When we began beekeeping, we did it for no real reason. We took an apprentice beekeeper course and, for no good reason, were hooked on Day One. But your reason for beekeeping is important.
Why start beekeeping? There are many reasons for beekeeping that you can choose from: for honey, for beeswax, to save the bees, for pollination, a self-sufficiency skill, to collect honey, pollen and propolis to improve your health, because bees are fascinating. These are just the most obvious choices. Which one you choose isn’t as important as knowing your reason.
Keep reading to find out more and what your “why” is.
Why Become A Beekeeper?
Walt, a long-time beekeeper, stated at the local bee club one time that if we have bees, we need to know why we have bees, because it will make a real difference to the success of our beekeeping.
What in the world was Walt talking about? What difference will it make if you know the “Why” to your beekeeping? Several things immediately cometo mind:
- how you manage your bees.
- where you keep your bees
- how many hives you have
- how satisfied are you with your bees, your bee yard, and your beekeeping
- it will get you through the times of hard work and when things just aren’t going right in the bee yard
- whether you want to continue beekeeping next year
I began this article by saying that we became beekeepers for no other reason than we got excited about what we were learning in our beekeeping class. It got us through our first year quite nicely. We had Italian bees, which are calm, beautiful, and golden – all of the attributes I associate with the perfect bee. Our hives prospered.
We had a beautiful summer and would take our morning coffee out to the bee yard where we would sit in front of the hives to watch “our girls” as they began their morning foraging. We did that in the afternoons and evenings, too. We’re retired, so we can do that. The girls produced no honey for us, but their hives were filled with honeycombfor them for the winter.
Bee life was good.
Then came late winter. One hive died by December. One in January. Our robusthive was doing fine in January. It died in February. Our smallest colony – a second swarm from one of our hives, was the only one to survive. We felt terrible.
Springtime arrived and with it our two new nucs arrived. A nuc is short for nucleus, which is a mini hive with four or five frames of drawn comb with brood and eggs and with nurse bees, workers, and a queen. We were going with “survivor queens” this year. These queens have offspring that are mite resistant and survive the winter well.
These girls prospered. They even gave us a bit of honey. They are also dark, almost black, and tend to be a bit aggressive if we make sharp movements. Not so much fun either to work around or to watch. They aren’t the bees of my childhood!
Then Walt spoke up at our bee meeting.
It was time to evaluate our initial enthusiasm and to reevaluate just what we wanted from our bees.
The Benefits of Keeping Bees
Pretty much why you will start beekeeping comes down to what you see as the benefits of keeping bees.
Some people want honey. If this is your goal, your emphasis will be on honey production. You’ll know when the nectar flows are in your area and which plants provide them. You’ll manage your bees for maximum honey storage. You may do this with just a small backyard apiary, or you might be inspired to become a commercial beekeeper. Very different reasons and methods between those two honey goals.
If your goal is to have bees for pollination, perhaps because you’re a gardener or you see the need for pollinators, you may want several hives that all have healthy, active populations or you may want to encourage native pollinators in your yard.
If your goal is to collect pollen, propolis, or wax, you will have equipment that is specialized for each product.
Perhaps you want self-sufficiency skills. Beekeeping can provide both food and wax, right in your own backyard.
It didn’t take us long to work out our motivation for having bees. Yes, we do have a vegetable garden, small orchard, and a flower garden, but that’s not it.
For us, they are fascinating to learn about and fun to watch. Everything is always new, because the bees don’t read the books that people write about them. We love when our neighbor tells us that “your girls are all over my lavender plants”. And we still take our coffee up to the bee yard to sit and watch the girls.
Oh, and once again we have two hives of beautiful golden Italian bees to balance out our ‘spicy’ survivor bees.
What Do Beekeepers Do?
Is beekeeping for everybody? No.
Being a beekeeper is more than just owning a beehive full of bees. A beekeeper is a caretaker. He or she tends the bees.
Bees may need feeding during early spring and in the fall. If the hives go into winter with light honey stores, they need feeding in winter also. We have a path worn between our house and the Costco sugar aisle.
The hives need regular inspections to see if the colony is healthy and to check on the health and egg laying pattern of the queen. If not, the beekeeper will need to replace the queen. When we need to replace a queen, I have the roleof queen bee executioner in our family. Long live the queen.
In different seasons, your bees may need shade or wind barriers. Bees don’t manage moisture in the hive well, so you will want to control humidity inside the hives. They need to be protected from robbing bees, hornets and yellow jackets.
With more world travel, bee pests and bee diseases began moving from country to country where local bees had no natural resistance to them. Now beekeepers do regular checks for diseases and pests, especially varroa mites and usually treat the hives prophylactically two or three times a year to stay ahead of any infestations.
Beekeeping is rewarding but there is a lot of personal time and money involved.
When Should You Start A Beehive?
The easy answer to this is that you want to start your beehives in spring. It is the time when packages of bees, nucs, and queens are ordered. You can get bees at other times of the year, but a colony has the best chance of establishing itself when it has a whole growing season of nectar and pollen-bearingplants to forage from.
The real answer to this question is that you should get your bees after taking a class, finding a mentor, perhaps joining a bee club, getting your equipment ready, and thoroughly vetting the location of your future bee yard. We followed these steps, and it made a world of difference in working with our girls (what many beekeepers call their worker bees).
Why do you need all these additional things before you set up your first beehive? Because beekeeping is not a ‘set it and forget it’ activity. Beekeeping is complicated. If you think caring for a dog can keep you going, think of taking care of 60,000 bees times however many hives you have.
The first step is to take a bee class through your local bee club. It will give you plenty of information. And don’t stop going to meetings just because you’ve finished the course. You can learn from the experience of the bee club members. As a bonus, we have found that our club members are some of the most friendly and interesting people we have met.
Having a mentor is wonderful. The experience was invaluable. Imagine trying to install and work with 11,000 bees in each of your first 3 pound packages (workers plus queen), using the knowledgeyou got solely from a book or videos. It can be done, but having some experience first is better.
If you can find someone to mentor you, that will give you a head start on most first-time beekeepers. Our mentor let us help her in her apiary for several hours before we got our own bees. Then we had the opportunity to help another beekeeper in his yard before getting our bees. We were much more comfortable working with bees even if we felt totally incompetent when we first had to do it all by ourselves.
The last two items are self-explanatory. You want your equipment ready and waiting for your bees, not the other way around.
As for location, don’t be like us and make a little mistake and have to move your hives after you get the bees installed. Bees don’t like to be moved.
We located and set up our bee yard on a couple of cloudy days and then on the first sunny day found out that the hives would be in the shade for most of the morning. Oops. You also want to comply with local regulations, take advantage of sun or shade, depending on your climate, avoid cold sinks and strong winds, and you want to stay friends with any neighbors who live nearby.
What happens if you don’t harvest honey?
Nothing terriblehappens if you don’t harvest honey. The bees may use it or they may not. If you leave it in the frames over the winter, you will probably want to continue to leaveit in the framesor harvest it and use it when making syrup for your bees rather than using it yourself.
What is a bee person called?
A bee person is called a beekeeper or an apiarist.
What are the best honey bees for beginners?
This is my personal opinion from our experiences. When people talk about the different kinds of bees, they are referring to subspecies of Apis mellifera. The subspecies name usually refers to where a particular variety with certain characteristics originates. My favorite bee is the Italian which tends to be relatively gentle, golden colored, and very good at making honey. We also like Carniolans, which are darker than Italian bees but also very gentle, and good at processing honey.