May recommends purchasing a nuc from a local beekeeper.
It’s not easy keeping bees
“A lot of people are attracted to beekeeping because it’s such a noble, ancient and kind of bada– hobby,” says May. “But it’s really pest control and entomology and figuring out how to keep your bees from getting sick.”
From spring to fall, you’ll need to check your hive every week or so — a 90-minute process that involves donning a beekeeper suit and gloves, checking the bees’ health and productivity, providing supplemental food (in the form of sugar water, pollen patties or overripe bananas), removing pests and taking a few notes. “People will sometimes say, ‘They’re bees — they can live in the wild, right?’” Day says, “but you want to be a beekeeper, not a bee haver. These are creatures that rely on us to take care of them.”
Harvesting the honey is an entirely separate affair. It’s a taxing process that takes several hours, though it’s typically done only once or twice a year, in late summer or early fall. Before shutting down the hive for winter, beekeepers aim to leave 60 to 80 pounds of honey for the bees to feast on during cold weather, when plants aren’t in bloom. During that entire span, bees will surround their queen to keep her warm.
Beekeeping can also involve public relations: When a few of Day’s bees were repeatedly attracted to a neighbor’s porch light, she offered up a red light bulb, which quickly eliminated the problem. And the hobby definitely requires paying close attention to the weather. One spring, it rained nearly every day for a month, washing away pollen and nectar and keeping the bees grounded, which meant Day had to provide all their food.
As the hive grows, you’ll need to increase the colony’s real estate by adding new frames. You may lose your queen. Your hive may swarm in a neighbor’s shrubs. You’ll almost certainly need to fend off mites that feed on bee larvae. May recently noticed lizards had decided her hive was a delicious buffet, so she surrounded a key access point with steel mesh. It’s a lot of work for 30 to 50 pounds of honey a year. “Some people get frustrated with beekeeping because there’s no golden honey simply pouring out,” says May. “It helps to try it out, and see if you’re obsessed with it. If you are, you’ll be a great beekeeper.”
If beekeeping isn’t your thing, you can create bee-friendly habitat for natives and honeybees alike: Michigan State University has tips for welcoming mason bees and leaf cutter bees by planting species such as aster, honeysuckle, raspberries and sunflowers, or by building nesting boxes that act as “native bee hotels.”
But for those who do get obsessed, the rewards are worth the effort.
“I love the focus that it forces me to have,” says Day. “When I’m going into a hive, nothing else distracts me — a nuclear explosion could be happening. I’m just so intent on observing and listening and smelling and sensing what’s going on in this little world. Even though I’m exhausted and hot and sweaty, and my muscles are aching, and I’m dehydrated, I don’t feel any of it when I’m in the hive.”
Scott Kirkwood is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.