This month marks the two-year anniversary of my husband and I becoming full-fledged beekeepers. I love telling people that I keep bees - some react with fascination, others think I'm nuts. There's this notion that beekeeping is complicated, scary, and even dangerous. Really, beekeeping is none of those things. In fact, I'm convinced that just about anyone who cares enough about bees can become a beekeeper.
Here are eleven reasons why you should consider beekeeping:
I'll just get this one of the way: one of the best reasons to keep bees is for the honey! This past fall, we got our first honey harvest (we didn't get enough our first year since we had such dry conditions in 2012). You know that difference between a store-bought tomato vs. a homegrown one? Same goes for honey. I've never tasted better honey in my life! I remember eating it the first time, honeycomb and all, and feeling such a sense of awe and gratitude for those bees. Sadly, we are on our last jar of the liquid gold. Our September honey extraction can't come soon enough! (You can read all about our honey extraction experience here.)
2. Having beehives helps your garden grow....and your neighbor's garden, too.
Having tens of thousands of honeybees living in your backyard means lots of pollinators for your garden. Our beehives are actually located in my parents' yard (since our city banned beehives up until last year) and I asked my my mom if she noticed a significant increase in her garden's production. She told me that of everything in her yard, her raspberry bushes have benefited the most -- she had more berries on them than in years past, thanks to the bees. I'm practically begging my in-laws to let me and my husband put a couple hives in their yard since they have a bunch of fruit trees; I'm sure their yields would be even better if we could get more pollinators there! (Note to self: forward this post to hesitant father-in-law...)
3. Beekeeping is a great way to be self-sufficient.
Keeping bees is a wonderful way to be self-sufficient because honey is a great replacement for processed sugar. There are some start-up costs that come with beekeeping, but it's a worthwhile investment. If I remember correctly, we spent about $350 when got started -- that price included our two hives (with three deep boxes each), two beekeeping jackets and hats/veils, gloves, a hive tool, a smoker, and, of course, the bees (that price doesn't include the class I took, but that didn't cost much, either). After a few honey harvests, the hives will pay for themselves. The only real expenses after the initial start-up costs are for mite treatments (all-natural) and any supplemental feeding that may be necessary. Another self-sufficiency facet: in terms of food storage, you can't beat the shelf life of honey, because it lasts forever. Archaeologists have found honey from the ancient Egyptians that can still be eaten today.
4. It takes very little effort and time to keep bees.
Do you have a dog or cat? You spend more time taking care of that pet than you would a couple of beehives. Even in the peak summer months when my husband and I do regular inspections, we probably spend less than an hour a month taking care of them. Seriously. The less you bother the bees, the better. All they really need is a short-and-sweet inspection every 10 days or so. The only time-consuming part of beekeeping is the honey extraction, but that part also happens to be a lot of fun.
5. Honey is good for your health.
Honey has been used for centuries for health and medicinal uses. Honey contains flavonoids that have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Honey is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal because the bees add an enzyme that makes hydrogen peroxide in the honey. For this reason, honey is actually a great treatment for wounds. I love adding honey to hot water and lemon when I have a cold, cough, or sore throat. Honey is actually as effective, studies have shown, as cough syrup. Another health benefit of honey is with allergy symptoms. Although there are no conclusive studies, many scientists believe as you ingest the pollen spores in honey in small amounts at a time, your body gets used to them and your allergic response to them diminishes. (One other medical sidenote: Did you know that scientists have found that bee venom can kill HIV? How crazy/cool is that?!)
One caveat: to get many of the health and medicinal benefits, you need to use raw, unprocessed (and local, particularly in terms of helping with allergies) honey. Most of the honey at the grocery store won't cut it. That's where beekeeping comes in: you can't get honey that is more local and raw than the honey that comes from your backyard.
