Beekeeping is becoming very popular these days. Part of the reason is that many people want to get back to the land, grow their own food, and be self sufficient. Another reason is because the bees are dying, and people want to help. We’ve all heard about it. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder.
The disappearance of bees is frightening because we depend on them for pollination. It is interesting to note, however, that honey bees are not native to the United States. They were imported from Europe by the early settlers. Will we still have food if all the honey bees disappear? Yes, but not nearly as much. Honeybees have greatly enhanced our ability to raise large quantities of fruits, nuts, and field crops — so losing them hurts.
Small, well-tended apiaries seem to have a better chance of survival, so it is heartening that many folks are getting involved in this fascinating pursuit. In fact, many people keep bees in urban settings — even putting hives on roofs of buildings to keep the bees’ flight paths above traffic and away from nearby people.
For a long time—probably twenty-five years—I wanted my own beehives to produce honey for the table. However…certain childhood memories stood in the way, and it was the fear of getting stung that always tipped the scales to the side of staying bee-free. A few stings will teach you something. Bees cause pain.
Then came the day my oldest son said he was starting some colonies of honey bees. This was exciting news! Now it would be possible to participate and learn from a close distance without actually being close enough to get stung. And I could help with the honey extraction, and enjoy the fresh, sweet goodness of honey produced right at home.
There are so many interesting details about honey bees. One question that people often have is; how many bees are in a hive? A lot. An average beehive has around 60,000 bees in the middle of summer. This number dwindles to about 20,000 during the winter. In the late spring, when the hive is rapidly expanding in population, it will often split naturally as a way of propagating the species. When this happens, the existing queen — only one in each hive — will first lay several new queen eggs, then take about half the population, and leave for a new location. The football-sized swarm that you see clustered on a branch is the preliminary location for the queen and her group while the scouts are out looking for a new home. You might think they should have that figured out ahead of time, but no. In the meantime, this is something that excites a beekeeper. Catching a swarm is a fun way to start a new hive. Sometimes the swarm will hang there for only a couple hours. Other times it may be a couple days. The idea is, to not waste time when a swarm is discovered, and get there as soon as possible with an empty brood box to catch them. Or call a local beekeeper. They will be delighted to come get them.
Beekeepers and Bee-havers. There is a big difference. A beekeeper will work with his bees, providing care and intervention when necessary to combat varroa mites, tracheal mites, wax moths, hive beetles, nosema, and several other less common diseases. Occasionally a queen will need to be replaced as well, if it appears that there are not enough brood cells. A bee “haver” has bees, but doesn’t spend the time necessary to keep a healthy hive.
For family honey, one or two hives are usually enough. Better to have one hive and manage it well, than a dozen that you don’t have time for. The initial investment in the hive and protective gear will take a couple years worth of honey to pay for, but who can put a price on the education and value of doing this yourself. The satisfaction is immense, and the enjoyment of the honey multiplied with each bite.
Many books have been written. It really is a lifetime learning experience, and one that rewards us with knowledge, pollination, and pure, raw honey. If you are considering keeping your own bees, or want to learn more about it, there are also excellent resources on the internet. If you just want to enjoy honey, and have no interest in beekeeping, try to find a local source. You may pay a little more, but the honey will taste better. It will be completely natural with nothing added and nothing taken away. Best of all, you will be supporting the endeavors of someone who is helping to preserve a special kind species — the Honey Bee — a small hard-working creature that we really don’t want to be without.