My CM username is the Latin name of the common honeybee (“Apis mellifera”). So it should come as no surprise that I’m a beekeeper. I started keeping bees about seven years ago, long before I had any awareness of “Peak Everything” or the three E’s. And I enjoy keeping bees more than just about anything else. It requires a small amount of regular attention to make sure my hives are healthy, and conversely, to make sure a hive is not doing too well and preparing to swarm, which really ruins honey production. But beekeeping is not really a lot of work compared to most livestock. So, maybe consider a few beehives in your plans for self-sufficiency.
Why Keep Bees?
The stock answer for why to keep bees is “because bees make honey, and fresh, raw honey tastes much better than what passes for honey in the supermarket.” How much honey you get depends tremendously on the weather and the state of your bees when big honey plants are in blossom. In ballpark figures, it’s entirely reasonable to expect 40-60 lbs of surplus honey from an established hive in its second year. You may get more. Some exceptional locations can regularly produce over 200 lbs. from a single hive in one year. I’ve occasionally gotten twenty or thirty pounds of honey from hives in their first year, though this is unusual.
Also, bees pollinate fruit trees and nearby crops. Having bees in a neighborhood can increase fruit and vegetable yields substantially, without any additional work for the beekeeper. After you’ve kept bees for a while, you start getting beeswax for candles, wood polish, and lip balms. If you incline towards alternative medicine, you can harvest pollen and propolis (a gummy substance made from plant resins, used by bees to keep the inside surfaces of their hive free of microbes. Some people claim propolis is a powerful immunity-booster.)
Bees emerging from an older inner cover. Notice how the bees have coated the wood with a thin layer of propolis, a gummy substance made from plant resins and wax. The sugar syrup I sprayed to keep them occupied is beading up as if it were on glass. Propolis keeps the inside of the hive remarkably free of a variety of microbes.
But if I’m perfectly honest, none of this is really why I keep bees. I even dislike harvesting honey– it’s a very messy process. I keep bees because they fascinate me, and the smells of the beehive are some of my favorite smells anywhere. I love to sit by a hive entrance early in the morning with a cup of coffee, watching something millions of years old. A beehive is a “superorganism,” a social unit composed of thousands of individual organisms all acting for the benefit of the colony. Any individual bee is practically insignificant; what matters is the success and reproduction of the colony as a whole. Different hives have typical baseline “personalities” and the survival of the hive as a whole is the goal of all activity in the hive. Observing a superorganism never fails to evoke a sense of awe in me.
If you or someone in your family has a serious bee allergy, you shouldn’t keep bees, of course.
There’s a saying among beekeepers: “Ask three beekeepers, get five opinions.” This is fairly accurate, not just a joke. What follows here are my own opinions, based on my experience making new mistakes every year. I’ve concluded that the best way to keep bees is to intervene minimally, all the while trying to imitate what would happen in the wild hive as much as possible. A trivial example: I prefer to leave plenty of honey on my hives before winter, rather than taking every last drop of surplus. I also don’t medicate them for anything now. I’ve become more comfortable letting less-adapted, weaker bees (and/or any especially virulent parasites) simply die off, propagating survivor lines, rewarding the more stable host/parasite relationships, and strengthening the gene pool of survivor bees.
Some Basic Bee Biology (the Ultra-Condensed Version)
A strong beehive can have over fifty thousand bees. Normally only one of these bees is a sexually mature female. This is the queen, who can lay almost two thousand eggs a day at her peak. The huge majority of bees in the hive are workers, non-reproducing females who do all the work in the hive. The third kind of bee in a hive is the male, or “drone” bee. Metaphorically, drones eat and drink beer all day while lying on the couch (Except, that is, when they’re out flying around trying to mate with a virgin queen). Unlike queens and worker bees, drones don’t even show particular loyalty to a specific hive — they drift around considerably from one hive to another over the course of their lives. When a hive has plenty of food and is growing, like in late spring/early summer in my locale, it tends to produce more drones. I’ve heard several beekeepers claim that hives with plenty of drones act calmer and less defensive, too.
