Benefits of Beekeeping.
It’s not all about the honey… well, okay, mostly it is. But there are some other things that make it a great addition to your Permaculture design.
- Minimal time investment (short visits about once a week to once every three weeks during the spring and summer, much less during autumn and winter)
- Small investment of money to get started.
- Minimal maintenance required.
- Great rewards in pollination for your gardens
- About 1-2 gallons (12-24 lbs) of honey in your first year or two.
- Average is about 2-4 gallons (24-48 lbs) of honey in a summer.
- A good year can produce 4-5 gallons (48-60 lbs) or even well over 100 lbs in the right locations.
Brief History of Beekeeping
- Humans have been gathering honey from the wild since humans first walked the earth. Why? ‘Cause it tastes so darn good!
- Many ancient cultures raised honey bees and collected honey using hollow logs and pottery that had to be destroyed to obtain the honey.
- At least three thousand years ago, in ancient Israel, there was a thriving honey and wax industry.
- Aristotle (Greek) and Virgil (Roman) wrote wrote at length on beekeeping.
- In the 18th Century, scientists began to study the honey bee in earnest.
- One of the more amazing stories in science is that of Francois Huber who became blind before he was twenty. With the aid of his wife and his secretary, he created a glass-walled beehive and studied the honey bee. His research laid the scientific foundations of the life history of honey bees. Seriously? While he was blind? This blows me away!
- Using Huber’s research, Langstroth developed the first real moveable comb hive in 1853 His basic design is what most beekeepers still use today (with some minor modifications).
Equipment for Beekeeping
- Standard 10-frame hive (with all components – see diagram above). Here are PDF instructions for building your own Standard Langstroth Hive.
- Some people are using the Top Bar Hive (see above and link to Wikipedia article) instead of the Standard Langstroth Hive. It is much cheaper to build, bees are easier to interact with, and it is much lighter to handle/carry. It does not save the combs for future use. Top Bar Hives are being used a lot in developing countries, and it is something I am going to look a lot more into for myself. Here are instructions for building your own Top Bar Hive.
- Bee veil – so you don’t get stung in the face.
- Bee smoker – Slowly burns fuels (hessian, burlap, pine needles, or prepared fuels) and masks the alarm pheromone in bees. They also think the hive may be on fire, so they start eating honey in case they need to escape. Yes, you are being mean and tricking a little insect.
- Hive Tool – used to pry the frames apart to remove and examine them
- Bee Brush – brush bees off a honey frame
- Uncapping knife – electric heated knife that makes removing the caps easier to extract the honey
- Feeder (to provide sugar syrup until the hive is established)
- Centrifugal Extractor (optional) – spins the frame around to extract the honey without damaging the combs. You can also hang the frame over a heat source (Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, suggests a wood stove) and let the honey melt away from the comb into a collecting pan.
- Beekeeping Clothing (Helmet, Coveralls, etc) – Optional. Gives you fairly definitive protection, but many beekeepers gradually use less and less protective clothing as they feel more comfortable.
- Bees – typically people buy a 3 lb package through the mail (9,000-10,000 bees), but you can also purchase from a local beekeeper or collect a swarm (see below).
Types of Honey Bees
There are about 20,000 species of bees. There are only 7 species of honey bee.
Almost all honey bee keepers use the Western or Common Honey Bee, Apis mellifera.
There are many subspecies of Apis mellifera that have been developed over time and in different locations. The most common is the Italian Honey Bee, Apis mellifera ligustica. The other two most common types are the Carnolian and Caucasian. There are many hybrids of these as well.
Honey Bee Castes
Honey bees have a caste system. There is one queen, 100-1,000 males/”drones” (that leave the hive to mate then die), and 10,000-50,000 female workers who do all the building, cleaning, foraging, honey making, and care for the young. The queen is the only sexually mature female. She lives 1-3 years. All the workers and drones are her offspring. Yes, you read that right… the women do all the work, and the men have sex with their mother and die.
Start planning in the winter.
Get your supplies ready and assemble your hive. Paint it a light color if heat is an issue. White is traditional.
Site the hive in a location that doesn’t have a lot of foot traffic in the “landing zone” at the entrance. This will reduce stings and will make your hive more relaxed. Avoid placing it near any electrical or vibratory source (air conditioner, lawn mower route, etc). Place them where they will get some early morning sun. This will encourage them to go and forage earlier and will help warm it up in the winter. Make sure you have a source of water close to the hive. Ideally, water should be fresh and running. Bees will bring water back to the hive to cool it using evaporation. If you see a bunch of bees at the entrance, then it may be too hot inside. If no creek or stream is nearby, then a faucet slowly dripping water onto a flat surface will suffice.
Bees need nectar to produce honey. Honey is their main food. They do eat some pollen, but not too much and it is mixed with honey. How do they get nectar? From flowers! So have a lot of them, all over, and as many types as you can. A wide range of plants with differing flowering times is part of good design in Permaculture. This is very beneficial for honey bees (as well as all the other beneficial insects that survive on nectar). Honey bees can travel for miles to find nectar. If there is nothing local, then your bees will take long trips. This reduces production.
If you can afford two hives, it is better – you can compare progress, health, have more honey (share with the other if it is too low), and replace a queen if needed (take a brood frame from the hive with a queen, place it in the queen-less hive, and the workers will raise a new queen).
Order your bees. Arrange to have your bees delivered about when you have the first flush of flowering of your plants in the spring. The earlier you get your bees in the season, the more time they have to build up (increasing their numbers and laying wax combs) and producing honey (first for themselves for food in the winter, and second as surplus… for you!)
Check on them no more than once a week. Monitor for problems. Wait for the honey!
Yes, bees do sting. But they only do so when they feel threatened. Move slowly and gently. Wear light colored clothing. Almost all bee keepers get stung on a fairly regular basis regardless of what they tell you. Most people develop a bit of an immunity to it. Initially it will hurt! Over time, the bee sting will still be painful, but it won’t be that bad and won’t last for too long. I would recommend talking to your doctor, telling them you are a bee keeper, and requesting an Epi-Pen. Anybody at any time can develop an allergy to bees… even if you have been stung hundreds of times in your life.
Swarming is when the queen and a lot of the workers leave the hive to look for a new home. The hive is left with workers, eggs, and larvae (one of which will be the new queen). This can lead to reduced honey produced for you. The number one reason for swarming is overcrowding, but overheating and consistent hive disturbance can also cause it. Prevent overcrowding by adding more supers (extra frame boxes above the hive). It is a good idea to add a super when the bees are working on 8 of the 10 frames.
Honey Extraction and Honey Types
I’ll reserve that for a later post.