Buzzzzzzzzzz. These little pollinators are a boon to gardeners, helping edible crops and ornamental plants flourish – and while they may send you running for the house, they’re way more interested in nectar than in you.
It does take time and effort, but the rewards of keeping bees are sweet. Almost too sweet – many backyard beekeepers end up with so many gallons of honey, they don’t know what to do with it all. But who doesn’t want another excuse to make sticky baked goods like honey buns?
So, why not come up with a plan bee? Even beginners can get a hive up and running within a few months, and before long you’ll have busy little bees working hard in your yard. These basic suburban beekeeping tips will help you get started.
- Check your local ordinances and if backyard beekeeping is legal in your area, determine where you’d put your hives. A sunny spot that’s not directly situated next to a recreational area like a picnic table or playground is ideal. It’s best to plant a hedge or put up some kind of barrier around your bee colonies to prevent vandalism, protect the hive from wind and induce the bees to fly upward when leaving the hive (rather than through your neighbor’s yard.) Speaking of neighbors, you’ll need to talk to them about your plans. As long as none of them are allergic to bees, a little bribery with some honey should put them at ease.
- Avoid a buzzkill by reading up on all things bee prior to ordering or building any equipment. It’s important to understand how colonies work including biology, social order, behavior patterns and potential problems like mites, colony-killing pests and intruders from other hives. A gentle, well-kept colony won’t bother your family or your neighbors. Don’t be too intimidated – the bees will do most of the work.
- Find your own queen bee – a local beekeeping expert, that is. Take a course or visit a beekeeping farm or an experienced backyard beekeeper and ask plenty of questions. Many areas have amateur beekeeping groups where you can talk to other hobbyists and get the 411 on what it’s really like to keep bees in the city.
- Consider your options in terms of equipment. TheFarm.org has a rundown on what you need for a conventional set-up, which includes supers, frames, a bottom board, a hive body, a queen excluder, inner and outer covers, a feeder, a smoker and protective clothing. BeeSource.com offers free plans for building your own hives, or you can purchase them from a recommended list of suppliers. Top bar hives are a great option for beginners, since it’s an inexpensive way to produce smaller quantities of honey.
- Get your buzz on! Find a local source of bees if possible, or order them online. Honeybees are usually shipped in two- to five-pound packages containing about 9,000 – 22,000 bees. Once you’re accustomed to handling bees, you might be ready to capture a swarm that has branched off from another colony. “Beemaster” John Clayton has tips on how to find, inspect and gather swarms and acclimate them to your hive.
- Prepare to be stung. It will inevitably happen every now and then, but there are a few tips to keeping your bees calm and happy. The University of Kentucky’s entomology department recommends that you avoid passing directly in front of a colony of bees, working from the side or back instead. If you are stung, remove the stinger by scraping it with a fingernail and wash the area so the scent of venom doesn’t get the other bees excited. If your colony consistently displays aggressive behavior, re-queening with a queen of gentle stock can help mellow them out again.
- Get into the groove of seasonal honeybee management, feeding and medicating during the first two months of the year and inspecting the hives for growth and disease symptoms in February. By mid-April, your bees will begin gathering nectar and you can watch your supers fill with delicious honey over the summer.
- Harvest that sticky, succulent honeycomb. While expensive honey extractors are available, there’s an easier and much more frugal way for beginners. Just cut chunks of honey-filled comb from the frames and wrap them in plastic or put them in sterilized containers, and enjoy the bounty of your buzzing bees!
Image: Don Hankins