Steph’s Note: Today’s post is from the lovely Diana Rodgers, author of the soon-to-be-released gorgeous book, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook: Over 100 Delicious, Gluten-Free, Farm-to-Table Recipes, and a Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Healthy Food. Diana pitched me the idea of raising bees, and my answer was a resounding yes. I’m a nature-lover at heart and this fits within the confines of not having enough space to keep any other typical backyard critters. I’ll be updating you on my adventures as I go along! I’ve already purchased my hive components, ordered my bees, and taken some classes from local experts. Stay tuned for Part 2!
I love finding out that my Paleo friends are into homesteading-type hobbies, like that one time Steph mentioned on my Instagram feed that she really wanted to keep bees. You just never know who loves to get their hands dirty!
So when I included a chapter on beekeeping in my new book, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook, which is all about connecting with our food, I thought about Steph and wondered if she’d be interested in getting her very own colony and then telling me about her experiences.
I sent her a text and got an immediate and excited reply that yes, she was very, very interested. I sent her a digital copy of the book so she could read the chapter on beekeeping (the book lands at stores in March) and suggested she check out the San Diego Beekeepers Association, which has some great links to local beekeeping resources, including a beekeeping supply store right in San Diego, local place to get a new colony of bees, and lots of online tutorials. How cool is that?!
I’m getting Steph all set up with a hive, bees, and all the gear so that she can have her very own backyard beehive. Not only is honey a delicious and healthy sweetener, but because of pesticides and mosquito spraying, bee populations across the country are in danger, and we need more beekeepers!
If you’d like to join Steph in becoming a backyard beekeeper, read on for an excerpt from The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook. Before you buy any bees or equipment, make sure you have any licenses your town requires, and chat with your neighbors first to tell them about your plans to keep bees. Check out the book for more on beekeeping, such as how to harvest honey and common issues beekeepers face.
How far do bees fly? Bees forage in a two- to three-mile radius from the hive.
How many hives should I get? Start with two. There will be losses every year, and having two increases the chance of at least one hive making it through the winter. Also, if one hive is low on honey, the second can help make up the deficiency.
How much honey will I get? You can get up to about 100 pounds of honey from one hive, not including what you need to leave for the bees, but in the first year it’s likely to be less.
How often do beekeepers get stung? Every hive has its own personality; some are more passive or aggressive than others. The hive’s aggressiveness also depends on the weather and the state of the hive. If a hive is healthy, it’s a sunny day, and the bees are busy foraging, then the beekeeper may not need any protection from stings at all.
Do bees really die after stinging someone? Yes, if a worker bee stings you, it will die shortly after. A queen bee may survive after stinging, but it’s extremely uncommon to be stung by a queen.
Ordering the Bees
There are several types of bees, all with different characteristics. If you’re new to beekeeping, I suggest starting with Italian, Carolina, or Russian bees. They are all gentle, productive, and hearty.
Just like chicks, bees arrive in the mail. (Steph’s note: I ordered some that I’m picking up locally.) Place your order in January so that you’ll have them by the time you’re ready to start the hive in the spring.
Your initial order of bees will be about 3 pounds, or 15,000 bees, which is just right for a new hive, and will come in a package that’s about the size of a large shoe box. Be sure to order a marked queen—the dot on her back will help you easily identify her when you check on your hive.
There are many online bee suppliers, but I’ve found that the best way to find one is to ask at your local bee club, which probably has a “new beekeeper” program. Let your post office know that you’re expecting a package of bees about a week before they’re due to arrive, and give them your phone number so that they can call you to pick them up. Make sure you have your hive fully put together before you get the call from the post office.
The most important piece of equipment, of course, is the hive. I suggest you start with the most common beehive, the ten-frame Langstroth, which sort of looks like a chest of drawers. You can put it together yourself or buy it preassembled. Look for the higher-quality wood versions instead of the ones made from plastic or other materials; they’re built better and will last longer.
A hive is made of the following parts:
- Screened bottom board: The bottom board is the floor of the beehive. A screened bottom board, rather than a standard one, helps control mites: When the mites fall off the bees, they can’t crawl back up into the hive.
- Deep hive bodies: Each contains ten frames of honeycomb. The lower deep is the nursery and the upper deep, which is added later, is the food chamber, where the bees store honey and pollen. Inside the hive bodies sit frames.
- Frames: The bees build their comb onto the frames, which usually come with a sheet of beeswax foundation to help the bees build uniform honeycomb. Despite the name, beeswax foundation is also available in plastic. Bees are slow to accept a plastic foundation, though, so if you really want uniform comb, use natural beeswax instead. But bees will also create their own beautiful honeycomb without foundation, and the process supports a healthier, stronger hive, so consider buying frames without it.
- Honey super: This looks like a shallower version of the deep hive bodies and is where the bees store surplus honey. You won’t need it at first; add it to the hive around the end of the second month. You can purchase medium or shallow supers, but keep their weight in mind: when full of honey, a medium super weighs about 50 pounds and a shallow super weighs about 40 pounds. As the bees produce more and more honey, you can add more and more supers to the hive, stacking them on top like Legos.
- Inner cover: This cover sits directly on top of the super and has a ventilation notch on the front. It’s optional, but it can help insulate the hive.
- Outer cover: This sits on the inner cover. It is often reinforced with galvanized steel, which protects it from the elements.
You’ll also need to have some other equipment on hand before your bees arrive:
- Entrance reducer: This is placed between the bottom board and the lower hive body to limit movement in and out of the hive and control hive temperature and ventilation. It can also help bees defend against yellow jackets and robbing bees, since it reduces the size of the entrance. Use the entrance reducer in a new hive and during cold months, to keep the hive warm while allowing bees to come and go. Once the hive is established and when the weather is warm, you can remove it.
- Queen excluder: Used only during the honey season, this keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey super.
- Hive-top feeder: This small box sits directly on top of the upper hive body, under the outer cover—no inner cover is used with a hive-top feeder. Adding sugar syrup to the feeder is an easy way to keep your bees fed.
- Smoker: Produces cool smoke that helps calm the bees, so it’s easier for you to inspect the hive.
- Bee brush: It’s optional, but this can help you gently brush bees off the hive in order to access the frames.
- Hive tool: Use this tool to scrape beeswax off the hive and loosen the parts of the hive, so they’re easier to pry apart.
- Protective gear: At the minimum, you’ll need a veil and protective gloves. You won’t need the gloves early in the season, though; they’re primarily for honey harvesting, and without them it’s easier to be gentle with the bees. Coveralls are optional and range in price and thickness. If you opt not to wear coveralls, make sure you wear light-colored clothing and tuck it in, so bees don’t crawl inside.
After you purchase your hive and equipment, you’ll need to know how to introduce the bees to their hive, how to check on the hive and what to look for, and how to feed the bees before they are producing their own honey—it’s all covered in The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook.
Even if you’re not in a position to raise your own bees right now, learning about them is fascinating. I’m so excited that Steph is on the path to becoming a beekeeper, and I can’t wait to hear about her experiences.
Questions? Leave them in the comments below!
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Photographs courtesy of Diana Rodgers.