BFAQ: Beekeeping Frequently Asked Questions

honeybeeSince I started prattling on endlessly about purchasing and hiving my bees I have been getting some interesting questions about bees and beekeeping. While I apologize to my barista, the checkers at the grocery store, the staff at our Denny’s, and all the other people who were members of my captive audience, I also thank you for your questions. Given that I am neck deep in the subject I easily forget that there are many things about bees that aren’t common knowledge. Here’s a few questions I’ve gotten thus far:

Why? (I don’t remember who asked me this one. I just remember “goldfishing”, which is what I call it when my mouth opens and closes and no sound comes out.) My reasons (and I think it’s a tie) are honey and pollination. I love honey and Matt brews the best mead you’ve ever tasted. There aren’t many ingredients in mead – it’s almost all honey and its buzz (oh, pun totally intended) is a very contented one. As for pollination, I don’t have any figures to hand, but having bees on site is supposed to increase your vegetable and fruit productions greatly. I remember reading somewhere that the nutritive value is also increased by proper pollination.

Are you allergic? (I’m pretty sure this came from my friend Tabassam.) No, I’m not allergic – and unlike some, I am sure. I was one of those awful children who pulled the legs off of insects. I got a really good look at most of my victims and I know I got stung by at least one honeybee I amputated. Something I did not know until my beekeeping classes is that there are four distinct types of bee/wasp venom and most people are only allergic to one – and unfortunately, not only do most people not know that, most people do not get so good a look at what stung them as I did. Additionally, there is a misconception about what “allergic” really means in this case. Technically, we are all allergic to bee stings and mosquito bites – that’s why the sting/bite site puffs up and gets itchy. That’s a localized allergic reaction (even if it swells up quite a bit) the sort of thing that can be easily dealt with at home using liberal applications of ice packs and antihistamines. What people generally mean when they ask me if I’m allergic is am I deathly allergic – referring to the dread systemic allergic reaction – the one that causes a rash or swelling away from the sting site, or, in the nastiest form – anaphylaxis. A systemic allergic reaction is the kind where you need an epi-pen or a trip to the emergency room.

How much honey will you get? (Everyone asks this) In this first year I don’t really expect to get much. I may not be able to rob my bees at all – but there is a chance that I could get up to 50 pounds from them if there’s a good nectar flow. However, if I don’t want to feed them sugar syrup over the winter I need to leave them at least 100 pounds of honey to consume as their winter stores. Most hobby beekeepers, because they keep bees primarily for honey, will take everything the bees have and feed them sugar syrup over the winter. Over the course of the year they will actually produce closer to 800 pounds of honey per colony, but they will consume most of it themselves.

Why do they need a queen? (My barista asked me this the morning of hiving day.) Without a queen, they die. If my queen dies before she lays any eggs then there is no way they can replace her unless I run to Beez Neez and order a new one stat, and without a queen there are no new bees because she’s the only one who lays fertile eggs. They aren’t under her control – they know just what needs doing and they do it – but none of them can make new worker bees. The worker bees, who are all female, are also generally all sterile, though you will occasionally get one who can lay eggs. Since she hasn’t had what beekeepers poetically call a “nuptial flight” she will only lay useless male drones who can’t sting or collect food.

Hasn’t there been some sort of bee problem? (Asked by Heidi as she was trying to escape my bee talk and catch her ferry.) This is a whole blog post in and of itself. Hell, there are whole websites and books devoted to it. I’ll sum it up as shortly as I can: Yes, there is a problem. There are a bijillion and a half theories, some with more credence than others, but really no one knows for sure what is causing the downright creepy mass disappearances of honeybees. Yes, disappearances. You check your hives one day, they look great. You come back in a week, and everyone’s gone. In the few cases where one or two corpses have been left and have been taken to labs they have had everything imaginable wrong with them all at once. Just hearing the latest theory is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck – so imagine my horror when they mentioned the problem half an hour into M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. (Oh, good grief, I got goosebumps typing that!) Colony Collapse Disorder (as they call it) has utterly supplanted my fear of super-fast zombies.

How much does it cost to get started? (Asked by a man who dropped into Beez Neez to buy bulk honey. Jim was on the phone and I’m not sure why this man chose me of all the loiterers to inquire of, but I’m pretty sure I actually puffed up with pride at being mistaken for someone with a clue.) I started really small and shopped around for the lowest prices on the cheapest (in every sense of the word) equipment. My bare bones supplies (veil, gloves, tools, secondhand smoker, minimum of hives, and one bee package) have thus far cost me $406.10, including taxes but excluding the class, which was $25.00. It is recommended that you start with two colonies rather than one, but that would have about doubled my starting costs. $202.53 of the total was stuff to house the bees, $113.60 was for the bees themselves, the rest was miscellaneous equipment. The hives can be reused almost indefinitely (as long as they are never left empty of live bees – this encourages all sorts of nasty diseases) but Jim at Beez Neez recommends replacing brood frames (the frames where eggs are laid and hatched) every four years to prevent the build-up of potential diseases. If everything were to go off without a hitch I would not have to invest any more money in my bees than it takes to keep brood frames replaced and winter feeders full of sugar syrup, but chances are good that I’ll need to requeen (replace the queen) in a year or two and rather than getting to split a colony (divide it into two separate colonies) I may have one go belly-up and need replacing. I passed on the ubiquitous bee suit because they can cost up to $200.00. As I have said at least 100 times in the last week alone: I know I’m going to get stung.

How many eggs can a queen lay? (Matt) I’ll never forget this one again, because it was one of only two questions I got wrong on the test. (Jim was right – it was only tricky because it was so poorly worded.) She can lay 1,500 to 3,000 eggs a day, which is more than her own body weight. She’s so busy laying eggs she doesn’t stop to eat or clean herself; she has a retinue of worker bees to do it for her.

How do you process honey? (Asked by my mom.) In the beekeeping sense of the word processing means robbing the bees (removing frames full of honey from the hive), uncapping it, extracting it, filtering it, and bottling it. What my mom meant, however, was “What do you have to do to it to make it keep in the jars?” I think she was expecting me to say that it needs a boiling water bath like you would use for processing jams or jellies, which makes sense really – even maple syrup takes considerable cooking before it is anything like what you pour on your pancakes. But no, you don’t need to do anything of the sort with honey. Just filter it well, pour it into jars, and cap it. All real honey is raw honey. If it isn’t raw honey then it may be adulterated – cut with sugar syrup and boiled back down to the consistency you expect This, as I learned from in my classes, is why comb honey attained such popularity: during the food adulteration scandals of the Industrial Age (when flour was cut with plaster of Paris, milk watered down, cheeses colored with lead, and other terrible changes made to cheapen foods, which led to the food inspection and labeling we have today) the only way to be sure you had real honey was to get it in the comb.

— Amanda


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