Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Backyard beekeeping

The following is a guest post from reader, Karen O'Brien, who writes the blog, My Own Beeswax. I asked her to write a little something for y'all since there was a bit of interest in beekeeping from my Skills post the other day.


Frame full of beesEveryone should keep bees. At least, in my biased opinion they should. Bees are, as beekeepers like to say, less trouble than a dog, but more trouble than a cat. More to the point, every third bite of food we eat is brought to us thanks to bees and their work as pollinators.

I became interested in bees when I learned about "colony collapse disorder" which since 2006 has ravaged the global bee population. In that year the bee population dropped by some 30-40%, and in the years since the syndrome has persisted (though it seems to be getting a bit better). Given that so much of our food depends on bee pollination, this is a big deal. The PBS program "NOVA" did a great overview of this phenomenon. The jury is still out on why this is happening, but one of several potential culprits to emerge is pesticides.

I got my first hives – two of them – last month. I built the hive boxes, painted them and put them on stands in the backyard (ok, to be honest my husband and his father did most of the actual labor, but I made many helpful suggestions). I ordered two "packages" of bees, each with its own queen, through a local beekeeper. I "hived" them almost three weeks ago and named my queens Elizabeth I and Kathryn the Great.

Generally I am a risk-averse person and am completely un-brave about being stung. I have all the protective gear (suit, hat, veil, smoker, not to mention Benedryl and an Epipen, just in case). But somehow in the thick of a cloud of bees I feel quite calm (maybe it’s the suit). The thing is that one must be totally in the moment while working with the bees, move calmly and deliberately, breathe and focus. Bees can tell if you are impatient or irritated and will react accordingly.

To prepare for this adventure I took a beekeeping class through the county extension. This was really helpful, plus it introduced me to kindred bee-spirits who are as obsessed as I am. I joined the local beekeeping association, and was given a mentor (whom I try hard not to continually badger with anxious questions). And I read everything about bees I could get my hands on from fiction to entomology articles.

I also prepared my neighbors beforehand. One doesn’t just pop a hive up in the city without giving folks some warning. I live in a small city, which tends to be fairly eco-groovy, surrounded by farmland. One of my neighbors has gotten as excited as me and helped build the hive stands. He comes out to the fence and drinks a beer and talks with me when I work the hives. My other neighbor’s father kept bees. Who knew?

Bees are extraordinary creatures, living in a highly specialized, exquisitely sensitive, matriarchal society. They communicate among themselves both by "dancing" to indicate where food is, and by chemical exchanges through pheromones and feeding one another. The more I learn about them, the more in awe I am.

I did not get bees for food production, although I would be very happy if my garden produced more due to their presence. Nor even for the honey, although that certainly would be nice. I am in it for the bees.

Recommended Resources:
American Bee Journal
Bee Culture Magazine
John's Beekeeping page
New York Times topic: honey bees
Basic Beekeeping

Karen O'Brien is a novice beekeeper (so far just a "bee-haver", we'll see about the "keeping" part), who lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband and son. When not thinking about bees, she is Executive Director of Advancing Green Chemistry, a non-profit organization linking science and sustainability (


If you have any comments or beekeeping questions, feel free to ask Karen here or on her blog!


Jibbe said...

Interesting article! Our company has a honeybee vanilla candle they just started selling, they take part of the proceeds & donate it to a university that is researching the problems surrounding the bee colonies! Bees are definitely important to us! I hope they succeed in their research.

Marimoy said...

I do love the bees, but I must correct: 30% (or one of three as you put it) of our food comes from pollinating animals in general, not just bees. However, we do make about $40 billion annually off of products pollinated by various insects.

Carmen said...

That is so cool.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting! One of the biggest things that has held me back in learning to do this is wondering how I will get the neighborhood's blessing after already asking for the chickens two years ago.
I don't mind being the crazy hippie girl on the block... I just don't know if they'll go for it.
I never thought of the county extention for classes... I will have to investigate!
Thanks for posting this!

Greenpa said...

I am impressed! Totally cool, and it has to be a door into more interactions with neighbors, and kids. I had a neighbor who kept bees when I was in 2nd grade- and was constantly asking him questions; which he answered.

Now- you HAVE to see this-

I wann keep bees!

Eddie Izzard is a big fave around here. He's tremendously smart, besides all the weirdness.

Greenpa said...

oh, yeah, one warning about that clip, the F word is in there somewhere- this is his R rated version.

