Falling in Love with a Bug - Back Yard Beekeeping in Connecticut by Howland Blackiston

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Howland Blackiston has been a backyard beekeeper since 1984. He's written many articles on beekeeping and has appeared on dozens of television and radio programs. His book Beekeeping for Dummies is a bestselling, hands-on guide to beekeeping. You can meet Howland at our Honey Harvest Festival on September 14th, where he will be presenting and moderating our Q&A panel.

I’ve been keeping bees in Weston, CT for 35 years. And I have a confession to make — I really love my bees. That may sound weird to you if you aren’t a beekeeper, but virtually everyone who keeps bees will tell you the same thing and speak with deep warmth about “their girls.” They impatiently await their next opportunity to visit their hives. They experience a true emotional loss when their bees don’t make it through a bad winter. Beekeepers, without a doubt, develop a special bond with their bees.

Since becoming a backyard beekeeper, I’ve grown to deeply admire the remarkable qualities of these endearing creatures. As a gardener, I’ve witnessed firsthand the dramatic contribution they provide to plants of all kinds. With honey bees in my garden, its bounty has increased by leaps and bounds. And then there’s that wonderful bonus that they generously give me: a yearly harvest of hundreds of pounds of pure, all natural honey. And I can assure you that no other honey tastes as good as the honey made by your own bees. Delicious!

The Perfect Pollinator

The sweet reward of honey is by no means the only reason folks are attracted to beekeeping. For a long time, agriculture has recognized the value of pollination by bees. Without the bees’ help, many commercial crops would suffer serious consequences. Even backyard beekeepers witness dramatic improvements in their gardens’ yields: more and larger fruits, flowers and vegetables. A hive or two in the garden makes a big difference in your success as a gardener.

Few insects are as effective at pollination as the honey bee.  In fact, the honey bee accounts for 80% of all pollination by insects. Indeed, about 90 crops in the USA depend upon bees for pollination. Why is the honeybee so effective a pollinator? Because she is uniquely adapted to the task. Here are several examples:

1.) The honeybee’s anatomy is well suited to act as a carrier of pollen. Its body and legs are covered with hairs that catch and hold pollen grains. The hind legs of the bee contain “pollen baskets” used by the bee to transport pollen back to the hive (pollen is used by the bees as a major food source). Should the bee brush against the stigma of the next flower visited and brush off some of the pollen grains held in her body hairs, the act of cross-pollination is complete.

2.) Most other insects lie dormant all winter, and in spring emerge only in very small numbers, until increasing generations have re-built the population of the species.  Not the honeybee. Its hive is perennial. The honeybee winters over in very large numbers feeding on stored honey. Early in the spring the queen begins to lay eggs and the already large population explodes. When the flowers begin to appear, each hive has tens of thousands of bees to carry out pollination activities. By mid summer, an individual hive contains upwards of 80,000 bees.

3.) The honeybee has a unique habit that is of great value as a pollinator. It tends to forage on flowers of a single type, and will continue to do so as long as that plant is in flower. In other words, honeybees are flower-consistent. This focus makes for particularly effective pollination.

4.) Finally, the honeybee is the only insect that can be introduced to the garden at the will of the gardener. You could garden on a hit-or-miss basis and hope there are enough wild bees to achieve adequate pollination – or you can take positive steps and nestle a colony of honeybees in a corner of your garden.

Gardeners who keep bees witness dramatic increases in the number and size of their flowers, and in the yield and quality of their vegetables. There is tremendous value and pleasure in keeping a hive or two in the garden. I have witnessed the miracle in my own garden. After seeing my results, a neighbor who tends an imposing vegetable garden begged me to place a couple of hives on her property. I did, and she is thrilled with the results in her own garden. A favor for which she richly rewards me with a seemingly never-ending bounty of fruits and vegetables. I pay my annual rent for using her land by providing her with 20 pounds of honey. Not a bad barter all around.

You Can Help Save the Bees

The facts that keeping a hive in the backyard dramatically improves pollination and rewards you with a delicious honey harvest are by themselves good enough reasons to keep bees. But today, the value of keeping bees goes beyond the obvious. All across the country, millions of colonies of wild (or feral) honey bees have been wiped out by urbanization, pesticides, parasitic mites and viruses, devastating the wild honey bee population. Many gardeners have asked me why they now see fewer and fewer honey bees in their gardens. It’s because of the dramatic decrease in our wild honey bee population. Backyard beekeeping has become vital in our efforts to reestablish lost colonies of bees and offset the natural decrease in pollination by wild bees. Perhaps as a result, we are seeing a dramatic growth in the interest of keeping honey bees as a hobby. More and more people are becoming beekeepers, so as to become more closely associated with these interesting insects, and to benefit from their labors of pollination and honey production.

How Much Time Does it Take?

Keeping bees is not a labor-intensive activity. One only needs to schedule about six visits to the hive in a year. During such visits you inspect the colony to ensure there is a queen laying lots of eggs (she is capable of laying 2000 eggs a day), and that everyone is healthy and productive. The more bees, the more pollination and the more honey. Each inspection usually occupies less than an hour of time. So, the actual time you must devote as a beekeeper is not intense. Usually the challenge is disciplining yourself not to spend too much time disturbing the bees. The tendency is to want to peek within the hive every weekend. The inner workings of the hive become simply fascinating and it is difficult to stay away. But too many visits only interrupt the productivity of the hive.

The Tools of the Trade

Today's modern hive consists of four-sided wooden boxes each containing ten wood frames of pure beeswax foundation. The bees manufacture their own beeswax and draw this foundation into thousands of deep cells or compartments. The cells become the receptacles for raising their brood, and the storage of honey and pollen. A hive consists of two deep hive boxes. The lower deep is used by the queen to raise new generations of bees (the brood chamber). The upper deep is used for food storage (the food chamber). A removable top cover serves as the roof. This configuration forms the basic hive.

