This May, a package containing three pounds of bees will arrive at my house. Then, I will begin my journey into the world of beekeeping, which is something I never really thought I’d be doing. The reaction from most of the people around me has been somewhat incredulous, like they can’t believe that someone would just….start beekeeping. It seems that there is a subconscious belief that beekeepers are raised up in the grand tradition of beekeeping, inheriting hives and secrets passed down through the family since…Noah, I guess. However, there are people whose families have never kept bees, who weren’t raised around bees, and who are actually just a little scared of bees but who still decide to start from scratch. I’m one of those people, and this post is about why I decided to start beekeeping.
You probably know by now that the European honey bee is “in trouble”. That’s about as deep as the news tends to get when they mention the plight of the bee. There’s trouble. Sometimes, Colony Collapse Disorder is mentioned. More often, the source will just say “bees are disappearing”, as though a race of aliens has come for our bees, and they are being vanished via tractor beam or some other method that leaves no trace.
Well, the truth is that there are many factors contributing to the decline of the honey bee. Colony Collapse Disorder is one of them, and it might be the scariest because we really don’t know what causes it. All we know for sure is that, while the queen remains with the colony, the adult workers do not. They don’t die in hive – one of the hallmarks of CCD is that there isn’t a build up of dead bees in or immediately around the hive. The workers are just gone. There is food, there is brood, there is a queen, but there is no one left to do the work, so the hive dies. There is also threat because of mites – you hear most about the Varroa mite, but there are others. And in some places, you have threat from the Africanized bee or “killer” bee. These will, sometimes, take over a non-Africanized colony and replace the gentle bees. Even when they don’t do this, they tend to crowd out the European bees because they have more aggressive tendencies, which give them an edge in the competition for resources.
So, bees are under threat. That’s bad news for you and me, because we like to eat food, and a lot of our food comes from plants. Plants tend to need pollinating, and that’s where bees come in. If the bees disappear, the food supply will be in jeopardy. In my opinion, anyone who has the space (and isn’t allergic, no sense creating problems for yourself) should be keeping a hive of bees and anyone who has any land at all should be planting “bee helpers”, which are plants that honey bees particularly love. The image below shows just a few options.
Easy step into homesteading
We live in a rural area and we are lucky to have just over three acres of land. When we bought here, it wasn’t with the intention of homesteading; it was because we liked to be away from people. However, after living here for ten years (ten years! Wow!), I’ve gotten the urge to use our land in a more productive way.
I started several years ago by planting berry bushes. I didn’t plant a lot of them. I have only three jostaberry and two bush cherries. However, we are a small family, and that’s enough for us. I also started growing tomatoes in some of the beds around our house. I really want a large garden, like the one we had when I was a kid. But gardening is time consuming – you have to till, and fertilize, and plant, and mulch, and weed, and watch for pests, and harvest, and preserve…whew! It’s a big time commitment. It is a commitment I’m ready to make, but maybe not just yet. The Boy is still pretty small and requires a lot of supervision. What I really want is to wait until he’s a little older, so I can have him with me in the garden, learning and helping.
My next thought was chickens. I know a little about chickens; I grew up with them. I quickly discovered that chickens come with a large start up capital. I would need a coop, and some equipment, and also some chickens. I wasn’t interested in two or three chickens; I wanted more like six to eight to start with, and I would be expanding. So I would need to build a larger coop, which meant more money. Money is not scarce around here, but it’s not in abundant supply right now, either. A lot of our excess gets funneled into various savings accounts (like The Boy’s college fund), and I didn’t want to stop that so that I could get some chickens right away. Plus, I wanted a garden before chickens. You can see my five year plan starting to take shape, right?
Finally, I settled on bees. After doing some reading, I discovered that caring for bees is not a great time commitment – we’re talking mere hours per year. And, if using a top bar hive (which I’ll discuss in a later post), the start up cost is quite a bit lower. I would need to build a hive (or rather, have The Man build a hive) and I’d need to buy the bees. Those would be the big expenditures, and both could be gotten with about $250. I would need a few pieces of equipment, but another $100 would easily cover that.
Honey and wax
Finally, we get to the payout, and the reason most people keep bees: the harvest! Otherwise known as honey and beeswax.
I have a confession: I’m not a huge fan of honey. I don’t bake with it. I’ve never been one of those people who puts honey on toast or makes peanut butter and honey sandwiches. I sometimes put honey in my tea, but usually only when I’m ill. However…I do make mead. And you know what the main ingredient of mead is, don’t you? That’s right.
I have been reading a lot about the benefits of raw honey, so I will probably eat a little every day, once I have my own. And I’ll give some to The Boy, to see if he likes it. I have several friends who have expressed interest (to put it very mildly) in making me their “honey hook up”. I doubt I will be lacking for a place to bestow my liquid gold – between my own mead making and my friends’ desire for good honey, I’ll probably be setting up more hives before too many years go by.
Beeswax is something that I will use some of myself, but I anticipate sharing with other crafting friends. I love making lip balm, and the main ingredient there is beeswax. I might venture into candle making, just to see what that is like. I’ve seen sheets of wax, imprinted with the classic hexagon pattern and rolled into a tube with a wick, and they are charming looking. I suspect that’s a very fussy way to get a candle, though.
Ready for bees
At the moment, I’m anxiously awaiting spring and the arrival of my bees. I’m excited to get started on this adventure, and I think it’s going to be a rewarding one. I encourage you to think about whether beekeeping might be a good fit for your own goals. If it’s not, consider planting some of the bee helpers around your home and give your local wild population a leg up. Bees are your friends, and they need all the help they can get.