Everything You Need to Know About Keeping Bees and Producing Your Own Honey

Everything You Need to Know About Keeping Bees and Producing Your Own Honey

Marisse Swayze didn’t plan to be a beekeeper; she was working in Manhattan in a design firm and commuting from her quaint cottage in Weston, Connecticut, with no bees on the brain. But a chance encounter with flavorful, raw honey straight from the hive made her fall in love with the sticky, sweet stuff, and set her on a path that’s resulted two books, founding the American Honey Tasting Society and selling her very own honey label, Red Bee, which includes her own wildflower honey and honey from beekeepers around the country.

When we last met Swayze, she was showing us the ins and outs of how honey gets made. Perhaps, like me, you’re now inspired to get a hive of your own.

Some assume beekeeping is a relatively easy hobby—after all, bees can make honey without our help. But even with the understanding that owning a colony is a huge responsibility, it took Swayze years to learn how best to keep her bees well-protected, healthy, and thriving. Poorly maintained hives can turn weak or fall victim to infestations, and when not given enough room to produce bees swarm to find a larger home, a huge hazard both to neighbors and your honey harvest.

If a colony is properly cared for—protected from predators, given enough space to produce honey, and left enough honey to eat over the winter—you can expect your bees to thrive. And when a colony is healthy, it does magical things, like pollinate our vegetable gardens and make anywhere between 50 and 250 pounds of honey a year.

But should those of us with rooftops or backyards or ample acreage take the plunge and buy a colony or two? What does it take for us to be responsible beekeepers? What equipment do we need, how much can we expect to spend, and how much time should we devote to our hives when they’re up and running? If you’re with me and curious about making this daydream a reality, consider this your jumping-off point.

Join a Beekeeping Community

In her first book, Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper, Swayze retells her journey from the moment she first tasted raw honey straight from a hive. But far before taking the plunge with her own hives, she sat in on meetings at her nearby Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association. There, she heard how hives were growing and producing in her region of Connecticut, participated in a few hive inspections with nearby beekeepers, and received valuable materials that provided her with the necessary education she needed before becoming responsible for a hive.

If you read that there’s “no real maintenance involved” in caring for a hive, don’t believe it. Safely transferring a bee queen and her family into a hive, protecting them from environmental dangers, and bottling an appropriate amount of honey from them is a serious responsibility, and there’s no better way to be prepared or walked through the entire process than through community with others around you. To find a local beekeeping club, check out some sites.

Consider Your Environment

As we detailed in our piece on the secret lives of honeybees, honeybees fly an average of three miles from their hive to forage for nectar, pollen, and propolis (a resin from trees and flours). Nectar gets converted to honey, pollen feeds young and is vital to the growth of our edible crops, and propolis helps bees seal up a drafty hive. All are fundamental to a hive’s health and prosperity, but not all environments have them in sufficient amounts to support a hive.

In New York City, over 200 hives have been registered since the ban on private beekeeping was lifted in 2010. The New York City Beekeepers Association notes that an area’s “carrying capacity” should factor into a beekeeper’s decision to raise a hive in a given location, but there’s no regulation as to how many hives can fall within a certain space.

So consider your surroundings: do you live by a large park teeming with flowers like New York’s Prospect, Central, and Fort Tryon parks? When you walk through those parks, do you see lots of bees at work? If you live in an urban area adjacent to or within flying distance of a park teeming with pollen-producing plants (not all plants are food for bees), chances are your colony will have plenty to forage for. If all you see around you is concrete and steel, question your desire for your own bees.

Yes, bees can travel for what they need. But just like us, bees can tire out from long commutes, and they might lose their competitive edge to other colonies. Putting bees through that much work isn’t that fair to the tiny workers, and in dense city areas with limited flora, beekeepers are noting how the rise of urban beekeeping diminishes their hives’ honey production.

That said, if you’ve covered your rooftop with flowering plants or live in a suburban or rural area with plenty of happily growing things, you’re well on your way to a healthy hive. If you also have enough space for a small body of water, a birdbath, or even a few buckets for bees to drink from, you’re even closer. And if you have propolis-producing trees around for bees to harvest and patch up their hive, and at least a ten-foot flying path for which they can get in and out of their home, you’re golden.