Tara said...

I have my first bee colony coming in a couple of weeks. I also just took a class and couldn't be more excited about keeping bees! The hive is ready and waiting...

Jibbe said...

You know I am going to keep watching these comments & see how things go. You have really peaked my interest on doing this myself!

Sonja said...

Great post Crunchy! I don't suppose you know of anyone that keeps a beekeeping blog in the Pacific Northwest? I'm a novice beekeeper in Seattle (just painted my bee boxes yesterday!) and was hoping to follow the chronicles of an 'expert' keeper since the first year of anything is always a bit nerve wracking. Bees in the Seattle area won't arrive for another couple weeks and it's given me plenty of time to become extremely nervous about the whole proposition. This past winter was especially hard for hives in our area; hopefully we'll have a nice, warm summer!
Thanks for the great blog.

Green Bean said...

Lovely post. Bees are so critical to our well being. I so admire those who take the step into beekeeping and would love to do that some day.

auntjone said...

Hmmm...wonder if the in-laws would let me put up a hive on the farm? I'd be flying solo depending on the kind of bees - the husband is allergic!

kpeao said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Mimi is totally right: there are other pollinators in addition to honeybees responsible for pollinating our food.

All pollinators are diminishing in number. Providing good habitat for other pollinators is another good thing to do.

Greenpa: you killed me with the Eddie Izzard clip. I put it up on my blog.

Speaking of which, others interested in learning from my experiences (mistakes and lucky guesses) please feel free to check me out:

Sharlene said...

Very interesting. Do any of you who keep bees have small children? It just seems like the two would be a dangerous mix...

kpeao said...

Regarding kids and bees - Kids are most likely to get stung by accidentally stepping on a bee or by purposely hitting the hive with sticks or rocks. Toddlers are another matter - obviously they need constant supervision.

But generally once kids know the rules (move slowly, don't swat at the bees, be gentle around the hives) they seem to get it.

I have a nine-year old son (I got him his own suit and veil which he is very pleased about). I have neighbors with smaller kids and younger nephews and nieces in the neighborhood. So far the kids are curious but cautious.

Just last Saturday I was at a "hiving" demonstration (a package of bees was being put into a new hive) and there were many kids present -some wearing suits and veils some not. One little girl was happily watching bees walk on her hand.

Of course there is always the danger of someone having an allergic reaction. This is why I have Benedryl and an epipen - the latter is a shot of epinephrine for extreme allergic reactions.

Anonymous said...

i'd love to keep bees. we have the space, the distance from the neighbors and the high fences but still they make me anxious. i suppose the only cure for that is to go to the classes and see what it is that i'm so frightened of.

Jason C said...

My wife and I have been talking about this for several months. My question for you - what was your start up cost for the two hives? How many tiers is your hive? I'd really love to figure out the neighbor thing. I've looked up the laws of the town and don't see anything that prohibits apiculture.



Anna in Atlanta said...

I too have reservations about beekeeping in our smallish, densely built neighborhood. How much "clearance" is best for a single hive?

Unknown said...

i think bees are fascinating. i've read 2 books on beekeeping.

thanks for the guest post.

Green Fundraising Ideas said...

WOW! This is interesting. I really only thought "professional" beekeeper kept bee. Thanks for all the information regarding bees - much I was unaware of.
I am also impressed with how educated your readers seem to be on this subject!

Sonja said...

I grew up around bees, from a very little baby to when I was around 10 years old. Yeah, sure, I stepped on a few when running around the yard but it was never a big deal. So many kids these days are taught to be scared of bees and they go crazy when in close proximity to the critters. If you teach your children to act calmly and don't step on them (!), it shouldn't be a problem. I used to play "bee lifeguard" by scooping them out of my kiddie pool when they fell in. Of course, people that live in areas with africanized bees should take extra care; acting calmly when around a hive often isn't good enough as I heard that these bees are extremely territorial and will attack without much provocation.

I'm starting up two hives this year and have a cost breakdown on my site. Warning: It isn't cheap!!!! Of course, these are all startup costs; once you have your bees it should be fairly inexpensive on a yearly basis.

Sonja said...

I forgot to mention. We have two brood boxes (deeps) and then up to four shallow honey supers for adding on top, as our bees gather more honey. Frankly, how many honey supers you'll need will depend on a) where you live (warm/cold climate) and b)how much honey your bees collect. I live in Seattle, it's a shorter season, we probably won't need more than three honey supers, at least for the first year. Also, the first year, your bees will have to draw out the honey combs which will take away from their initial production. The second year you'll be able to use those same combs so the bees can get right to honey making. That's the theory, at any rate. :) I'm new at this too.

