To bee? Hobbyist hives require time, money

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 1, 2013

NEW YORK — There’s no shortage of buzz about beekeeping these days.
From environmentalists worried about disappearing colonies to foodies seeking locally sourced liquid gold, lots of new beekeepers are itching to roll down their sleeves.
With cities like New York lifting beekeeping bans, and with a wealth of new books, online videos and meet-up groups, learning the basics is easier than ever.
But as a hobbyist beekeeper myself, who once moved a hive full of bees from Washington, D.C., to New York during a career change, I can also tell you that the sweet rewards of homemade honey don’t come without some sticky practical challenges.
One of those, of course, is facing the bees themselves.
“You can learn 99 percent of beekeeping on YouTube, but you need to know that when you’re actually there and you’re digging into a box filled with 50,000 stinging insects, that you’re good with that,” said Chase Emmons, managing partner and apiary director at Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in New York that offers some hands-on training at its hives.
Whether you’re creating a small business or just planning to enjoy your own honey, here are some realistic pointers on the money, space and neighborly grace required of a beekeeper.
Where you keep your bees is an important part of how to keep them. A sunny, out-of-the-way spot with good drainage is best. Scope out a location that won’t trip up unsuspecting neighbors, curious pets or repairmen.
Your hive should also be convenient for frequent inspections. Remember you’ll be carrying equipment and removing heavy boxes of honey at harvest time. If you have to scale a rickety roof ladder to see your bees, you might be tempted to neglect your duties.
Make sure your landlord is on board and beekeeping is legal in your city. Then take some time to sell the idea to your neighbors. Emmons recommends coming armed with a few jars of honey to sweeten the deal.
“The last thing you need is unhappy neighbors,” he said. “You can catch more flies with honey.”
The good news is you don’t have to hire a bee sitter when you leave town on vacation. Once the hive is up and running, the bees are quite self-sufficient in their daily needs. But preventing pests and swarms, as well as extracting honey, will require some time and even some hard, physical work over the course of the year.
A deep hive chamber full of honey can weigh as much as 90 pounds, and actively managing your hive will require lifting and maneuvering those bulky boxes. You’ll also be suiting up in heavy clothing and working in the hot sun.
As a new beekeeper, you should make time to attend a class or meet-up group on top of your bee yard work. You might even meet a potential partner to help you shoulder the load.
Before you take gold out of your hive, you’ll have to put some in. It might cost you around $400 to get set with wooden hive equipment, tools and the bees themselves, though much of your equipment can be used for several years before being replaced.
Shop around before ordering, and appraise deluxe, all-in-one kits carefully. They may be easier than buying equipment a la carte but they often include supplies you don’t really need. If you’re handy, you’ll also find ample specs online for building some of your own equipment.
When it comes to purchasing, there’s strength in numbers. Joining a bee group is a good way to get in on cheaper bulk orders or shipping discounts, swap used equipment and pass the hat on big purchases, like pricey honey extracting equipment.
Using good practices and inspecting the hive at appropriate times can go a long way toward minimizing stings. But they will happen from time to time.
Assuming you don’t have a severe allergy to apitoxin, the venom in honey-bee stings, the worst you’ll have to endure is some local pain, itching and swelling that’s treatable with over-the-counter medicine.
If you’re afraid of bee stings, remember it’s OK to go heavy on the protective clothing if it encourages you to visit the hive, especially while you’re getting used to handling the bees. Don’t let beekeeper machismo intimidate you into doing hive inspections in a T-shirt if it makes you nervous.
In general, be flexible to trying a different approach if yours isn’t working.
“When you have 10 beekeepers in a room, you’re going to have 12 opinions. Humans have been doing it for 10,000 years and there are really strong opinions,” Emmons said. “Go with what you’re comfortable with.”