I got interested in beekeeping out of a desire to make a small benefit to our yard and neighborhood. My wife and I have always been gardeners; growing plants for the benefit of pollinators, including honeybees, was a part of our approach. Over the years we’ve bought honey from local beekeepers and the flavors and aromas were always something extra special. A number of my hobbies center around creating food: gardening, hunting, brewing, foraging. Having bees to make our own honey fit right in.
Then, our oldest son started dating the daughter of a beekeeper; her father’s enthusiasm for the activity was contagious. One summer evening after sunset we walked to the hives in his yard. Bending down in front of one colony, the scent of evaporating nectar was strong and sweet. I was hooked.
His first guidance was that we take a beginning beekeeping class. The Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (MCBA) course was very informative and engaging. Within a week of finishing the class, we actually had bees. Then, in less than three weeks, our new colony swarmed. The departing cluster landed on the underside of some yard art, not 3 feet off the ground. I was quite literally up to my elbows in bees trying to shove the mass into a box I’d put below them. No stings—they had no home to defend, so were quite docile. Bam! Two colonies.
The original colony that swarmed created a new queen. But she and her daughters were bad-tempered. They continued to get meaner and starting stinging our 3 month old puppy when he was anywhere outside. We had to replace the queen and install a new regime.
Since then I have become intrigued by the social structure and labor divisions of colonies, the workings of a superorganism, and the practice of husbanding a micro-civilization of cooperating animals. I simply enjoy watching them come and go, looking at the different color pollen that they bring back on their little legs. I now have 10 colonies. Two in Rockville and 8 at our small farm in southern PA.
Not everyone wants 50,000 honeybees in their yard. But bees will travel well over a mile to gather pollen and nectar.
Reduce the size of your lawn. Most sources agree that the worst landscape choice for bees is a manicured lawn. It provides no food value to bees, either nectar (honeybees’ calorie source) or pollen (their protein source). Flowering plants, including trees and shrubs, will benefit all pollinator species.
Plan for year round blooms. Plant in clumps rather than single plants. Honeybees generally visit only one type or species of flower during a foraging trip. Bees benefit because foragers learn flower attributes (color, shape odor) and use that to be more efficient. Plants benefit because bees are more likely to transfer pollen from individual plants in the same species. For optimal health honeybees need a diversity of pollen sources. The Montgomery County Beekeepers Association website has links for plantings for bees and for offering to host a bee colony.
Provide a water source. Bees need water, too. A good example is a small birdbath with a place for bees to land. The ones foraging for water will learn the location, and return repeatedly. Bees don’t fly around while they are drinking, so it’s a great opportunity to observe them.
Minimize chemicals. Eliminate the use of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers in your yard and garden. Especially, avoid plants treated with systemic insecticides, such as neonicotinoids. The chemical load of lawn management that uses pesticides or fungicides has negative effects on bees’ health.
MCBA has typically offered a beginner course in the spring. Check their website. Also Penn State has an online course, Beekeeping 101, that has gotten good reviews.
Guest blog by Don English, Montgomery County resident and beekeeper.