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Is Beekeeping Right For You?

In a world gone haywire, those of us who will survive will end up going back to some of the old, time-tested ways of doing things. We will need to hunt, fish and forage for our food. We will also need to grow crops and raise livestock. At the root of all these endeavors are the animals we call “pollinators,” because without them, there would be no food — period.

This jar of “liquid gold” is the end result of a great amount of learning and work. (Photo by Dennis Daggett)

In the event that something tragic happens, people will still need to eat, which means crops will still need to get pollinated. People will still crave sweets of some sort. Cane sugar might be available, but at what price? More and more people will turn to maple sugar or, as it applies to this article, honey, to meet their needs. Good, successful beekeepers will be in high demand, so this might be one of those skills you’ll want to master. But keep in mind that it takes a great deal of work and time to get it right.

Barbara Lawler checks the weight of the hive. She knows what the hive usually weighs by regularly monitoring. On this day, the hive was down about 6 pounds. This told her that about 20,000 bees were away from the hive (10,000 bees weigh 3 pounds).

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are around 4,000 species of bees native to the United States. Without bees (not to be confused with wasps and hornets), much of the food we rely on would not exist, at least not in the form we know it today. Without bees and other pollinators, plants wouldn’t reproduce and bear fruit.

For this article, I’ll concentrate on the honeybee, which is not native to the Americas, contrary to what many believe. Much of the information contained in this article comes from research done by the USDA, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and New Hampshire beekeepers Dennis Daggett (retired) and Barbara Lawler.

Why All the Hype Over Honeybees?

This is a very simple question to answer: Honey and the production of honey are big business, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Honeybees produce honey and wax, which is used as food and is found in everything from cosmetics to floor polish. Some countries, including the United States, have huge industries, besides crop production, that rely heavily upon the products produced by honeybees.

“THE BEES ARE JUST PART OF THE EQUATION. YOU’LL NEED HIVES, PROTECTIVE SUITS, A SMOKER AND OTHER GEAR.”

This honeybee moves from flower to flower, making sure it gets a full pollen load before returning to its hive.

The bottom line is that honeybees contribute, directly or indirectly, to billions of dollars in the U.S. economy. Unlike native bees, which do not make huge hives or produce excess wax and honey beyond their own use, honeybees produce these products in large enough amounts that allow harvesting.

No Simple Task

The first thing I learned about beekeeping is that it is not as simple as one might think. There is much more to it than building a box, buying some bees, letting them “do their thing” and then collecting the honey.

According to Daggett, “Beekeeping, if done correctly, is a very time-consuming endeavor.” If you are not prepared to “earn” the benefits (honey) from this occupation, there is no need for you to read any further. Daggett goes on to say, “Honeybees are both delicate and tough at the same time. Extreme cold will kill them, but they do have the ability to survive if the beekeeper has done their job. All year round, the bee’s main purpose is to protect the queen and the hive. If the beekeeper has given them the tools, they will make it.”

Understanding Honeybees

Honeybees originated in Asia and then migrated to Europe and Africa. Over the millennia, bees learned to cope with various extremes that ranged from severe cold to severe heat. In some cases, as with the Africanized honeybees, they became very aggressive as a way to protect their hives from predators.

When you purchase bees, they come in a container such as this. The can in the top holds food for the bees during transport.

Honeybees were first brought to the United States by Europeans. The wild honeybees we find here today are descended from those bees brought to the Americas in the 1600s, with the very first honeybees arriving in Virginia in 1622.

So, if there were no honeybees before this time, how did plants in North America get pollinated, and how did the native people get honey?

In some cases, a smoker is needed to calm the bees.

To answer the second part of the question first: The native people of North America didn’t have honey prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Numerous documents claim that the native people often referred to the honeybee as the “white man’s fly” because of its swarming nature. To answer the first part of the question: It was the native bees, ranging from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts and from Alaska to Florida, that did much of the pollinating, with each species having its own specific job to do.

As each section is moved, the bees become more active. It is very important to protect yourself from being stung during this process.

