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Beekeeping 101

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that the past decade hasn’t been good for honey bees. In fact, their populations have hit all-time lows. But the bee colonies in many American backyards are on the rise! Urban beekeeping is the fastest growing segment of the industry; flourishing as consumers realize the health benefits of locally sourced honey.

Beekeeping is a topic that can be covered in an entire book, but here are the basics on how to get started.

Make conservation your priority and honey the sweet reward. One third of every bite you eat was produced with the help of honey bees. It takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate a California almond crop.* Commercial farmers actually lease honey bees to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, there are no longer enough honey bees to meet the demand. As an urban beekeeper you can help bolster low populations.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Your first step toward keeping honey bees is research. Find out city ordinances about hives and discuss your plan with your neighbors. You may have to educate them about the difference between the docile honey bee and the aggressive yellow jacket. Beekeeping is not for people with bee allergies, but the rest of us can cohabitate very peaceably. Honey bees will only sting when pressed against or when you are working in the hive.

The best resources are people who are already keeping honey bees, they are like living books. And the best place to connect with these people is at a bee club. I met my mentor, or bee-tsar as I call him, at the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association. Over the years he’s provided a priceless amount of information and support.

Once you’ve done all the leg work you need to decide how many hives you want and where to place them. Two hives is a good number to start with because it’s not overwhelming and a faltering hive is easier to detect when you have something to compare it to. Plus you can use the frames and brood from a strong hive to save a weak hive.

You don’t need a lot of space to keep bees, but the area where you place your hives should be warm and dry. Bees love the sun and they love it warm so find a sunny spot. I like to face my hives toward the south because this is what they tend to do in the wild. Moisture is a real problem for bees, you want to keep the hive dry. Don’t place the hive at the bottom of a hill where moist air might collect.

Honey bee hive

Even if your neighbors are excited about your honey bees don’t place the hive right up next to the property line. A trick I learned from my bee-tsar is to place hives in front of a fence or hedge. When faced with a barrier bees will fly straight up, which will put them above head height should they decided to stray into your neighbor’s yard.

Your local bee club is a gold mine when it comes to bee type selection. Not only will members know which bees thrive best in your area, but you will be able to find a local source as well. Get your bees locally if you can because they are best adapted to your climate, seasons and plants. If they have been living generation after generation in your area they are primed to survive in that environment. If you can’t get them locally there are companies that will supply bees and queens.

I raise Italian bees, which are excellent for long summer climates but if you live in an area with short summers you need bees that don’t require a lot of food, won’t grow too fast and overwinter well such as carniolans.

Whether local or mail order you need to purchase your bees in winter for spring delivery. Honey bee producers run out quickly. Starter colonies come as packages (queen and bees), nucs (queen, bees and frames loaded with brood, honey and pollen) and swarms (queen and bees collected from the wild).

In addition to the bees you’ll need some equipment. Hives consist of a top cover and inner cover, supers, a hive body, frame and foundation and a stand. You’ll also need a smoker, hive tool, helmet and veil and gloves.

Beekeeping is not hard to start nor is it a huge time commitment, but you will never stop learning. I think that is a characteristic that makes it so appealing.

Honey bee getting nectar from a flower.

Good to Know:

Honey bees offer so much in the way of “essential services” to the garden but they’re worthless when it comes to your tomato crop. There’s no nectar in tomato blossoms and the pollen is hard to reach, so honeybees don’t bother. Bumblebees on the other hand do a neat trick called “buzz pollination.” They grab the tomato flower and vibrate their wings at such a high frequency that the pollen shakes loose. In fact, bumblebees are used in commercial greenhouses to pollinate cherry tomatoes.

Rhonda Fleming Hayes (@thegardenbuzz) author of the forth coming book Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators. To learn more about pollinating insects join Rhonda every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. CST for #pollin8rchat on Twitter.

*Almond Board of California