Think of it as room and board for dedicated garden workers who will boost your harvest and provide you with half your body weight in honey. If you turn a corner of your yard into an apiary—a home for honey bees—you’ll get a lot of help with pollinating (which will boost your plants’ production of fruits and vegetables) and more honey than you can eat. Raising bees in your own backyard might sound crazy, but the risks are minimal and the rewards are sweet.
The Buzz on Bees
There are more than 4,000 bee species native to North America, but the imported European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the species to which the term “beekeeping” typically refers. Honey bees have a set division of labor within their colonies, which can include as many as 80,000 bees. The queen is the core of the hive and the only female that mates and lays fertile eggs. Drones are male bees; their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. The rest of the bees are female workers who collect pollen and nectar, make honey, build honeycombs, manage hive temperature, defend the hive, and feed and care for the queen and larvae.
Bees produce honey using enzymes and evaporation. They bring nectar back to the hive and pass it along from mouth to mouth, which adds the enzymes. They then deposit it in chambers of the honeycomb, where workers buzz their wings to evaporate the water content, leaving behind concentrated sugars and other nutrients.
When the chamber is full, the bees seal it with a wax cap and store the honey for future consumption. Honey bees make more honey than they consume, which means some can be extracted for human use. You can harvest approximately 80 pounds from each hive each year.
Setting up a hive in your yard isn’t difficult. Here’s how to start:
Check with authorities. Talk to your local government and find out if there are any restrictions on beekeeping.
Do your research. There are excellent books and Web sites that describe how to set up an apiary. Also, a quick search of the Internet or the phone book should reveal a beekeeping group in your area. Local wisdom is invaluable in learning about the best regional materials and practices.
Find the equipment. Hive boxes, harvesting equipment, and live bees are all available online or through mailorder catalogs. If you’re more adventurous, you can try collecting a swarm of wild bees. Contact your animal control agency to find out how to get involved in swarm removal.
Consider allergies. If anyone in your family is allergic to bee venom, beekeeping might not be the hobby for you. With a little knowledge and communication, however, you can avoid problems. If you don’t harass them, bees won’t sting, because it literally kills them to do it. Wear protective clothing when working in a hive, and resist the urge to swat at a bee. If your neighbors are uneasy about the presence of bees, offer to share your honey. An ounce of honey is worth a pound of cure!
Colony collapse disorder
In recent years, wild honey bees have fallen victim to various microbes, diseases, and pests. Wax moths, for example, lay their eggs inside the hive, where the resulting larvae consume the wax and stored honey.
Most of these issues can be controlled in an apiary, but 2007 saw massive, unexplained hive die-offs. The cause of this so-called Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery, although some have hypothesized that the collective impact of introduced pests, pesticides, lack of wild habitat, and constant moving of commercial hives results in a mass weakening of bee immune systems.
Colony Collapse Disorder could have a significant economic impact, as honey bees are important pollinators of agricultural crops.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004).