(Fear of insects, fear of flowers, fear of sharp or pointy objects, fear of fur, fear of bees [Latin] and fear of bees [Greek]—respectively.)
If you do have any of these afflictions, you may not want to bother reading further. See, at a certain point—an early one—in the arc of your beekeeping career, you will deal with insects (where there are bees, there are other insects, too), the bees themselves, the flowers the bees serve, the bees’ defense mechanism (yes, sometimes they sting but not as often as one might think) and the fur that surrounds those buzzing creatures that we need to keep our ecosystem running smoothly.
That being said, if the issues mentioned above do NOT relate to you, we’re okay to move on. Onward, Beekeeper Soldiers.
The first beekeepers
Being a beekeeper is an honorable—though not easy—trade that goes back as far as, well, it’s hard to specifically pinpoint when beekeeping itself became a trade, but there are cave drawings and paintings that depict people gathering honey from wild bee colonies around 13,000 BCE. I guess we human folks have always loved the sweet nectar of honey, and ancient people obviously learned how to gather it (and, at the same time, hastily grasp the idea of indulgence, even at the peril of a sting or two).
How Sting earned his name.
But how exactly does one go about gathering honey from bees, and how have the practices for doing that changed over the last, oh, 15,000 years or so?
Our human ancestors’ mastery over fire most likely helped in the honey-gathering practice since smoke to bees is like, well, certain sorts of smoke to us humans: It subdues them, makes them almost friendly, gives them the urge to want to share their belongings, make you a special carving and maybe move out to the wilderness in a minibus and live off the land...
But seriously, smoke does make bees docile, and once humans figured that out, well, bee-handling life became suh-weet! But before the discovery of fire, humans probably learned quickly that bees liked to keep some of their honey themselves, too, and weren’t afraid to show it by sticking their hind parts into well-meaning, honey-gathering human hands (yowza!).
But how do you make sure your bees are making honey in a place you want them to make it - in a place where you can get it? Ah, now that is the art of beekeeping. Any bear can shove his paw into the hollow of a tree (or, if you’re a certain Alan Alexander Milne Pooh type of bear, a honeypot).
Winnie the Pooh is having a bad morning. He’s looked better.
To be a beekeeper—and a successful one—you’ve first got to understand bee behavior. That’s a whole topic in itself, and one you should know well before you don your first beekeeping suit. Beeologics tells you all about how bees keep themselves healthy, what sorts of bees there are, their communication and navigation skills, their social structure, and even why you, considering beekeeping as a career—even as an amateur—can help with the food production on this planet.
No matter what your aspirations are—a backyard hive, joining a large beekeeping conglomerate such as Groeb Farms, the world’s largest processor of honey or a small company of your own—you still have to learn all there is about beekeeping and honey-making. After all, it is a business if money is a part of the picture.
But before you start gathering your supplies and counting your sticky cash, you first must ensure that your county (and maybe even your city or neighborhood association, the one that doesn’t let you hang your laundry out to dry for longer than two hours a day) allows beekeeping in backyards or rooftops. This is key if you want to sell—or even give—the honey mostly to neighbors, local farmers’ markets or independent grocery stores (As a matter of fact, New York City didn’t allow personal beekeeping until about 2010.) The best way to check is to contact your city council person and ask. Most places in the U.S. do allow beekeeping, but better to know ahead of time. Finding out too late can be kind of a… buzzkill.
The language of beekeeping
In most of the United States, something called a Langstroth hive is commonly used, as is one called a Top Bar hive. Each one has its plusses and minuses depending on who’s using them and for how many bees, for what reasons, etc.
You’ve also got to learn about swarms—what they are (we’ll get to that in a minute), how to handle them, how to get them for your own hives and maybe even how to get them for other people, if that’s going to be part of your business.
But if the words swarm or sting make you queasy, there is a plethora of other careers that don’t involve fuzzy, flying, stinging creatures that give you the heebie-jeebies.