Backyard beekeeping has become enormously popular in recent years. Apiculture, as the practice of raising bees is known, is an intriguing blend of gardening and animal husbandry that, after a bit of practice, is no more complicated than either. Yet, for the uninitiated, getting started is a daunting task - unlike gardening and livestock, you can't find the materials and advice you need at the local nursery or farm supply store.
The first thing to consider is whether you have sufficient space and whether hives will be a good fit with how you use your backyard. In theory, a tenth of an acre yard is plenty of space to house a few beehives, but it depends on a few factors. The space immediately around the bee hives cannot double as a play area for kids and pets, nor can it be adjacent to your neighbor's swimming pool. It should receive sun for most of the day, though a bit of afternoon shade is important in hot climates.
Most municipalities do not outlaw beekeeping, though more and more are regulating it. Check with local authorities to find out if you need a permit and what sort of restrictions there are in terms of how many hives you can keep, where you can locate them and how they must be maintained.
Beekeeping is a commitment akin to caring for a pet or farm animal. They do not require daily attention through most of the year, but the hives should be checked on at least once per week. There are also substantial costs involved - expect to spend a few hundred dollars or more at the outset to get everything set up.
Setting Up an Apiary
Look to local beekeeping organizations for support when getting started. Rather than striking out on your own with no experience, it's crucial to have at least a brief apprenticeship with an experienced beekeeper.
One successful hive can provide enough honey for the average family each year and is plenty to manage for a first time beekeeper. Look for hive boxes at on-line beekeeping sites or through your local beekeeping organization. These are specially designed wooden boxes with a series of frames that slide in and out where the bees live and produce their honey. The boxes should be supported about 18 to 24 inches off the ground to make them easier to work with, to keep them dry, and to provide a measure of protection against critters. Several cinder blocks stacked on their sides with a couple 2x4s spanning them is an adequate support structure for a beehive.
Face the opening of the beehive away from sidewalks, doorways and other places where people pass by frequently. Facing the hives toward a fence or dense hedge forces the bees to fly up and over, creating a flight path that is well above the ground and minimizing the chances that bees will collide with a neighbor or visitor as they come and go from the hive.
You will also need a bee suit for your own protection, a smoker to pacify the bees when you're working with the hives, and a feeder to provide sugar syrup at times when there isn't much in bloom. Extracting equipment is quite costly, so again, you may want to look to your local beekeeping organization for the possibilities of using shared equipment. Of course, you will also need bees - Italian, Russian, and Carniolan are the common backyard varieties - all of which can be purchased online.
The Life a Backyard Beekeeper
The beekeeping season starts in early spring, which is the best time to set up a new hive. While the temperature is cool and few flowers are open, you may need to provide supplementary food in addition to the nectar that is available. During spring, beekeepers monitor their hives regularly for signs of disease and administer medication if necessary.
In summer, the bees become very busy and honey starts to accumulate in the hive - a time when you don't want to medicate, because the medication will end up in the honey. The bee colony expands and can sometimes "swarm" - meaning a group takes flight seeking a new home. This is a challenging time for backyard beekeepers as the swarm tends to land somewhere else in the neighborhood and can frighten people. Experienced beekeepers know how to collect a swarm to start a new hive, but there are also ways to manage the hive to prevent a swarm - this is where research and apprenticeship pay off, as a swarm means honey production will be reduced.
As temperatures die down in fall, honey production tapers off and the honey can be collected. Fall is a time to medicate the hive again if necessary and provide supplementary food since there are fewer and fewer flowers as the season goes on.
Depending on the variety, honeybees are capable of surviving the winter in a semi-dormant state, though some backyard beekeepers opt to start with a new bee colony each spring rather than overwintering the hives.
A water supply should be provided at all times of year - otherwise the bees may end up in the dog bowl or the neighbors pool when they go looking for a drink.
Bees go hand in hand with gardening. Besides giving honey, they also perform the essential task of pollination, ensuring that plants are able to reproduce by seed and rewarding gardeners with more prolific fruit crops. Of course, your bees will be pollinating other gardens and wild plants, so the benefits go beyond yourself to boosting the local environment.