My grandfather was a beecharmer...
August 18, 2009 4:11 PM   Subscribe

Please tell me about beekeeping.

I have always been interested in beekeeping and now I have the opportunity to contact a local beekeeper. This is not so much what I want to do with my life, but it might be an interesting second part-time job. So, what time of year would it be best to make contact? Basically, the only things I know about beekeeping are that I am not afraid of bees and think I would enjoy working with them and gathering honey. Any insight into what this work would be like or what to say in an introductory email would be appreciated. Thank you.
posted by melangell to Work & Money (14 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, lots to say here.
First, I'd ask what you expect of beekeeping - especially since you mention it as a 'part-time job'?
Next, there's lots of good information out there about bees - they are fascinating creatures (did you know they're not native to N. America? They came here with the earliest European settlers in Jamestown.) Wikipedia is your friend here, as is the library and your local beekeeping society (check with your local extension agent).
Beekeeping is not cheap and ultra-profitable - if you treat your bees nicely, that is. It's my view that most commercial beekeepers are primarily interested in exploiting bees for maximum profit, and that is one of the main reasons for the now well-known Colony Collapse Disorder. Let me explain a bit more.
My husband and I have kept bees for three years now, and each year we learn more.
We decided the second year that we no longer wanted to keep bees in the commercial boxes known as Langstroth hives. These are the square boxes that you see on most beekeeping sites, and which are always used by commercial (and most hobby) beekeepers. Our decisions for this are myriad, but derive primarily because we failed to see how 'helping' bees really helps.
Bee boxes require that you buy stuff:
Hive boxes, known as Supers
Frames (which is what the bees build their comb on)
Queen excluders
Bee suit and veil
Miticides and medicines to keep them healthy
Sugar to feed them
A Feeder
and of course - Queen and a hive (at least one).
Then you have to 'manage' your hive:
-collect honey, then extract (usually somewhere else, but a sticky proposition, that isn't usually cheap)
-inspect hive (all frames) for drone cells (destroy those) and queen cells (destroy those too)
-trade out boxes, move frames to different boxes, etc

Instead, we've taken up top-bar hives. These allow the bees to build comb however they want. If they want to build drone cells, we let 'em. If they want to build queen cells, we let 'em - in fact, because of this, we were able to capture a swarm of ours this year, got a new queen (free) and new hive - and because we were using a top-bar box, we just divided it, and put the new hive in the same box (with a separate entrance for the 'new' hive).
We only use organic controls for tracheal and varroa mites, we keep honey aside and feed them that, instead of taking it all and feeding them sugar. We take NO pollen (it's their only source of protein), and only take honey in the late spring, after the nectar flow is well under way (and we put about half of whatever we get, in case they need it in the winter).
We've also stopped using smoke to control them during inspection, and instead use a spray bottle with sugar water - the bees don't get stressed by it (as they do by smoke, it 'settles' them because they think there's a fire, and they begin to gorge on honey and prepare to leave the hive) - which makes inspecting a far less harrowing experience.
This is a long response, and it's barely scratched the surface - me-fi mail me for more.
Welcome to the real hive-mind!
posted by dbmcd at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2009 [12 favorites]

My mother just finished an apprentice-level beekeeper's certification program, offered through the local beekeeper's organization and certified by the state beekeeper's association. It sounds like you have a less formal arrangement in mind, but it's probably worth checking if there are similar classes in your area.

(Mom is loving the beekeeping so far, even though the unusually cold winter decimated her two hives)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:51 PM on August 18, 2009

I don't know much about an apiarist's work other than, due the relatively recent colony collapse problem, this may be a very interesting time to participate.

As to how you might introduce yourself, this is perhaps how I would write such an intro:

Dear beekeeper,

I am taking this opportunity to introduce myself to you and to tell you of my nearly lifelong interest in the art, science and craft of beekeeping. Further, and more importantly, I am inquiring as to the possibility of my becoming your beekeeper's apprentice. Although I am not yet particularly knowledgeable about your work, I am keen to learn and wish to do so under the supervision of a veteran apiarist.

Provided that you have an interest in taking on an enthusiastic person with the wherewithal and desire to master beekeeping, I offer my services in return for your teachings. I am available at your convenience for an in person discussion about your work and my potential involvement.

Thank you for any consideration,

-- melangell

Or something like 'dat...
posted by bz at 4:51 PM on August 18, 2009

Well, I'm not an expert. But let me tell you what I know.

Depending on where you live, contacting him in warmer months is better. Honey I believe is usually harvested right before winter or right after. If you live in a place with harsh winters, he may ship his bees elsewhere for the winter. In Portland OR where I live, bees are usually fine throughout the winter as winters are generally mild (except for last years).

I won't get into the science and whatnot of bees and their social structure because I don't know that much about it, and you can probably just wiki that.