According to beekeeper Barbara Lawler, honeybees are very selective about the plants they will visit. They tend to search for flowers based on their color, shape and size. For example, if you plant bee balm in your yard, and you have both red and purple varieties, the honeybees will go to the purple flowers. Lawler explained that this is because honeybees can’t see the color red. She also told me that the bees usually have a territory that covers a two-mile radius. For this reason, if you plan on keeping bees, encourage your neighbors to plant plants that will attract honeybees — preferably perennials rather than annuals.

Honeybees differ from native bees in the way they nest. Many native bees are ground nesters, whereas honeybees like to nest in hollow trees and boxes made for that purpose. They will even nest in attics, sheds or holes in the sides of cliffs. While in Arizona, I actually ran into one such hive (the hard way) while exploring Sedona.

Getting Started

When you first start out, you will find that beekeeping is not an inexpensive endeavor. But if it’s done correctly, you will be rewarded for your efforts and expenses. Lawler told me that it costs somewhere between $100 and $200 for 3 pounds of bees (about 10,000 in number). The price varies greatly, depending on where you purchase your bees and the species you get (yes, there are numerous species of honeybees). The bees are just part of the equation. You’ll need hives, protective suits, a smoker and other gear. It all adds up.

Barbara Lawler inspects a drone bee frame to check on the bees’ condition.

When it comes to hives, you can easily buy commercially available hives, or you can build your own. Plans for building beehives are readily available from many sources, so do your research and pick the one that works the best for you. One very important thing to remember is not to use plywood to construct your hive. The chemicals found in the glue that holds plywood together are harmful to the bees.

Frames are removed and inspected on a regular basis to determine the health of the hive.

According to Lawler and Daggett, there are some things every potential beekeeper needs to do before they start spending money. What follows is that list.

Education. Educate yourself on what it takes to do this job, because it is a job and a responsibility. Read books, articles and everything you can get your hands on. Beekeeping is not for everyone, and it is better to find out beforehand whether this is for you or not.

Work With Experienced Beekeepers. Spend time with people who have already made all the mistakes so you can learn from them. Join a local beekeeping club and ask a lot of questions.

Go to School. Most states have schools and classes that are conducted by state officials, biologists and local bee organizations.

Expect to Make Mistakes. Mistakes happen, especially to new beekeepers. You need to be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. Lawler told me that about 70 percent of first-year hives fail for a variety of reasons. Figure out what you did wrong and move forward.

If after all this you still want to move forward with this endeavor, here are your next steps.

Start With Two Hives. It is very easy to get carried away, but two hives are more than enough to keep you busy. Inspect your hives on a regular basis — no fewer than every three weeks. Is one hive doing better than the other? If so, figure out why and take corrective action. This is where working with other beekeepers comes into play, because they can help you figure out what is going on.

Learn the Basics First. You have to walk before you can run. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Work with a mentor, and master the basics. Within three years, you should be able to sustain your hives. Once you can do that on a regular basis, you can move forward if you want to.

Get Quality Bees. When you purchase your bees, make sure you are getting them from a reliable dealer. You are also going to want to get the same species of bees. Remember that you are monitoring two hives, and some species of bees require more work and have different needs than others. It will be hard to judge if something is wrong if you are working with two different species.

Be Careful When Working With Bees. Stay focused when working with bees. While most honeybees are not overly aggressive, they will sting when they feel threatened. Make sure to wear a bee suit when working with the hives; do not wear perfume or aftershave; and don’t make sudden movements.
Bees react to scent, vibration, noise and movement.

Dennis Daggett’s hives are not as tall as Barbara Lawler’s, but they still serve the purpose.

Realize that every year will be different, so it is very important to keep detailed records. Monitor the weather, predator activity, the health of the hive, etc. Remember that you can’t adjust what you are doing if you have no clue about what is going on.

After spending a few hours each with Lawler and Daggett, I came to the conclusion that making the decision to be a beekeeper is a major one. It is a great deal of work. It is more than building a few boxes, getting a few bees and then collecting the honey. It requires dedication and hard work.

