Is Beekeeping for You?

Sweet Rewards: Josh and Tony Pisano with a full frame of capped honey

If you are reading this, you must have bees, or have  some interest in getting bee hives. I got into beekeeping in a round-about way, which I’ll explain in a moment, but I was thinking this morning about what motivates others into getting hives.

It the past, as with many other trades or occupations, much of beekeeping was “hereditary” so to speak, handed down from one generation to the next.   In asking many old-timers, they often  respond “my grandfather or grandmother kept bees”, or “my uncle”, or “my father was a beekeeper”. It may have been part necessity and partly as a way to earn some money.  Honey and maple syrup used to be the main sweeteners, so there was a need for beehives and a demand for honey.

extracting honey

There actually were “good old days” of beekeeping when swarms were abundant, as were wild bee hives. Some long time beekeepers describe those days as “Basically, you put bees in a hive, added supers and harvested the honey.”  The only dire threat would be American foulbrood. It was hard Not to increase your number of hives.Today, it’s a whole new ballgame with a variety of mites, nosema, and the still pesky foulbrood. But that hasn’t deterred many beekeepers from sticking with it, or many others from getting started.

When you ask someone today why they are interested in getting beehives, the answers you hear the most are “I want to play a part in helping the honey bee”, and “I want to know where my food is coming from”  This is absolutely terrific!  Back in the late 60s and through the seventies, there was a back to the land movement when people wanted to learn skills, grow their own food, and connect with nature.

one of my first bee photos

This is happening again with more people raising chickens for eggs and meat, keeping bees, tapping maple trees, raising Llamas and goats, growing gardens and putting up food.  Who knows how long this wave will last, but I’m glad it’s here.

We use over 100 lbs  of honey in our household each year, and after letting someone keep hives in our yard for a year, I was stung by the beekeeping bug and haven’t looked back. There will be a more detailed account in my story about overcoming my fear of bees.

What should you do if you think you want bees? The best advice I can give is to find a beekeeper, and ask her or him if you can observe or even help them as they work on their hives. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t expect anything in exchange other than gaining some knowledge. Most beekeepers can manage the hives they have very well without “help” and can’t afford to pay either in money or honey. You would be getting free basic training.

Do as much research as possible about beekeeping including reading some good books, (I will post a list) reading this blog (a shameless plug) and joining a club.  You don’t have to have bees to belong to a beekeeping club. Be aware that while there is an abundance of good information on the internet, there is also a lot of mis-information.

Here’s a few things to consider before ordering bees and buying equipment.                 

these hives recieve early morning sun and are sheltered from strong winds

Do you have a place to put a hive? A good location gets early sun, faces south, is out of the wind, is easily accessible, and has an abundance of forage and a source of water within flying distance.. Are you, your family members or nearby neighbors allergic to stings? Being allergic means you have to carry an epi-pen with you at all times. Will your neighbors mind your having bees? Are there any ordinances against beekeeping in your town?

Also ask yourself these questions.  Do I want bees because I think it would be “cool”? The cool factor will quickly wear off when you face the reality of opening a box full of insects that have stingers and might not appreciate your being there.

Am I a calm person?  You need a level head while working on your hives. A relaxed state of body and mind and slow movement are helpful.

Can I lift and maneuver fairly heavy boxes? There are some options like using 8 frame hives instead of 10 frame, or keeping Kenya or Top Bar Hives.

Can you take the heat? Much of your work will be done on hot sunny days, and depending on how much protection you want to wear it can get very warm very fast.

Can I afford it? Beekeeping isn’t a cheap date. You will likely spend several hundred dollars to get started. You can save by making some of your own equipment, but you’ll still likely be making a hefty investment. Beekeeping is agriculture with a twist. The losses can be total. Many people give up after having their bees die 2 or 3 winters in a row.  I’m not trying to scare anyone off. I’m just giving you the hard facts.

But,  beekeeping isn’t all gloom and doom, otherwise who would ever want to keep bees? 

Here’s what my advertisement might say:

Keep Bees and Experience Nature Right in Your Own Backyard!

foraging worker bee

Do you want to not just read about the life cycles of honeybees, but see them taking place firsthand?  Do you want to see a queen back into a cell and lay an egg, or watch a bee doing the waggle dance right before your eyes? Will you be amazed at seeing a bee  chew through the wax capping and crawling out of her cell?  Would you like to experience the warmth and sweet smells coming from a healthy hive. Do you want to dip your finger in raw warm honey right from the frame and taste something like you’ve never tasted before? 

Thes jars of backyard honey have just been filled and are ready for labels

If your willing to work hard, sweat, get stung,  get sticky, lose bees, and accept some failures with the rewards, then maybe you should become a beekeeper. You will feel more connected with the earth and nature. You will notice plants and flowers like you have never noticed them before. And yes, you will be helping the honey bee, and you will know where your food is coming from. Happy beekeeping!

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About Beekeeping in the Berkshires

Here at Berkshire Farms Apiary we've been keeping bees and making honey since 2005, with hives in most of the surrounding towns. We also make pure beeswax candles, lip balm, and hand salve, as well as give presentations. As secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association, I am very active in the local beekeeping community.
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