In August 2013, while my family and I were in Utah for my brother’s wedding, I arranged for my son and me to take a tour of the bee hives owned by Bees Brothers, a Cache Valley family-run apiary (more about that visit here). Seeing the interior of a production beehive was a profound and edifying experience for both of us. Several months later, we met a beekeeper while visiting a local farm. I mentioned our experience, and that we were so moved by it that we had started to seriously discuss getting bees ourselves. He invited us to the monthly meeting of the local beekeeping association. My dad and I went, had a good time, kept going, and found ourselves a year later with three brand new beehives.
Since then, lots of people have asked a lot of questions about the process. Consider this my attempt to answer as many as I can.
My dad and I went to monthly bee association meetings for nearly a year before our bees were actually delivered. In addition, we took a 16-hour beginner course offered by the club. I consider that time extremely well spent – it’s obvious which of the newbees in the bee club haven’t put in the time. They don’t have any idea what a normal functioning hive looks like, can’t recognize any of the important bee behaviors, and don’t even know the names of the half-dozen or so parasites and pathogens which represent truly existential threats to their colonies. An estimated 70% of new colonies are dead within a year – in part because so many new beekeepers are actually just bee-havers. That’s why we have three hives – so we can lose 70% and still have something to show for the effort.
It is recommended to start with at least two hives because they can be compared for hive health and production. Without a reference point or any experience, it’s extremely difficult to know whether hive activity and productivity is normal. This is tough to deal with because the up-front cost for equipment is quite high. A standard Langstroth hive can cost $200 to $400 and may require assembly. Mann Lake LTD sells an assembled hive for $300. In addition, protective gear and tools can be $100 per person or more.
The high startup cost can be avoided by using a top-bar hive. Top bar hives can be made out of scrap lumber with plans found for free online, and offer a very low cost alternative to standard hives. The drawback is they require more careful management, and not very many people use them so it may be difficult to find a mentor.
Then there’s the bees themselves. There are three ways to acquire bees. First, there are packages – ventilated boxes, usually containing about 10,000 bees and a queen, which can be turned upside down and poured into an empty hive. Packages are delivered once a year in April, and typically cost about $100. The second option is a nucleus hive, or nuc for short. Nucs are roughly $50 more expensive than packages, but contain a working colony, complete with drawn comb, brood, eggs, pollen, honey stores, and a laying queen. The nuc frames can simply be placed into the new hive and the bees will hardly notice any interruption to their schedule. The third option is less expensive (free) but also less reliable, and that is to catch a swarm. Healthy hives reproduce in the spring when the hive creates a new queen, and half the colony leaves with the old queen to find a new home. Swarms are incredibly docile and can literally be scooped with bare hands into a box. But they are hard to find and failure means losing a year of time.
Once all the equipment is purchased, there are very few recurring costs to maintaining a colony. The time commitment is not outrageous either – during the spring and summer, hive inspections can be done weekly or even every other week, and take between 10 and 30 minutes. During the winter months, there’s nothing to do but put your ear up to the side of the hive once a month to listen for the resolute buzzing of a living colony. If your bees are in your backyard, you will probably spend more time sitting and watching them for relaxation than you will working the hives. The time commitment is similar to that of owning a goldfish.
Working a hive is difficult; a box loaded with honey and bees can weigh 90 pounds. A bee suit can be stuffy. Bees, although usually gentle enough that they can be worked without gloves, can be temperamental. Working in proximity to a lit bee smoker leaves a strong odor. And everything gets sticky. It’s difficult work and I always end up drenched in sweat.
Honey harvesting takes a few hours a year. Many first-year hives don’t produce any surplus honey because all their resources are diverted into building the hive. Starting in the second year, a single hive can produce a lot of honey. The Washington state average is 30 pounds per year per hive, but that includes those first year hives that don’t produce any. A healthy hive in good weather can produce a honey harvest of 100 pounds or more.
Bees can forage over several square miles, so the immediate surroundings of the hive aren’t particularly important, and the friendly Italian bees can be kept in very close proximity to human living space. Some people keep their hives on their apartment balcony; ours are just a few feet from the back door, and a few more feet from a picnic table and porch swing. The low time requirement for keeping bees means they can be kept at an outyard – a beekeeping codeword for someone else’s house. Almost anybody with any land will agree to host a hive in exchange for a little honey. Being bee friendly is highly fashionable at the moment.
Bee colonies are having a hard time. Annual losses are high in part because of the proliferation of parasitic mites, fungus, and bee viruses. Beekeepers must decide how to face these threats. Chemical treatments can help, integrated pest management is becoming popular, but genetically hardier bees are the best hope for the future. Being a beekeeper necessarily requires that one develop and execute a pest management strategy.
But it’s not all technical details and pathogens. Being able to observe and participate in the order of a colony as it grows from a few individuals to a massive society of family members united in purpose – the survival of the colony superorganism – is an experience that borders on the sacred. Lifting a frame of drawn comb heavy laden with fresh honey out of a warm hive is truly exquisite and life-affirming. It warms my heart to be able to spend time with my children watching the forager bees return with pollen and nectar at the hive entrance, to play find the queen, and to watch eggs hatch into larvae, which grow and then finally emerge as adult bees. I sometimes use my lunch hour at work to work the hives, and for the rest of the day the scent of beeswax is on my hands. Pulling a frame and seeing a bee dancing to give her sisters information about the location and quality of a nectar source to her sisters is a pleasant surprise.
For more information, look up your local beekeeping association.