I reached out to @SonjaBoo to hear about some of her family’s experiences as they enter the exciting world of beekeeping. Grab a cup of tea with honey and read all about it!
How long has your family been keeping bees?
My husband and I took our first beekeeping classes in 2019 and began keeping bees last year during the height of quarantine/pandemic times. It was actually the perfect time to start this – we had a lot of time on our hands! As a bonus, we find beekeeping very Zen, so it was wonderful to have them with us during such a crazy summer.
How did you get interested in it?
I have always been fascinated by beekeeping, but in the past few years have become a very enthusiastic gardener. As I have been growing more veggies and flowers, it felt like the next move was to bring in more pollinators. Oddly enough, honey and beeswax have never been my main objective – I really feel like it’s important to help support bees as much as possible, and we were lucky enough to be able to do so.
Where did your first package of bees come from? What was it like installing them in your hive for the first time?
Our first package of bees came from a local beekeeping company. You can purchase bees two ways: as a box of bees or as a nuc.
A box of bees is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a large, ventilated box filled with a few thousand bees, including a tiny box for the queen and a couple of her attendants. That queen is being introduced to the colony, so she is in her own box so that they can get used to her scent and pheromones. The end of the small queen box has a sugar plug that the bees will eat away (which usually takes a few days), giving them time to get used to their new queen. When you purchase a box of bees, you will literally be opening up your hive, taking out a few frames, then dumping the box of bees (yes, live bees – and still thousands of them) into the hive. You secure the small queen box on a frame with an elastic so that she is present with the group. These bees will be starting from square one and will have to build up each frame with wax, honey, pollen, brood and so forth.
A nuc is a somewhat easier way to get started with a new hive, and also gives you a leg up on the season. A nuc is a set of five or so frames that bees have already been working on and have made their home. A queen is already there with them and they are already a small, established colony. All you need to do with these is place the established frames into your hive and they are at home.
For our first hive, we worked with a nuc – I’d recommend that for beginners. (It was far less stressful for us!) This year, we ordered boxes of bees which was super cool. As long as your bees are with their queen, they are good. But the act of dumping thousands of insects into a box is kind of intense!
What is the most surprising thing you have learned from beekeeping?
I think the most surprising thing I have learned is how advanced honeybees are as a society. Did you know they are advanced mathematicians who have created their comb from the most efficient shape in the universe (the hexagon)? Did you know they are a completely matriarchal society who kill all males at the end of the summer because they eat too much and don’t help around the house? Did you know they can share the locations of great places to find pollen by doing a “waggle dance” for other members of their colony? Or that every single thing that bees create is good for you? (Honey, propolis and beeswax all have medicinal purposes.)
Also — and you may not believe this — but I am always amazed by their level of understanding of situations. I often have to save a honeybee from a birdbath or water source (all pollinators need water!) and when I do, they never sting. I will hold them in my hand until they have gotten their wits about them and dried off a bit. I watch them use their front legs to clean off their face and get their wings straightened out. And they rest, then fly away. That is something that I never really thought I’d experience. If you treat them gently, they respond in kind.
What is your ballpark estimate for the cost of obtaining and maintaining a hive?
Beekeeping is NOT inexpensive. Each box or nuc of bees that you purchase runs around $200. Then you have to purchase a hive, safety gear (yes, you really do need this stuff), hive tools, etc. Now you’re up to at least $500. You’ll need to purchase feeders for them, varroa mite medication and entrance reducers to keep mice out. If you are able to harvest honey, there are all sorts of tools for that as well, along with any bottles and labels you’ll need, and any extras if you want to make beeswax crafts, etc. You will easily spend $800-$1,000 before you know it, and it is generally recommended that you have more than one hive.
As thrifty crafters, I’m sure many of you are asking if you can buy used beekeeping equipment. In short, the answer is that it’s actually incredibly dangerous for the bees if you do so. Honeybee diseases are easily spread and used hives or hive tools are a fast way to make your bees irreparably sick. If you decide to start beekeeping, please purchase all new equipment! Even purchasing used gloves can spread disease.
What do you do with the honey you harvest?
Funny thing about that… we haven’t actually harvested any yet! I think that is the biggest surprise that many beekeepers have. First-year colonies (at least up here in New England and other places where winter is dreadful) really have to work hard to get their hives established and may or may not produce enough honey for you to have for yourself. (Hard rule: bees get their two big boxes to live in, then you can put a super on top of those if they have filled up their boxes. Anything in the super is yours, but the rest is something they need to survive the winter.)
Last year, our bees did not produce enough to warrant a super, and didn’t make it through the winter due to a late outbreak in varroa mites. (Those things are no joke and are one of the hardest parts of hive maintenance.)
This year, we started with two hives. Because of insane humidity that we had this year and the fact that our bees were doing super well population-wise, both our colonies swarmed numerous times. A swarm is when the queen takes half of the colony and leaves the hive, never to return – and they go off to create their own home elsewhere. Three of these swarms were unreachable, so those batches of bees are somewhere in the wild now. We were able to catch two swarms – one became a third hive for us, and the final swarm became a hive for another local beekeeper. (If you can catch swarms, that is cheaper way to start a new hive – but you still need all the equipment. Oh, and it’s not super easy to catch them.)
With all that said, ONE of our hives is producing honey in a super at the moment. We are delighted, to say the least. It won’t be as much as we hope, but even getting a small amount will feel like a win after this summer.
Our next goal is to get our hives as healthy as possible to winter over. If your hives do winter over, you have a huge advantage for the next year in getting honey as the colonies are already established and don’t have to do a ton of work to get back up and running. So fingers crossed!
Have you ever been stung while working with them?
I have not! My husband has several times though, but he is generally the more nervous of the two of us. Bees really respond to your demeanor and the pace at which you work with them. Slow and steady wins the race.
Do you have any favorite recipes that include honey?
I do – and it’s not what you’d expect! I discovered a recipe for an Asian cucumber salad this summer that is delish. The honey helps to counteract the heat that is otherwise in the salad. In general, definitely worth a try.
What advice would you give someone interested in keeping bees?
Beekeeping has been amazing — but it’s also been a LOT of work. You really need to learn about the bees, their needs and their diseases before you invest in them. Take a class if you can because it makes a huge difference. Maybe even find a local mentor if that is a possibility.
This is also a very physical hobby. Bee boxes are about 80 pounds each if filled with honey, so be prepared to lift some heavy equipment.
And a final, very important piece of advice — be considerate of your neighbors. If you live in a really congested community, bees might not be the hobby for you. (Not everyone loves them as much as we do, and some people have life-threatening allergies.) Bees also LOVE water sources and find them in the darndest places. It’s not unheard of for them to frequent a neighbor’s pool for a quick drink, and once they find a water source, they tell their friends. Our bees love our birdbaths, our outside faucet that occasionally leaks and my neighbor’s air conditioner when it produces condensation. (We are fortunate that our neighbors love our bees, and actually took a video of how “cute” they were sticking their butts up in the air to get a drink from the A.C.)
While this may sound crazy, I honestly have felt like it’s been an honor to be a steward for these little bees. They have brought us so much joy that even a lack of honey hasn’t mattered. Their pollination has done wonders for the garden and their presence has been so calming during these insane times that we seem to live in now. If you can’t have your own beehive, find a local beekeeping club and see if there are any classes or events you can participate in — there’s so much to learn!