A Local Beekeeper Shares his Knowledge
Guest Blog by David Albrecht
Holding a commercial package of bees for the first time can rewire your circuits. The package, a rough, shoebox-sized assembly of wood, screen and heavy staples holds about 10,000 bees and their queen. Inside that shoebox is a humming cascade of black and gold, a working knowledge of architecture, 20 million years of evolution, a super-organism that talks to itself through dance and body odor, and the bracing threat of envenomation and pain. There’s a real sense of power and of veiled danger in hefting that three-pound box. It’s what I imagine picking up a small nuclear reactor in your bare hands would feel like.
I’m no entomologist, nor am I a professional beekeeper. I’m an amateur, with about five years of experience and still way too much to learn. I’ve kept hives and lost them. I’ve watched boiling clouds of bees in mid-swarm, and scraped wax moth worms from crashed colonies, cursing under my breath. I’ve spent too much money for too little honey, and connected with neighbors over gardens, pollination and wax. Five years in, I can say this – there’s no hobby remotely like it. Bees can supercharge anyone’s garden or orchard, and a single hive can produce as much as fifty pounds of honey in a good season. Getting a handle on the mind-bending complexity of bee society can be like Alice’s rabbit hole – learning more only prolongs the descent. And if you’re looking for a way to take positive, direct environmental action, it doesn’t take much to enlist bees as your allies – a few square feet of space, a few hundred dollars and at most fifteen hours of maintenance per year per hive.
Ironically, as some of the best-known threats to honeybees today are invasive pests, honeybees are themselves invasive newcomers. Bees arrived from Europe in the early 1600s in the American colonies, and the golden Italian bees we recognize today cruising over clover or perched on zucchini blossoms came to the United States around the time of the Civil War. A century ago, bees and beekeeping were familiar to the majority of Americans who still lived on farms, and keeping bees required minimal effort.
Much has changed. Since the early 20th Century, widespread knowledge of beekeeping has evaporated as urbanization continued. Since the 1990s, new threats to the survival of bees have multiplied, with no signs of slowing down. Visible parasites like varroa mites and the small hive beetle, and microscopic ones like tracheal mites have taken a substantial toll. But at least these pests can be managed. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a far greater problem. Its precise cause remains uncertain, but it is unlike any other problem affecting bees.
Bees in a hive stricken by parasites or disease may die, but they die in place, their bodies forming windrows on the bottom of the hive. CCD drains colonies. It causes bees to lose their ability to navigate. They simply fail to return home, leaving behind steadily dwindling populations and (eventually) silence. CCD may involve other diseases. It may result from widespread use of one or more insecticides or fungicides, or may be somehow linked to the narrow genetic base from which modern commercial bee strains descend. Whatever its cause (and there are other nominees), U.S. professional beekeepers in recent years have reported annual colony failure rates as high as 40-50%. In any given year, a small number of colonies will die – it’s inevitable. But loss rates of 40-50% are not sustainable, and without honeybees, certain fruits, nuts and crops may become far rarer and expensive, or may simply no longer be available commercially. Blueberries and cherries are 90% dependent on honeybees for pollination, almonds totally dependent, lemons and limes heavily so, and even alfalfa needs honeybees to reproduce. “No bees, no beef” is exaggerated, but not wildly.
What to do to help, while scientists search for causes and cures? That’s simple – enlist a few tens of thousands of your new best friends. Grab the smoker, slip on that netted pith helmet, and head for the backyard. Your garden, your sweet tooth and your biological neighborhood will thank you.
How do I get started?
Step one – head for the library. There are hundreds of outstanding books on apiculture, but I’ll stick with three recommendations; The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Sammiato and Avitabile; The Backyard Beekeeper by Flottum, and Beekeeping for Dummies by Blackiston (don’t laugh, it was my first beekeeping book!). If you’re just getting started, these are fine general guides that cover all of the basics. You’ll also want to get in touch with local beekeepers. We’re lucky in Kansas City to have two active and very knowledgeable groups in the area. The Northeastern Kansas Beekeepers’ Association – http://nekba.org/ – meets at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Lawrence. In Kansas City, the Midwestern Beekeepers’ Association meets at different locations around the metro – check http://midwesternbeekeepers.org/ for information. Dozens of enthusiastic amateur and professional beekeepers belong to these groups, and they would love to share their collective centuries of experience and their passion for the beeyard.
What’s it going to cost?
As always, that depends. A reasonable guess for a single hive and frames, essential clothing and tools is around $200, maybe a little less. Add the cost of bees to the total above: three-pound packages this spring were going for just under $100, though prices vary from year to year. If you’re fortunate enough to have a swarm land in your yard, or down the block, you’re in luck. Free bees await, and wild swarms are surprisingly easy to capture (see any of the books mentioned above for details).
What do I tell the neighbors?
Depending on where you live, bees may or may not be legal, strictly speaking. In Kansas City, Missouri, unless a hive has your name and phone number on it, it is considered a nuisance for which you can be cited, and your hives may be destroyed if they pose a problem for utility crews. Other cities are more laid-back, but you’ll definitely want to check local ordinances. As far as neighbors are concerned, just let them know what your plans are. In tight quarters and small yards, bees can be directed through the use of fencing to limit potential problems, and putting out a water supply on your property can limit how many of your bees spend time in your neighbor’s birdbath or at poolside. Free honey also does wonders to dissolve any potential friction that may remain.