Ever since I was a child I loved bees. One of my earliest memories is eating a sandwich outside (in Washington state, near the coast) and having bees swarm around me, collecting the sugars from the jelly that was oozing out the side of my lunch. I picked up the jelly and let the bees climb all over my hands, feeling exhilarated by being so close to something everyone seemed to fear. But observing the bees, it was clear, they weren’t there to sting me, but to collect stuff.
I have wanted to learn the art of beekeeping since then. But I came from the sort of childhood that didn’t support such interests, and I had to let it go for hobbies that were easier to develop with less resources.
But I am not a kid anymore. And I have cool friends who do cool things. A while back I was drinking mescal, tequila and bacanora with a friend who happend to have his own beehive (and a great garden). I freaked. He had a really easy system, cheap to make and with a little knowledge, fairly easy to handle. It was then that I knew I had to engage this, and so now I am.
I know a bit about plants. But bees, they don’t photosynthesize. I have dogs, a snake, turkeys, a cat… but none of them sting, or swarm. So I know I need to learn a bit before I begin my trek down this road.
I do have the firm belief that people are more capable than they give themselves credit for, more capable than we might attribute to each other. There are times I see someone trying to grow a plant and I know the likelihood of them failing is high; I still encourage them. People need to learn, succeed and yes, fail. And there was a time when lots of people who were not experts on things needed or wanted to learn such skills. Somehow modern life has made us afraid of unpredictable nature (and especially failure), to the degree that skills like beekeeping and even gardening has become something that only “experts”do. But in my opinion our fear of nature, and lack of trust in people is the most damaging.
A bee keeper asked me today, “what do you think of people collecting saguaro fruit?”. I told him that while some of that seed may not become a baby saguaro, much more problematic is the much larger group of people who don’t even pay attention to the disappearance of saguaro habitat due to wild land destruction. At least people who love saguaro fruit will pay attention and possibly DO SOMETHING about saguaro habitat.
Where am I getting at with this? I guess I am saying that if newbies want to engage in what were once skills in the public domain, and pose the possibility of failure, it is better than nobody giving a crap about such things. Our separation from such things leaves us incapable of making decisions that will ensure the survival of such skills or even the resources themselves.
And anyway, if we start looking into how much trouble bees are having right now, it is much more due to the activities of “experts” who are breeding plants to kill insects and having the unfortunate side effect of also killing (albeit not as quickly) the bees (and we are not even getting into birds, soil organisms, etc). Please, let’s have some people who are not experts have a stab at some solutions, people who might have the bees more in mind, rather than the shareholders of their company.
I intend to document my bee saga here, which I hope will go on for longer than my silly blog. I want to do this to show people, it’s ok. But also show the honest challenges involved. You shouldn’t get into bees without proper research and assistance. But it can be done and you are most likely capable if your interest is high enough to devote some attention to the subject.
The first step is just that: educating yourself. There are numerous resources and opinions on beekeeping. While some people do argue about one method over another, avoid the snap decisions and really look into these methods: and who are the proponents of said methods. For example, though I personally am much more into the low-tech, but slightly more labor intensive top-bar hives, I understand why some people prefer the higher yielding, and more expensive Langstroth Hives. And though newer designs of top-bar hives are more considerate of the needs of the bees over the needs of the beekeeper, I can also see how more innovation is going into the more standard Langstroth hives to accommodate bees needs more. And bees do just fine in Langstroth hives despite their design favoring the needs of production.
Do your research, and talk to people who are raising bees. There are helpful online forums where many people at different skill levels are helping each other, discussing, and yes, possibly arguing about which methods are best. Visit hives from experienced beekeepers and help them maintain hives. Especially in the spring, beekeepers often need help. Serious beekeepers need help building new hives, and maintaining the ones they have. They need all the capable hands they can round up.
I won’t insult your intelligence by doing the internet searches for you for books and websites on beekeeping. I especially don’t wish to suggest I am an expert. Because the point of this article and this project is that I am NOT. And whatever methods I find appropriate for me might not be for you. So if you start looking into beekeeping, explore all options.
After educating yourself about, and exposing yourself to bees if you intend on raising them, be sure you have, somewhere, ample space. This might be a challenge in the urban or suburban environment. But there are creative solutions. I happen to have lots of space and resources where I can keep my bees safe from neighbors, dogs, etc. Not that I am rich, but I just happen to have lots of space. I also have friends with space. If you find you cannot keep bees at your own house, consider using the property of a friend, so longs as you make them very aware of the risks involved, and how they should behave around the hive. It’s probably a good idea to anticipate and understand how your neighbors might be impacted too.