This frame is full of honey.

Dennis Daggett inspects a frame from a hive. Notice how the bees have extended the area of the comb beyond the edge of the frame.

If something should happen, and the world becomes a place in which we will have to rely on our own means to get by, there will be a place for beekeepers and the work they do. Learning this skill will be yet another tool in that toolbox that will see you through.

How Dangerous are Honey Bees?

Generally speaking, honeybees are not dangerous. They are typically low-key and nonaggressive. With that being said, they do sting and react to threats or perceived threats. If you are allergic to bee stings, you need to take precautions. The exception to this is Africanized bees, or “killer bees.”

First introduced to Brazil in 1956, the African honeybee was crossed with the European honeybee in an effort to increase honey production. Some of the African bees escaped and produced a highly aggressive honeybee. Although the hybrid bees do produce more honey, they are also responsible for more than 1,000 human deaths. The first signs of this bee occurring in the United States happened in California in 1985. Now, they are found throughout the Southwest and as far east as Florida.

The venom of these bees is no more toxic than that of the European honeybees. What makes these bees more dangerous is that they guard the hive very aggressively, with a larger alarm zone and deploying greater numbers in its defense. This translates into more stings; more stings equal more venom in the victim. Even for people who are not normally allergic, this could be deadly.

Believe it or not, there is a positive to the Africanized bee issue: These bees seem to be resistant to parasites, some fungal diseases and even to colony collapse disorder. It has also been found that as the Africanized bees continue to breed with European honeybees, they are becoming less aggressive, thus producing bees that display the best traits of both species.

Threats to HoneyBees

We all know that many animals love honey; and, in the case of bears, the bees, themselves. However, there are other less noticeable, yet equally deadly, threats to honeybee populations.

According to Olivia Saunders, field specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, “There are many diseases, insects and environmental pressures and threats.”

Environmental. There are both natural and man-made environmental threats to honeybees. Extreme cold, extreme temperature swings, drought and even overly wet conditions affect honeybees. If they cannot collect pollen, they can’t make honey. If they can’t make honey, the colony (hive) could die.

In addition, there are the chemicals people put into the environment — namely herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. According to Barbara Lawler, these are deadly combinations to bees. While some of these chemicals won’t kill the bees instantly, they do so over time as the bees bring back pollen from plants that have been treated with these chemicals. The pollen is then made into honey and spread to the rest of the hive through the food they eat. It also passes to those humans who eat the harvested honey.

Insects. Predatory wasps do take a few bees, but the major insect threat is mites. Once mites get into a hive, they are hard to get rid of. Mites literally suck the life out of the bees. The best defense is to monitor your hives and take action as needed.

Colony Collapse Disorder. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is when the entire hive dies. Scientists have been studying this problem and have come to the conclusion that it is caused by many factors, including pesticides, disease-bearing parasites and poor nutrition. Poor genetics might also play a part.

The nutrition part can be handled by planting food sources the bees like. Although honeybees do, and will, pollinate some native plants, they do much better with plants that were introduced here over the years. Plants such as white clover, non-native grasses, dandelions, apples and other introduced fruit trees are all great for honeybees. Studies have shown that honeybees don’t pollinate tomato and eggplant flowers, and they do poorly with squash, pumpkins, native cherries, blueberries and cranberries, which are plants native to the Americas.

S O U R C E S

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees
Moisset, Beatriz, Ph.D., and Stephen Buchmann, Ph.D., USDA Forest Service Bookstore.gpo.gov/products/bee-basics-introduction-our native-bees-pamphlet

Dennis Daggett
New Hampshire beekeeper Capital Area Beekeepers Association
CapitalAreaBeekeepers.org/contact-us.html

Barbara Lawler
New Hampshire beekeeper Capital Area Beekeepers Association
CapitalAreaBeekeepers.org/contact-us.html

Olivia Saunders
Field Specialist, Food and Agriculture University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension
Extension.UNH.edu

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.