The drone is considerably larger than the workers, with eyes about twice the size of a worker’s. Note also the blunt rear of a drone– he has no stinger and is completely defenseless.
Workers and queens are both females, but only a queen can mate and subsequently lay diploid eggs capable of hatching into another worker or a queen. And believe it or not, this difference between worker and queen is solely a matter of nutrition. From the time she is an egg, a queen is fed a substance called “royal jelly.” by attendant bees. Worker larvae get royal jelly only during the first few days of their existence, switching to honey and pollen soon thereafter. This early difference in diet results in a completely different adult body.
Note how fuzzy the workers’ bodies are. This is part of why they’re such good pollinators.
If a queen goes missing or starts to fail reproductively, some workers can spontaneously begin to lay eggs. Eggs laid by workers are not fertilized (workers are incapable of mating) and thus the eggs are haploid (containing just half the genetic material of the “laying worker” mother). Strange as it seems to us mammals, these haploid eggs develop and hatch into normal drones. A queen can lay a drone when she chooses to, by deliberately depositing an unfertilized egg into a cell. The average human beekeeper has no great love for drones, since they’re just another mouth to feed and don’t produce anything marketable. In the fall workers see no use for drones either, and they are all summarily evicted and allowed to freeze or starve to death.
January: Time to Start
If you’ve wanted to try beekeeping, January is a good time to take the first step and order some bees. Most people start beekeeping with “package bees” After placing your order, sometime in the spring, you’ll receive about three pounds of worker bees in a wire cage with with a suspended can of sugar syrup with tiny holes in it.. If your local club has a bulk order, you can get a package from them; otherwise, your local postmaster will leave a pickup notice in your mail and your local postal workers will eye you nervously as you pick up the package. A queen is included in every package, packed securely in a small mesh cage along with some attendants. A lot of local clubs coordinate bulk package orders, too, so ask a local person who knows what your options are.
The queen is unfortunately not very visible here, but some attendant bees are. At the end is a plug of soft candy designed to be eaten away to release the queen after all the bees in the package have become accustomed to her pheremone.
Hiving a package takes some nerve the first time you do it, but it’s really quite easy. Spray a few squirts of syrup on the outside of the cage to distract the bees inside, then quickly remove the queen cage and the can of syrup,. Cover up the hole in the top, then dump the contents into a waiting hive body. I no longer even bother to wear gloves or a veil, because the bees have always been so docile during this procedure. Most package suppliers fill their order sheets by the end of January, so now is a good time to place an order. February is probably already too late.
Search http://www.beesource.com for reviews of package suppliers, or ask a local bee club.
Notice how I don’t even have on gloves or a veil as I’m shaking out the package. They’re quite docile at this stage and easily go into their new home.
Another perspective on a package of bees. This gives a better view of the wire sides and the quantity of bees involved.
Basic Equipment to Get Started in Beekeeping
In the USA, most people keep bees in “Langstroth” equipment (named after Lorenzo Langstroth, the 19th century minister and beekeeper who invented the modern removable-frame beehive and discovered “bee-space”). A modern beehive consists of several rectangular wooden boxes (called either “hive bodies” if they’re at the bottom of a stack, or “supers” if they’re on the top) that each hold ten removable frames of wax comb. Most of the time, each frame is pre-loaded with a sheet of foundation. This is a wax or a wax-coated plastic sheet embossed with thousands of hexagonal “starter lines” to make it easier for worker bees to make nice even comb.
Fully drawn comb can be over an inch thick. It can be re-used many times within the hive, for brood, honey, and pollen. A pound of wax requires roughly seven pounds of honey to make. So re-using comb means a tremendous labor savings for the hive. When I extract honey, I remove just the wax caps from the cells, spin the frame in my extractor to get the honey out, and then I return the mostly empty comb to the hive to be refilled. If nectar is still flowing, it’s possible that frame will be full of honey and sealed again in just a few days.
