Ask Farmer Joe: Busy Beekeeping
Joe King is a bee farmer and the CEO of Freedom Farms. this month he answers questions about beekeeping for Freedom Farms Magazine.
Struggling honey bees are gaining a lot of national attention. There are many people who want to help become part of the solution. What tips would you give to people that want to help bees?
Joe King: Right now, honey bees are fighting to survive. Since 2006, the rate of dying bees has tripled, with millions of bees dying mysteriously each year.The die off is due in part to a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. This syndrome describes a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies, but with a live queen, honey and immature bees still present. Where are the missing bees? Nobody knows, and no cause for CCD has been proven, although it’s almost certain that pesticides contribute to the problem. Parasites like the varroa mite, pathogens, pests, and nutritional problems have also been decimating bee populations. Between April 2014 and April 2015, beekeepers across the United States lost more than 40 percent of their honeybee colonies.
What are some common misconceptions about the struggling honey bees?
JK: I would say that the most common misperception is that the honey bee die off is a complete mystery. We don’t totally understand it, but here’s what we do know. Many of the problems with bees are results of the way large scale agriculture developed in this country. Monoculture crops and pesticide use are not good for bees. Feeding sugar water or high fructose corn syrup to them instead of letting them forage freely is also not good for bees. If you want to support the bees, support small scale, diversified farms that grow a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Support pastured grazing operations that complete the cycle and enrich the soil. Support an approach to agriculture that is rich in biodiversity and is healthy for plants, animals, humans, and bees. Plant a garden to create biodiversity on your own land, and create a refuge for honeybees that are passing by. Buy your honey from a local, trusted source, from a farmer that cares about the health of his hives. If you want to support bees, purchase your meat, vegetables, and honey from Freedom Farms.
We also need all the beekeepers we can get. Consider getting a hobby hive and getting started. You don’t need to live in the country to be a beekeeper. Many cities and suburbs now allow homeowners to set up hives.
What are the benefits of backyard beekeeping?
JK: Well, the sweetest benefit is honey. Beyond that, bees are natural pollinators, and will increase the yields of your garden. When you have a beehive, you can also harvest pollen, propolis, and royal jelly, which all have impressive health benefits. You can also use the beeswax to make candles, lip balm, and even wood polish. You are guaranteed to learn a lot about the natural world, and you’re contributing to the health of the larger bee population.
Beekeeping can get costly quickly, and there are so many kinds of equipment out there. What tools do I need to get started?
JK: Here are the essential tools you’ll need to have on hand in order to get started keeping bees.
You’ll also need a bee hive. This consists of several parts. A typical hive arrangement includes a hive stand, bottom board, 1-2 hive bodies or 2-3 medium supers for the brood chamber, 1-3 honey supers, inner cover, and all topped with an outer cover.
How do I order bees?
JK: Before ordering, you need to decide if you are going to buy nucs or package bees. A nuc is short for nucleus colony, and contains a queen bee, baby bees, honey, and pollen in a small starter hive. The queen is already installed and laying eggs, even as the nuc is being transported. Nucs cost more, and you have to wait until mid spring to get them, but when you do they will already have gotten a good start on creating honeycomb and they are ready to go.
A package contains bees of different ages from different hives, shaken into the package and clustered around a queen bee who has been artificially raised. When you install them into your hive, the package bees organize, form a colony and start making honey and reproducing. You will need to supplement their feed at first, since they are starting from scratch.
Once you’ve decided which method you are planning to use, you can order your bees from a catalogue or online. The best time to start bees is in the early spring, just as the weather warms up.
What breeds do you recommend?
JK: There are several breeds of bees, which all have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to research the variety you are interested in, to see if it is a good match for your operation. Here are some commonly available breeds.
Italian bees are currently the most popular breed in the US. These bees are light yellow/brown with alternating stripes of brown and black. Italian bees start early in the spring and keep going through the fall. They breed well, collect a lot of nectar, and need a lot of honey to get them through the winter. They do have a tendency to attack other hives and rob the honey, which can increase the risk of disease.
Caucasian bees are dark colored with grey bands. They are considered the gentlest honey bee. They are not prone to swarming, but they do drift and rob. They forage at low temperatures, and conserve honey stores well.
Carniolans look similar to Caucasians, but with brown spots or bands on the abdomen. They are quiet, have a good sense of orientation, and are not prone to robbing. These bees are prone to excessive swarming. In a swarm, the queen bee leaves the colony to establish a new colony, surrounded by about 60% of her worker bees. A swarm of bees can contain anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of bees.
Buckfast bees are a hybrid developed by a monk named Brother Adam in southwestern England. He spent his entire life perfecting this hybrid, ate a spoonful of honey a day, and died at 98. Hybrid bees are produced by crossing several lines or races of honey bees. Commercial hybrids are created by crossing inbred lines of bees that have been developed to increase gentleness, productivity, mite resistance, and successful wintering. They are resistant to tracheal mites and suited to a cool climate of that region. The Buckfast bee is a prolific honey producer.