With spring in the air, many gardeners are planning out their vegetables and flowers. One fascinating addition to your backyard bounty could be a beehive. Beekeeping is growing in popularity as many people are discovering just how fun it can be.
In agriculture, bees perform a vital service in pollinating crops— an estimated 30 percent of crops worldwide and 90 percent of wild plants rely on bees to pollinate. Fruits and vegetables as well as crop heavyweights like soybeans, peanuts, and sugarbeets all rely on bees for primary pollination. Professional beekeepers rent out their hives, season by season, so that farmers can count on a productive crop. Garden hobbyists can also reap the benefits of local bee colonies with more fruitful crops for tree fruits, and such garden staples as broccoli, cantaloupe, onions and squash.
Bees collect the pollen to create honey, which is harvested in the fall to consume, while leaving enough behind to feed the hive over winter. Beeswax from the combs can be used to make candles and other wax products. A third product, propolis is a resinous mixture that bees use as a kind of bee caulking for smaller spaces. (Wax is used for larger spaces as honeycomb.) Propolis is rich in flavinoids and other plant-based elements, and is believed to have a number of beneficial health properties. Amateur beekeepers often collect it and fashion cough drops from it. Some health food stores offer propolis as a supplement that can provide relief for inflammation, viral diseases, ulcers or superficial burns.
We spoke with Katahdin dealer Bob Beausoleil of Katahdin Cedar Log Homes in New Boston, N.H., who was recently bitten by the bee bug. His first advice: “Go to bee school!” Many areas have classes for people interested in keeping bees and for successful beekeeping it’s a good idea to get hooked up with a local beekeeping group. Bob also recommends a book, Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston as a good reference for backyard bees.
Like with backyard chickens featured in last month’s The View From Up North, you’ll want to check with local town officials to make sure that you’re complying with local ordinances. You may also wish to speak with any immediate neighbors to let them know about your plans. If you encounter a reluctant neighbor, note that bees generally fly in straight lines below six feet. A fence or shrubbery barrier of the right height can guide bees away from a certain direction. A little basic education about bees can also help to win over skeptics, so be prepared with some good answers to questions and concerns.
Beausoleil has had some successes with bees and survived some disasters as well, like when his hives were flooded. He constructs his own hives and frames, with input from his beekeeping mentor and neighbor, Lisa Johnston. You’ll need to find a location for the hive(s) that is sunny in the winter to help warm the hive but partially shaded during the summer months. If the bees get too hot they will begin to die from stress and may swarm and leave your hive high and dry.
Some beekeepers with several hives keep an empty hive a hundred feet or so away from occupied hives. This vacant hive can keep a swarm and its queen from relocating too far away for recovery, or into the welcoming arms of another nearby beekeeper. Like sunken ships, swarming bee colonies are property of the finder if they can collect them up.
Beekeeping has some basic equipment needs for successful hives and harvesting. A hat equipped with netting, gloves and a smoker will allow you to inspect your hives on a regular basis, which is important to do. By visiting your bees, you’ll be able to spot some problems—excess moisture, wasp infestations, sickness— before they cause a problem and lead your bees to seek another home. Beausoleil says having a good queen is an essential part of his success with his hives. Other items may be needed for processing your honeycombs, honey and propolis when the time comes.
Beausoleil says he’s been able to harvest about 40 pounds of honey when his bees are happy and healthy. The first year may yield slightly lower and you’ll need to leave enough honey behind to feed the hive while it’s wintering. He also has noticed an increase in the production of his vegetable gardens and fruit trees with bees in the neighborhood.
Beausoleil has had to take protective measures for his hives. “I put up a hot fence to keep the bears out,” he said. He had some spare electrified or “hot” fencing that he uses to keep his horses corralled. He also has installed other lower tight mesh fencing to keep skunks away, adding “They will get after the honey!” Your local bee buddy will be able to advise on local predators that may have an interest and appetite for honey. This winter, Beausoleil ordered bees to replace the hives that flooded out. He expects the bees to arrive in April, when he’ll gently place them in their new home. He enjoys his beekeeping: “It’s very interesting. There’s always something happening.”
For a local bee school, check out the nearby farm store or county extension for more information and classes. There are lots of resources online as well. Here are some we found:
• Backyard Beekeeping
• Beginning Beekeeping
• Maine State Beekeepers Association is one state organization dedicated to bees. Other state organizations also meet regularly.
• Beesource offers resouces, forums and information about supplies and other bee issues.