Guest Essays | Guest Post

A Beginner’s Tale of Beekeeping

I mentioned back in January that the theme of this past year’s New Year’s Eve party was honey. We weren’t just being sweet; we chose the theme in honor of the 40,000 honeybees living in our hosts’ backyard! LeeMichael McLean talks about why beekeeping was such a big draw.

The multitude of colony collapse disorder news stories had been weighing on me. The bee seemed to be taking a beating and generally losing respect among the human folk who didn’t seem appropriately concerned about the potential total collapse of pollination. Imagine no citrus fruit. No apples. And a lot of missing veggies too. I couldn’t figure out why people were not more worried about the stability of the world’s food supply. Then my partner discovered Best Bees, a Boston-based company that sets up hives on apartment balconies and city rooftops to raise awareness and support research into improving bee health.

Best Bees was founded in 2010 by Noah Wilson-Rich who, to draw a likeness to the Lorax, speaks for the bees. The company installs the hive, manages the bee population, and collects the honey for you (unless you’d prefer to do it yourself). It sustains operations through management fees and invests its profits into developing bee probiotics and researching ways to save the world one bee at a time, as the company says.

We invited Noah out to our house in Milton last winter to see if our property was big enough for a beehive. As it turns out, that was a rather silly question. If you have outdoor space, you probably have enough room for a beehive. We posed our concerns about permitting and stings and our dog. Noah was extremely patient and incredibly knowledgeable. There are no permitting requirements in our area (in fact, cities like New York City and Boston are actively trying to encourage rooftop gardens and beehives to protect the bee population). The dog, he said, was not likely to be very interested in the beehive. And we were certainly going to be stung… but not often.

That last part didn’t sound so great. However, Noah told us, these are Italian honeybees. Very laid back. He assured us that the bees were not interested in stinging people and we were not likely to be bothered while enjoying our yard, but that managing the hive and collecting the honey was where things could get a little dicey. We decided to take a chance and see what happened (paying Noah to do the especially dicey stuff for at least the first year).

A few weeks later, Noah set up the hive on a little hill under a Japanese maple tree in our backyard. It was as if the stork delivered about 10,000 babies all at once—that’s about how many a fledgling beekeeper starts off with. The bees themselves were shipped in a small, packed box that seemed uncomfortably cramped, but Noah assured me the bees were plenty drunk on sugar water and were fine.

The queen came in a tiny mesh cage for her protection, because she would be in mortal danger as soon as the workers were released. As Noah explained, since the workers and queen came from different places, the workers would see the queen as an invader and as soon as they were put together, the workers would begin eating the sugar plug blocking the cage’s opening to try and murder her. But the cage’s mesh sides would allow her to work her queenly magic, releasing intoxicating pheromones that would draw the workers and drones (male bees) under her control.

He wedged the queen’s cage between two of the frames and then literally poured thousands of bees over the top of the open hive. They seemed to know exactly what to do and started climbing down into the hive to make it home. Noah secured the top and announced that we were all set. The whole procedure, from installing the wooden hive and its frames to introducing the bees to their new habitat, took about 15 minutes!

Bryan and I checked on the hive frequently over the first few weeks and gave many tours to interested friends. As promised, the bees were completely disinterested in our dog and us. They established a bee freeway, launching like little rockets from the porch-like opening at the bottom of the hive up and into the sky, then returning from the same direction, appearing seemingly out of nowhere above our heads.

It takes bees a while to get up to full production, but we had three honey harvests in our first year—spring, summer, and fall—with a total take of about 8 pounds. The spring harvest was our favorite: pale in color, the consistency of pancake syrup, and delicately sweet. The summer honey was a rich golden yellow. The later in the season you take the honey, the more the bees will have distilled it down to a darker, thicker treat. This year, the hive has been thriving and honey production is right on schedule, with Noah stopping by to check on the hive every few weeks. When the bees are working at full tilt, we can expect up to 40 pounds!

