Want to Be a Beekeeping Buddy?

Learn the beekeeping basics to help our busy buzzers at home
bees crawling around a manufactured wooden hive
Copyright CC0 Public Domain

Have you been itching to start your own backyard hive, or even turn your garden into a bee sanctuary? Whether you take on a bee brood of your own or simply support local apiaries, you can do your part to save our beeutiful bees!

While most of us have witnessed first-hand busy bees flitting from flower to flower, collecting pollen on their fuzzy little bodies and legs, it’s easy to forget the important job they do for us: pollination. It may be only incidental to their quest to collect pollen, but pollination is an essential component in agriculture. In fact, one third of our food supply relies on pollinators as they pollinate 70 of the 100 crops that feed 90% of the world, making bees big business. As the threat of their extinction draws ever closer thanks in great part to pesticides and monoculture crops, we are more and more aware of just how catastrophic their absence would be, both for the plants that depend on pollinators and for the animals who feed on those plants, including us. Some factors in this dark trajectory are beyond our control, like disease and climate change, but we can work to save the bees through creating habitats, continuing to lobby for pesticide-free agriculture, using our power as consumers to demand more organic food products, and doing our part to care for our hard-working pollinating friends.

Hive-five for bees!

While most people know that bees are social insects, they are in fact eusocial, meaning that they have defined roles to play as determined by their reproductive abilities. Honey bees (and other communal bees) raise their young cooperatively and inter-generationally, and the hive is populated by a single queen. After her virgin flight and mating with roughly ten drones from other hives, the queen returns with 5 million sperm in her abdomen and never leaves the hive again. She pops out up to 2000 eggs daily while young worker bees bathe her and her eggs in royal jelly, a secretion from their foreheads that deliver nutrition to her and developing larvae. Queens live two to three years on average. In contrast, the life span of a worker bee is only 6 weeks.

Drones are males who are born to unfertilized mothers (ponder this anomaly!). They have large eyes to see with, do not have stingers, and do not gather pollen or nectar, nor do they make honey—that is the domain of worker bees. The drones’ sole purpose is to mate with queens from other hives. If they are successful in mating, they die immediately afterward because their genitalia and abdominal tissue are unceremoniously ripped away from their bodies following intercourse. Ouch.

Not only is their unique eusocial system mindboggling, their productivity is phenomenal. Honey bees must visit 1,100,000 flowers to make one cup (250 ml) of honey! A typical hive needs approximately 60 pounds of honey to get through the winter.

bees at a man-made hive

Bee kind to native bees

You can be an active caretaker of bees in your own backyard while adorning your garden with bountiful ornamentals. Support your native bees by planting local plants and flowers and allowing some wildflowers to remain (dandelions are bees’ first food when they emerge from hibernation!). Do a little research to figure out what flora is native to your area and which are some of your local bees’ favourites. Provide bees with plenty of fresh water: a shallow tray filled with marbles for the bees to perch on is a great DIY project and will keep the bees hydrated and happy.

You might even see bees moving in—get curious and scope out bee hidey-holes. Leaving some mulch-free dirt available and planting hollow-stemmed plants is a great way to encourage them to stay as many solitary bees prefer the solo life in reeds and even in the mud!

Hire a hive

Before you bumble off into a reverie about caring for your own hive, try leasing one instead! Your local beekeeper may lease out hives for an annual fee, and in most cases, your sole job will be visiting and observing “your” bees, and attending the delicious harvest experience. To see bees get shaken off a frame and have the kids break into comb honey when it’s only seconds old is the ultimate family experience. You can still impart those important lessons about where food comes from in a profound way without the work of hive ownership.

young child eating fresh honey from a honeycomb

So you still wanna-bee a beekeeper?

OK, the allure of a backyard beehive is undeniable. But starting a hive isn’t a spur of the moment decision. Before you drift off into delightful daydreams of honey-coated everything, it’s important to remember that the best rule of thumb before embarking on beekeeping is education. Take a course, read some books, join a local organization, and get a bee buddy or mentor who has a hive of their own. And then plan! Bees are a big responsibility: you’ll have thousands of young charges that you have to care for, after all!

Bee-fore you bee-gin

First things first: know your local bylaws. If hives are allowed in your area you’ll have to register your brood of bees, that way your local government can keep statistical data on bee activity, plus they’ll send you helpful info on keeping your hive healthy and happy. If you live in an urban area and want a hive, consider your neighbours. Some cities may have rules prohibiting or restricting hives.

It’s also important to check out your local regulations regarding the purchase of bees: some areas require that bees must be bought within the boundaries of your state or province. Usually bees are ordered almost a year in advance and picked up in the early summer.

While hives are fairly compact, needing a footprint of only 60 centimetres square, you’ll still need to consider the space needed to move around the hive and work with it. Also, it’s all about location, location, location! Is the hive in a safe spot away from predators, high winds, small kiddos, or vandals? What about food sources for your bees? Are there gardens, parks and backyards nearby? Keep in mind most beekeeping practices suggest starting with a pair of hives in order to equalize stock over winter and to have room for potential bee swarms.

What’s a bee swarm and should I bee worried?

When a colony gets too big for the hive, the queen leaves and takes half the colony to make a new nest elsewhere. It’s normal and a sign your hive is growing, but something you need to keep a close eye on as your neighbours may not appreciate a new hive in their play structure, shed, or tree. Make sure to know how to read the signs of swarming and have extra room for your expanding hive. Observation is essential as it’s always best to prevent a swarm—losing most of your bees (and therefore, honey) can be a bummer! A bee buddy or mentor can help.

Bee prepared

One of the biggest mistakes new bee parents can make is beeing unprepared so ask yourself honestly how much time you have each day to care for the hive. While much of beekeeping involves observing the hive’s activity, there is still a lot involved in caring for your charges. Regular hive maintenance, checking for disease, sickness, and infestations (from mites) are all part of the gig. Plus, in early spring, before the flowers have bloomed to provide that much-sought-after pollen, you will be the primary food provider.

When it comes to choosing a hive, the most common one is the Langstroth bee hive, a system of stacking boxes containing frames where bees store their honey. A start-up hive usually has one hive body that you pop your bees into. This becomes the brood chamber for rearing and honey and pollen storage. As your bees reproduce you add another frame for them to move into, and so on until the box is full! (PS: make sure you have another box on hand!)

Invest in quality essentials like a smoker, protective clothing, and other tools. You will use them on a regular basis and will need them to be in good repair! A smoker is not optional! It’s the best way to get your bees docile so you can have access to the hive. Also, keep an EpiPen and Benadryl on hand! According to Jillian Ruhl, a graduate student who keeps a hive at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and runs workshops for kids, these are essentials in your first aid kit.Most importantly, bee ready to make mistakes and have lots of fun! Bees are work, but the tasty results and their impact on both wild and cultivated flora make the learning curve so worth it!

Spread the love for bees and find more ways to create habitats to help them flourish around us. Even supporting local honey businesses by buying their honey and wax products helps our hardworking friends! If we harness our passion and interest in keeping our pollinators alive and well, we’ll reap those very sweet rewards for generations to come!