Since you’re currently reading an article by beekeepers, you must have some interest in the pastime of beekeeping. But do you already think of yourself as "a beekeeper" or are you more of a "pre-beekeeper"? This article should help anyone who has been thinking about beekeeping, but is still on the fence. It's a hard decision and a big responsibility. Some people jump right in, and others take a while to commit. You may succeed either way, but a new venture is more likely to succeed the more knowledge you gather beforehand. Knowledge may not always be power, but a lack of knowledge can certainly lead to powerlessness, frustration, and confusion.
Different things attract people to this odd activity. You know what is attracting YOU to beekeeping. But what might keep someone away from beekeeping? We'll break down the common worries and concerns that potential beekeepers often have.
Yes, some bees will sting you. It hurts every time, but it is something you get used to, and you’ll be stung less as your skills increase. Consider a mechanic who gets occasional grazed knuckles, or a chef who sometimes gets cut fingers. It’s part of the activity, but not a constant threat.
Honey bees sting in self-defense. Usually, they keep to themselves, even as a hive inspection is going on. An experienced beekeeper might seem like a magician when no bees fly up and sting them. But it’s not magic, and it is learnable. We use smoke to herd the bees down and away from parts of the hive we are placing our fingers or hands on. Smoke is great for that.
We watch each point of contact to avoid crushing bees since a smell released by injured bees gets other bees riled up. Also, only the older bees can sting. A little over half the bees in a hive are too young to sting! These youngsters take care of the very youngest bees and the queen. Most of the older bees, that can sting to defend the hive, spend sunny days hunting for nectar and pollen. That means most of them are out getting food between late morning and late afternoon. They aren't home while you, the wise beekeeper, inspect your hives. With more experience any beekeeper will develop all the skills needed to avoid most stings. (And good protective clothing doesn’t hurt either!)
Beekeeping mainly takes place in the summer when flowers are blooming (the active season for honey bees directly relates to blooming flowers since flowers are their food source). Lift heavy boxes in the heat? Who wants that? And you have to wear a big heavy suit too, for protection, right? Well, let's take these one at a time.
Yes, the parts of the hive can be heavy at different times of the year. Each box may weigh 40 to 60 lbs. However, it's not necessary to pick up full boxes very often. Each box contains 8 to 10 frames of comb. If a box is too heavy you can remove some of these combs and temporarily put them in a spare box. If you do, the box on the hive will be easier to lift off. There are other techniques that we can teach you, like more efficient ways to carry boxes, better ways to lift frames, and more. You don't have to be a bodybuilder to do beekeeping. You can even reduce the weight by using shorter boxes ("all medium brood boxes") or narrower boxes ("8 frame equipment").
What about the heat? Besides choosing not to work in full sun at noon, there are other choices that will help with overheating. Sometimes I've visited beekeepers to mentor them and watched in dismay as they put on full beekeeping suits over jeans and long sleeve shirts! Well, of course they were hot! You don't need to layer up like that. Baggy clothes do more to keep a sting from reaching you than thick clothes do. A bee's stinger is not very long. Wear whatever amount of protective clothing makes you feel comfortable mentally and physically when you begin this pastime. However, don't get stuck in a rut and keep doing things the same way year after year just because that's how you did it in your first months working with bees. As time passes and your skills and confidence increase, you may find yourself either wearing shorts and no shirt under a full suit, or switching to a bee jacket and some lightweight baggy cotton pants for their coolness.
A nice thing about beekeeping is that bees don't need daily attention, like a dog or a flock of chickens. After the first few months, during which frequent syrup feeding is likely necessary, hive inspections can be just every three weeks. As a beginner, more frequent checks will grow your muscle memory, recognition of what you observe, and get you used to the colony's growth more gradually - all desired outcomes. But it certainly is fine to leave the bees alone while you take a vacation. Another interesting benefit of this pastime is that you may absorb a lot about nature, specifically the weather and the local wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. These are the main sources of nutrition for our bees. It's fun to wander around seeing what the bees are foraging on as the seasons change.
Sometimes a whole colony does die. It's a sad experience and has caused many people to quit. More knowledge about bees and their needs will decrease your chances of finding your bees dead. It is vital to understand and take action against the parasite Varroa destructor, a mite that is the main cause of most honey bee problems these days. Wild colonies of honey bees - which of course receive no care from a beekeeper - may only live for a year or two. Controlling mites is the single most important thing you can do to keep your bees alive. Aside from these mites, which were accidentally introduced to the United States around 1987, honey bees are very good at handling many other challenges. As long as you learn from the loss of a colony, their death won't be in vain, because you'll be an even better keeper to your next colonies.
It's certainly not the cheapest possible hobby to dive into. There are some real startup costs, like the hive boxes and your smoker and veil. Those items will be used for many years. Here's a very rough breakdown of what you might pay: the first year for one hive and your gear may average around $500. Then there are some parts of the hive that are replaced every 5 years or so, like the brood frames. When there is honey to be harvested, packaging (like bottles and labels) is a cost. Mite treatments are needed a few times a year to keep your bees healthy.
There are ways to save money, though. A syrup feeder can be something homemade like a 1-gallon jar. Your own lightweight and loose clothing with a simple veil can take the place of a full suit. Hive stands, outer covers, and insulating wraps can be homemade. With knowledge, skill, and care after the second full year, sales of hive products may offset your beekeeping costs. It usually takes two seasons for the bees to create enough comb for you to actually harvest any honey. From then on the bees fill the combs faster since the work of creating the combs is already done, and that means more honey is produced. There are also other products that can be collected and sold in small amounts, such as pollen, wax, and propolis. Finding customers may take a while but things become easier as the years go on and people get to know you and the great products your bees make.
How do you gain this beekeeping knowledge? Other beekeepers, beekeeping clubs, books, and classes. There are beekeeping clubs all around us! Clubs are great because having somebody in your own area demonstrate how to work with bees will increase your skills exponentially. Getting your hands in a hive with the guidance of a more experienced beekeeper is the best way to learn. Using the networking and mentors available via your clubs, your skills will really take off!
The other great way to gain knowledge is to take beekeeping classes, of course! We provide many classes over the internet and, during spring and summer, we'll be teaching some classes right in the bee yard. They'll be an excellent addition to your knowledge from online learning. There's also some great beekeeping information on the internet, but make sure it's coming from a trusted source. (By the way, did you know that Betterbee has an educational YouTube channel, in addition to our great monthly newsletter articles?)