We have had a wonderful time hosting this hive and have even talked about adding more to the yard. We recommend beekeeping to anyone, but realize it isn’t practical for everyone. If you’d like to do something to support bee health but can’t host a hive, here are some suggestions:

  • Buy local honey and beeswax products
  • Replace some lawn areas with perennial, bee-friendly gardens
  • Don’t use harmful pesticides
  • Invite some friends over to watch Vanishing of the Bees

Most importantly, don’t fear the bee! We need them and they need us to treat them with respect. And as for the stings: my partner and I each took one for the team last year, but we were lingering near the open hive during honey harvest and now that we’ve learned that lesson, I think we’ll probably have a sting-free year. Either way, we still think it’s worth it, and can’t wait for the honey to start flowing this season.

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  1. Having a farm and a plenty of chestnut trees on our land, setting up bee hives has been a no-brainer desire for many years now. Somehow I never seem to get to it. (And yes, I am scared to be stung.) Thank you for this post. You gave me a full-fledged kick in the you-know-what to really try to get a hive set up in the coming year. I need to. We all need to.

    1. You DO have a wonderful backyard for a hive or two, Amber – and can you imagine if The Brit made his own beer with honey from your hives? How cool would that beeeeee?

  2. Nancy – Please do it. It is such a pleasure to watch the bees and the honey is such a delight. As for the stings, I have taken another couple of stings in Year 2. Both were my fault. The bees gave me plenty of warning, but I pressed my luck and the sentence was handed down.

  3. It really has been an awesome journey and folks love to get the honey as a gift and there is no end to what you can do with the stuff! It literally never goes bad. Honey is a natural antibiotic and naturally mold resistant. They have found viable honey in Egyptian tombs!! Once it crystallizes all you have to do is warm it up. Support your local bees. And Bryan, I think the jury is still out whether or not those were our honeybees or a ground nest of yellow jackets…Innocent until proven guilty, but their honey is always delicious and nutritious!

  4. A very well written, engaging piece by LeeMichael. This was a fun read and actually made me want to get bees! I’ll definitely check out the movie too. Ever since I read The Secret Life of Bees I’ve been interested in the process. It’s so interesting that the queen can rule all the worker bees. Hope the hosts have a sting-free year and can’t wait to try more of their honey!

  5. I had so much fun reading this. I have a huge backyard, and I am always *thinking* about getting bees, but then I get nervous. This article brought me one step closer . . . it’s only a matter of time, of course. Thank you for sharing your bee experiences!

  6. Well I can say it will always be an adventure to have bees. To keep them you need a little bit more. I would suggest that everyone try to do things naturally with the bees and not use chemicals if at all possible in treating them. There are many podcasts and other information out on the web that will help you in doing things organically with the bees. And the joys you will experience will far outweigh the few stings you get. (When you get over the initial fear of a sting you should work the bees without gloves or at the very least use latex gloves so you can gently work the frames etc.) You will see different colored pollen come in. Washboarding in which it looks like there are a hundred bees in an aerobic exercise class on the front of the hive. You may even see the “bee dance” on the landing board as they excitedly tell where to find that good source of nectar out there. Just stand to the side and wear light colored clothes when observing. When the weather is changing is when they are more apt to be on alert for “the big predators” with two arms and two legs. And what ever you do don’t eat a banana just before visiting the hive. The smell of it is the same as the alert pheromone that they use to call in reinforcements. Go ahead and get that first hive and if possible get two as you can draw on the second hive when needed in a pinch. Bee happy!!

  7. Casey – I am embarking on a honey bee adventure of my own in South Carolina.
    I pick up my bees in late April. Looking down the road (with a positive and hopeful attitude), I’m curious how you have been extracting the honey. Did your “mentor” loan you equipment or have you invested in key items. If so, what have you used and how has it worked? Electric decapping knife? Two-frame extractor? Something larger? As I mentioned….optimstic that I’ll be extracting honey a year from now. Best!

    1. Beverly, I don’t own beehives myself – this was a guest post. But LeeMichael, the author of the post, works with the Boston-based company Best Bees to do the honey extraction. They perform regular maintenance on the hive, and centrifuge and strain the honey into jars that LeeMichael provides. Perhaps there is a similar company in your area?

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