Discover the joys of harvesting honey from your own backyard. Alethea Morrison outlines what you’ll need to know to make it through the first year, while stunning macrophotography by Mars Vilaubi brings the inner workings of the hive to life. With in-depth discussions of allergies, colony hierarchy, bee behavior, and more, this approachably informative guide bursts with enthusiastic encouragement. Keep your own bees, and enjoy the sweet buzz.
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About the Author
Alethea Morrison is the author of Homegrown Honey Bees. She lived in San Francisco with her husband, photographer Mars Vilaubi, before stepping into the wild yonder of rural Massachusetts together to raise their son, keep bees and chickens, brew beer, sew clothes, grow heirloom beans, and otherwise slow down to smell the flowers of a handmade life. Their experience raising chickens was chronicled in Chick Days. Morrison works as the Creative Director at Storey Publishing and serves as president of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association.
Photographer Mars Vilaubi chronicled the adventures of his three backyard hens from their first days out of the egg through their first days laying eggs in Chick Days. He lives in western Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
While many species of bees are pollinators, as are butterflies and other insects, honey bees are especially valuable to agriculture, because they let us keep them in hives. Commercial beekeepers transport hives from crop to crop, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles throughout the year. Honey bees' economic value as pollinators actually far surpasses the value of their honey crop, but it's the honey crop that motivates most backyard beekeepers.
Like wine or coffee, honey doesn't have one flavor. Nectar from different flowers creates honey with different essences. If you hope to produce honey from just one type of flower, such as clover, orange blossom, tupelo, buckwheat, or dandelion, your beehives must be in an area where that flower dominates, and as soon as those blossoms pass, you must harvest the honey or move the hives.
While monofloral honey is delicious and wonderful, wildflower honey is nothing short of astonishing. It may be concocted from a medley of different nectars, but each bottle is unique and special to the moment in time and place that the bees made it. I harvest honey at the same time as a beekeeping friend who lives less than two miles away, and our crops are totally different in color and flavor. Honey is a distillation of the miniscule spot on the planet that you and your bees inhabit: the transmutation of the land into liquid gold.
Aristotle surmised that bees collected honey from rainbows. He may not have gotten the science right, but he was spot on with the poetry of its flavor.
Honey may be the star of the show, but beeswax is another valuable product of the hive and is often used to make candles and skin care products. Beeswax candles have a gently sweet scent and don't smoke when they burn. In cosmetics and creams, the wax protects and softens the skin.
Power to the People
Across the political spectrum today, there is a sense of helplessness in the face of forces beyond our personal control, whether it's climate change, terrorism, economic insecurity, unhealthy and unsafe food, or government intrusions on our liberty. If any of these perils makes you want to become more self-sufficient, you are not alone. There are more reasons to keep bees than delighting your taste buds.
* Worried about environmental, economic, and health consequences of an industrialized food system? Harvest your own local sweetener!
* Want to get closer to nature? Bees are more like wild animals than domesticated livestock, and beekeepers have the privilege to observe their lives and behaviors up close. Beekeepers also become highly attuned to the local environment, as the success of the honey harvest depends so much on the weather and the health of nectar- and pollen-producing plants.
* Skeptical of pharmaceuticals and interested in natural health remedies? Have ready access to raw honey, bee pollen, and other products of the hive!
* Planning an independent food supply in case all hell breaks loose? Ensure that you'll keep life on the homestead sweet!
Keeping bees is an empowering action, however small, that makes you part of the solution.
Power to the Pollinators
Speaking of troubled times, the world is in a pollination crisis. If you haven't spent the last decade in a subterranean hermitage, you've probably heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD), the phenomenon in which bees mysteriously, suddenly, and completely disappear from their hives. Without definitive evidence about the cause of CCD, the United States has not developed an effective policy to manage it. Bees are dying at such a rapid clip that there are no longer enough hives to pollinate the nation's commercial crops, one-third of which rely on honey bees. Now is a great time to take up beekeeping and help protect our future, one bee at a time.
Curiouser and Curiouser
All that do-gooding and you get to have a madcap hobby, too! When I first got bees, I felt as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Here was an entire complex civilization that was hidden from my view until I stuck my nose in to explore. Their language, behaviors, and rules are confusing to the novice, and frankly, the inhabitants of this alien world aren't particularly friendly. But if you are daring and inquisitive (some may say crazy) enough to spend time with untamable creatures, bees are an experience that won't fail to excite.
Welcome to a wild, wonderful adventure.
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
— LEWIS CARROLL, ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND
What Am I Getting Into?
Time and Money
For a garden to produce a robust yield of delicious food instead of a wasteland of dead plants, it requires routine maintenance, specific tasks done at specific times, and your consistent awareness of how it is developing. Beekeeping is the same way. As a very approximate estimate, plan on spending an hour a week during the bees' active season if you have just a couple of hives. When you harvest honey, you'll be busier than that, and if your hives rest in the winter, you'll rest then, too.
