Beekeeping: Is it for you?
Food for honeybees can be supplemented with an artificial diet.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
No one knows the exact number, but it is thought that more than 212,000 people keep beehives in the U.S. Some are urban; most are rural. The hives they tend include some 2.49 million honey-producing colonies, which in 2011 made about 148 million pounds of raw honey. Should you join their numbers? Here are some things to consider, as well as the basics you need to know before you begin.
Why keep bees?
Are your crops adequately served by native pollinators? Are you paying annually for pollination services? Could you reduce production costs? Maybe, maybe not - a lot depends on your location and crops.
Beekeepers are located in every state of the union. States with the highest honey production in 2011 included North Dakota (the No. 1 honey producer), followed by California, South Dakota, Florida and Montana. No matter what your reason is for keeping bees, there will be a sweet byproduct.
In addition, you may also harvest beeswax (for candles, cosmetics and crafts), pollen (a food supplement for bees and humans), royal jelly and propolis ("bee glue" used by bees to seal their hive and by humans for medicinal purposes). Per capita consumption of honey in the U.S. is approximately 1.3 pounds per year. Beeswax, as a byproduct of the honey harvest, accounts for about 3.9 million pounds of product annually.
Markets for local products of all kinds continue to grow, and honey is no exception. U.S. consumers are increasingly aware of issues with imported honey, especially honey from China, and local honey continues to gain a small but avid following.
In some parts of the country, pollination contracts may be more lucrative than honey production. Working in an area where almonds are a major crop, Dr. Eric Mussen, extension apiculturist with the University of California, Davis, notes: "The pollination business will be more reliable than the honey crop."
Why not keep bees?
Although honeybees (unlike Africanized honeybees) do not generally sting unless disturbed, an allergy to their stings is a good reason to steer clear. Adults tend to have more severe reactions than children, and an allergic reaction to bee stings in the past indicates you're more likely to have an allergic reaction to future bee stings. About 3 percent of people stung by a bee quickly develop anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction. Symptoms include hives and itching, difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat and tongue, weak and rapid pulse, and loss of consciousness.
A potential for hive (and thus economic) loss may be another reason to avoid beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) among honeybees has been widely publicized. Research continues into the possible causes, among them varroa mites and pesticide use, but a definitive solution to the problem has yet to be found. The good news is that total losses of U.S.-managed honeybee colonies dropped to 21.9 percent for the 2011-2012 overwintering season, down from the average 30 percent loss beekeepers saw in the previous year. According to published comments by Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., "One in five bees lost is still huge and still quite a ways from the 13 to 14 percent loss beekeepers say would be sustainable."
Producing high-quality honey is a must, but you will also need attractive containers and labels, as well as several means of letting potential customers know about your honey.
Photo by Kathleen Hatt.
Planning for bees
Before purchasing bees and the equipment to keep them, consider the following:
- Where will you keep your apiary? Will the site require modifications or fencing?
- How many colonies will you start with?
If you are new to beekeeping, the usual suggestion is that you begin small, with perhaps two to three colonies.
- Where will you acquire bees?
Bees should be ordered the fall prior to the spring they are needed. Bees are generally purchased as established colonies, as nucleus colonies or as package bees. They may also be captured free in swarms.
- What equipment will you need?
Basic equipment includes hives for the bees, protective equipment for the beekeeper and honey processing utensils.
Hive components - Within inner and outer covers, a typical hive includes a hive stand, a bottom board with entrance cleat, and a series of hive bodies with suspended frames containing comb. Hive bodies contain the brood nest. The brood nest may be separated from the honey supers (storage for surplus honey) with a queen excluder. A hive stand generally raises the hive above the ground in order to extend the life of the bottom board and to help keep the entrance weed and grass-free. The bottom board is not only the floor of the colony, but also the landing platform for foraging bees.
Researchers use a smoker and a vacuum to collect bees for study.Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
For more advanced beekeepers producing comb honey, specialized supers are available. The beeswax comb, held within a frame, is the basic structural component inside the hive. Various designs are available, but all serve the same purpose: brood rearing or storage of honey or pollen. An inner cover prevents bees from gluing down the outer cover with propolis and wax, and is also useful in regulating hive temperature. An outer cover provides protection from the weather. For colonies that travel to pollinate crops, specialized outer covers are designed for easy stacking.
Beekeeping equipment is widely available for purchase, and plans are available for those wishing to construct their own hives. It is generally recommended that beginning beekeepers not purchase used equipment, because used equipment may be contaminated with pathogens that cause various bee diseases.
Protective gear - To shield the head and neck from stings, always wear a veil. The best veils are worn over a wide-brim hat and stand out away from the face. Some veils are attached to a one-piece bee suit. Bee suits are useful to keep sticky propolis off clothing and to reduce the opportunity for stings in sensitive areas, such as wrists and ankles. Bee suits should be light in color. Bees may react unfavorably to dark clothing and clothing made from fuzzy material or animal fibers. To eliminate sting and hive odors, which might attract or irritate bees, clothing worn while working with bees should be laundered after each use.
Honeybees at work on an organic farm in Mississippi.
Photo by Stephen Kirkpatrick, courtesy of USDA-NRC S.
Smoker - A smoker is a firebox, about 4 by 7 inches, together with a bellows and a nozzle to direct smoke. Smoker fuels appropriate for use with bees include wood shavings, punkwood, bark, dry leaves, pine needles, corncobs, burlap or cotton rags. The effect of smoke is to distract and calm bees while the beekeeper is inspecting, handling or manipulating the hive. It is thought that bees perceive smoke as signaling the presence of fire and the possibility that they may have to abandon their hive. Because they do not want to leave their honey behind when they evacuate, they begin gorging on it.
Hive tool - To pry apart frames in a brood chamber or honey super, separate hive bodies, or scrape away wax and propolis, a hive tool is essential. Although a screwdriver or putty knife can substitute, a hive tool (essentially a metal bar) is superior.
The hive tool should be cleaned regularly to help prevent the spread of disease. One way to do this is to burn it in a hot smoker.
Honey processing utensils - Although honey can be harvested quite simply by straining or solar heating, a more efficient means is an extractor. Extractors can be plastic or stainless steel, hand-crank or electric, and come in several sizes labeled to represent the number of frames they can handle. The extractor spins honey out of the combs, either tangentially or radially. The most popular type is the radial extractor, which ejects honey out of both sides of the frame at the same time.
Whether you keep bees mainly to pollinate crops or your primary purpose is production of honey or related products, your economic gain will be dependent on marketing. High-quality honey is a given, but you will also need attractive containers and labels, as well as several means of letting potential customers know about your honey. You will also need a sense of customer preferences. Do your customers prefer the usual liquid honey, or do they prefer section-comb honey, cut-comb honey, chunk honey, or finely crystallized or creamed honey? Knowing customer preferences may also help determine what equipment you will need to produce your product.
To keep happy bees pollinating and to become a successful producer of honey and associated products, be sure you start with strong colonies; young queens, preferably selected for resistance to mites; an adequate number of hives to reduce or prevent swarming; and a location with plentiful food for bees.
Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She lives in Henniker, N.H.