As for local laws, I emailed my city directly. They were quick to respond. It was a good thing too: Seattle folks are allowed two hives but there are setback requirements that need to be observed.

As for neighbors being scared about hives: Frankly, they'll probably never notice that they're there. Bees have a huge pollen collecting radius (up to 5 miles, I think. Don't quote me on that) and they won't stay just in your yard. Sure, they'll go into your neighbor's yard but so will all the native bees and bees from other hives in the area. Our neighbors haven't noticed the hive located in an old tree stump right next door that has lived there for 5+ years. Another way to make peace with your neighbors? Bring them some of your honey.

Robj98168 said...

But what about mason bees? Thoses little workhorses - No honey but what great pollinators. They mate then the male dies. They look like flies. Mine are ready to hatch. Soon I hope soon.

Robj98168 said...

Greenpa- Eddie Izzard without the "f- word" is like a day without sunshine.

kpeao said...

Chris and Sonja did a brilliant job addressing the start-up cost/clearance issues.

No, it ain't cheap to start up a hive but this is mostly up-front costs - the main replacement parts you'll need in future are new sheets of foundation (check beekeeper's suppliers: Dadant or Brushy Mountain for prices for all of this. There are more on-line).

True too that you probably won't get much honey the first year since your bees are setting up house, building up comb, and raising workers to make enough honey for themselves, let alone you.

Definitely check with your local city ordinances regarding how many hives you are allowed - and it is true that bees can travel some 5 miles' radius to find forage - and true that most neighbors will not notice you have bees. I've heard of people keeping bees in NYC on apartment balconies.

I put up a woven willow garden screen in front of my hives to block their visibility from the street and to make the bees fly up in their take-off from the hives - i.e. not in a straight line across the yard where the kids play soccer, but up and over.

So far the only person to get stung was me - one time, when a bee got stuck in my boot (poor thing).

kpeao said...

Regarding bee fear - honey bees behave very differently than yellow jackets (or Africanized bees - the so-called "killer bees"). Learning about the differences in behavior can do a lot to help you feel more confident about honey bees.

Many people think that honey bees will swarm out in a mad cloud if you walk near their hive - they will not. Yellow jackets will do that, as will Africanized bees. The latter are being found in southern US states so do check to see whether they are a problem in your area.

Honey bees are not native to the US but are European in origin. The calmest of the honeybees are the Italian bees. That is what I have.

There are other native bees and pollinator species you can encourage to live and pollinate in your garden - do check into the Mason bees as one type. Native bees tend to be stingless and not make honey.

Honey bees are gentle but they do have their grumpy days- they are more likely to sting on days that are cold, grey, wet or windy (heck I am grumpy under those conditions).

Only a select few of the bees are "guard bees" whose job it is to investigate who is potentially bothering the hive. And they will investigate first and sting second - they die when they sting so it is a big sacrifice.

Gudrun from Kitchen Gadget Girl said...

I am also a backyard bee keeper - I installed a package last year, which was fine until December, when they disappeared. I just installed my second package of bees this week and hope they fare a little better. Giving away honey from my own hives has been quite a joy!

AJ said...

Thank you for this! I use to be a backyard bee keeper and am about ready to go for it again. I love bees, think they are just fascinating! Hope my neighbors will be just as excited!

Abbi said...

Thanks for the post. I have been dreaming about keeping bees too. Stuff like this makes me want to get busy and do it!

Lisa said...

I want to do this!

m3missy said...

What a treat to read this article. We were just talking about researching bee keeping. I too am interested in the cost out front and knowing the time and upkeep in the process. We just got chickens and it's been such a treat but time is of the essence! Local honey is so good for the allergies too!

Heather@TheGreenestDollar said...

Wow, this was an awesome post!

I've always wanted to keep a hive of bees, and am planning to as soon as we get some land in the country. Right now I'm just a little too close to my neighbors to do this.

But, I so loved reading about this. Thanks for posting!

That Writer Chic... said...

I was really excited when I saw your post. Lately, I've been reading up on honey bees. Very interesting stuff. Erv and I are in the midst of searching for land in the mountains. Plan on building a log home there one day. And we want to have bees. Lots and lots of bees. Anyways, keep us posted on the adventures of your bee keeping.