You’ve probably been hearing a lot about disappearing honey bees through the media. All of this media attention given to the plight of the honeybee is causing a lot of people to become interested in beekeeping. Some of them are jumping in and becoming hobby beekeepers. Every spring, assuming the weather cooperates, we sell small starter hives (aka nucs in beekeeping vernacular) that are split from established colonies that we have overwintered here in the West Michigan area. Most of our customers are first-time newbie beekeepers, so we find ourselves spending a fair amount of time answering their questions, and helping them get a good start.
In light of this, I’ve decided to write a series of articles that are meant to help the new or prospective beekeeper get started. We will discuss the basics such as what kind of equipment will you need, how to get your bees, and how to care for them. We also hope to write about related activities that will come further downstream, such as extracting honey, and preparing for the winter.
In this first installment, I want you to spend a few minutes thinking about why you are (or should be) considering keeping honeybees, and what you should expect if you do. It seems that too many people these days get caught up in the trendy “produce your own organic food” movement, and decide they want to keep bees without really giving it much forethought or planning. We’ve had bee customers come to pickup their nucs without even being aware of the fact that they need to have a full-size hive ready to transfer them into. Apparently they thought a cardboard box with 5 frames of bees could be placed in the backyard and by summer’s end would magically yield them buckets full of honey! Needless to say, many of these ill prepared beekeepers end up being one season wonders, and they throw in the towel and give up after their bees fail to flourish. If you plant a garden, or setup up a coop with some laying hens you need to do a bit of planning ahead of time. Prior planning is even more important in the case of beekeeping where timing is crucial! Your success as a beekeeper is often proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into up front planning and learning.
So first of all, why do you want to keep bees? Maybe you had a “lean in” experience when a friend showed you their hive – the bees fascinated you and after your first experience with them you caught the buzz and now want bees of your own. Perhaps you don’t care about the bees so much; you simply want to have more pollinators for the garden or fruit trees in your backyard. Or maybe you have dreams of becoming a sideliner or commercial beekeeper and you have visions of truckloads of bees and barrels of honey? More likely, you’re an intelligent person who enjoys the outdoors and want to simply learn more about bees, and maybe produce a little bit of natural sweetener for your family and friends. In any case, it’s good to spend some time thinking about your motivation for keeping bees, as it will help you determine how you approach beekeeping and whether or not you should keep bees at all. For example, if your goal is simply to introduce more pollinators to your garden, you might be able to find a local beekeeper who would be happy to place a couple of hives out back for you. That could save you a lot of time, money, and bee stings! On the other hand if you really have a beekeeping itch that needs to be scratched, understanding your end goal will help dictate what kind of equipment you buy, and how much money you are going to budget for your beekeeping experiement.
There are many answers to the question of why you should become a beekeeper. First of all, beekeeping is about the most fascinating activity you will ever experience. Bees are simply amazing, and getting up close and observing and learning about what goes on in the hive is borderline addictive. Your beekeeping hobby will help you (and your family) develop a better appreciation for the beauty (and fragility) of the created world we live in. If you’re the kind of person who plants a garden and then eagerly goes back every day to see if the seeds have sprouted yet, you likely have the personality required to successfully learn to keep bees. Beekeeping is also rewarding in a tangible way. Imagine the value proposition of a breed of golden retrievers who went out, got jobs and took home enough bacon to not only cover your cost of ownership, but perhaps even turned a profit for you! Now don’t get me wrong, your bees are probably not going to play fetch with you, or keep your feet warm on a cold winter night, but if you do things right (and the weather cooperates!) they might produce enough honey to keep your family supplied with a natural and healthy sweetener. With the increasing price of honey, this translates into $$! Add another hive or two and you’ll be giving away honey to your friends and neighbors as well.
As we mentioned already, bees are in trouble these days. Encouraging people to keep bees helps spread awareness and disseminate knowledge on the honeybee. The money spent by hobby beekeepers with suppliers, and commercial bee/queen producers injects more money into the bee industry, and hopefully provides additional resources to improve the bee situation. Your involvement with bees will make a positive difference at the end of the day.
So what can you expect as you become a beekeeper? Well first of all, you should expect to spend a serious amount of time learning about bees and beekeeping. This learning process should begin months in advance of the arrival of your bees. We’ll talk more about this and give you some guidance in our next article.
Secondly, you should expect to budget a fair amount of money to get started in beekeeping. For example, an unassembled beginner’s kit at Walter T. Kelley will cost you $368.50 at the time of writing. Your bees will likely cost you $100 – $150 depending on whether or not you buy a package of bees or a nuc (more on that later.) Conventional wisdom is that you start with 2 hives rather than 1 to give you an additional comparative data point, and to increase your odds of success. If you get a honey crop, you may need to spend additional money on honey processing equipment. It’s a fairly sizable investment for a hobby, but far less than it would cost to stable a couple of riding horses or take your family on a ski vacation to Colorado.
You should also expect a fairly steep learning curve, and potential failure on your initial try. When it comes to beekeeping, you will make mistakes and inadvertently mess things up, but these are also opportunities to learn and make improvements the first year. A common question we get from beginning beekeepers is “will we get honey the first year?” Some beekeepers will tell newbie keepers that they will not get honey the first year. The correct answer however, is that it depends on a number of factors, including how early in the season you are able to get your colony started, your locality and the availability of bee forage, the weather conditions, the viability of the queen(s) in your colonies, and many other factors. Here in Michigan, we get surplus honey more often than not, when we start a new colony in the Spring. However, it might be best to simply not plan on getting a bucket of honey the first year, and if you do, consider it a bonus.
Finally, the other inevitable question we get from prospective beekeepers is “will I get stung?” The answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. If you play with fire you get burned – if you work with bees you get stung. You can of course minimize the bee stings if you’re careful, but sooner or later you’re gonna get stung – sometimes in places you never expected a bee to be crawling! That’s the bad news, the good news is that you’ll eventually get used to being stung. That is, unless you have an allergy to honeybee stings. If you (or immediate family members) have the serious kind of allergy (e.g. you go into anaphylactic shock when stung) you should probably let your doctor talk you into not becoming a beekeeper. Regardless of whether or not you keep bees, anybody with a serious allergy to honeybee stings should carry an EpiPen at all times. If your reaction to honeybee strings is more localized (typical swelling / soreness where stung) than you can still learn to get along with honeybees, but will want to make sure you keep yourself properly suited up when working with them.
Hopefully this has helped you sort out your motivation and set expectations with regard to your future beekeeping adventures. In our next article we will provide some specific advice on how get up to speed on the beekeeping learning curve.
Read the next article in this series: Tutorial (2): Scaling the Beekeeping Learning the Curve.