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It’s All the Buzz: Basic Beekeeping
by Charlotte Ekker Wiggins - posted 09/05/18

Hands-on experience is the key to successfully learning how to keep bees.


Spurred by worldwide honeybee declines, more gardeners are learning how to keep honeybees. Overuse of pesticides, diseases and disappearing habitat have all contributed to honeybees’ record losses since 2006, when historically-stable U.S. honeybee populations first plummeted.

It is estimated that honeybee pollination contributes $25 billion in increased value to U.S. agriculture. One of out every three bites of food we eat is pollinated by honeybees.
 

Clockwise: More homeowners are adding bees to their gardens to help pollinate plants and crops. • Beginning beekeepers start by purchasing a nucleus colony from bee suppliers, which are half the size of regular hives. Bee sellers focus on pulling bee colonies through winter so they can be split and sold to beginning beekeepers. • Honeybees may be a specific breed or a genetic combination bred for traits such as gentleness, hygienic behavior and honey production. Local bees are best since they are acclimated to local conditions.


Hobby beekeepers start by attending basic beekeeping classes. Most classes focus on teaching what beekeepers need to know to help honeybees through their first winter including bee biology, the basics of a hive and bee behavior.

Local beekeeping clubs can supplement classes. Club meetings offer an opportunity to meet other beekeepers and to learn from each other.
 

Clockwise: Honeybees are responsible for pollinating one third of food crops, including pears. • Municipal ordinances vary across the Midwest about whether hives can be kept within city limits. • Beginning beekeepers learn bee biology and behavior through observing bees on hive frames. • Beginning beekeepers invest about $500 in basic beekeeping equipment, not counting hives and bees.
 

Hives can be simply painted or become works of art by a children’s art class. Concrete blocks and bricks are popular weights to keep hive lids from blowing off.


Bees are available for pickup and delivery March through May. Beginning beekeepers get ready by either making their own equipment or ordering pre-made hives that still require some treatment, such as painting, prior to occupancy.

Bee clubs make the process easier by reviewing how to place hives, how to build frames and how to install bee packages and nucleus, or nursery, colonies. Learning about local conditions contributes to successfully hosting these European imports.

Honeybees will fly 2-5 miles from their hives. They do best in gardens with plants blooming throughout the year, and they have a penchant for yellow, blue and white flowers with short stamens so they can easily pack pollen.

Beekeeping advice varies because beekeepers keep bees for different reasons; pollination, honey production and the sale of bees have different practices and techniques. Regardless of why someone keeps bees, scientific studies have proven that successfully hosting honeybees is also good for native bee species and other pollinators.

 

A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Charlotte Ekker Wiggins and Cheryl Hinchman.

 


Charlotte Ekker Wiggins is an advanced master gardener and a beekeeping instructor. She shares her beekeeping adventures at homesweetbees.com and in a weekly gardening column in several newspapers.