It’s often very useful to move frames from one hive into another. You might do this to boost a lagging hive, or conversely, to prevent a super-strong hive from swarming. There’s nothing magical about standard Langstroth dimensions, but the fact that it is a widely used standard means you’ll have a lot more options if you need to move bees/brood/honey or pollen from one hive into another.
In addition to frames and hive boxes, you should also have a pair of bee gloves, a bee veil and a wide-brimmed helmet upon which to hang it. If you’re really committed and you have the money, buy a bee suit or bee jacket. I especially like either of two ventilated bee suits. The first is from Golden Bee Products, in Louisiana. The second is called the “Ultra Breeze” and it’s sold out of Oklahoma. When the sun is beating down, the bees are defensive, and you don’t want to have to choose between getting stung or roasting yourself alive, either of these suits is a godsend. Google either of them for contact info; I have no connection to either company, but I have used products from both companies and found them to be good. Beesource.com again offers some historical experience with them.
Recapping, then my recommendations for basic starter equipment:
- You can do fine with just a bee veil and helmet to start, especially if cost is an issue.
- Get a pair of long and supple goatskin bee gloves. Even though you won’t wear gloves all the time, these are nice to have if you need them.
- You’ll need bee smoker from time to time. A little smoke can calm down a hive that’s starting to get riled.
- Get a hive tool or two for separating frames and getting them started out of the hive. Buy two because they’re easy to drop in the grass and misplace.
- Get a frame puller. Nothing beats it for holding a frame to examine it closely
- Get enough hive bodies and supers to house all your frames and bees. You can either use deep hive bodies for the brood nest and medium bodies for the honey supers, Or you can use mediums for everything. Mediums are easier to lift when full, and it’s easier to find comb with this arrangement. The one downside of using all medium-sized boxes is that finding the queen can be a bit more work. If you’re lucky, you can find a local supplier for frames and hive bodies, because shipping charges will kill you if you have to get them mailed. It saves lots of money to buy them disassembled and glue, nail, and paint them yourself.
- Start with two or three 3 or 4-lb packages of bees. Just one package is not enough, because bees vary so much. I made this mistake, so don’t make it, too.
- Consider a ventilated bee jacket or bee suit if you have the money.
- A local mentor or bee club will give you encouragement and help you when things don’t go according to the book.
- From the outset, go with “small-cell” beekeeping. More on that below.
- Buying some packages of bees is just your start. Longer-term, you should be learning how to raise your own queens and locally adapted stock. Depending on a handful of warm states to provide the entire country’s package bees is not a sustainable approach. I’d like to see more northern beekeepers selling bees that do well in the North, and there are some promising moves in this direction (like a Northern Queen Breeders Association, for instance). Learn how to do your own hive splits, the “Miller Method” of queen-rearing, etc., to make yourself as self-sufficient as possible.
I kept bees for over five years before I learned an amazing open secret. The bees of today have been deliberately engineered by humans to be considerably larger than they would be in nature. How, you ask? In the first decades of the 20th century, the cell size of commercial bee foundation was deliberately increased over what bees would make by themselves. The goal was to get larger bees. (Bigger = better, apparently). Average cell size for commercial foundation is about 5.4 mm today, yet “natural” brood cells measure closer to 4.8 or 4.9 mm. This means that the area of a cell is roughly twenty percent larger, and its volume, even larger than that in percentage terms.
This also means that the amount of time from egg to hatching has been increased by roughly a couple of days. A minority of beekeepers believes that this change in the size of the brood cell has had huge unintended consequences– primarily, making it easier for the bee parasite, Varroa destructor (sometimes called the “vampire mite”) to gain traction a beehive more easily. This larger cell size for brood requires that a worker larva stay uncapped for roughly two days longer than it would at the “natural” size, giving the mites more time to infest a worker’s cell. It also means that any parasite that gets into the cell before it’s capped has more room and more time in which to grow. This article is not the place to go into the details, but you can look at some of the references at the end of this piece or PM me for more details.
