Beekeeping 101

The number of honeybees in the United States began declining at an alarming rate in 2006, but a resurgence in hobbyist beekeepers is keeping the industry buzzing.

The Plight of the Honeybee

Hives can have up to 60,000 bees in the summer.Hives can have up to 60,000 bees in the summer.
About 200,000 hobbyists, people with fewer than 10 hives, are helping to avert threats to the bee population and to the honey supply. A decline in honeybees can have serious consequences: Bees pollinate 80 percent of all plants, including about 90 food crops. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the earliest reports by beekeepers of the losses among managed colonies noted decreases of 30 percent to 90 percent of their bees. The decline was largely attributable to colony collapse disorder (CCD), the indications of which include the presence of a live queen, immature bees and a low number of adult bees but no visible dead bees. Scientists don't know what causes CCD, but they think it's a perfect storm of pests, pesticides and stress on the bees. CCD essentially is a drastic weakening of bees, and it commonly has affected colonies that are moved cross-country repeatedly in large trucks for pollination.

Tim Tucker, a 20-year beekeeper and editor of "eBuzz," the newsletter of the American Bee Federation, says the bee industry was in decline long before CCD arrived. Since the 1950s, the bees' natural habitat --- wooded areas featuring hollow trees --- has been disappearing. In the past 20 or so years, mites carrying viruses have caused hive problems. But CCD is the biggest threat yet.

That's where hobbyists come in.

Keeping bees in a backyard gives them a habitat, and it usually allows them access to a variety of trees, flowering bushes and white clover and ornamental plants. Bees are general pollinators and can thrive in many settings.

"They do really good in an urban environment," said Tucker, who owns Tuckerbee's Honey in Niotaze, Kansas.

The more interest there is in beekeeping, the more demand there is for bees, and more bees means an improved rate of pollination.

Beekeeping takes time, some essential tools and dedication.

"It is not an easy hobby," Tucker said. "It's work. A lot of people just aren't up for that."

For beekeepers, though, the work is well worth it. In addition to having homemade honey, pollen and beeswax, they get the satisfaction of helping the honeybees while witnessing their fabled hard work.

Busy as a Beekeeper

A hive basically is a layered box in which a bee colony lives.

A novice beekeeper may start with a single colony, which has 15,000 to 60,000 bees, depending on the time of year. First, however, he must become familiar with the local restrictions on beekeeping, which dictate where and how many hives he may keep and whether he must provide water for the hive --- to discourage the bees from drinking from a neighbor's dog bowl, for example.

Susan Brackney, a beekeeper in Bloomington, Indiana, and author of the 2009 book "Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet," suggested contacting the nearest county extension office and beekeepers' association. She recommended getting bees from a local source because they will be acclimated to the region and tolerant of the area's pathogens and parasites.

When the bees arrive in the mail with the queen separately packaged, the beekeeper empties the box into a hive, which consists of a bottom board, two hive bodies, three medium honey "supers" --- the parts of hives where the honey collects --- and an inner and outer cover.

In addition to a hive, a beekeeper needs a smoker, which burns wood chips or burlap and puffs smoke onto the bees to keep them under control when tending them, as well as a hive tool, which Brackney likened to a crowbar. It is used to pry open the hive, which becomes glued shut with plant resins.

Bee Safe

And, of course, beekeepers need proper attire: coveralls, a hat, a veil and gloves, known collectively as a bee suit. The suit helps protect against stings, although nothing can prevent them completely. Stings are part of the business, one reason Brackney suggests making sure you aren't allergic to bee stings before you become a beekeeper. Bees sting only when they are defending their hives, and over time, beekeepers become "desensitized" to stings, Brackney said.

Although many experienced beekeepers don't wear all the gear, she puts on "the whole nine yards" when tending her hives. "It lets me focus on the bees" instead of on potential stings, she said.

A bee dies after stinging, but its jagged stinger remains in the skin and releases pheromones that incite the other bees. "If one stings, many more will sting," Brackney said. Scraping the stinger off the skin in the same direction it is going instead of pulling it out will keep the remaining venom in the stinger sac and out of the skin.

Bees typically don't bother neighbors, but the Delaware Beekeepers Association advises using a less aggressive strain of bees if they are to be kept in a garden, and placing a low fence about 10 feet from the hive, which will encourage them to travel upward instead of into low areas where people walk.

Work on the hive is seasonal, with the busiest time during the spring and summer. The Utah County Beekeepers Association says it generally takes an hour or two a month to check hives and perform basic maintenance between April and September. Most beekeepers check their hives every two to four weeks, making sure the queen is alive and that the bees have enough nourishment, which can be a problem in the winter months.

Sweet Rewards

What do bees do all day? That depends on the caste of bee. Female worker bees divvy up tasks, some coming and going from the hive up to a dozen times a day as they forage for nectar and pollen. Other workers tend the honey and beeswax, while still others feed the brood or tend the queen, feeding her "royal jelly" --- a mixture of B vitamins, sugar, amino acids and trace minerals.

The queen's job is to mate with the males, called drones. She then lays eggs in honeycomb cells, with each cell's size determining the caste fate of the particular baby bee.

In Brackney's book, she notes that it takes 4 pounds of nectar to produce a pound of honey and 8 pounds of nectar to produce a pound of beeswax. The Delaware Beekeepers Association says the average amount of honey retrieved each year from a bee colony in Delaware is 50 pounds, although strong colonies have been known to produce up to 200 pounds.

When worker bees have removed all the excess water from the honey and capped their production with wax, it's ready for consumption. After a hive is well-established, the beekeeper may harvest honey several times a year.

Things You Will Need

  • Starting a Hive and Keeping It Going

About the Author

Nicole Kauffman has been writing professionally since 2000, beginning her career as a newspaper reporter with the "Vero Beach Press Journal." Her work has appeared in the "Indianapolis Star," "IU Music," "Research and Creative Activity" and "Indiana Alumni Magazine." Kauffman has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University.