Beekeeping Basics

The sweetest of all harvests goes to those folks who keep honeybees, but before you undertake such a venture you should understand beekeeping basics.

| January/February 1981

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    Bill McCullough, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' apiarist, demonstrated the use of a smoker and other beekeeping basics to a group of beginners.
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    TOP: He uses his hive tool to pry out a super frame. BOTTOM: Capped and ready-for-the-harvesting honey
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    LEFT: This frame section contains both healthy brood (lower right) and stored honey (upper left). RIGHT: A fertile queen bee beside a noticeably smaller worker.
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    A foraging worker filling its storage sac with pollen.
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    Diagram shows the parts of a beehive. 

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  • 067 beekeeping basics - diagram2

The world of men is always uncertain, seldom inspiring, often a source of discouragement and dismay. But the keeper of bees, like anyone who has welded his life to the cycles and patterns of nature, can always turn to his tiny creatures and his craft ...

Even as a boy, driven by the passions and impulses that make youth so tumultuous and blind and filled with folly, I noted [the] serenity in beekeepers. From time to time I would see one sitting out in his battered chair, basking in the peace and sweetness of the setting ... while around him, in spring, the cherries bloomed and the bees hummed, just as they had for a million springs gone by, and as they will for more millions to come.  

Richard Taylor, The Joys of Beekeeping  

The picture of a serene individual calmly tending to the "little golden folk" in his or her beehive presents a rare and heartwarming example of how humans can sometimes work in cooperation with the natural world. Yet although experienced beekeepers may lyrically praise the sweetness of both their labors and their harvests, most people find the idea of actually caretaking a hive to be quite intimidating.

Folks are often frightened by the mere thought of tending to a colony of 30,000 to 80.000 stinger-laden and venom-carrying flying insects. And individuals who do feel inclined to learn beekeeping basics find that many beekeeping how-to guides plunge into such bewildering barrages of complicated explanations that the books actually add to the readers' muddlement.

Well, in spite of the fact that bees do have stingers, that many texts do seem—especially at first —to be almost unintelligible, and that no beginner can become an expert (and sagaciously serene) beekeeper in a single honey season ... it is quite possible for an interested novice to learn to work bees and harvest honey.

As long as there are nectar- and pollen-bearing flowers in your area, you can become a hobbyist beekeeper and successfully manage one or more hives to produce all the fresh unadulterated honey you (and your friends!) can use. This fact holds true even if you live in the middle of a large city, as many urban beekeepers keep hives of honeymakers on apartment house roofs or in attics! (Before doing so, however, city dwellers should check their local ordinances.)

This article, then, will introduce you to the field of beekeeping. It won't pretend to reveal all you need to know to undertake backyard apiculture (much of that information can be had solely through study and experience) ... but it should give you a feel for what's entailed in the endeavor and, perhaps, a desire to try your hand at tending bees.

But What About Stings?

However, getting stung is not a disaster. Sure, it hurts ... but most beekeepers soon build up an immunity to the venom itself, and eventually suffer no aftereffects from such incidents. (A small minority of people, though, are especially allergic to bee stings ... and their sensitivity may increase with time. Such folks should not, of course, even attempt to keep bees.)

In addition, there's a "secret" technique you can use to greatly reduce the amount of venom you absorb from those occasional stings. Simply use a fingernail (or some other thin-edged object) to scrape the "bee needle" out immediately ... otherwise, the stinger's venom sack will continue to pump poison into your flesh for a minute or more. (Don't try to grab the stinger with your fingers—as so many people do—or you'll actually squeeze even more venom into your system.)

That beekeeper's trick will greatly reduce the damage inflicted by stings ... but, of course, your goal will be to get stung as little as possible while tending hives. And the following tips should greatly reduce the number of "injections" you receive.

[1] Wear a snug ("beetight") veil and light-colored clothing. (White coveralls are excellent for beekeeping ... blue jeans are poor.) Eliminate any "crawlin" spaces between your garments and skin by tucking your pants legs into your socks and, possibly, wrapping rubber bands around your shirt sleeves. Do not wear wool. And consider not wearing protective gloves. (During the first few months, you may feel more comfortable if you do don the hand shields, but eventually you'll probably find that it's easier to work a hive, without crushing bees, when you're barehanded.)



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