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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

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Honey Bees

When now the golden sun has put
Winter to headlong flight beneath the world,
And oped the doors of heaven with summer ray,
Forthwith they roam the glades and forests o’er,
Rifle the painted flowers, or sip the streams,
Light-hovering on the surface.
From Georgics IV (written in 29 B.C.) Virgil

Honeybee and Verbena bonariensis Back in 29 B.C.E. the honeybee made big news as the protagonist in Virgil’s poem Georgics IV. Today this little creature is still making headlines. Only now, the news is not so good. According to a recent survey the honeybee population has declined by 30 percent in the past 20 years. This reduction was caused in part by parasitic mites and a virus spread by the Varroa mite. And now there is a new threat called Colony Collapse Disorder, which is the sudden and mysterious disappearance of all the mature bees in the hive.

The impact of this reaches far beyond our own gardens; honeybee pollination results in 5 to 20 billion dollars in agricultural revenue in the U.S. each year* and there is no substitute for the vital job they do. With all our modern marvels, we’ve yet to find a replacement for the work of the honeybee. I guess some things just can’t be improved.

A few years ago I had a hive in my garden, but this proved to be impractical in an urban setting. Every time the colony swarmed I’d get a frantic call from a neighbor. I finally had to transport my hive to the country where a fellow beekeeper now cares for the bees.

Although setting up hives may not be a possibility, as urban gardeners we can protect the honeybee by providing a safe place for them to forage for nectar and pollen. Reducing the use of pesticides and planting their favorite flowers such as rosemary, and lavender is a big help. And support your local bee keepers by purchasing their honey and honey products because they are working hard to keep the honeybee in good health.

Plants that Attract Honeybees
Bluebeard (Caryopteris spp.)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberose)
Catmint (Nepeta cataria)
Crabapple (Malus spp.)
Holly (Ilex spp.)
Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

*Cornell University Science News

Recommended Reading

Sweetness and Light,
The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

by Hattie Ellis

This is a delightful book that chronicles the history, myths and stories surrounding the honeybee.

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Five Plants to Attract Honey Bees

One way to help increase honey bee populations is to choose flowering plants that honey bees like. You’ll make the honey bees happy and your fruits and vegetables will thank you too. Here are five flowers that are sure to bring these little friends to your garden.

Ornamental Onion (Allium sp.)

Early summer flowering bulb that you plant in the fall. There are many species of alliums including garlic. I like to plant Allium giganteum, which produces a baseball-sized purple bloom. Alliums grow best in full sun.

Allium giganteum Gladiator

‘Cat’s Meow’ Catmint (Nepeta faassenii)

A charming perennial (zones 4 – 9) that will bloom again in early fall if sheared lightly after the first flowering. Plant in full sun. The variety ‘Cat’s Meow’ is a top-performer with sky blue flowers.

Catmint Cat's Meow

Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

A fall blooming perennial (zones 4 – 9) prized for its sprays of golden yellow flowers. I’m particularly fond of the variety ‘Fireworks’. Grow in full sun. Tolerates drought.

Goldenrod

Zinna (Zinnia x hybrid)

These brightly hued annuals will attract all types of pollinators to your garden. Sow the seeds directly in the garden after the last frost date in spring.

Pink Zinnias

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

This ultimate bee-friendly perennial (zones 4 – 9) is a great companion plant for vegetables and fruits that rely on bees for pollination. Bee balm will grow in full sun to partial shade.

Red Monarda

Good to Know

A single honey bee visits up to a hundred flowers on each foraging trip while she collects nectar for the hive. Yet she’ll only make around a tenth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. It’s estimated that the whole colony has to tap two million flowers to make one pound of honey. Talk about teamwork!
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.