So you’re thinking you’d like to give beekeeping a try. While it’s always fun to jump in head first, a little bit of preparation will go a long way. Before you even commit to getting bees, here are some important things to consider:
Why do you want to keep bees?
If you are hoping to “save the bees” there are much better ways (you can find out more in last week’s post “How to save the bees“) If you want to make a lot of money selling honey, be aware that it’s a really tough gig. For your first few years, you’re likely to invest more than you will recoup, and making a significant profit with honey involves a lot of work. If, however you just want a chance to work up close with honey bees for the fun of it – and maybe enjoy some perks like plenty of honey for you and your friends, beeswax to make candles, and increased pollination in your garden, then beekeeping just might be for you.
Do you have enough time?
As far as pets/livestock go, bees are pretty low-maintenance, but you still may want to take a long minute to look at your schedule and make sure you’ll have time to keep your bees happy and healthy. Generally you can expect to spend a few hours every week or two doing something beekeeping related, whether it’s checking your hives, harvesting honey, or cleaning equipment. Though you can certainly spend much more time than that (and you may well, once you become obsessed). There is also a social responsibility to at least put in the minimum amount of effort to ensure that your hives aren’t harboring diseases and pests that might contaminate neighboring apiaries.
Are you willing to invest the money?
Be ready to spend around $500-800 to get all your equipment, woodenware, and bees. I strongly recommend starting with two hives. Once your hives are established, you may also need to buy medications, or jars or smoker fuel. Fair warning: Once the obsession sets in, you may find yourself impulsively buying anything you see that has a bee on it. As they say, the way to make a small fortune beekeeping is to start with a large fortune.
What are the legal requirements for keeping bees in your area? One of the most important lessons I learned in college was from a professor who used to say “C.Y.A.” Which meant “Cover Your A**!” Many backyard beekeepers don’t pay attention to legal issues – it’s easy enough to throw some hives in your yard out of sight from the neighbors. Most of the time it isn’t an issue, but say someone gets stung and holds you liable, or your bees swarm into a neighbor’s house and cause thousands of dollars of property damage. If your bees are in good legal standing, these people won’t have much of a case against you – you were within your legal rights and doing everything by the book. However, if your bees weren’t registered with the state, or if it turns out you can’t legally keep bees where you live, you may have an issue. Before you get bees, do a little research and C.Y.A!
If you have a local beekeeper’s association, they usually have lots of helpful information about the legal issues with keeping bees in your area. Sometimes a simple Google search will help you find answers. A few areas prohibit beekeeping, many states require you to register your hives, some require you to get a license before hand. Every area is different, it’s usually not difficult, and it’s almost always worth the effort. You may also want to consider any implications beekeeping may have on your homeowners insurance – sometimes your policy will cover your hives, but other time they’ll consider them a liability and up your rates, so it’s good to get informed.
Do you have a place to put them? Bees don’t require a lot of space, but it’s still important to consider where they will go. Wherever the hives are located, there will be a good amount of bee traffic, especially the five to eight feet in front of the hive. It’s easy to keep bees in your backyard, but you’ll want to be sure they are in an area where you or your kids or dog or pet wombat don’t like to play. You can potentially reduce the amount of space the bees will take up by positioning the hive facing a barrier such as a hedge or solid fence. This will encourage the bees to fly up and away from your yard, at least somewhat.
If you have pets or other livestock, you’ll want to make sure they aren’t penned or caged too close to the hives, just in case something happens to the hive, for example it is knocked over and the bees angrily swarm the area. This scenario is pretty rare, and mostly happens in areas with Africanized bees, but it’s still important to protect your pets or livestock from the possibility! Leaving an animal caged too close (within 20-30 feet) to a beehive is unethical.
It’s also worth noting that on hot days, bees will appear in large numbers around any good water source, which may be your dog’s water dish or your neighbor’s swimming pool – this isn’t good if your neighbors aren’t exactly bee-friendly to begin with! You can help minimize these problems by supplying your bees with their own water source.
Are you physically strong enough? Beekeeping is not easy work. Back problems are so common among beekeepers that the term “beekeeper’s back” is shorthand for chronic back pain from too much beekeeping. A medium Langstroth hive body in the fall can weigh around 40 lbs. (A deep hive body can weigh up to 60 pounds, which is why I don’t use them!). A hive body is also awkwardly shaped, usually has crummy handles, and is filled with live bees that really, really don’t like being dropped. All of these factors make it difficult to keep bees and avoid injury (though it is possible! I’ve got a post on that coming up soon.) If you aren’t in relatively good shape, and capable of some heavy lifting, (and don’t have a strong person willing to assist you) beekeeping may not be your hobby of choice. There are some different hive designs which are intended to ease the lifting, so if you are absolutely set on honey bees, but aren’t sure if you can handle the backbreaking labor, it might be worth looking into other hive options.
Can you handle being stung? For many beekeepers, the possibility of getting stung is part of the thrill, for others, it’s a complete nuisance. Regardless of how you feel about it, you will get stung. You will get stung a lot, and probably pretty often. When I first started beekeeping and was still working as a bartender, I once had to call out of work because I was stung so many times that my hand was too swollen to serve drinks. I have had to go out in public looking like a monster because I got stung in the face. I have had to walk on bee-stung feet. If you don’t have the kind of job or lifestyle where you can afford to look like a freak or be incapacitated by swelling from time to time, this may not be something you want to do.
Will allergies be a problem? I hope it’s obvious that if you are allergic to insect stings, you should probably not be a bee keeper (although I have met a few bee-allergic beeks!). You should also find out if your family or neighbors are allergic, if possible, While having a hive in your backyard may not necessarily mean someone will get stung, it’s important to know the risks and be prepared. Sting allergies are sort of unpredictable; one day you can get stung and be fine and the next day you may have an anaphylactic reaction. Even if you aren’t allergic, it’s a good idea to be prepared and get an epi pen (and learn how to use it) just in case.
Are you good at handling frustration?
When I first expressed an interest in beekeeping, my mentor told me that beekeeping could be really frustrating. I didn’t really get it then, but years later, after I found myself disgruntled and on the verge of quitting, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
The thing is, bees die. They die for all sort of reasons. Sometimes you do something stupid and kill them, or sometimes you’re pretty sure you did everything right and they die anyway. They look at you with those big, cute, compound eyes, and then they get parasites and horrible viruses and they die twitching and miserable.
Bees also sting you for no good reason (or worse, because you did something stupid), or they pick up and leave because they just don’t like you. Year after year, you work your butt off only to lose half your bees over the winter. You spend $30 on a queen and she immediately flies away. Lots of lame, sad, frustrating things happen when you’re a beekeeper. It can be really devastating, especially for the nature-loving individuals who tend to be drawn to beekeeping in the first place. It takes a special personality to be able to shrug it off, and get to fixing the problem.
Do you still really want to keep bees? If you’ve made it through this whole post and you’re still eager to get started, then you’re probably on the right path. Beekeeping can be really difficult, but for those of us who feel drawn to beekeeping, for those of us who’ve caught “the bug” there’s really no other choice. Despite all the reasons not to bother, all of the obstacles and frustrations, and arguably more pleasant hobbies out there, I keep bees because I absolutely love it. Chances are, you will too.
If you’ve though it through and you’re ready to get started, stay tuned for next week, where I’ll begin my Introduction to Beekeeping series, in which I will cover the essentials that you’ll need to know to get started keeping bees!