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So, you want to keep bees?

Posted: December 6, 2010

So, you want to keep bees? Well, join the club… beekeeping is a hot topic for many reasons.

Maybe it’s the interest in producing more of your own food or eating locally produced food. Maybe it is sympathy for honeybees succumbing to a mysterious malady called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Maybe it’s Nature’s call to pay attention to this fascinating creature, the honeybee. Whatever the motivation, hobby beekeeping is on the rise.

This is good news because colony numbers is the U.S. have been declining for decades. In the 1990’s, honeybees were hit hard by introduced parasites, most importantly the Varroa mite, which by beekeeper estimates, is the main cause of colony loss. Feral or wild colonies have been virtually wiped out by Varroa mite and associated problems. CCD is the latest malady and its cause is still uncertain. Virus diseases appear to be a part of the puzzle but there is likely more than one factor involved. On top of all this, Africanized honeybees are now established the southern tier of US states.

So, why would anyone want to keep honeybees? Ask a beekeeper. They will tell you that they love the interaction they have with this fascinating insect. Honeybees are wild animals that we “tend to” but never tame. Their industrious nature is amazing. Their ability to defend themselves is admirable. Being able to “keep” bees provides a measure of respect (or at least curiosity) from the general public. And, honey is a very nice by-product of the deal. It’s a hobby that can actually pay you back, in hard cash. You won’t get rich keeping bees but the demand for local honey has enticed a few beekeepers to begin a “side-line” operation of 25-100 colonies and actually produce income. There is some potential for income from pollination service, too. But this is a somewhat specialized aspect of hobby beekeeping.

Whether you are planning for a small beekeeping business or just want a couple colonies for the backyard there is plenty to learn. How do I obtain colonies? Where will my bees come from? What will my neighbor think? What laws apply to beekeeping? Who can I ask for help? How will I control honeybee pests such as Varroa mites?

Penn State Extension is prepared to you get started in hobby or side-line beekeeping. A website, MAAREC is a regional portal to extensive beekeeping information. We have a manual titled Beekeeping Basics that provides virtually all of the information needed to get started. Penn State Extension conducts beekeeping short courses throughout the state, frequently in cooperation with local beekeeping clubs. The Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association works closely with Penn State to sponsor educational events. An Ag Alternatives publication walks you through the economics of a beekeeping enterprise.

If you are located in southeastern Pennsylvania and have read this far, this may interest you. A ten-hour, four-part course of instruction title the ABC’s of Beekeeping will be conducted in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on consecutive Tuesday evenings from January 25 through February 15, followed by a Spring field trip to an apiary. Cost is twenty-five dollars and includes extensive references. For registration information contact Bucks County Extension at 215-345-3283 or email sxg6@psu.edu.

Prepared by Scott Guiser, Penn State Extension, Bucks County