For budding urban backyard farmers, one’s own bee colony has a lot of appeal: Bees can keep fruit trees and other plants pollinated, and, with some extra work and investment, they can also provide fresh honey. Like any pet—domestic or urban livestock—bees require financial commitment and ongoing maintenance, but do the benefits of beekeeping outweigh the costs?
“Think of a beehive or a bee colony as a unit, like an animal,” says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine. “It’s like a pet goat that needs water, food, a clean place to, live and attention. You also have to watch for pests and diseases.
“If you look at the time involved of taking care of [honeybees], you’ll spend more time with them in the summer than with your cat and less time than you spend on a dog,” he says. “It’s like a garden: you’re busy in the spring planting and establishing the colony, in the summer just weeding and making sure there is enough honey and in the fall harvest and reduce the number of boxes.”
To Bee or Not to Bee
Not all bees make honey. Solitary bees (also called ‘mason bees’ and ‘eusocial bees’) do not live in hives with a queen or produce honey, but they do pollinate early fruit trees. Solitary bees can live in blocks of wood (which is why they’re often found in the exterior walls of homes) and do not require as much care as honeybees. With a kit, a backyard farmer can get started for well under $100.
Flottum says honeybee startup costs run $250–$500, not including a full protective suit or extraction equipment. The most basic startup for a backyard beekeeper will include one colony of bees (about 10,000 bees in a three-pound package), a minimum of three to four boxes (he recommends paying extra to have them assembled), frames, hardware and at least the veil of the protective suit.
“No matter where a colony of bees lives—whether in boxes or a hollow tree in the woods—they still have to have food,” says Mr. Flottum. That means if the wildflower field gets paved over, they’ve lost their food source. Beekeepers need to provide a food source, even if it’s sugar water, for their bees to survive.
While the bees and their queen live in the lower two boxes of the hive with several pounds of honey, all of the excess in the upper boxes can be harvested. Bees may not produce enough honey for harvest their first year, but the second year and beyond expect an average colony to make 75 to 100 pounds of honey per season. But when it comes to actually parting the bees from their honey, Flottum recommends working with an expert. “Almost every county in the country has an expert beekeeper who has all the gear necessary,” he says. Talk to that person about what’s involved, and you might find that you’d rather outsource this part of the process.
“After seeing the extraction equipment and amount of work required [to collect honey], you might say to yourself, ‘The kids are learning about biology and my garden is being pollinated, I’m happy.’”
For a kid-friendly (and delightful!) story about beekeeping, check out The Beeman by Laurie Kregs.