Be Equipped

It doesn’t take a crazy amount of equipment to house and harvest, but you can’t just buy a box of bees and call it a day. To start, you’ll need:

A Hive: Most people nowadays go for the Langstroth Hive, which looks like a wooden filing cabinet. Frames for shaping hexagonal wax cells sit vertically inside the hive frame; bees use these frame to build brood nests and store honey.

A smoker: Bees need to be tamed a bit before moving homes, hive inspections, and frame removal for honey extraction. To do so, most beekeepers use a small smoker: a small can with bellows attached where newspaper, dried leaves and twigs ignite and get puffed into the hive, calming the bees.

A hat with veil, protective jacket, and long gloves. Obviously you want to keep stinging to a minimum, and these suits are made for both protection and flexibility. A hive tool: Sort of like a crow bar, the hive tool helps gently separate the hive lid or frames that have been sealed with propolis.

You can find starter kits on sites like BetterBee and Bee Thinking, and your new friends at your local beekeeping club will most likely have catalogues and favorite websites to direct you to for their favorite brands.

Pick Your Family

There are several breeds of honeybee; some produce more honey while others are more resistant to illness. Swayze’s Italian honeybees are the most common in the United States, beloved for their hearty bodies and enthusiastic honey production. Carniolan honeybees are the second most popular; though they’re a little bit slower in production and known to swarm a bit more, they’re the gentlest of all honeybees. Others—German Black honeybees, Caucasian honeybees, and Russian honeybees—are all easy to find in the United States as well.

Bee farms sell complete colonies for about $125, with one queen and 18,000 to 20,000 drones and worker bees—the size of the average family in the winter months when honey production is stalled. Believe it or not, bees are sent by the United States Postal Service with the regular mail in three-pound packages that look not unlike shoeboxes. There’s a limited supply of colonies to go around, so ask your bee club or a farm you trust about ordering in advance.

Year-Round Responsibilities

You can’t just set up your hive, walk away for a few months, and expect to harvest pound after pound of perfect honey come autumn. During weekly hive inspections, beekeepers check for healthy egg production, pest contamination, and small burrowing animals. Here are some of the most common predators:

Bears: Winnie the Pooh is not so cute when he decimates your colony. Bears love eating bee larvae and honey and will knock over and destroy hive boxes to get at the frames. The most common solution for those in bear-country is to put up barriers like electric fences. Opossums and skunks: Most small furry predators will try to scratch their way into hives. These scratches can suck moisture out of a colony. Elevating hives with top-opening designs and spreading chicken wire on the ground around the hives all help keep these mammals at bay.

Birds: Martins, swallows, woodpeckers, and sparrows particularly love to eat bees. If you live in an area where they’re common, make sure at least you’re not tempting them with that pretty bird feeder dangling from a nearby tree.

Mice: Especially in winter, mice like to burrow into hives, crunching their way through frames and building little homes while leaving their droppings behind. When bees are overwintering, reduce the space where bees enter to 1/4 inch with a “mouse guard” sold by many beekeeping companies.

Other bees: Honeybees protect their hive from foreign bees through their queen’s pheromones—if workers don’t sense them on an incoming bee, that bee doesn’t get in without a very generous gift of nectar or pollen. But wasps and yellow jackets are fierce predators. They go after weak colonies, fighting their way past guards stationed at the hive entrance, and then wrestle honeybees to death. The best way to prevent these invasions is to simply make sure your colony is strong and thriving; wasps and yellow jackets won’t mess with a tough colony. Also, since they’re meat eaters and are usually hungry at the end of the barbecue season, you can leave out sugar water or meat traps on the other side of your property to distract them.

Beetles, moths, mites and fungus: These are the most dangerous predators, since they sneak into a hive when beekeepers aren’t looking. Laying eggs or feeding off larvae, these various bee-killers can wipe out a colony, and ways to battle them are varied and plentiful. Before you invest in a colony, refer to Marisse’s book or attend a class or lecture from your local beekeeping community.

A beekeeper doesn’t just protect a hive from predators; she also ensures the integrity of the hive itself. Bees will continue to make honey long after they’ve stored what they need for winter and, if they run out of space, they’ll swarm to find a larger living space. So responsible beekeepers check in on their hives during honey-producing summer months, and if it looks like the bees are running out of room, she’ll add shallows to the hive. These frames are set atop the main hive, with a space only big enough for worker bees to slip through. That means a queen can’t fit to lay more eggs, guaranteeing the space as a vault to store extra honey.

