Have you ever considered keeping honeybees?
It is a rewarding hobby and can grow into a profitable business. But it is not something that should be started without some thought. The Colorado winters require some special preparations like insulation around the hives to help keep the bees alive. (See photo above.) Many of my friends have asked me “How do bees live in sub-freezing temperatures?” Did you know that honeybees can disconnect their wing muscles from their wings which allows them to “exercise” without moving cold air currents through the hive? By doing so, the worker bees can significantly elevate the temperature inside a hive. With sufficient insulation surrounding the hive, the bees can maintain a relatively warm and comfortable environment inside the hive and keep the entire colony alive.
Another major consideration in Colorado is the presence of bears. Without protection (note the electric fence surrounding the apiary), a bear can absolutely demolish an entire apiary in minutes and eat the honey, comb, bees and all. The electric fence will also keep raccoons out of the apiary. If a raccoon can get to the entrance of a hive, they will scratch lightly to induce the guard bees to investigate. The raccoon will eat the bees as soon as they come out of the entrance. One raccoon can decimate a colony population in a single night. There are other animal pests, notably mice, which can cause serious problems, so how will you protect against them? Most beekeepers in this area use metal entrance reducers (known as mouse guards) to keep their hives mouse free.
A novice beekeeper must answer other questions also. Where will you get your bees? What type of hive will you use? Will you be a “natural” beekeeper or will you use antibiotics if necessary to save an infected hive? Will you sell honey or just provide for family and friends? There are many decisions to be made if you wish to be successful keeping honeybees. This article will only touch on a very few, but I plan to write a series of articles which will offer more information. Feel free to contact me (email is below) and offer your suggestions/ideas for future articles.
You may want to contact me also if you happen to find a colony of bees on your property. I can perform (or refer you to someone else who can perform) bee “extractions”, either a swarm collection or a “cutout”. Collecting a swarm is relatively easy and is often done without charge. The Pike’s Peak Beekeepers Association accepts donations for swarm removal. Removal of an established colony (known as a “cutout”) can be much more difficult and can involve costs. If you feel that the cost of hiring a professional is too high, you might consider just buying a can of insect spray to “take care” of the problem yourself. Let me try to convince you NOT to do that.
Killing honeybees with a can of insect spray is not as easy as it might seem. A typical colony will build honeycomb in every available space. The physical size of the honeycomb in a typical building (home, barn, shed, etc.) can be huge if the colony has survived even a short time. To kill all of the bees, you will have to get the insect spray on every bee which is impossible unless you expose all of the honeycomb. Exposing all of the honeycomb is what the professional does when doing a “cutout”. It is much more likely that you will kill only a part of the colony and the rest will simply move to another space and continue building honeycomb. The bodies of those bees that were killed and the contaminated honeycomb will attract other pests (e.g. mice) and can cause significant damage to the structure. Besides, the world population of honeybees has been dwindling in recent years and, if we lose all of the bees, we lose a significant impact to our food sources. So please, don’t kill honeybees.
Beekeeping is a fascinating activity and there are many rewards. Obviously, there are some potential hazards and drawbacks as well. I believe that anyone who is thinking of keeping honeybees must begin by reviewing the potential hazards first. The following list is NOT comprehensive but should give you a good start.
- Bee stings –With proper clothing and careful movement and handling, bee stings are a relatively rare occurrence. HOWEVER, no matter how careful you are …. you WILL eventually be stung if you keep bees. If you are severely allergic to the toxin in bee stings, then your health and possibly your life are at stake. I recommend that you do NOT take the risk if you know that you are allergic to bee stings.
For those who are NOT allergic, I will tell you that my personal experience has been rather mild. Recognizing the triggers for bee aggressive behavior allows the experienced beekeeper to avoid antagonizing bees ….most of the time. In addition, the pain of a sting from a honeybee is much less than other species, like hornets, wasps, or yellow jackets. In my four years of experience as a beekeeper, I have developed a resistance and typically no longer respond to a single sting. (Well … I might say “ow”.) Your experience may be different.
- Cost – It takes time and money to get started in beekeeping. The level of monetary cost depends greatly on how skilled you are at making the required pieces and whether you buy or capture your bees. Most of the hive pieces can be made from scrap lumber at little or no ‘out of pocket’ cost …. if you have a supply of free scraps. But making your own hives will take time and skill, especially when making the frames. There are many sources of ‘starter kits’ for beekeeping which range in cost from about $200 to well over $1000.
