Honey, I'm comb!
For most of the United States, spring has finally sprung. But it didn't get here on its own. Everyone's favorite season arrived, in part, on the fuzzy, pollen-caked back of a humble bee.
These little buzzers not only force the world out of winter and into bloom, but also ensure our food security by pollinating our crops. On top of all that, they create a foodstuff of their own—sweet, sweet honey.
It's no wonder beekeepers seem to be cropping up in every garden and rooftop. The hobby isn't just delicious; it can be lucrative, with honey, combs, and other bee byproducts like soap proving blockbuster successes at farmers' markets. And if nectar doesn't convince you to establish a beehive of your own, the bumbling bee's perilous ecological status might. Many honeybee populations (which comprise fewer than 10 of the 20,000 bee species in the world) have seen year-after-year declines in the United States. For their disappearance, humans tend to blame “colony collapse disorder”, a catchall phrase that encompasses bee deaths caused by habitat loss, pesticides, and varroa mites.
Before you plunge into the honey pot, there's a lot to consider. From the health of mail-order colonies to the best centrifuge for separating wax from honey, this is the down and dirty DIY guide to beekeeping in your own backyard.
Make a beeline to the (law) library
Bees do us humans a lot of good. But that doesn't mean everyone loves their buzz. Therefore, most cities in the United States have strict rules around beekeeping—if they allow it at all. So your first step is determining what laws will govern your apiary (that's the technical term for a bee condo). Popular Science, for example, could start an office beehive in New York City, but only if we file a notice with the health department and, as Section 161.01(b)(12) of the municipal code stipulates, ensure that our urban bees never bother anyone ever.
While it may seem daunting, investigating local laws makes a great conversation starter with your nearest beekeeping association—which you'll eventually need to join. These groups (or should we say hives?) offer beekeeping courses, book recommendations, and advice on everything from laws to maintenance. To find your local association, check out this comprehensive list from Honey Traveler or ask around at your local gardening store.
What the bee's knees need
From the outside, hives look like simple boxes. But inside, they're abuzz. In each box, wooden frames sit side-by-side, covered by sheets of beeswax, which provide the foundation upon which bees can build their honeycombs. A mesh screen, called a “queen excluder,” separates the queen bee and her drones from the hive workers, lest your queen abandon the box and bring your colony with her. On the outside/roof/sides of the container, an airy “robbing screen” allows the hive to breathe while preventing foreign bees from robbing your insects of their hard-earned honey.
Don't forget your smoker, which produces fumes that calm the little buzzers; a hive tool for cleaning up excess wax and other debris; a bee brush to separate the insects from their combs; and fume boards to selectively drive bees away from the hive when you need to clean or collect honey. Top it off with a bee-proof outfit of coveralls and veiled hat, as well as gloves that go past your elbows.
Buy buy bees
Once your hive is set up, you can welcome your colony. Honeybees won't just set up shop on their own—you have to purchase them. While you can order the insects from an online vendor in a shoebox-sized package, many beekeepers suggest buying a colony “nuc,” or nucleus, from a neighboring apiarist (whom you can meet through that local beekeeping association). That way, your bees won't have to undergo the stress of a USPS shipping trip, and they'll be more likely to thrive when they arrive.
But what to expect when you're expecting your “nuc”? A typical package consists of a few frames worth of bees and a queen. When the nuc arrives, you simply transfer the insects over to your own hive and let them propagate until they fill the rest of the frames in your soon-to-be-buzzing community.
Before placing an order, consider your timing. The best season to start is the spring, when bees are feasting on pollen and actively building up their hives. If you begin later in the year, your bees may not have the time to stock up enough honey to last them through winter. During the coldest season, bees hunker down, and to survive, they must rely on the 50 or more pounds of honey that they produced over the summer.
No bees in your bonnet
Being a good neighbor is important, whether you live in the middle of nowhere or in the dense core of a city. This is especially true when you're raising tens of thousands of bees. That's why some city ordinances forbid placing hives too close to walkways and require that you notify neighbors of your activity.
To be fair to those who live nearby, you can take additional steps to keep your bees out of your neighbor's bonnet. For example, you don't want the insects wandering into the next yard on their hunt for food. So invest in a hive feeder, a tubed system that delivers syrup directly to your insects. This will also help them through the first days of spring, when hives run low on honey reserves but flowers have yet to bloom.
In order to ensure your hive functions smoothly, you'll have to check in with your bees every day. Like dogs or cats, these tiny critters require a lot of care. Make sure the queen is laying eggs, the cells are slowly being capped with wax and honey, and everything keeps buzzing along normally over the course of spring and summer.
Harvest your own beeswax
After months of hard work, autumn's colors and crisp air will remind you when it's finally time to reap your reward. In preparation for their winter hive-rnation, honeybees stockpile hundreds of pounds of the sticky stuff. While you need to leave a sizable amount for your bees to eat (40 to 60 pounds will do), that leaves a roughly equal amount for you to feast upon come fall.
First, you must determine whether your honey is actually ready for removal. You should never deprive your bees of those late summer blossoms; wait until the “nectar flow” in your region is done before you dig into the hive. But don't wait so long that it gets too cold for honey to flow. As with all things bees, timing is everything.
Your harvesting method will depend on your equipment. If you have a more sophisticated hive with draining tubes, you may be able to pull your honey straight through a spigot. With a more basic hive, you have to don your best beekeeping gear, remove a frame (each one holds about six pounds of nectar when full), and scrape out the combined syrup and beeswax. Next, you spin them with a cheap hand crank until they separate. Finally, scrape the chuff (wax, which can be transformed into candles and other beauty products, and dead bees, which cannot) off the top and bottle your liquid gold.
Still, it's important to bee careful. Like oysters, which take on the flavors (and pollutants) of their local waters, honey is a product of a bee's environment. In New York City, bees feasted on the sugary byproducts of a Maraschino cherry factory—and then went on to produce bright red honey. Less exciting was the poisonous green honey another group of New York bees spat out after slurping up antifreeze. While these instances are rare, it's important to keep a keen eye on your insects—and their normally-tasty creation.
Ultimately, beekeeping is a rewarding process for the daring apiarists who take it on. But success doesn't come easy. If you start your own hive, you'll be (the last pun, we promise) one busy bee.