Is Backyard Beekeeping Right for You?

Is Backyard Beekeeping Right for You?

If you think that a hive or two of honeybees could be a wonderful addition to your home or garden, you’re right. But, if you think a beehive is a lawn ornament that’ll function as your personal honey fountain, you’re in for a surprise. Keeping bees is a magical thing, and they really are low maintenance as far as “livestock” go, but they’re not no maintenance. There are a few things to consider before making any impulse bee buys.

Cost The first logical thing you should ask yourself is “can I afford this?” Average start-up costs range from $500 to $1000 depending on the quality and quantity of the hives and equipment you choose.

The bare essentials for getting started are:

  • Hive (or two, which most recommend)
  • Bees (in the form of a “package” or “nuc” from an apiary)
  • Smoker
  • Hive tool
  • Jacket and gloves
  • Stand or platform for the hive (which can usually be made easily from items you already have around, like cinderblocks etc.)

New England Beekeeping itemizes initial expenses in this helpful resource. Most of these will be one-time costs, but there will be occasional expenses along the way such as pest management treatments (you should plan for mites), adding new hives, buying new queens, replacing damaged hive parts, and the inevitable lost hive tool. These expenses tend to trickle in and don’t often amount to much, but they are worth planning for to ensure your finances allow for taking good care of your bees.

Space The next thing to consider is habitat. Bees cannot sleep in your bed like the dog—they need their own house and their own yard. Luckily, bees can travel so far for food and water (up to six miles) that you don’t really need to provide much, but you do need to be thoughtful about where you place the hive and what the surrounding land has to offer.

Each hive needs about 10 square feet of space. Ideally, you’ll want the entrance to face the east or southeast so the bees wake up and get busy with the morning sun, but if south is pointing directly toward a busy sidewalk, your first concern should be that their “flyway” is aimed in a safe and courteous direction.

Depending on the climate of your region the bees will prefer anything from full to dappled sun, and they should be protected from harsh winds. In a perfect world you and your hive would be surrounded by acres of biodiverse habitat for them to forage, but even if you live in the city, a small green space can go a long way. If you don’t have any land of your own, you can talk to local farmers, community gardeners, rooftop garden managers, etc. about keeping your hives in a corner of their place where they will likely welcome the extra pollination.

In urban or suburban settings, it’s always good to check local municipal laws, homeowner’s association rules, and to ask your neighbors to make sure no one is severely allergic. When choosing a space for your hive you’ll want to keep it as far away from areas that are known to use pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides as bees are extremely susceptible to these things. Due to the distance that they travel, it’s not always in your control, but do your best to keep them safe from places using industrial chemicals. If all these things check out and your bees have food and shelter, the next concern is water.

Water Sources Bees are more attracted to water that has an odor over a pristine mountain stream. It’s likely that such stenches have historically been indicators of salt, sugar, or micronutrients. This is sometimes still true, but today, smelly water is more likely a sign of modern chemicals in the waterways. This instinct doesn’t always work out well for bees and they are often drawn to polluted water sources.

You’ll want to set up a safe, appealing, and reliable water source before you set up your hive. Bees are creatures of habit and once they find their first water source, they’ll be committed to it and it’ll be hard to get them to switch. If you are near undeveloped land and your area has ample rainfall you probably won’t need to supplement. If you live in an arid, highly developed place, however, you’ll want to be sure to have a water source in place before they find your neighbor’s swimming pool (which they are notorious for).

Commitment With food, shelter, and water, you’ve got the basic needs of your bees covered, and the last essential element is you. Beekeeping is not a passive hobby, and while it may not be expensive, time consuming, or physically demanding, it is still a commitment: you are taking other lives into your own hands.

Before you buy your first hives (and maybe even before you cover all of the above bases) do a little internal digging. Try to put your finger on what is calling you toward bees and if that’s a romantic impulse or if it’s actually a good fit for your life. Are you daydreaming about getting rich on honey? This is unlikely to come true, but it can offer you some freedom from buying industrial sweeteners, and that alone is worth its weight in gold.

Join a local beekeeping group and go to a few meetings to see the nuts and bolts of it all beneath the fairytale veneer. Do you just want extra pollination in your garden? It might make more sense to get a bee house for one of our native species that will do a superior job of pollinating and require minimal care. Are you really, really, fascinated by bees? This is probably the best reason to get a hive—pure interest. The honey crop might fail, the garden might fail, everything might fail, but if observing the bees is really your bread and butter, it will never fail to be interesting.

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