The buzz about honeybees in recent years has been about their vanishing act from gardens and farm fields.
But new ranks of backyard beekeepers are trying to ease that scarcity, or at least have enough pollinators to produce a honey of a harvest.
“Feral bees have pretty much died out, so if you don’t have someone with bees nearby, your squash and tomatoes, orchards and nut crops won’t get pollinated,” said Edd Buchanan, a fourth-generation beekeeper from Black Mountain, N.C.
Bees are the necessary germinating link between blossoms and fruit. They pollinate one-third of the world’s produce, a service worth some $70 billion per year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Yet a combination of factors including pesticides, habitat loss, pollution, disease, and pests have all but eliminated wild honeybee populations nationwide, along with about 30 percent of the managed honeybee colonies, according to USDA estimates.
Enter the more than 211,000 bee hobbyists around the United States. Along with the entertainment value that the insects provide, the beekeepers also harvest honey, pollen and beeswax from their hives.
“It does pay for itself over a period of time,” Mr. Buchanan said. “With just one hive, you can produce all the honey you want to eat, give some to your neighbors at Christmas plus get your investment back.”
At least a pound of worker bees and a queen are needed to make a productive apiary, said Buchanan, who got his start 35 years ago by swapping an old lawnmower for an established hive. “There are about 3,500 bees to a pound,” he said. “That’ll cost you anywhere from $75 to $90.”
Another way to buy bees is with a “nuc,” or nucleus hive. That includes a queen, worker bees, and a starter brood shipped in a wooden box. Prices generally run $110 to $120. Most are available via mail order, the Internet or from fellow beekeepers.
Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) are the favorites, given their reputation for gentleness, cleanliness, disease resistance, and energy.
You’ll also need:
- Water conveniently nearby. “The closer you are to a water source, the less they’ll have to fly and the longer they’ll be able to live,” Mr. Buchanan said.
- Nectar and pollen-producing plants. “Locust, blackberry, tulip poplar, Devils walking stick and sourwood are the sources for some of the world’s most expensive honeys,” he said. Clover, milkweed, lemon balm, and thistles also are abundant and supply flavorful nectars.
- Adequate space. Bees need enough room to store honey for the winter and rear their young. “They dislike disorder or disruption, and will leave the premises if the accommodations are not right,” said Charles Walton, who with partner Mike Welsh manages a beekeeping operation near Takoma Park, Md., a Washington suburb.
- An accepting community. “Honeybees are defensive, not aggressive (except for the African variety), and so will not attack unless their hive is threatened,” Mr. Walton said. Many beekeepers reduce the stinging threat by placing hives near fences or shrubs so the insects are forced to fly above where people usually gather.
- Coaching. Novice beekeepers are advised to spend time at an apiary, join a beekeeping club or take a class. “Most states have county agents and Extension entomologists whose responsibilities include beekeeping,” the USDA says.
Plant2Plate will return next week.