Bees in Your Backyard:
A Hobby Full of Sweetness and Light
By Kirsten S. Traynor
Have you toyed with the idea of keeping your own honeybee hive? Perhaps you want pollinators for your garden. Or maybe a taste of honey from a local beekeeper stirred a desire to harvest your own. Possibly you’ve heard bees are disappearing and thought you could help by keeping a hive.
If you’re curious about bees, you’re not alone. You’ve joined a growing crowd that stretches back through time. Bees have fascinated mankind since before there were written languages. Around 8,000 B.C. our ancestors painted an encounter with bees in bold, red paint on cave walls in what today is Valencia, Spain. To this day honey hunters in Nepal risk their lives for a taste of nature’s first sweetener, climbing down cliff walls to access wild bee hives off rope ladders.
Modern day beekeeping doesn’t require risking your life. It’s a wonderful hobby that you can enjoy in almost any environment, from the countryside to cities. Bees are generalists, foraging on a wide variety of flowering plants. They will sup on maple blossoms, dandelions, clover and the many flowering trees lining city streets and parks. Every third bite we eat is due to the efforts of pollinators like honeybees, who pollinate over 100 different agricultural crops from almonds to zucchini.
Owning and working honeybee hives have given me a newfound appreciation for nature. I have become a farmer who watches the changing seasons and sees our bees flit from flower to flower. Developing a keen eye for observing the subtle signs of life unfolding around me stays with me, even during the cold months of Winter when the hives’ inhabitants must cluster together for warmth. While thousands of bees huddle together, vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat, I’m inside, spooning into a jar of Summer sunshine harvested from our backyard. Honey—liquid gold—was once so valuable beekeepers could use it to pay their taxes.
Despite all our experience with bees, the hives still surprise us. I love opening a hive. Remove the lid, slip out a frame and instead of order, you see a chaotic jumble of moving bees. Out of this cacophony, the colony grows, produces wax, makes honey, although no one is in command. Tasks are accomplished. Each individual responds to cues nearby, and takes on a job. Genetic diversity ensures individuals have different preferences, different thresholds for specific tasks. Much like a large family getting together over the holidays, everyone pitches in and helps where they can. And what a monumental effort; bees must visit 2 million blossoms to produce a pound of honey.
A small colony, with a little tending, grows large and strong. Time slows when working on a hive. Focusing on the task at hand, I move through the hive, frame by frame, losing time, but gaining perspective on the health of the hive. Though these wild creatures will never be tamed, they are my colonies, my bees. I tend them and the problems, obligations and the ever-growing, never-ending to-do list of my life disappear.
Opening a hive forces you to slow down, to observe and to appreciate the beauty of the seasons. Honeybees are a keystone species, helping to keep our ecosystem in balance. They face many challenges in our modern world: a fragmented agricultural landscape, increased pesticides use and new parasites introduced through globalization. But bees have survived for 80 million years. With our help, they’ll continue to thrive for generations.
Bees gave our ancestors “sweetness and light” in the form of honey and wax. We no longer need honey to sweeten our daily bread or beeswax to light the darkness. Yet honeybees continue to sweeten and lighten our lives, simply by illuminating the interwoven web of life.
Honey Bees at a Glance
- A honey bee colony has up to 50,000 bees. This hive has only one queen; she can live two to five years. During the Summer, a healthy hive produces a few thousand male bees called drones. All the rest of the bees are female workers. In warm weather, these worker bees live just six weeks, while Winter worker bees can live several months.
- Honey bee colonies in Maryland can produce 50 pounds or more of honey annually, depending on the nectar sources in your area. They will pollinate crops in a one- to three-mile radius.
- Beekeepers typically start a hive with 1) a three-pound bundle of live bees shipped with a caged queen via mail, 2) a nuc, or miniature nucleus colony with four or five drawn combs full of honey, pollen and baby bees, or 3) a swarm. A nuc is the easiest option and will provide the greatest chance of success. Ideally keep at least two to three hives, so you can compare colonies and help out a weak one, by strengthening it with bees from another.
- Most beekeepers keep bees in rectangular boxes with moveable frames, a design introduced in the 1850s by the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth. Commercial beekeepers typically run their hives in Langstroth deeps, which can weigh more than 100 pounds. We prefer to run our hives in Langstroth mediums and use this single-comb size throughout our hive, which enables us to manage hives efficiently.
- There are numerous equipment options available and many beekeeping suppliers. The big suppliers are Dadant (dadant.com), Mann Lake (mannlakeltd.com) and Brushy Mountain (brushymountainbeefarm.com).
- We frequently buy equipment from a Mennonite supplier, Beeline Apiaries & Woodenware, which offers a complete hive setup with three medium boxes for $130. A list of essential equipment can be found on our website: www.mdbee.com
- Beekeeping equipment, hives and bees to keep three colonies will cost approximately $1,000 to $1,500, depending on your suppliers. However, if you manage your hives well, these are one-time startup costs. If properly maintained, the hive equipment lasts 10 to 30 years.
- Bees are typically delivered in April through June. It is best to order during the Winter, because many suppliers sell out early. While it may be too late to get bees this year, it’s never too early to plan for next year. Join your local beekeeping association. The Maryland State Beekeepers Association (mdbeekeepers.org) lists county clubs.
Kirsten won her first honey bee hive in a raffle and has been following a beeline ever since. She and her husband Michael recently published Simple, Smart Beekeeping, a guide to keeping healthy honey bee hives illustrated with more than 190 images. Find her online at www.mdbee.com and on Twitter @flowerlovebees.