Once a beekeeper has harvested her haul, she needs to ensure that the bees have enough leftover to eat through the winter. A colony may have a slow season and only produce 50 pounds, and in a rough winter they may eat almost that much. To compensate, beekeepers can bulk up their bees in the autumn with a 1:1 sugar water, fed to them through various kinds of feeders; some that mimic hive frames filled with the solution instead of nectar, others that screw on top of Mason jars, allow bees to safely enter, drink and exit. When plants stop flowering, restless bees may try to steal from other hives, and those pesky wasps will likely try to force their way in.

The weeks before cold weather sets in are also a time to make sure the hive is properly ventilated to avoid wetness and rot, and that the cover fits tightly to prevent rain and snow from seeping in. Some beekeepers tilt their hive so that any excess water runs out of it, or wrap it in cardboard or blankets in particularly frigid climates.

All these steps are vital in maintaining a healthy hive year-round.

The Big Picture

And then there’s the big picture of hive health. Since 2006, beekeepers and scientists have been looking for the cause of “colony collapse”, where about 30 to 50 percent of colonies die off mysteriously. One-third of the food we eat in the U.S. is dependent on or affected by honeybee pollination; without it we’d lose all the almonds, avocados, peanuts, and most of the fruits we so enjoy.

But while putting focus on the “why are bees dying?” argument and questioning uses of pesticides is important, the surrounding panic may be a bit unfocused, and doesn’t do much to solve the problem of colony collapse.

Swayze sees the major die-off and disappearance of colonies happening among large-scale agriculture, not small beekeeping. Rather, it’s the 1,600 or so commercial keepers who transfer thousands upon thousands of hives to pollinate fields around the country and produce about 60% of our nation’s honey. GMOs and various pesticides have been questioned in colony die-offs, but studies haven’t concluded they’re the major cause in bee deaths.

More prominently, the introduction of the Varroa mite discovered in the 1980’s is blamed for the 34% decrees in hive numbers since that decade. In the 2011 to 2012 winter season, beekeepers could blame only 8% of their hive loss to the mysteries of “colony collapse.” Scientists are looking more at bee care and health to insure the future of our busy little friends.

Harvesting Honey Already!

A single colony can make up to 250 pounds of honey in a healthy season. But you’ve got to extract it from the hive first.

Harvesting honey is an exciting, if sticky, operation. The simplest way to do it is to merely slice the combs of honey off of their frames, cut them into bricks, and store them whole for easy eating.

But to extract the liquid honey from the comb you need a few more pieces of equipment: a heated uncapping knife to slice off the wax cappings from the honeycomb; an uncapping tank, where you rest your frames while uncapping them and where excess honey will fall and be stored; and an extractor, which will spin several uncapped frames at once, separating the honey from the intact combs. A mesh strainer removes any leftover wax or bee parts, and the honey can then be bottled for storing, selling, or gifting.

Swayze points out that an additional benefit of being part of a honey club is the use of shared equipment instead of buying your own; it takes a good amount of hands to harvest an entire hive, and fellows often spend days together sharing equipment and grunt-work. It’s also a fun opportunity to sample what neighbors’ bees have made.

And If You’re an Accidental Beekeeper?

Bees will naturally nest anywhere that’s dry, where there’s enough space, and where they can access a variety of flowering plants. But if that spot is a tree in your yard or an eave of your garage? Call an exterminator or bee-removal company.

Now, it is illegal for them to kill the bees. Most exterminators will give the bees to established beekeepers (another way for them to get new colonies), but don’t let them just wipe out the little things.

And to remove the honey from their hive? The kind of extractor you buy to remove honey from framed hives won’t work for the free-style shape of a natural hive, so Swayze’s short answer: “Eat the honey in the comb, no need to purchase expensive equipment. Or hand crush the beeswax to separate the liquid honey the old fashioned way.”

There you have it—a pure, natural product that, if extracted at the right time, is shelf-stable indefinitely, and you can eat it straight from the comb without fear of contamination.