Millions of years of evolution seems worth paying attention to, so I made the decision to move all my hives back to small-cell foundation (or “natural cell” where the bees make comb of whatever size they want with just a little strip of wood at the top of the frame as a guide). Natural cell has the additional benefit of providing wax mostly free from any contaminants– miticides, pesticides, etc, that may be lingering in recycled wax from less scrupulous beekeepers. It would have been a lot easier for me to start out that way, because by moving back I suddenly had a lot of drawn comb that I could no longer use. I’d respectfully suggest that anyone starting out in beekeeping begin with small-cell and avoid this problem.
Small-cell/natural-cell beekeepers are still a minority. So by having multiple hives yourself, you’ll be able to provide spares and even out things across your hives. It doesn’t work well to mix small-cell and standard-size foundation within the same hive– I’ve tried, and the bees always make a real hash of things. The inability to get brood or other comb from other beekeepers is the primary downside to adopting a small-cell approach.
You can order PF100 or PF120 plastic frames from Mann Lake and get a cell size of 4.95 mm, basically small cell dimensions. This is the least expensive way I’ve found to get foundation of the right size. There are other options, but they are considerably more expensive. The cheapest way of all is to let the bees draw their own comb in whatever size they want. This takes several generations before they’re drawing comb at 4.8 or 4.9 mm. (so you’ll be tossing some otherwise good comb that’s slightly too big). But the price is certainly right.
Yes, beekeepers sometimes get stung. The worst sting of the year for me (still not bad) is usually the first one, and I quickly re-develop a tolerance after that. Stings after the first of the season will still hurt at the time, but they barely swell at all– sometimes I can’t remember which hand I was stung on half an hour later. (And as an added bonus, every sting seems to improve the osteoarthritis I have in one shoulder. This is pure, subjective folk-medicine, but hey, it works for me. South Koran researchers have identified a COX-2 inhibitor in bee venom, for you doubters.)
Bees have been in the news a great deal over the past few years, thanks to “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or “CCD,” for which a cause has recently been identified. (It’s a virus combined with a virulent strain of unicellular bee parasite, Nosema ceranae). Commercial beekeeping is under the assault of multiple diseases.
A strong, well-fed hive remains your best defense. Refer to the resources at the end of this piece for more details.
But where can I keep bees?
Thanks to all the press recently, the public is more supportive of beekeeping. Be a good neighbor and keep your hives away from foot-paths or areas that get a lot of pedestrian traffic. Give them eastern or southern exposure so they’ll be flying earlier, too. I keep one hive unobtrusively in my back yard, and the rest on the farm of some friends. Last year I met a beekeeper a couple of towns over who was openly keeping about a dozen beehives eight feet from a chain-link playground fence. And he was planning to sell honey over the fence later in the year! I’ve met someone else with two hives backed up against a bike path, also with no problems.
If you are discreet, use some common sense, and,provide barriers so that your bees have to fly above head-level to get out, and you can keep bees in many places. Urban dwellers sometimes keep a hive or two on the roof.
What About Africanized Bees?
Luckily, I’ve never run into any where I am. They don’t do well in cold winters, and I live in New England. Buy your bees from reputable dealers who are inspected regularly. If your bees seem aggressive, re-queen or burn the hive immediately. The behavior of Africanized Honey Bees is not subtle, so there should be little doubt if you have them. You can also buy “nucleus” hives from local beekeepers, and if you’re in an area without an AHB presence, these should be safe. Consult local experts for guidance if you live in an are with an established AHB presence.
Some of My Biggest Mistakes
Here’s a random selection of my errors over the years. It’s how I learn.
- I once rearranged the order of frames in a hive without fully understanding what I was doing. Breaking apart the brood-nest willy-nilly was very stupid of me.
