QUESTION AND ANSWERS
Where can you keep bees?
Anywhere enough nectar-bearing flowers grow. If other people are keeping bees in your area, you probably can, too.
If no one is (unless you live in an untapped suburb or city), there’s probably not enough forage available.
Where do you put colonies?
Many urban beekeepers put their hives on their rooftops, out of the way of pedestrians. People with hives in crowded neighborhoods keep them out of sight, preferably behind a bush or barrier so the insects will have to fly up a few feet to head out foraging. (Other hints for backyarders: Keep a gentle breed of bees; make sure they have a water source on your property; work hard to reduce swarming; and after your first harvest, take your neighbors some gifts of honey and explain to them how innocuous your bees have been.)
In a rural area, choose a site that has some ventilation (no muggy frost pockets, but no windy hilltops, either). Ideally, it should be exposed to the sun in the morning (to get the bees going) but shaded in the afternoon (so they can spend less energy cooling). Also, put your first hives where you can observe them often and easily – you’ll learn and enjoy a lot more that way.
How much time does beekeeping take?
Once you know what you’re doing, you can maintain a few healthy, established hives in just a few hours a year. (Or you may find yourself smitten with a severe case of bee fever and want to spend every spare minute in your beeyard.)
The busiest times are spring, when you try to make sure your hive is strong but not about to swarm, and harvest, which takes place at the end of your area’s main honeyflows.
Other than those busy times, an occasional inspection or trip to add more supers should be just about all that your bees will need.
How do you harvest honey?
To get it away from the bees, you can just brush them off each frame you’re after. A soft, no-animal-hair brush – like an artist’s drafting brush – is best.
At the hobby level, the best way to go is to set a bee escape (a dandy one-way exit that you can put in the oval hole of the inner cover) under the supers you want to harvest, go away for a day or two, and then come back to an almost completely bee-free harvest. (Two cautions: Tape any cracks above the escape or other bees may well harvest the honey before you do. And bee escapes don’t work well in very hot weather.)
Commercial beekeepers use blower guns or chemical repellents to evict bees from supers. Don’t bother.
How do you get the honey out of the hive frames?
Get the honey out in one of two ways: Either cut the honey out in comb chunks with a pocketknife or scrape just the caps off all the sealed cells and spin the liquid honey out in a special centrifuge called a honey extractor. Extractors do increase yields because they leave the honey cells intact. But they also cost $375 and up – more than the rest of your start-up expenses put together. So you probably won’t be able to start out with one.
Instead, just cut comb sections out with a sharp knife, and carve off thin slivers of those to spread on toast, biscuits, and pancakes. This is the most delicious way to enjoy honey. If you want some liquid-with-no-beeswax honey, too, cut out the comb, then “pop” all the cells by slicing with a mandolin (or kraut cutter), and set the squashings up in a sieve to drain out your harvest. Heat and cool the remaining glob in a double boiler, and it will separate into solid wax (which you can use or sell) and some additional honey.
Note: Since extracting puts stress on bee equipment, if you do want to extract, you’ll have to use special thick-wired foundation in your frames. On the other hand, since you want to be able to eat comb honey, you start that off on thin, non-wired foundation.
How much honey will you get?
If you’re in a good beekeeping area, if the weather’s great that year, and if your bees do well, you can get 100 to 200 pounds (30 to 60 gallons) or even more from one hive. Not me, however. Where I live – an area where woodland trees are the main nectar sources – my hives probably average 50 pounds each, which, by the way, is the national average. (That includes the really lousy year when I may not get any.) In most places, two hives – a good number to start with – should give you all the honey you can use – and some extra to give away (or sell).
How do you prevent swarming?
Swarming – the departure of many or most of a colony’s bees with the old queen, leaving behind the other bees and some new queen cells – can cripple a hive’s honey production, but it’s the way colonies reproduce. You can’t prevent it. There are scores of intricate methods for reducing swarming. In essence, though, colonies that are overcrowded or have older queens are more likely to swarm. So give your colonies plenty of space in the spring. And consider requeening your hives every other year – it cuts swarming in half. Requeening entails killing the old monarch and, a day later, installing a caged, new – probably mail-ordered – one. It’s a bit tricky, but not too tricky.
What if you have a really mean hive of bees?
It happens. Some colonies are more aggressive than others. Often, the meanest bees gather the biggest harvests, so you may choose to frown and bear it. If they bother you (or your neighbors) too much, you can solve the problem in one fell swoop, by requeening. A more docile queen will lay more docile eggs, and in six weeks you’ll have an entire hive of more docile bees. The one hitch to this scheme is you’ll have to work your way down through the brood chamber of your nasty colony so you can find the old queen and kill her. (Bundle up.)
What are some problems that are common in beekeeping?
Pesticides. A lot of people lose bees because farmers or gardeners spray the flowers of crops that bees work. Educate your neighbors to spray only in the late afternoon (or not use pesticides on any blooms): What’s good for your flying pollinators is good for the crops. (Sevin is a common bee killer; Bt is safe.)
Diseases. Today there are quite a few honeybee ailments, including American Foulbrood, a bacterial disease. (Your bees have this larval fungus if the hive smells foul and a matchstick poked into a brood cell comes out gooey, as if there were gum on it, instead of clean.) You have to destroy infested colonies – it’s the law – to keep the disease from infecting other hives. To avoid the problem, buy only inspected, clean bees and equipment. There are some antibiotic preventives available, but don’t use them unless you’ve had a prior Foulbrood problem. Other problems include Varroa mites, tracheal mites, chalkbrood and colony collapse disorder (CCD). (See “The Case of the Disappearing Honeybees” on Page 81 for a description of these problems.)
Winterkills. A good number of colonies starve each winter, primarily because their owners didn’t leave enough honey in the hive to last until the following spring flows (not until the end of winter; lots of colonies starve in March). So don’t get too greedy. Always leave plenty of honey – 30 to 90 pounds, depending on winter length – for the bees. You’ll save yourself a lot of sorrow or, at the least, time and hassle syrup-feeding your bees.
Allergy. Most people develop an immunity to bee venom after repeated periodic “exposure.” (The sting itself still smarts.) A few go the other way and develop serious nonlocal reactions. If you become highly allergic to bee venom, you may be risking your life the next time you’re stung. See an allergist for immunotherapy (it costs, but it works) or give up beekeeping.