Keeping Backyard Bees: Beekeeping Basics
Between October 2013 and April 2014, my home state of Virginia lost approximately 32% of its honey bees. Whether to the unusually cold winter, parasites, loss of habitat or pesticide use, that's a sobering figure. Honey bees pollinate our orchards, our gardens, meadows and more. Without honey bees, the world would quickly lose an enormous amount of food sources. Other bees such as Mason bees can pollinate some trees, but honey bees give generously of themselves in the form of pollination, honey, beeswax, propolis and more.
A single honey bee hive contains 40,000 to 60,000 bees and can pollinate 2 acres of crops, according to an article in the August 2014 Virginia Farm Bureau magazine (page 11). Such productivity added to a home garden, hobby farm or hobby orchard can help produce an abundance of crops to feed a family, share with neighbors, or preserve for the winter.
I first became interested in beekeeping when friends of ours, home builders and contractors, discovered a honey bee nest in the wall of an old building they had been hired to demolish. Recognizing the importance of the hive, our friend saved it and carted it back to his farm to nurture the little colony. How he did that I still don't know - I keep picturing him inside his truck with a buzzing hive in the passenger seat! He has since acquired typical beehive boxes, which are easier than old-fashioned dome shaped hives to inspect and care for his colony. His garden and that of his parents next door to his home are a marvel of productivity and health. I'm an avid backyard gardener with a large home orchard, and I could immediately see the benefits of beekeeping for my home, orchard and garden.
However, I had about a million questions, and just as many fears. As I prepare to obtain my first honey bee colony this year, I thought I would share what I've learned with others in the hopes of inspiring more people to take up beekeeping. Stings and all, the thought of an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit, not to mention honey raised right in my yard, makes it all worthwhile.
Bees for Pollination: Mason Bees
Mason bees (Osmia) are small, native species of bees that pollinate orchard fruit trees and other plants. These small, solitary bees use mud to seal off the cavities in trees or Mason bee houses where they lay their eggs and raise their larvae. Mason bees have a black or bluish-black appearance and are about the size of honey bees. They're gentle, non aggressive, and useful for home gardens. Males can't sting you; they don't even have a stinger! Females will only sting if cornered, squeezed or trapped, so leave them alone, and they'll leave you alone.
Mason bees can pollinate an entire orchard, with just two or three bees pollinating an entire apple or peach tree. They also work on rainy days while honey bees prefer sunny days.
To encourage Mason bees to take up residence in your garden or orchard, a Mason bee house, such as the one pictured at right, can be added to a post for the bees to nest in. Artificial Mason bee houses constructed from gourds, solid blocks of wood or other materials can be purchased in gardening supply catalogs. Mason bees themselves can also be purchased via mail order and shipped to your garden or farm.
While they don't produce honey, they do an extraordinary job pollinating fruit trees. If you don't care about having honey for your table, Mason bees may be a great addition to your farm or garden.
Raising Honey Bees
Honey bees are by far the most popular type of bee to raise in the home garden. Home beekeeping can encourage healthy colonies, boost local pollination efforts, and provide you with fresh produce such as honey to enjoy or sell.
If you know you're allergic to bee stings, then raising bees isn't for you. Others may wish to ask their doctors for an Epi Pen (available by prescription) in case of sting reactions. Talk to your doctor if you have any concern about bee stings.
Honey bee colonies include a queen, whose sole purpose is reproduction. Drones and workers complete the colony.
To begin backyard beekeeping with honey bees, most books and experts recommend that you get to know a local beekeeper or join a beekeeping club. Club members are usually generous with their information, and a mentor can guide you through your first year of beekeeping.
You can purchase an entire beehive and colony from the many mail order supply houses found online. Yes, bees are shipped through the U.S. mail, but you have to have a hive waiting for them and know when to order them. Bees sell out quickly, particular popular strains of honey bees, so ordering them in the winter for spring delivery helps you get what you want.
10 Tips for Backyard Beekeepers
- Make sure it's legal to keep bees in your backyard. Check local ordinances.
- Get to know local beekeepers. It's good to have a network of experienced people to help you through your first year of beekeeping.
- Assemble your hive and equipment BEFORE bees arrive. Once the post office calls to tell you that your bees are here, you need to get them into their new home, fast.
- Purchase honey bees from a reputable breeder, and look for gentle varieties such as Italian or Russian bees who are productive yet gentle. DO NOT add wild bees to your hive!
- Wait to buy a honey extractor. You may not have honey the first year.
- Have a water source near the hive entrance. A chicken waterer works well. Anything deeper should have some packing peanuts floating on the surface to give bees a place to land, sip and stay above the water.
- Place beehives under a shady tree to help the bees regulate hive temperatures.
- Feed bees with supplemental food during the winter months, especially if it gets very cold.
- Purchase and use protective clothing and a smoker when inspecting your hives.
- Learn the best times of day to inspect and work with your bees so you won't disturb them.
I am still learning all about honey bees, but these are the tips I have learned from local beekeepers, from observations and research. I welcome more tips from experience beekeepers in the comments section.
The LIfe Cycle of the Honey Bee
Is Beekeeping Right for You?
Only you can answer this questions, but backyard beekeeping offers so many benefits that if you're even intrigued by the idea, it's time to research it. As long as it's legal to keep bees in your part of the world, and you aren't allergic to their stings (nor is anyone in your family), backyard beekeeping may offer a fun hobby as well as helpful addition to the natural world. Helping honey bees by tending a hive in your yard may offset some of the natural population declines, and help keep the food chain humming along.
Further Reading on Beekeeping
- THE BACK YARD BEEKEEPERS ASSOCIATION
- Backyard Beekeeping For Beginners - Sustainable Farming - MOTHER EARTH NEWS
Discover the basics of what you need to begin backyard beekeeping, from buying honeybees and constructing the hive to preventing bee swarming and harvesting honey.
- Beekeeping | North Carolina Cooperative Extension
© 2014 Jeanne Grunert
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