- Early on, using a chemical treatment for nosema instead of being a strict Darwinist about it.
- Treating diseases in other ways, like essential oils, sugar dusting, etc. I think that in the long run, my bees would have been stronger if I just left them alone and bred from the survivors.
- In years past, I have failed to feed my bees when a cold snap or other weather event has stopped the food supply abruptly. Feeding is an intervention that I do think is sometimes worth doing, because the weather is just plain impossible some years. This is the one intervention I’m still willing to do and I don’t feel any pangs of guilt about it.
Try to find a mentor or a class. Experience is very valuable. Ask about local bee clubs at your local Extension office, or find your state bee inspector (yes most states have bee inspectors. Identify who yours is and ask some questions). No matter who you find, I guarantee it’ll reassure you to see a master beekeeper working bees in a short-sleeved shirt.
(As if I haven’t said this enough already). Keep multiple hives. You’ll learn more from comparisons, and not assume that what you’re seeing is “normal.” unless you see it repeatedly. Hives vary a lot, so broaden your experience. I wish I had gotten two hives my first year instead of just a single hive.
Many problems can be fixed simply strengthening the population in the hive. In an important sense, the hive is the organism you’re trying to tweak, Simply moving a frame or two of eggs and brood from a stronger hive into a weaker one can cure things. (Bees always accept frames of eggs and brood, making this easy).
Some of My Favorite Resources
- Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping
- (Disclosure, I know the authors, but that’s not why I’m recommending this book). Despite the unfortunate title, this is an excellent overview of no-treatment beekeeping and the intricate biology of a beehive. A good place to start in understanding the complex inner workings of the hive, including the microbiology at play. Dean and Laurie also put on a couple of conferences a year on treatment-free beekeeping, one in Arizona (early spring) and one in central Massachusetts (late July, early August). I have been to both Massachusetts conferences so far and hope to maintain a perfect record. This book is a great place to start beekeeping. Extra material online at http://thecompleteidiotsguidetobeekeeping.com/ including video from some of the conferences.
- Ross Conrad, Natural Beekeeping
- One of the first books to lay out a way to keep bees without any chemicals, frequently cited in the literature.
- http://www.beesource.com To my knowledge, this is the largest and most active online forum devoted to beekeeping. It embodies the “Ask three beekeepers, get five opinions” rule, but is still generally friendly and helpful. Some good “newbie” sections as well. Well worth poring over for discussions from earlier years. You’ll get a good sense of why not everyone believes that small-cell beekeeping matters here, as well as some of the arguments in its favor.
- http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm The bee section of the personal website of Michael Bush, detailing his experience with bees at his farm in Nebraska. He is one of the most prominent proponents of small-cell and natural-cell beekeeping, and he offers an inspiring curiosity and willingness to experiment. Lots of great pics, even a bunch of out-of-print historical bee literature. I can get happily lost in here!
This new What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil. The content is written by CM.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site. If there are topics you’d like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our Input on the What Should I Do? Series feedback forum.
If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
- A Case Study in Creating Community (SagerXX)
- Peak Certainty, Food Resilience, and Aquaponics (Farmer Brown)
- Creating Healthy Snacks from Your Garden (EndGamePlayer)
- The Essential Gardening and Food Resilience Library (Old Hippie)
- Installing A Solar Energy System (rhare)
- The Keys to Transitioning Healthcare: Empowerment, Education, & Prevention (suziegruber)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 1 (Cycle9)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 2 (Cycle9)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Fire Starting (Aaron Moyer)
- Raising Your Own Chickens (Woodman)
- Dealing With a Reluctant Partner (Becca Martenson)
- Making the Urban-to-Rural Transition (joemanc)
- Prepping on a Shoestring (Amanda)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Water (Aaron Moyer)
- Small-Scale Beekeeping (apismellifera)
This series is a companion to this site’s free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the CM.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.