Beekeepers interested in harvesting honey add a series of shallow boxes and frames above the top deep. It is in these shallow "supers" that the bees store surplus honey. This is the honey that you can harvest. The number of shallow supers added are a function of how much honey the hive is able to produce in a season. The more honey, the more supers and the taller the hive grows. Typically, here in Connecticut, a single hive will produce 60-100 pounds of surplus honey in a season.

The beekeeper makes use of two basic tools. A steel hivetool assists with the prying open of the hive bodies and the removal of the frames for inspection. The beekeeper's smoker is used to calm the bees before opening the hive for inspection. This is nothing more than a portable stove with bellows and a nozzle. Rags, burlap, wood shavings, pine needles or leaves are used as fuel, and smolder to produce billows of cool, thick smoke.

Overcoming Sting-a-Phobia

OK, I know what some of you are thinking…"will I get stung"? Quite honestly, that was my biggest apprehension when I was first thinking about becoming a beekeeping. I don’t think I’d ever been stung by a honey bee, but I’d certainly felt the wrath of yellow jackets and hornets. I wanted no part of becoming a daily target for anything so unpleasant. I fretted about my fear for a long time, looking for reassurances from experienced beekeepers. They all told me time and again that honey bees bred for beekeeping were docile and seldom inclined to sting. The advice turned out to be 100 percent correct. Honey bees are docile and gentle creatures. To my surprise (and delight), I made it through my entire first season without receiving a single sting. In the quarter century that I’ve been keeping bees here in Connecticut, not a single member of my family, not a single visitor to my home, and not a single neighbor has ever been stung by one of my honey bees. Using smoke and some sensible management techniques, the backyard beekeeper will have little problem handling bees without incident.

Where to Put Your Hive

The placement of a hive is not difficult. You needn't have a large parcel of land. Keep in mind that bees travel miles from the hive to gather pollen and nectar. They’ll forage an area as large as 6,000 acres, doing their thing. So the only space that you need is enough to accommodate the hive itself. Just about any location is fine for beekeeping. The “picture perfect” location for a hive would take into consideration the following:

·         Place the hive where it will not be a nuisance to neighbors, family or pedestrian traffic.

·         Place the hive where access to it is easy (if you are going to remove a hundred pounds of honey, your back will thank you if you have no steep hills to negotiate).

·         Place the hive with a water source nearby. Bees use lots of water in the summer to cool the hive. They will find the water they need, but the closer to the hive the better. Your neighbor won't want them lapping up water from his pool. Provide the bees with their own water source on your property.

·         Place the hive where they will enjoy dappled sunlight. Deep shade is not ideal (they need the warmth of the sun to get started in the morning), nor is having the full sun all day long (they waste too much time and energy trying to cool the hive in the hot summer).

·         Place the hive so it faces the South East. That will get the bees up and flying with the early morning sun, and warm the hive for most of the day.

·         Place the hive where the neighborhood can't see it. Hives can become an attractive nuisance for youngsters, and the source of apprehension for those who are terrified of stinging insects.

Four Steps to Getting Started

1.      Start reading some good books on beekeeping. There is a lot more detail to learn than can be covered in a single article. A good how-to book (or video) is an excellent way to learn the basics.

2.      Join a regional bee club. That’s a great way to learn more about beekeeping and meet new friends. Many clubs have special programs for new beekeepers and hands-on weekend workshops that show you how it’s done. One of the largest regional clubs in the nation (over 400 members) is in Weston, Connecticut: The Back yard Beekeepers Association (www.backyardbeekeepers.com)

3.      Latch onto a mentor. There's nothing like having an expert to answer your questions and show you the ropes.

4.      Springtime (April/May) is the perfect time in this area to start a hive.  Order an-all inclusive start-up kit and a package of live bees from a reputable dealer. Good dealers can often serve as your mentor, offering plenty of support by phone and email.

Yes, I really do love my bees. They’re simply wonderful little creatures. Interacting with them is an honor and a privilege. If you love nature in its purest form, and if you like the idea of “farming” on a small scale, or you’re intrigued by the prospect of harvesting your own all-natural honey, you’ll enjoy becoming a beekeeper. Sure, as far as hobbies go, it’s a bit unusual, but that’s part of its allure. Express your uniqueness and join the ranks of some of the most delightful and interesting people I’ve ever met . . . backyard beekeepers!


Recommended Reading

Beekeeping for Dummies, Fourth Edition, by Howland Blackiston. ISBN- 978-1-119-31006-8        

Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, by Ross Conrad and Gary Paul Nabhan. ISBN-13: 9781933392080

The Beekeeper's Handbook, by Alphonse Avitabile, Diana Sammataro, and Roger A. Morse. ISBN-13: 9780801485039 

Recommended Video

An Introduction to Beekeeping. Order online at www.bee-commerce.com or call 1-203-222-2268.

Start-Up Kits and Suppliers in CT

Bee-Commerce. A comprehensive online superstore created just for the back yard beekeeper. The warehouse is located in Newtown, CT., but bee-commerce ships worldwide. Call toll-free: 1-203-222-2268.

Beekeeping Clubs and Associations in CT

Back Yard Beekeepers AssociationOne of the Nation’s largest regional clubs for beekeeping hobbyists. Monthly meetings and workshops in Weston, CT.

The Connecticut Beekeepers Association.  A regional club (New Haven County) with regularly scheduled meetings and workshops.

Eastern Apiculture Society.  EAS is a non-profit educational organization for the education of beekeepers, and excellence in bee research. Contact: John Baker, 52 Headquarters Rd, Litchfield, CT 06759.  Telephone: 860.567.8427.