There are many sources of ‘package bees’ as well. A typical ‘single hive’ package consists of about 3 pounds of live bees including a queen and may sell for $150 to $300. However, there are ways to capture a swarm of bees for free. Also, many beekeeper associations offer captured swarms at very reasonable prices. In the Tri-Lakes region, the Pike’s Peak Beekeeper’s Association will sell swarms to members for about $20 and the price for non-members is only slightly higher.
There are costs associated with honey harvesting but the amount varies wildly. The common “crush and strain” method can be done with minimal tools; e.g. a honey bucket with strainers and a spoon. By comparison, a motorized honey extractor system can cost several thousand dollars. Obviously, you must decide what you need and how much you can afford to spend.
- Frustration – Attempting to keep honeybees seems rather simple. After all, honeybees have existed on this earth for a very long time; and MOST of them have survived all that time without the aid of human intervention. However, the simple fact is that honeybees are susceptible to many outside influences and the weather in Colorado can be rather severe which places a strain on honeybees. In fact, this past winter seemed to be particularly deadly for honeybees. I don’t want to make it seem impossible to keep bees but losing a hive is a fairly common experience even for experienced beekeepers. Losses are usually higher during the typically five to six months of freezing temperatures in this region. Add to that the possibilities of disease, mites, etc. etc. etc. … and you have a very high probability of experiencing frustration; several times.
Well, since you are still reading, I guess I didn’t scare you away … yet. So let’s discuss the rewards now. First of all, after some time you will have a personal source of natural local honey which has health benefits for your whole family. Over time, consumption of local natural honey can reduce and sometimes eliminate allergic reactions to local pollens. Honey has anti-microbial properties and is a very healthy food. There are claims that honey can “cure” many common maladies. Please do your own research, but I have been told that honey even helps to ‘balance’ the natural insulin made by the body even in those with diabetes. I am NOT a doctor and can only repeat what I have been told about that.
However, I can vouch for the taste benefits of natural honey. My wife is a wonderful chef and I have enjoyed honey-glazed salmon filets and many other gourmet dishes. Children love peanut butter and honey sandwiches (and so do I). I love honey sweetened hot tea in the winter. We have recently been introduced to a German recipe called “Bienenstich-Kuchen” (Bee Sting Cake) which is absolutely delicious.
The picture above is a deep frame from a Langstroth hive. It is full of honey and weighs about 8 lbs. I pulled it from one of my hives that did not survive last winter and used the “crush and strain” method to harvest the honey. The honey in this frame was capped (sealed in wax) when the bees determined that it contained the “proper” amount of moisture and therefore is still delicious. It took all of my willpower to NOT dip my finger into that golden syrup for a taste. Luckily, there were a few drops which fell on the counter near my honey bucket so I eventually got that taste anyway. Eating freshly harvested natural honey is one (probably the major) benefit of keeping bees.
I can hear some of you saying “What about the ‘work’ of having to care for the bees?” Well, you are right. There are many things that have to be done to be a successful beekeeper. However, from my personal experience, those ‘tasks’ soon became something that I enjoy. It’s difficult to explain the serenity of watching bees working in their hives. Studying and learning their habits gives an insight into the roles of various members of the bee community. As you develop better understanding of what you see you will begin to “pick up” clues about the health and strength of each colony which, in turn, helps you to know what to do to improve their strength and ability to survive. The first time you see a new bee eating its way out of the brood comb is almost as thrilling as witnessing a birth. Spotting the queen bee is sometimes difficult for new beekeepers, but when you find her and watch her lay eggs; that is another milestone. You will soon learn to spot the forager bees bringing pollen back to the hive. The sacs on their legs are bulging with various colors as the pollen gathering season progresses indicating the variety of flowers they are visiting. You may even spot a bee ‘dancing’ while surrounded by other bees. The angle of the dance with respect to the sun, the length of the dance, and other aspects, tells the other bees the distance and direction from the hive of a source of water, pollen, or nectar. All I can say is that, for me, the ‘work’ feels more like fun now.
There is no way to discuss all the aspects of beekeeping in a short article like this. I hope that your interest has been piqued. If so, I will recommend that you attend a meeting of the Pike’s Peak Beekeepers Association (link to their website is below) and learn more. There is no charge for attending a meeting and visitors are welcome. If you wish to join, there is an annual membership fee. I intend to publish more beekeeping articles and, depending on my time constraints (and abilities), I may create some videos to allow you to see how some things are done while caring for honeybees. My email address is below if you wish to contact me directly.