Beekeeping's start-up costs are significant enough to merit budgeting for, but once you're underway it is fairly inexpensive. You'll spend more than you would for a video game console and way more than for some knitting needles and a few skeins of yarn, but with those hobbies and most others, you must continually feed the habit. Beekeeping is relatively self-sustaining.
Read chapters 4 and 5 about prepping a bee yard, buying bees, and all the equipment you need so you can put together a shopping list. Get catalogs from some beekeeping suppliers listed in resources to have a solid idea of how many Ben Franklins you'll need to invest.
If money is tight, consider top-bar beekeeping, which demands a smaller outlay of cash (see Back to the Future: Top-Bar Hives ->).
Beekeeping isn't easy or simple, but fortunately, you don't have to go it alone. Every beekeeping book will offer a new and valuable insight, so read as much as you can. Recommended books are listed in the resources section.
Research and reading don't have to end with books and magazines. You can also:
Get online. Beesource.com is an active online community where people post information and have conversations about every beekeeping topic imaginable. It can be a great place to ask questions and get feedback.
Take a workshop. Many beginning beekeepers take workshops before setting up their first hives. Those can be a great introduction to beekeeping or can reinforce and help you absorb the information you're gathering. You can also ask questions and make connections with other people who keep bees or plan to. Local bee associations often offer these classes.
Join the club. Speaking of bee associations, it's important to reach out to one if there is a club in your area, even if you're not interested in a workshop. Beesource.com has a pretty thorough listing of local associations. Books and online forums are great, but there is no substitute for folks living nearby who can give you information about beekeeping in your specific area and help you out in person when you need it.
If you manage to score a bee mentor at an association meeting, I guarantee you will double the fun of your first year of beekeeping. Don't be shy. Beekeepers love what they do, and many of them are happy to share their wisdom with someone as inexperienced but enthusiastic as you! Truly, they only wish more people were interested.
The Fear Factor
Are you wondering whether beekeepers get stung, how often, and how much it will hurt? The answers, in order, are: yes; it depends; and not too badly. If you're very risk-averse, you can wear the beekeeping equivalent of a hazmat suit that offers full-body protection. I've never met a beekeeper that hasn't been stung, though, so get used to the idea. I promise that it's really not so bad (unless you have a true systemic allergy).
How often you get stung depends on how much protection you wear, how skillfully you work the hive, and the temperament of your bees. For example, a beekeeper blundering nervously about will get stung more often than one moving slowly and calmly. Opening the hive when it's cool or overcast will also raise the bees' defenses. As you read further in this book, you'll learn how to work the hive sensitively and smartly so the bees are less likely to sting you.
Contrary to our culture's deep-rooted fear of stinging insects, honey bees really aren't out to get you, and they aren't likely to sting you or your neighbors as you go about your daily business. When you open up their house and start poking around where they raise their babies and store their food, that's another matter, and they will be on the alert at the very least. I'm sure you can relate.
The vast majority of people experience only minor swelling, redness, and itching at the site of a bee sting. Even if the swelling is much more severe than average, you are not in any danger. An antihistamine like Benadryl can help relieve symptoms.
Some people, however, suffer anaphylactic shock, causing difficulty in breathing, which requires immediate medical attention. An epinephrine injector like the EpiPen is available with a doctor's prescription for emergency treatment.
Law and Order
You'd think with all the beauty and abundance bees bring to the landscape and pantry by pollinating flowers and crops, they would have a better reputation. Unfortunately, they are commonly feared and loathed as nuisances, and many municipalities regulate beekeeping or prohibit it outright. Find out what the rules are where you live, ideally from your local bee association. It can give you the lowdown much more quickly than can Byzantine government offices and websites.
With the serious decline of honey bee populations, and the media focusing on the threat to our food supply, now is a great time to advocate for lifting these bans. After many years of effort, activists in New York City successfully lobbied to legalize beekeeping in 2010, giving official sanction to an activity that many people were already doing surreptitiously throughout the most densely populated city in the nation.
Good Beekeepers Are Good Neighbors
Even if you know how great bees are, your neighbors might not, so an education campaign is in order if your beeyard is your backyard. Someone could freak out if a couple of beehives unexpectedly pop up in the neighborhood one day. Discussing it with neighbors in advance will help them feel they have buy-in. Even if you have the legal right to keep bees, you'll have a lot more fun without confrontations or bad feelings.
Sharing your honey will make your hobby a lot more popular with friends and neighbors.
Bee Life 101
Journey to the Center of the Hive
Much of a colony's life is spent out of sight, and only beekeepers have the privilege of regularly observing this microsociety. While part of the fun of this adventure is getting a window into the secret lives of bees, what you learn is more than just a curiosity. Knowledge of the structure and cycles of the colony, as well as the bees' instincts and behaviors, is the foundation of good beekeeping. Every decision beekeepers make, from the equipment we buy to when we visit the hive and what we do when we're there, is based on our understanding of bee life.
