Beekeeping: a hobby brimming with possibility
Beekeeping is for people who like options. Not only do we have infinite choice when it comes to hive design and management technique, but the variety of things we can produce with our bees is staggering. When we erect our initial hive and order our first bees, most of us think of honey. But honey is the tip of the beekeeping iceberg.
If you were to ask me what I produce with my hives, I might say comb honey because that is the first thing that comes to mind. But more practically, my bees provide material for my website. Their antics, habits, vagaries, and tantrums add spice to articles about their biology, physiology, morphology, and pathology. My bees tell me new stories every day; I just have to listen and translate.
Some bees are kept simply for pollination, producing crops and flowers and seeds for everyone. I say “simply” but pollination is anything but simple. When mere humans are asked to pollinate something, we are perplexed to say the least. Can you imagine pollinating a field of clover? All those itsy-bitsy florets down on the ground in the searing sun? Sweaty. Itchy. Sneezy. Buggy.
An array of products from the hive
Looking beyond honey, pollination, and the occasional website, what else do beekeepers produce with their charges? Here’s a short list, though I’m likely missing something.
- Besides being the basis of many homemade craft items such as candles, lotions and soap, beeswax has a variety of commercial and industrial uses. Properly prepared beeswax can fetch good prices and is always in demand.
- Pollen is used as a food supplement by many people, but it can also be saved and fed back to bees during lean times. Pollen collection can easily be added as a sideline to honey production.
- Propolis is often purchased by manufacturers of various health care products, including toothpaste, mouthwash, and sunscreen. Although propolis is simple to harvest, the amount you can collect is dependent on both your location and the subspecies of honey bee you keep.
- A growing market exists for royal jelly, especially in those regions where it is considered a super food capable of extending life and slowing the aging process. Harvesting royal jelly is a labor-intensive pursuit that actually makes you feel older than you are, but for those so inclined, it commands a high price.
- Venom is used by some medical practitioners for treating a variety of ailments. It is interesting to note that venom can be collected without harming the bees. A glass plate with a tiny electric current running through it is installed in front of the hive entrance. The bees sense the current and attempt to sting it, but since their stingers cannot penetrate the glass, the bees walk away unharmed and ready to sting again. The venom is then harvested from the hard surface of the plate.
- Producing queen bees is an excellent way to expand a small operation. Nowadays, locally-produced queens are popular and command a decent price. Even if you are too far north to produce early queens, replacement queens during summer and fall are always in short supply.
- The market for good quality nucleus hives is enormous. In early spring, you can split your hives for swarm control and produce nucs at the same time. Placing the frames in cardboard nuc boxes makes them less expensive and easier to handle, and anyone selling nucs, especially on medium frames, has a ready market. I constantly hear requests for medium-depth nucs that the beekeeper doesn’t have to cut down to fit.
- Larger operations, especially those in southern locations, can also sell packaged bees. Packages require more hives and more labor, but like nucs, quality packages are a hot item.
- Frames of open brood are something I would have never thought to sell, but a number of beekeepers have asked me where they could buy them. It makes sense: a frame of open brood can be priceless. Open brood can be used to keep bees from absconding, prevent laying workers, boost populations, or manage queens. Especially for those beekeepers with but one or two hives, a source of open brood frames would be awesome.
- Of course, all that extracted honey you have stashed away can be fermented into mead. Wildly popular in the Middle Ages, mead has recently experienced a re-birth and is easily produced at home using commercial wine yeast.
- In many cultures, bee larvae is prized as a high-quality source of protein. Bee larvae can be served dried, fried, boiled, baked, or any way you fancy: barbecued bees, bees ‘n rice, bee and bean burritos, bees au vin. I’m told that honey bee granola is a good recipe for beginning this culinary adventure, although I think I would rather have the larvae dried, ground, and hidden in something else. Some people suggest that instead of culling drones and feeding them to chickens, we just sauté the larvae—mites and all—in a little butter with sliced button mushrooms and sweet onions. Coarsely ground pepper, I imagine, disappears the mites.
Honey Bee Suite