There is a trend in rooftop beehives. But I am not sure that this is a great idea in Arizona, unless you can set up the situation where the bees can not be overheated from our impossible summer heat (and reflected heat from hot roofs). I am not saying it is impossible, but it will require some attention to detail and additional expense.
Oh, you better go get stung. I mean, unless you know you are allergic. If you keep bees, you will get stung. It’s really not a big deal. It happens. If you are incapable of handling this fact without freaking out, then it’s possible that beekeeping is not for you. Bees are creatures of nature, and therefore highly tuned into the states of creatures around them. Fear, with natural creatures, generally yields adverse reactions. If you intend on handling bees, you need to handle them with intelligence and informed confidence.
Depending on what method of beekeeping you go with, you will need to accumulate some supplies. Generally because I am poor, and also because I am fervently adverse to supporting the culture of buying crap I don’t need, I am going with lo-tech methods that require less stuff. But there are some things that are somewhat essential.
- Protective gear that includes gloves and veil: you won’t always have to get totally covered for every hive interaction. But for some interactions, particularly those that require you to be inside the hive, scraping, adjusting, etc. it’s smart to protect yourself. Particularly important is the veil since bees like to go for the eyes, get tangled in your hair, or the ears and that is somewhat unpleasant.
- A smoker: smokers are devices that contain material/fuel that burn inside a can (usually wood). A pumping action feeds the fire with oxygen and pushes smoke out of the can. Smoke initiates a feeding response in bees, so that they eat instead of spending energy on defending the hive, allowing you to work without ducking from zealous defenders of the hive. This natural response is thought to be out of fear that they may have to prepare to leave the hive owing to a fire threat and if they have resources, they will be better prepared for moving. It also masks the pheromone response in the guard bees.Too much smoke will evacuate the hive, and very little is really needed, mostly at the entrance.
- A hive tool: though many companies sell all kinds of hive tools, they are basically a scraper. You probably have a tool around the house that is sufficient for the job the hive tool is used for, which is essentially for loosening hive bodies and frames, and removing excess or misplaced propolis or bur comb (though the bees may argue whether or not such is misplaced). If you have such a tool, make sure it is clean, is clear of any chemicals, and that you can devote it just to beekeeping. Keep it clean, yo. Even if you have to buy something new, you don’t necessarily have to purchase something expensive. It’s a friggin’ glorified scraper or small crowbar, ok?
- Your hive: depending on the style you go with, you will need to accumulate not just the hive you start with, but the components to expand the hive as it grows. You might also need a “nuc” box which is a box used for housing new colonies which are created from splitting larger colonies.
- Some extra wood, cardboard, maybe some cinderblocks: for various reasons, you might need to adjust the hive to meet the needs of your bees. Have some stuff to play with to get the orientation, height, etc, just right. An example: if the hive has been weakened by an accident, is struggling with the season, or is vulnerable in many of the ways bee colonies can be vulnerable, you might want to make the entrance smaller with a piece of cardboard or wood. You will also need some bricks or other weights to secure the roof of your wind. Don’t forget how windy it can sometimes get and plan accordingly.
- Tools for maintenance and assembly: Depending on the type of hive you get, there will be some degree of assembly required. Also, as you become more knowledgeable you might need to make micro-adjustments in response to your colony’s needs, or in response to inspiration for creative methods of beekeeping that are beyond the basic design. Beehive kits might not arrive perfectly or you might incur damage to the hive that requires you to fix it. But honestly, everyone should have basic tools around the house and my guess is, if you are even considering beekeeping, you probably have some tools around the house.
There are MANY subjects to consider and discuss. As I said, I am no expert and I encourage anyone to correct any false statements, or even impose their opinions. I will use my own process of research as fodder for future articles and share as many helpful resources as I can. This articles pales in comparison to many other introductions on the internet and I encourage you to look them up.
I am in the process of building a top-bar hive. I will address any specific challenges I encounter on this blog for the purpose of helping anyone else with this interest in learning as I am. I will be getting my bee colony in a few weeks from the time of this article. I also need to accumulate some of the supplies I mentioned above, since I am sure my friends might be annoyed if I kept borrowing theirs. I will share my experiences keeping in mind that they are mine, and try not to impose my own conclusions on to you–my aim is to provide information to help you if you choose to start raising bees but also to encourage people who are not “experts” to consider beekeeping. Of course, this is indeed a serious hobby and I am taking it seriously. I just happen to believe that people ARE capable of learning such skills if they are willing to devote the energy and time to learning. And I also believe we need more people with such skills. Whatever the future holds for us all, someone needs to know how to raise bees, if the future is worth arriving at.