UPDATED: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 5:41pm
Here at Networx, we’re big fans of bees and other pollinators because they’re great for the environmentnand great for the garden. In the case of bees, there’s a little side bonus: fresh homemade honey!
Keeping bees can be easy and fun, and provides a great source of natural honey for the whole family (except children under one, who shouldn’t have honey because it could cause infant botulism). You might just find yourself getting a little passionate about apiculture along the way.We talked with Mark Jensen, President of the American Honey Producer’s Association and owner ofthe Smoot Honey Company, about getting started with bees. He says the biggest and most importantthing to be aware of for beginning beekeepers is that patience is critically needed while you’re gettingset up: “Starting out as a beekeeper, it's important to be patient. Things don't always go as easily as you think they should.”A few things can make the learning curve a lot easier on you. He highly recommends reaching out tohobby beekeepers groups and other local organizations to connect with people who are also keepingbees, and notes that: “There are many commercial beekeepers around the country, but they are notalways around—out working in the bees or traveling to California, for example—and don't always havetime or maybe the perspective of a smaller beekeeper.” Meeting up with local groups can help youlearn more about the specifics of your environment so you can give your bees the best care possible.Online extension courses are also available from some colleges and universities for people who want to learn the basics without traveling to a campus.When you’re ready to get started with bees, take advantage of the experience offered by a firm thatcaters to hobby apiculturists, Jensen explains. “...there are several bee supply houses across thecountry, including Mann Lake Ltd., Walter T. Kelley Co., Dadant, and Brushy Mountain Bee Farm,for example, that have knowledgeable staff who can help new beekeepers with questions regarding thetypes of equipment needed, what to do and when, etc. Some of these places are suppliers of bees andqueens or can direct you where to get your bees. Most ‘new’ bees will come from southern states likeCalifornia, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.”The staff at these companies are passionate about bees, as I discovered when I talked to John Dufnerat Mann Lake Limited, a company that supplies bees and equipment to hobbyists and commercialbeekeepers. Dufner explained that Mann Lake provides a full range of products for beekeeping needsranging from the hobbyist to the commercial bee industry, and they’re all tested on the company’spremises.For beginning beekeepers, he stressed that: “Any time that you are able to get involved with a localassociation, that’s awesome. That’s where you’re going to get the most information.” Reading aboutbees can be helpful, he says, but it’s hard to beat mentors who have been keeping bees for as longas 40 years. He cautioned that sometimes walking into association meeting as a new beekeeper canbe intimidating, because “you might ask a question and get ten different answers,” but the wealth ofexperience and knowledge are invaluable for people who are just getting started.Mann Lake, along with other companies with products aimed at hobbyists, carries basic starter kitsfor new beekeepers. These include protective clothing, hardware, and other supplies. While it may benecessary to buy feed, medications, and extraction equipment to get honey from the hives over thecourse of the first year of beekeeping, the base kit gets people set up so they can start, and Mann Lake’s kit also comes with a detailed guide to assist new customers.He notes that the two key things hives need to stay healthy and productive are pollen and nectar. Beescan collect between 80 and 100 pounds of pollen each year during the collection season, and that’s ontop of their nectar requirements. If necessary, they’ll range up to three miles from the home hive to findthe nutrition they need, and it’s up to the beekeeper to makes sure the bees can access the necessaryfood.Pollen substitutes and sugarwater are available to promote hive health in regions where the localenvironment doesn’t provide enough to meet the needs of the hive. Dufner also told me that in the fall,when the hive needs to prepare for winter weather, some beekeepers will collect minimal amounts ofhoney for their own needs or those of neighbours, leaving the rest of the honey on the hive to supportthe colony. “Honey,” he said, “is the best food for honeybees.”He also explained that colonies in the Northern and Midwestern regions can have trouble makingit through the winter because of more extreme weather. It’s important to have lots of young beesso the colony will survive the cold season, and to be aggressive about pest management to keep thehives healthy. A range of mites, parasites, and viruses can affect bees; varroa mites in particularare a problem because they can be destructive inside the hive in