Here are the primary elements you will see inside a hive, aside from the equipment (also called furniture) you introduce as a beekeeper:
* Brood and bees. If the hive is in good health, all stages of bees are in the hive, from brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae) to adults.
* These cells will soon be capped and the larvae will pupate.
* Beeswax comb. Bees secrete wax from glands on their abdomens. Then they chew the wax to make it pliable and sculpt it into interlocking hexagonal cells called comb. Inside these cells they raise their young and store their food.
* You can identify honey cells by the cappings, which are flat and look either dry and opaque white or slightly wet and more transparent. Below, there is one cell of capped honey surrounded by cells full of either uncapped honey or uncured nectar.
* Nectar, pollen, and honey. Bees forage nectar and pollen from flowers and bring it back to the hive to store as food. They treat the nectar with an enzyme and fan their wings to evaporate its water content, curing it into honey. Since honey will absorb water out of the air and ferment if the moisture level gets too high, bees cap cured honey with wax. The cappings, much like jar lids, preserve the honey by keeping out the moisture.
The bees mix honey and pollen and ferment it into bee bread, a precious food for brood and the youngest bees.
* Propolis. Bees also forage plant sap and resin, which they treat with another enzyme to make propolis. Propolis is like a bee's duct tape, good for fixing just about everything, from sealing cracks and holes to strengthening wax comb. Propolis has antibacterial qualities, too, and the bees use it as an all-around cleaning product. Some colonies go overboard with the propolis. When they use it to glue hive parts together, it can be a real nuisance to the beekeeper.
Honey bees show a level of social organization so extreme that individuality is meaningless. The instinct to survive and reproduce is held by the colony as a whole. No one bee in a social group competes against another for food or mating opportunities in the way mammals, birds, and even most other insects do. A honey bee's total devotion to its colony's well-being results in breathtaking acts of heroic self-sacrifice and brutal acts of premeditated murder.
In this insect opera there are three principal players: the queen, the drones, and the workers.
The Queen Mother
A colony has one queen, and she has an outsize importance. Without her, a colony will wither and die. Since she is the only fertile lady in the hive, she lays all the eggs. And since she lays all the eggs, every bee born is her daughter or son. They all carry her genetic material, so qualities like temperament, productivity, cleanliness, and disease resistance are inheritances that most of the bees in a colony will share. If the queen is a bad apple, she will definitely spoil the whole barrel.
The queen mates only a few days in her life, when she is about a week old. She flies from the hive and attracts cruising drones from other colonies, mating with them in succession. From those couplings she gets all the zillions of sperm cells that she will ever need over the course of her egg-laying years. Barring any disease or injury, she will reign supreme over her bees, laying up to two thousand eggs a day for two or more years.
The Drone: Just a Gigolo
Although the queen mostly lays fertilized eggs, which hatch into female worker bees, she also lays unfertilized eggs, which mature into male drones. These boys are a minority and exist solely to mate with new queens. Day after day they congregate outside the hive and monotonously fly around for hours on end unless the presence of a virgin or newly mated queen snaps them into action. Sadly for the drone, mating is his last act on earth, as the hookup rips his genitals from his body.
An alternative fate is to be booted from the hive and die of starvation or exposure. Ever thrifty, worker bees do not hesitate to banish their brothers from the homestead in lean times when they want fewer mouths to feed. Apart from such untimely deaths, drones live four to eight weeks.
The Worker: Jane Q. Public
While the queen toils away laying eggs and the drones are busy trying to breed, the workers do everything else. Depending on their age and the needs of their colony, young worker bees cycle through the following jobs:
* Nurses feed the larvae and newborn bees.
* Attendants follow the queen, feeding, grooming, and protecting her while helping spread her pheromones around the hive, the scent of which keeps the bees on task.
* Undertakers remove dead larvae and pupae from their cells and carry dead adults outside the hive.
Excerpted from "Homegrown Honey Bees"
Copyright © 2013 Alethea Morrison and Marcelino Vilaubi.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Why Bees?
2 What Am I Getting Into?
3 Bee Life 101
4 How Do I Get Started?
5 The Gear
6 The First Month
7 The First Season
8 The First Harvest
9 Congratulations or Condolences
Appendix: Parasites, Diseases & Ailments
What People are Saying About This
The book I so wish I had when I started out with my first hive. Lessons learned the hard way could have been saved with this friendly and informative book.
A delightful book by a successful new beekeeper. Accurate informationnot too little, not too muchcharmingly presented. A great first year beginners book!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was a gift to my daughter who wants to start a beehive. She was delighted and has since hooked up with a bee keeper to learn more.