Beekeeping?

Several people have asked why I want to take up beekeeping as a hobby.  I find a lot of people are really afraid of bees and the possibilities of stings and don't understand why someone would purposefully locate boxes full of tens of thousand stinging insects near their home.  Others assume I'm looking for a source of cheap honey and wax.  I think keeping bees as a cheap source of honey and wax makes about as much sense as fishing as a cheap source of fish.  It might balance out eventually, but you are probably going to be able to go to the store and buy what you need a lot cheaper than you can produce it on your own.  I already have about $300-$400 in this endeavor which covers the cost of building my first hive, ordering my first package of bees, and buying some minimal protective equipment.  I can buy a  quart of honey for $10-$15.  I could easily buy several years supply of honey for less than what I've invested in this.  Of course, you can start off a lot cheaper.  I'm not much of a woodworker and tried to buy all new materials that would allow me to get buy with the fewest cuts to build my hive.  A competent woodworker with the willingness to put a little time into it could easily have built a hive for probably half what I did, with less waste and likely a better end result.  I also ordered a "package of bees" which costs me $135.  If you want to depend on luck you can always just try to capture a wild swarm or find an established hive you can relocate and avoid this cost.  I didn't want to depend on luck to get started so I ordered the bees.  Even so, still much easier and cheaper to go to the store and just by the honey and wax.  

This has more to do with a lifelong fascination with insects and nature, and a desire to find a hobby that doesn't involve computers and technology.  Of course I will use technology to research and study beekeeping, and to document and share my experiences, but technology is not the focus of this undertaking.   As a child I was always interested in bugs.  I spent a lot of time watching ants, playing with beetles, and studying all kinds of creepy crawly things.  I was  also fascinated with bees.   My dad was a truck driver and sometimes I would ride with him and we would stop at these roadside restaurants called Nickerson Farms.  They usually had a glass beehive in the restaurant where you could watch the bees, and of course they sold fresh honey from their hives.  I would stand and watch the hive for as long as I could, entranced by how thousands of these little creatures could work together to build the comb and produce honey.  My dad would also sometimes bring home jars of honey from Arkansas with big chunks of comb in it, which was one of my favorite treats.  For the longest time I also had the rather odd habit of petting bumblebees.  These big furry bees just seemed cute and friendly to me, and for years I would sit on the lawn or in my grandparents garden and reach out and stroke them as the buzzed around the dandelions and flowers.   This finally ended after I got stung a few times.  Not sure why it didn't happen to me sooner, but I was forced to admit that petting bees wasn't a great idea.

 

I had planned on becoming an entomologist, thinking that a career studying insects would be fun and interesting.  Plans change though and I didn't follow through on that.  As I got older I got interested in technology, computers and electronics and ultimately that is the career path I followed.  It wasn't a terrible decision, I still love technology, but I do at times find myself wishing I would have pursued a career in some kind of natural science, biology, geology, botany; something that would give me a connection to the world beyond my computer screen.   I can't really say why the idea of becoming a beekeeper never really came up before, but it wasn't until I read an article in Mother Earth News last year about backyard beekeeping that the idea really took root with me.

 

In recent years the honeybee population in North America and much of Europe has been hit by a calamity, the reasons for which are not completely understood.  It is commonly called Colony Collapse Disorder, and may be caused by mites, or fungus, or exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.  It has hit the commercial beekeeping community hard and caused concern for farmers and gardeners as the dearth of bees has impacted pollination of crops and plants.  Many people believe that commercial beekeeping practices are partially to blame for this.  This has led to a resurgence of hobbyist beekeepers and many of them are promoting more "natural" methods of beekeeping.  The idea is that if you leave the bees more or less alone and let them build natural comb and not take all their honey that you will end up with healthier bees.   Commercial beekeepers try and force bees to build comb based on pre-made forms made from wax that is often contaminated with various chemicals.  They try to disrupt the natural reproductive cycle of the hive by eliminating drones and preventing the bees from swarming.  They import bees from other places, often other countries which produce strains of bees not well suited for the local climate.   Harvesting large amounts of honey is often the goal of this type of beekeeping, even it means that less nutritious sugar water and syrup must be fed to the bees so they don't starve.  All of this may well contribute to the disappearance of the honeybee.

 

Now, I'm new to this and have no experience with beekeeping.  There are plenty of people around that will contest all of these claims made by the natural beekeeping advocates.  I tend to believe what I'm hearing from the natural beekeeping crowd, it makes sense to me that bees have been around for millions of years and did just fine without us.  If they are suddenly in trouble, it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that we are at least partly responsible.   That being said, there is another more practical reason to follow the "natural" route.  The methods and equipment used in this approach are much less expensive and much simpler.  So for reasons of simplicity as well as the fact that I'm a closet tree-hugger, I've decided to use the Top-Bar Hive method of beekeeping.

 

This is a very old method with examples found as far back as ancient Greece.  The construction of a to-bar hive is fairly easy and can be done for cheap.  At least that's the theory.  If you are a moderately competent woodworker, have some decent tools, room to work,  and a supply of good lumber.  None of these things describe me or my situation.  I probably could have found some better lumber, but cost becomes a factor there.  As it is I mostly used 1" pine from Home Depot which is serviceable, though I ran into some problems with warped boards.   I also did not realize starting out that boards are not really the size they say they are.  A 1 x 12 board is usually more like 1 x 11.6 or some oddball measurement.  Not a huge problem, but it led to a few problems trying to put things together when I had been planning on a 12" width to the board.  This combined with my general inability to cut a straight line with a saw led to quite an adventure in assembling the hive.  In the end I think it will be workable, but I'm not as happy with the results as I had hoped.  There are a few gaps that may allow the bees to pass through where I don't want them too, and the roof is almost too heavy to be manageable. The original legs I put on were too thin to support the weight of the hive and were wobbly and started to split almost immediately.  I replace them with stouter boards, but they didn't mesh quite as well with the roof as they should have. That being said, bees tend to build hives in hollow trees, within the walls of buildings, in trash cans, flowerpots, and just about any other cavity that is large enough and provides a reasonable amount of shelter.  They probably won't be put off my by lack of carpentry finesse.

 

So at this point my bees are scheduled to arrive in just over a week.  It is an iffy proposition because there is no guarantee that they will decide to setup shop in the space I'm providing them.  There is every possibility that they will fly off for parts unknown leaving me to try and catch a feral swarm or try my luck again next year.