addition to carrying viruses. In thecommercial industry, according to Dufner, they’re “the one worst thing the industry has to look at,”illustrating how devastating they can be.Treatments are available for use in spring and fall to control pests in the hives. Dufner alsorecommends networking with local beekeepers and organizations to find out who in the area keeps beesand work on an integrated pest plan. If beekeepers stay in communication, they can identify signs ofsickness in their hives early and work to prevent the spread of disease to neighbors.All this can seem a little intimidating, but the rewards of beekeeping are worth it!The fun part of bees, as we know, is the honey, and Mark Jensen explained that hobby beekeepers have one advantage here over commercial operations like his: “Harvesting honey is hard work if you have thousands of hives. Hobby beekeepers will enjoy the benefits of having only maybe a few dozen honey supers to ‘pull’ when the time comes, instead of multiple thousands.”It’s still work, though, and you need to exercise caution while working with your bees. “Once thesupers are full, or the honey flow has stopped, beekeepers can take the honey off the bees, which issometimes called ‘pulling honey’ or ‘robbing.’ This involves wearing a bee suit, including coveralls,veil and gloves. The bees generally don't take kindly to having their food stolen by somebody in awhite suit and indicate as much by stinging and stinging to protect the hive from the intruder.”For those who are nervous about this stage of beekeeping, this is where local hobbyist groups can come in. Experienced beekeepers are often happy to mentor, and some groups offer classes and provide instructional materials and opportunities to practice under supervision. This can be a great confidence-building exercise before people take the plunge with their own bees.While you’re at it, you can also landscape for your bees. Jensen explained to me that “Most plants thatbees visit will produce some sort of nectar. Some plants produce more than others and those will be the ones bees tend to frequent as those plants give more bang for the buck, so to speak. Of course, not all honey is created equal in flavor, but that's all in the taste buds.” The nectar they consume has an impact on flavor; clover, alfalfa, eucalyptus, avocado, orange blossom, and sage all produce distinctive flavors in honey and you can experiment with landscaping to find the flavor you want while adding color and texture to your garden. Databases like this one for Ithaca, New York also track which plants yield useful flowers and when to help beekeepers find out what their charges are eating.Research also suggests that for people with seasonal allergies, consuming raw local honey like thatfrom your own hives may help build up an immune resistance to make allergies less severe, which isyet another benefit of making your own honey!As if the benefits to you weren’t enough, your bee-friendly landscaping will also attract otherpollinators and benefit the neighborhood as a whole. Meanwhile, as your bees wander, they’ll pollinateother plants and improve gardens in your community. If you have neighbors who are nervous aboutyour hive or hive, make sure they know that honeybees don’t sting without provocation; since they dieafter stinging, it’s a last-ditch resort that they’ll use only when feeling extremely threatened.Honeybee swarms, where bees seek a new nesting site, can happen, and they make look scary; acloud of bees buzzing through the air is enough to make anyone a little nervous! However, beesare not usually aggressive while swarming because they don’t have a hive to protect, and a swarmcan collected and managed by a professional apiculturist. Fortunately, there are some measuresyou can take to prevent swarms, which should keep your hives healthier and maintain peace in theneighborhood.Managing your hives requires keeping your eye on what’s happening in them. Look out for signs ofcrowding and confusion, which can be a precursor to a swarm. One option to prevent swarms is toclip one of the queen’s wings so she’s unable to fly, which will keep the hive close to home. You canalso remove the frame with the old queen, inspect the rest of the hive for any queen cells and destroythem, and set it up above the queen’s frame. As bees forage, they will drift into the lower hive with thequeen, and the swarming instinct will be suppressed. Check again in two weeks for new queen cellsand destroy those to ensure the hive doesn’t attempt a split.You can also arrange your hives and honey frames in a variety of ways that are designed to preventswarms by tricking the colony into thinking it has no reserves or keep nurse bees working. The bestoption for you can depend on your comfort level and experience, and working with an experiencedmentor can help you decide on the ideal hive management technique.Above all, the important thing for would-be beekeepers is to have fun while staying safe and getting toknow their charges.
s.e. smith writes about Bay-area remodeling and green living for Networx. View original post.