Do you dream of harvesting your own super-local honey to drizzle on your breakfast bread? Wonder how hard it is to keep bees and how to start? Bay Area Bites interviewed some East Bay beekeepers and collected a swarm of resources listed at the end of this post. Considering the seasonal cycle of bees, spring is the perfect time to take off on this new adventure.
Before they got their bees, Nina Carter’s and Mark Hogenson’s apple tree produced a measly five apples, the next year, after they set up a Langstroth hive in their Oakland garden, their tree showered them with hundreds of apples. (And their neighbor’s plum tree had so many plums they had to help her pick them and make jam).
(This brings up a good point in beekeeping etiquette: ask--or at least alert--your neighbors about the new brood that will be moving in.)
BAB: Did you have a learning curve?
Nina: Actually, our first hive failed because we weren’t controlling for Varroa mites. We were following a holistic approach and thought the bees would adapt. They were thriving for six months and then became sickly and after two weeks just disappeared. Bees have this altruistic behavior, when they get infected they fly away to protect the hive.
Mark: It was disappointing, but we got advice from experienced beekeepers on several options to deal with mites. One way is to cover the bees with powdered sugar. Since they are very hygienic, that makes them completely clean themselves and they get rid of the tiny mites they might not have realized were eating a hole in their sides.
“There’s a saying in the bee community,” Mark adds with a rueful smile, “If you want to know anything about beekeeping, ask a second year beekeeper.”
So where did you get your next round of bees?
Mark: We got one swarm and one “cut–out,” which means that the bees had invaded an interior wall belonging to--we were told--Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Actually, those bees weren’t too productive, perhaps due to the change in the environment between Marin and Oakland.
What is it like to keep bees?
Nina: Fascinating and therapeutic. We’re in love with them. It’s kind of like having a new baby. We work at home as computer consultants and can just watch the bees and appreciate the scents of honey and beeswax.
How much honey do you get?
Mark: Last year, we got 150 pounds of honey from one hive and now we’re thinking about selling some. (We’re talking with local storeowners about carrying this super local product. We call it Rockridge Honey. We also make a salve and lip balm from the beeswax.)
Any advice for beginning beekeepers?
Nina: When you’re just starting, you hear a lot of rumors and contradictory stories about what you should do and it’s hard to know who to believe. We did research for a year before we got our hives and read a lot.
Mark: I would start with two hives so if any problems arise, you can compare them. The Alameda County Beekeepers Association has a lot of resources and taking a hands-on class helped; in it we also learned about the lifecycle and timing of beehive management. Every few weeks, you have to check and see if the bees have enough room, if not you need to get more boxes (called supers). You use a smoker so you can calm the bees before you approach. You want to get them out of the way before you lift a frame so that you don’t crush any of them.
Nina: If we can, we are always going to have hives. They help us to be more in harmony with the environment.
Ruby Blume has kept bees since 1997. It wasn’t a conscious decision on her part; someone dropped off a Top Bar style beehive in her garden, showed her how to manage it and then just disappeared. Now Blume, whose license plate reads BEE GRRL, teaches beginning and advanced beekeeping classes at The Institute of Urban Homesteading. The classes focus on “how to keep bees naturally” without the use of chemicals or sugar-water and promote the Top Bar system (an alternative to the Langstroth hive) for the small-scale backyard beekeeper. Even Blume’s allergy to bee stings has not prevented her from keeping bees.
Why do you raise bees?
I love bees. I get an incredible sense of joy hanging out with them and feeling their exuberant energy. It’s a privilege to learn from them and through them I am more connected to nature’s cycles and seasons. Bees have such an elegant way of working together and being in concert with nature. They are amazing, highly evolved and, next to humans, the most studied species on earth. It’s easy to get started in beekeeping, yet after 16 years I am still learning!
How did you decide to use the Top Bar system?
Partly because it is what I learned on and what I am comfortable with. But also because it allows the bees to build their comb naturally, instead of on pre-imprinted frames, which manipulates the way they build. I trust that bees know what they are doing—after all they have been doing it for millions of years perfectly well without us.
What are some advantages of the Top Bar System?
If you let bees build natural combs, with smaller cells, it inhibits mites and then there is no need to treat them with pharmaceuticals. I also find the system to be much easier on my body as a beekeeper [full Langstroth boxes often weigh 50 pounds] and to require much less maintenance. Plus you can build a top bar hive yourself at a fraction of the cost of pre-fabricated boxes.
What else do you do to keep bees naturally?
I don’t feed my bees sugar water in the winter. Instead I leave them enough of their own honey to survive. Honey is a much healthier food for the bees. It takes one bee her whole life to make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. Bees need one pound a day of honey to maintain themselves in the summer, plus in the Bay Area they need to put away about 30 pounds to last them through the winter.
A bee colony basically acts as a single organism. The inside of the hive is like a womb with its own flora and fauna—sugar, and chemical treatments like antibiotics upset this harmony. I know this might not be a popular perspective, but I believe that animals need to die off sometimes in order to build resistance in the entire colony. So if you treat for mites with pharmaceuticals, then the mites will become more resistant to them. You need to let those bees with weaker genetics cull themselves. Last winter was especially hard and I lost several colonies but with spring, there was a big boom in population. It was an uplifting spiritual feeling to see their resistance and the upwelling of life.
There has been a lot in the news about colony collapse disorder. Do beekeepers know what is causing that?
Colony collapse has been shown to be caused by specific pesticides that interrupt the bees’ ability to navigate. Bees use the sun and landmarks to navigate and then do a “bee dance” to tell other bees where flowers are. When exposed to these pesticides, they can’t find their way home. Of course there are many other factors within industrial apiculture that are impacting the health of our honeybees.
Are there any myths about bees that you would like to clear up?
Yes, a swarm of bees is never an “angry” swarm; it’s a reproductive behavior that happens in the spring when the bees sense it will be a good year with plenty of food. The queen leaves the hive with some of the bees to find a new home. The old colony stays and raises a new queen—in this way the bees “reproduce” and make more of themselves. And the male bees neither sting nor collect pollen, only females. Male bees’ main job is to mate with a virgin queen, a task he gives his life to, as he dies in the process of mating.
Anything else you’d like to share?
For urban beekeepers, two colonies are plenty for one yard; more than that and the bees will be competing for the limited supply of pollen and nectar. If we are to increase the number of urban beekeepers, we need more forage for the bees. If you want to be a friend to bees you don’t have to be a beekeeper, just plant more flowers! They especially like purple, white and yellow flowers; like lavender, poppies and sunflowers.
Here’s a list of bee friendly flowers.
Ruby’s advice for Becoming a Beginning Beekeeper
- Educate yourself by reading and taking classes and talking with other beekeepers.
- Pick a system (Langstroth or Top Bar)
- Procure bees (Pick one of the two options)
- Buy a package with a one queen and few thousand worker bees (may be hard to find right now as most packaged bees are bought up in January)
- Catch a swarm or take a split from an established beekeeper.
Then plunge in!