So, You Want to Keep Honey Bees?
Posted: July 2, 2012
Regardless of motivation, interest is hobby beekeeping is hot. Beginner beekeeping classes are popping up all over. Penn State will unveil a new, on-line beginner’s bee course this summer. See Beekeeping 101 for more information about this exciting new Penn State course.
For the past two years the beginning beekeepers course I have conducted in Southeastern PA has been filled to capacity.
So, do you want to keep bees? Let’s think this through.
If your motivation is to save the bees, maybe writing a check to one of the good research institutions or, better yet, a letter to your congressman in support of honeybee research would be more effective. A couple more hives won’t change the world. That said, a genuine interest in these fascinating insects has lead to amazing insights. See Tom Seeley’s book called Honeybee Democracy for a wonderful example. And anyone who successfully keeps bees moves one step closer to Mother Nature. The world needs more of this.
Some people think they need honey bees to pollinate their fruit trees or vegetable gardens. Nope. Small scale gardens are visited by native pollinators, feral honeybees or bees that belong to that neighbor beekeeper you never knew about. It’s true that commercial fruit, nut and vegetable growers employ beekeepers for pollination services, but for backyard production it’s not necessary.
I imagine a few people see the rising demand for local honey and dream of riches. A beekeeper I know tells beginners, “Oh yes, there is lots of money in beekeeping! Your money!” I think it’s fair to say that beekeeping is a hobby that won’t cost you as much as golf, scuba diving or skiing. And eventually, you might even recover your initial investment. Those who can keep colonies alive and productive for several years might pocket a few bucks, provided they don’t account for labor costs. Like most of agriculture, it’s a hard way to make a nickel.
Let’s see, you won’t save the world, you probably don’t need them, and you won’t get rich. But you will get stung! If this still makes sense, maybe hobby beekeeping is for you.
Now is a good time to explore the idea of keeping bees. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Find your local beekeeping association and go to a meeting. Non-members are welcome. The Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association has a listing. Many associations meet monthly and have educational and social programs. There’s a good chance you can talk your way into visiting an apiary by attending a meeting.
- See what Penn Site has to offer. Check out Penn State’s new on-line beekeeping course also, Beekeeping Basics is a free on-line publication that provides the fundamentals of beekeeping. You can buy a hard copy for $7.50.
- Subscribe to a beekeeping magazine. Bee Culture and The American Bee Journal are monthly periodicals available on line or in print. Their primary audience is hobby beekeepers.
- Find out where beginner courses will be offered. Ask you local Extension office and beekeepers association. Most start in mid-winter. They fill up fast. Sign up early.
- Check out local township or city ordinances. Some communities have ordinances against beekeeping or have restrictions.
- Check with the rest of your family to see if everyone is on board with the idea.
- Re-assess your interest. If you still think it’s a “go”, order package bees for mid-April delivery or plan for mid-May pick up of nucs. (You’ll know what packages and nucs are by then.) Also order enough equipment for two hives, (minimum) or five hives, (maximum). Five hundred bucks will get you outfitted with two colonies and all of the paraphernalia necessary to get started.
Oh, back to that Colony Collapse Disorder. What’s the cause? Hard to say. Despite years of research, no single factor has been identified. Penn State is taking a lead in investigating the role of pesticides in colony heath. A major pest of honeybees called Varroa mite is likely involved. So are viruses. Cell phones… probably not. GMO? Don’t think so.
Some good news is that many people are interested and concerned about those stinging, hairy, vegetarians called honey bees. And some of them will become beekeepers.