Basically, its not much work, depending on the scale of your operation. You build the hives (or buy them....but they are really easy to build. The easiest, cheapest and best type of hive for beekeeping in urban areas is the top-bar hive, which has the frames attached to bars running across a v-shaped box. You can pull out the bar and the frame comes with it, full of delicious honey-comb. Really simple and easy), get some bees (usually $50 bucks for a swarm), and that's pretty much it. The bees will naturally build their honeycomb on the frames, because its easy for them and they don't have to go hunting for some other good spot.

When its time to harvest, you pull the frame out, shake the bees off (or scrape them off, whatever), and cut out the honeycomb you want to take, leaving enough for the bees, the amount depending on when you're harvesting, etc.

There are many methods and philosophies regarding bees and their keeping. A lot of people swear that depending on what kinds of flowers are about, your honey will come out tasting differently (i.e. if there is a lot of lavender growing around the hives, the honey will have a hint of lavender.) YMMV.

Its a good time to start keeping bees, given the bee crisis.

Good luck!
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:55 PM on August 18, 2009

looks like dbmcd beat me to the top-bar suggestion, and knows more about it. Listen to what he says.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:57 PM on August 18, 2009

I'm no expert myself, but these links might have some useful info.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:04 PM on August 18, 2009

Coincidentally, today BoingBoing featured a YouTube series on beekeeping, "Backwards Beekeepers TV". They also have a blog and a Facebook group that may prove to be useful.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 6:06 PM on August 18, 2009

I like reading beekeeping books because I am weird like that. Often reading apiarist's books can give you a really good idea about what the work is like. Three that I have read somewhat recently are

- Taylor Made -- The Best of Bee Talk by Richard Taylor, columnist for Bee Culture Magazine (the book is collections of columns over 20 years of writing)
- Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop, sort of a poppish "new yorkers go agrarian!" book, a little twee but good history.
- A Book of Bees and how to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell is sort of in the middle and a godo starting book. The author sort of journals through a year involved in beekeeping. Not as technical as Taylor, not as starry eyed as Bishop. I'd read that one first.

Check your library, I bet you'll find a few more.
posted by jessamyn at 6:12 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Again, don't know where you are, but if you're in the East Tennessee region, my mom is huge into bees around there and would be delighted to help you along.

One thing that she and Dad did was join the local beekeepers' association. They have meetings and classes and so forth and are always delighted to help new folks get into bees. Check out your local county fairs or county agricultural offices for contacts if your bee-guy doesn't know of any groups near you.

As to the money thing, mom's been doing this for the last 5 years and has 10 hives so far. She gets boatloads of honey and wax. Yet she doesn't really make money off of it. A lot of the money she does get off of the honey gets re-invested back into the bees. Although she's lucky and my dad's handy enough to make her supers for her. But mainly, for my mom, the honey is just a social lubricant. It makes awesome gifts for coworkers, church people and family. Heck, I think she gives the mailman honey every year for Christmas.

Good luck and enjoy them. They're entertaining little buggers.
posted by teleri025 at 7:39 PM on August 18, 2009

Seconding the social lubricant angle. A friend's dad keeps bees in a residential neighborhood, along the back wall of his house, on maybe a 1/4 acre plot of land. I helped them collect the honey a couple times (usually in the middle of summer). My friend's dad would bring in all the frames to the garage. The first part of the operation was to use a hot knife and slice excess comb off the frames. The second stage was to spin the honey out of the frames. The dad had borrowed a custom-built barrel for this purpose--you could slot four frames inside the barrel, roughly parallel to the walls. The inside part of the barrel could be spun separately from the outside of the barrel via a crank. So you'd get one person to spin the crank as hard as they could, and two other people to hold the outside wall, because the thing would shake once it got going.

The centrifugal force acting on the frames pushed the honey out onto the walls of the barrel, from which it dripped down and collected in jars placed under a spigot coming out of the bottom of the barrel..

That's about all I know about beekeeping, but I have fond memories of cranking up the honey spinner.
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:29 PM on August 18, 2009

Also, I recently produced (kind of) a radio piece for KBOO that's an hour lecture about top-bar bee keeping. The guy who gave the lecture was pretty much the most amazing guy EVER, and built - impromtu - a top-bar hive in front of us in about 30 minutes for under 10 dollars.

If you'd like an mp3 of the talk, mefi mail me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:34 PM on August 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

There was a reddit user answering questions about beekeeping a while ago:

might be a useful thread to read.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:12 AM on August 19, 2009

My dad has been doing beekeeping for the past couple years. He started in the spring. He's harvesting the heck out of some honey this year. If you're interested, mefi mail me and I can put you in touch with him; he would LOVE someone to share all his secrets with.
posted by Rocket26 at 5:41 AM on August 19, 2009

If you're in the northeast (specifically, Hudson Valley New York - worth a shot?), there's a really great guy here named Chris Harp I was introduced to a few weeks ago. His website is - which gives information about the classes he offers with his wife. He's also all about getting new beekeepers started, so drop him an email if you have any general questions.
posted by pilibeen at 5:27 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Re-sole rubber soles?   |   iPhone 3GS unlock without ultrasn0w? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.