The Buzz Over Bees
Want to enjoy your own natural sweetener while helping the dwindling honeybee population? Be a backyard beekeeper! Here’s the buzz.
Backyard beekeeping is abuzz these days, thanks to the increased awareness of the plight of honeybees—the number of bee colonies has dropped dramatically in recent decades—and I’ve hopped on the beekeeping bandwagon.
Back in the spring of 2006, I helped establish an edible garden at the Havemeyer House, the official residence of the president of Ramapo College in Mahwah, where I live with my husband, Ramapo President Peter Mercer. Since then, staff members, teachers, and college and high school students have worked in this live food lab, planting and harvesting while learning how their food gets from seed to fork. The garden has also promoted awareness of the many facets of the food cycle, including the critical role played by increasingly scarce honeybees, which account for 80 percent of all pollination of plants. Simply put: no bees, no food. So in an effort to increase the dwindling honeybee population six years ago, we welcomed the first two bee hives to the garden. To further secure a sustainable relationship with honeybees, Ramapo College also welcomed the monthly meetings of the Northeast New Jersey Beekeepers Association to campus.
It has been a delightful journey from observer to keeper of honeybees, but it hasn’t been without the occasional hiccup.
Yes, I’ve been stung a few times, as has my husband—once on the inside of his nose! And when we first set up the hives, we put them too close to the edible garden, which ended up teaming with so many honeybees that we couldn’t go in. But we moved the hive farther from the garden (about 50 yards from the house and 200 yards from the neighbors’s home), and it’s been smooth sailing ever since—at least until my hives began creating new queen cells. Each hive can only have one queen, so I went from two hives to four. My husband put his foot down and said I would have to give the fifth queen away. Giving a queen away is not like giving up a puppy—it’s a little more difficult. Luckily, my mentor came to the rescue and took the fifth queen.
Despite these minor snafus, I would encourage you to give beekeeping a try. It will not only increase the honeybee population, but it will also enable you to enjoy the many byproducts of beekeeping such as freshly harvested honey, beeswax and propolis (a resinous substance with medicinal uses). If you are interested in becoming a backyard beekeeper, the following page lists 10 tips that you may find useful:
1. Join the closest beekeepers association. In Bergen County, it is the Northeast New Jersey Beekeepers Association (nnjbees.org). For a mere $25 per year, a regular membership gives access to monthly meetings, bi-monthly newsletters, and on-going notification of lectures, classes and state meetings. At the meetings, you will not only learn timely tidbits about beekeeping, but also make friends with seasoned beekeepers.
2. Spend a year observing and helping a seasoned beekeeper. This is a valuable step that will help you decide if you prefer to be a passive supporter of bees or an active one.
3. Look up your town’s ordinance for beekeeping to help you determine the location and number of hives you will be installing.
4. Figure out where to put your bees. As with any real estate, location is key. Finding the best spot for your bee hives is a balance between the most suitable place for you and the best location for your bees. It should be far enough from your house and your neighbors (check those local ordinances), as well as providing some sun for cold winters and some shade for hot summers.
5. Find a mentor to give guidance and support as you set up and learn to manage your own bee hive.
6. Make a list of the supplies and equipment you will need to get started. Go over your list with your mentor to learn what to buy (some essentials are listed on the right) and where to buy the items. A couple of suppliers I have used include Brushy Mountain and Mann Lake. Suppliers are also very keen to help you succeed, so they will willingly answer your questions.
7. Buy your bees. I was surprised to find that bees can be mail ordered and delivered. However, I chose to buy a nuc, or starter bee hive, from a company our club ordered from yearly. The nucs are delivered to a central location where members then pick them up.
8. Take a course. The Northeast New Jersey Beekeepers Association keeps you informed about upcoming courses for novices as well as more advanced beekeepers.
9. Read a book or two and/or watch a film to enhance your knowledge about beekeeping. Some of the books I recommend include: The Backyard Beekeeper, The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Honey Bee Biology and Honey Bee Democracy. 10 Become familiar with bee lingo. Take a look at the list to the right.
10. Become familiar with bee lingo. Take a look at the list below.
Bee hive components: Hive stand, bottom board, deep super, deep super frames with foundation, honey super, honey super frames with foundation, inner cover and outer cover. Beginners should buy the pre-assembled, prepainted bee hive kit.
Smoker: This device helps you calm the bees. The smoke masks alarm pheromones that bees release when they think their hive is under attack.
Veil: This mesh head covering protects you from bee stings. If you have a thick jacket and pants, you probably will not need a full protective suit.
Hive tool: The Italian Hive Tool is a well-crafted tool and my favorite for beekeeping tasks such as prying hive boxes apart and pulling frames out of the hive. Bee brush: This helps you gently sweep bees off of frames without harming them (or you can use a feather).
Queen bee: As the name implies, she is the most important bee in the hive because her sole purpose is to lay eggs. She doesn’t even feed herself. Her main focus is mating and laying eggs so the hive stays active.
Worker bee: These sterile female bees do all the work (housekeeping, nursing young bees, attending to the queen, making the wax comb, collecting nectar for the hive, etc.).
Drones: These male bees focus on two things: eating and mating with the queen. Drones that mate with the queen die because in the process, the queen bee rips out their sexual organ causing their untimely end..
Honey: A golden sweet substance produced by honeybees from the extracted nectar in flowers.