6. Educational opportunities abound!
Bees are completely fascinating. There are so many interesting aspects to bees and honey - I could go on and on about all the cool things I've learned about them. What I love is how much my boys have learned about bees in the process, too. My seven-year-old can tell you how you can differentiate the female workers from the male drones (one way: boy bees don't have stingers), how they function in the colony, and how honey is made (that same seven-year-old thinks it's hilarious to tell people that honey is "bee throw-up".). One time we even had a homeschooling family do a little field trip to our hives, where we let the nine-year-old suit up and help with an inspection. My kids and their cousins (since the beehives are at my parents' house, they are familiar with the hives) aren't afraid of bees anymore; they know how to keep a careful distance and how to move around them. They've even grown to enjoy getting close enough to watch the little bees at work on the flowers and vegetables in the yard!
7. Keeping bees gives you more control over your food and what is in it.
Did you know that most of the honey found in grocery stores isn't actually honey? The honey found in stores is frequently "ultra-filtered", meaning that the pollen is completely removed. Without the pollen, the honey can't be tested to see if it came from a safe and legitimate source. Removing the pollen removes the evidence, in a manner of speaking, so that unsafe and unhealthy practices are hard to trace back to the beekeepers. Often, honey from foreign countries (particularly China) not only have traces of illegal antibiotics in it, but also are diluted high fructose corn syrup and/or other illegal sweeteners. Yuck. (For more information on this subject, along with a list of brands of pollen-free honey, you can read here.) That's one of the main reasons I keep bees, garden, raise chickens, and cook from scratch -- I like knowing where my food comes from and what is in it.
8. The bees need our help!
In the winter of 2012-2013, the US lost approximately 33% of its bee colonies, which is double the acceptable natural amount. Colony Collapse Disorder is big concern -- and, frankly, still a bit of a mystery. There are a lot of factors that could play into the problem: neonicotinoids (a particular pesticide known to kill bees), stress from being transported to various locations, bees being fed corn syrup so they'll produce more honey, among many other reasons. It's a systemic problem that will need the help of responsible beekeepers to right many of the wrongs that have been happening since Colony Collapse Disorder began showing up in the 1980s. There are lots of ways to help the bees and it can be done one hive at a time.
9. We need the bees!
Maybe you've read the quote that many ascribe to Albert Einstein (though it's uncertain if he really said it): "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." If we don't have bees to pollinate, we lose a big chunk of our food supply. For instance, 90% of apples, cherries, and oranges are pollinated by bees; 100% of almonds are pollinated by bees. Even beef and dairy would be affected since much of the alfalfa cows eat is pollinated by bees. Last year, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island showed exactly what the produce section of the grocery store would look like without bees -- it's depressing, to say the least. Even one hive can help our bee populations by creating a healthy ecosystem for them, one in which they can thrive.
10. The world needs more responsible beekeepers.
We live in a world where many people value quantity over quality, that the ends justify the means. This past fall, many beekeepers in my state had the disappointment of harvesting red honey. This happened because one beekeeper with a large commercial operation was feeding his bees a cheap candy-cane byproduct. Bees from around the area found the source, took it back to their hives, and the result was honey turned red by the artificial colors. Not only did it make the honey taste terrible, but it also made the honey possibly contain higher levels of lead because of the food coloring. Even worse, the red dye has affected the bees' genetics and brood production (brood refers to the various stages of development of baby bees). That's just one example; there are many more instances throughout the world today of bad and irresponsible beekeeping practices. The world needs more beekeepers who respect the honeybee and treat them well.
Sure, I've been stung a few times. That first year when we didn't get a honey harvest was a huge bummer. Sometimes it takes every ounce of control I have to not freak out when the bees get agitated and start diving toward my face. But, overall, I love being a beekeeper. I love watching the bees at work in my parents' garden. I love lifting the lid off the hive and seeing them busy in each of their jobs. I marvel at the thousands of perfect little hexagons in the honeycomb. I get a surge of excitement during inspections when I can spot the tiny eggs in the honeycomb -- I've even witnessed a few bee-births, when they come out of their little enclosures for the first time. I love scraping off chunks of comb that are dripping with honey and then sharing it with everyone at the house. And extracting the honey is exhilarating, that mixture of excitement, awe, and gratitude.
Who would have thought that I could grow to love an insect as much as I love those honeybees! They truly are a wonder in this world of ours.