Why would anyone keep bees?
A year ago, I stood at the county fair, transfixed by the single frame observation hive. "You should take them home," my wife said with a laugh, and I thought, she's right. Bees are fascinating social insects. The colony is really a single organism, with the individual bees more like cells, and the ordered chaos that drives this organic machine is an art. Beekeeping offers the chance to co-operate, instead of dominate, to assist, but not control. It gives you the chance to learn more about yourself, the life you lead, and about the way nature runs itself. There's also the honey.
How often do you get stung?
This is probably the most common question. The answer is, not a lot. I've been stung four times this year, inspecting every week, with a near frame by frame teardown. Two of those stings were on the same day (and the same place, ouch!). If you keep bees, you are likely to get stung. I don't recommend it for allergic people (my family and I are not). Stings hurt, they swell, then they go down. On the opposite end of the scale you have the commercial keepers who get stung and develop a level of immunity. Using the right equipment is a huge part of not getting stung. What's the right equipment? Whatever you need to feel comfortable. If that's a full nuclear response suit, great. If you work in a tank top and veil, fine too.
Where do I keep them?
I keep my bees in my back yard. They are up against an six foot fence, out of site of the road, in what was once a rose garden. My wife originally believed that the hive would be like a machine gun nest, firing out angry bees from across the yard at my daughters as they run and play. We know better now. A healthy hive with a docile queen and nothing disturbing it cares nothing for the humans around it. Incidentally, "disturbing" means "sticking things into the entrance and moving them around". Things like running by the hive, hitting it with a ball, or other such actions don't tend to arouse my bees at all. A clear flight path and a safe home is all they desire. My daughters stand a few feet away while I inspect the hive (always eager for comb honey). My dogs sit on the screen around the hive, eating bees (and occasionally getting stung). My neighbors remark on how well their gardens do. Me? I enjoy working with the bees.
Educating my neighbors has been an interesting process. One neighbor keeps a vast (for the suburbs) garden, and was delighted. Others simply didn't understand that these were in fact insects, and not trainable. I found that nonsensical answers worked perfectly well with them:
How do you keep them in your yard?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you make sure your bees don't come over in our yard?"
"Well, I have these little leashes ..."
"Yes, and every morning I go down and put them on. All twenty thousand of them."
"That must take a lot of patience."
"Not nearly as much as some conversations."
"You know those dog fences that shock the dogs if they cross them?"
"I have one hooked to a bug zapper."
"Oh, I understand."
Where do you get them?
Bees can be bought or acquired from a number of sources. The most common is a package, where bee keepers with large hives shake workers from the hive into a funnel, then dump them into a box the size of a shoe box with screen on the side. A new queen is added (safely tucked away in a queen cage), and the package is sold. The package forms an artificial swarm, eventually accepting the new queen as their own. It buzzes when you move the box. It smells like lemon pledge (due to the pheromone used to tell the swarm where to gather).
Beekeepers can also buy established colonies. These come in several hive bodies, and contain five to eight times the number of bees in a package. Established colonies will often produce honey the first year, and by produce, I mean a hundred pounds or more. Packages might produce honey the first year, but the goal of a package is to grow a colony, to get honey the next year. Beekeeping is as much about preparing ahead as anything. Planning doesn't help. You need to prepare, and the first year, you are preparing the colony for the second year.
The other option is to obtain bees by picking up swarms or cutting out colonies that make their homes in walls, chimneys, trees, or other places likely to cause bad bee/human interactions. Some people do this before buying equipment like veils, suits, and smokers, and use the money from removals to purchase their equipment. I don't' recommend that, for the same reasons I don't recommend throwing yourself from an airplane to retrieve money you can then use to buy a parachute.
What do you do with them, anyway?
When a colony is healthy, not much. During swarm season (May through July), you inspect every week to see if the colony needs more room to grow into, needs more room for nectar or honey, or needs to be split to prevent a swarm. The rest of the year it's about either preparing for winter (strengthening the colony to survive the winter), or preparing for summer (growing the colony to ensure a strong work force). That involves checking for signs of disease, checking the brood (laying) pattern to make sure the queen is doing well, and gauging the strength of the hive. Of course, if you just like observing the hive, there's plenty of opportunity to do that.
What do you learn?
A lot of things, but two stand out - the first was about bee time. Bees run on their own time. You can't rush them, poke them, prod them, or do anything else to change their timing. You can, however, adjust your own. This doesn't come natural in a world where we put instant coffee in the microwave and tap our fingers impatiently while we wait.
The next thing I learned was to prepare ahead. A plan wouldn't cut it. Planning for what I'd do if the colony grew quickly wouldn't help, if I didn't prepare a hive body for them to expand into. Planning for how to stop robber bees from killing the tiny colony wouldn't stop them, building a robber screen would. Prepare for what you can't plan for.
Mostly I've just watched in awe as the colony performed for us. From helping a dying worker bee make it home, to the drama of a near regicide, and its aftermath , we've watched and discussed. I've watched amused as the first drones appeared. I learned that you cannot control nature, even when it would help. My colony died after an unknown accident killed the queen. Sometimes, in nature, things die when we think they shouldn't. Sometimes the bird does kill the one queen bee among thousands. Sometimes the safety in numbers isn't. Good things happen too - an end of year swarm took refuge in my hive, and is now preparing itself for winter.
This article doesn't go into depth about how to actually start beekeeping. There's plenty of information about that on the internet, beesource is an excellent source of information. I would highly recommend looking up a local beekeeping chapter though - I chose to do this the hard way, without help, and would not have made so many mistakes if I had chosen to work with a mentor. You can check out a dozen books at the library and read them, if you want. Beekeeping for Dummies is actually an excellent book. Keep in mind, however, this simple fact:
Bees cannot read.
Most of the things you learn about bees have cases where they aren't true. Almost everything in beekeeping has multiple ways of doing it. Most "rules" have as many exceptions as they do cases to apply. A common saying is "Ask ten beekeepers, get twelve answers," so learn from books, and the web, and other beekeepers, but don't be shocked if things go differently, or don't follow what "everyone said." That's just part of the fun.
Today is inspection day, and as I finish this article, my daughters are waiting for me to go and open the hive.
"How are they doing today?"
"Will we get some more honey?"
"Can I have a drone to play with?"
We shall see.