If you haven’t heard the news, bees are dying on a massive scale in what’s become known as a worldwide colony collapse.
Many factors have been cited, including pesticide overuse, parasites and (allegedly) the evil hand of Monsanto. Without getting into the depressing statistics, suffice to say that if something isn’t done soon, this precipitous decline in the bee population could have devastating consequences. Rather, let’s focus on what can be done — in our own backyards — to help prevent further collapse and, at the same time, produce our own personal honey stocks.
Best of all, we can get our children involved, giving them an appreciation for an unjustly feared and very important insect: the lovely, amazingly productive and resourceful, and surprisingly docile and friendly honey bee.
The Bee, Itself
Like so many of the creatures with which we share the Earth, the bee has been stereotyped, lumped into the “don’t get near that thing or it will sting you while sending a chemical message to its friends so they will swarm and sting you in the face until you die in your front yard” category of the Vicious Insect Hierarchy. Though a tiny portion of that message is true — bees do communicate with each other, sometimes through chemical release — they very rarely swarm and attack people or animals. In fact, when bees are literally swarming is when they are at their most docile and are the least likely to sting.
Part of becoming a backyard beekeeper is learning as much as you can about the bee, its environment and its behavior. (This, of course, should be the rule for any creature one desires to possess, raise and care for.) Though it would be impossible to cover the entirety of beekeeping in a brief article — hell, there are hundreds of books written on the topic — we will hit a few main points to get you started, always with the little ones in the family in mind.
There are many online educational resources to get you started in backyard beekeeping, as well as countless books and videos on the subject. My suggestion is to start reading and studying in the summer, order your equipment in the fall and prepare your yard hives during the winter so you are ready to hive your new bees in the spring. This is the perfect time to get the kids involved: from the beginning.
Check out or purchase kid-friendly beekeeping books and read them in detail. My 6-year-old became fascinated with the process early on, and continues to ask my wife and I detailed questions about the process. (She even named our first queen Kira.)
Keep the conversation on the fun side, addressing the “dangerous” aspects of beekeeping in a matter-of-fact manner that reduces the fear factor for both of you.
Understanding the bee’s behavioral patterns will keep everyone safe. I cannot emphasize enough here and elsewhere that bees are incredibly organized and focused creatures who would rather do a thousand other things — clean their hive, collect pollen, generate delicious honey, create brood — than sting you. It is true that when a bee stings, it dies as its venom sack is ripped from its abdomen. How likely would you be to sting someone if you knew your guts would be ripped out, and you’d die a slow death?
Not very likely at all.
So get to know the bee’s good nature, its fantastic array of dance moves (yes, they communicate with each other through air and ground dances), and its complex and mysterious hive behaviors.
Beekeeping can be as simple or elaborate as you choose, but there are some essentials you’ll need to purchase before your are ready to acquire your bees. Here’s a quick list:
The Hive Body:
This is where the main action happens, where the brood is laid, where honey is produced and where the queen spends most of her life. It’s really just a simple box with ridges along the top where the frames rest.
These can be made of wood or plastic — and every beekeeper has his or her favorite. Essentially, a frame hangs in the hive body with a thin starter comb, or “foundation,” on which the bees build their gorgeous hexagonal wax combs. It’s where babies are born and honey is stored.
The lid is just what it sounds like: The cap on top of the hive. This will move up each time a “super” is added. (See below for the “super.”) Two important things to know about the lid: 1. It may come with a hole in the top to which a feeding jar can be added, giving the bees their favorite source of nourishment: sugar water. There are also external feeders available, but this is a simple way to get bees their food. 2. The lid will be removed during hive inspections, which will require a hive tool to remove, as the bees will secure the lid with a very strong waxy glue. Do this with care.
Used in its literal sense, the super is placed on top of the hive body. Two, three or more supers may be added. The super looks like a smaller version of the hive body, and it’s the place from which you can “rob” honey without endangering the hive. “Honey robbing” is just a fun word for “harvesting,” so don’t feel guilty about doing it.
Bee suit and veil:
The degree to which a beekeeper protects him or herself is personal. Some use a full suit with gloves, hat and veil; others prefer a veil only. For instance, I use a veil with long sleeves and long pants, but I do not use gloves as I like the dexterity of an ungloved hand. My wife chooses to use gloves. I would advise full suiting a young child until they are completely familiar with the process. Here might be a good time to mention that stings are inevitable, but if you take your time and are gracious to the bees, they will be gracious to you. As a precaution, it is advisable to purchase an Epipen, the best recourse for someone who has been stung and is allergic to bees. It may save their life. (Note: This is not to instill fear but to simply give you a defense if someone who is allergic is stung.)
That covers the essentials. There are hundreds of other products on the market for backyarders — smokers, queen excluders, brushes, uncappers — but this list will get you started. All of these supplies are available at Mann Lake, Rossman Apiaries and other similar companies. You can often purchase full hive kits, which provide you with all of the basics. (Mann Lake also stocks a full selection of kids’ beekeeping books.)
Caring for the bees
Once you have done your research, and purchased and set up your hive station or “apiary” (usually in a sun-dappled or sunny and infrequently trafficked part of your yard), it’s time to purchase your bees. This isn’t something you can do buy clicking a “purchase” button on the Internet. In fact, at certain times of the year, it’s nearly impossible. You’ll have the most luck if you go with a local bee farmer. You can try online bee providers, but most are sold out a year in advance. When you do finally acquire your starter package, this is when the fun begins. Involve the kids from the get-go. If you are gun shy, don’t show it. Simply keep your kids at a safe distance as you become accustomed to working with the bees. When you are more proficient, bring the kids in.
My child and I dove in head first at a local beekeeping class. There we stood, with only a hat and veil to protect us, as the instructor opened the hive and hundreds of bees flew around us. I mistakenly called this a swarm at the time. It wasn’t. It’s just bees flying around doing their business. Some landed on us. Others buzzed by. No one in the class was stung.
When you receive your package of bees, you will be greeted with the wonderful zen-like buzzing of thousands of the lovely little girls. (Most bees are female, with the exception of the male drone, who do their business of making babies and then are suitably kicked out of the hive.)
This is the perfect opportunity to get the children safely acquainted with the girls. Next step is transferring the bees to the hive body and making sure the queen is safe. When we transferred our bees, our daughter watched from a window close to the hive. Again, it’s completely safe, but work to your comfort level.
From here, the sky is the limit. Pulling frames and inspecting them for brood (little tiny eggs that resemble pieces of rice). Managing pests like hive moths and hive beetles — of course, natural non-toxic methods are best. Spinning honey, jarring it and giving it or selling it to friends. Making crafts out of collected wax. (You can even make honey mead.) Every step of the way, children can get involved. It’s a fantastic way to teach them (and yourself) a little about bees and a lot about the world. Bees require very little attention once the hive gets started. But your involvement is essential to their survival — and to the survival of the world’s bee population.
I feel it necessary to emphasize that though being stung is inevitable when working with bees, it is rare. On the upside, bee venom is being used in cures for a number conditions and diseases, and if you are not allergic, a sting is just a minor inconvenience. It’s much worse for the bee. But here are a few tips on how not to get stung.
Work systematically and calmly. Wear white. Don’t make any sudden moves and try not to drop the frames while inspecting the hive. Only open the hive during good weather and in the earlier parts of the day. And, most importantly, treat your bees with respect and reverence. They live short, labored lives producing brood and honey, pollinating the world’s plants so we all can eat and breathe.
Yes, they are that important. Treat them that way.