No matter how big your farm is or what you grow, there is one addition every farmer should consider making to his or her operation: honeybees.
Beyond the fact that honeybee populations have been dealt some blows in recent years from things such as colony collapse disorder, there are myriad other practical reasons why you should keep bees.
1. Honeybees Are Compact
Don’t think you have room for a bee yard at your urban farm? Are you sure? Following the local laws, of course, and keeping some of these concerns in mind, honeybees can be kept on rooftops, in the back corner of your lawn or almost any area with roughly nine square feet to spare. You can also “rent” space for them on your neighbors’ property in exchange for honey if the hive won’t fit on yours. As long as you understand their boundaries, bees can be kept safely. Don’t situate the entrance facing a walking path or directly into a road, for example, and make sure neighbors are OK having bees near their property.
2. They Are Relatively Affordable
Getting started with bees is fairly cheap compared with getting started with, say, sheep or cattle. You need a some tools, plus a veil and gloves. The bees will also need their home—a hive body or two, some supers, some frames and some wax. As for acquiring the bees, you can order hives online or even catch a swarm (which is free). I recommend ordering a nuclear hive (sometimes called a “nuc”) from a trusted local beekeeper. The latter option will give you a functioning colony that can immediately go to work building a hive and, in a good season, making enough honey in the first year for you to harvest a little.
3. Honeybees Might Be The Perfect Livestock
I say it every year on our farm: Honeybees are my favorite livestock. What other livestock forages its own food, finds its own water, protects itself (mostly), can do its own breeding—and rewards you with as exciting a product as honey? Their general care can be 10 or 20 minutes a week per hive, depending on how involved you want to be.
4. They Pollinate
They say bees pollinate 1/3 of all food crops, so obviously if you are a vegetable farmer or orchardist, you rely on honeybees (and many other bees) to pollinate your crops. But even those who want nice pastures should consider how useful honeybees can be at pollinating things such as clover, which, no matter what ruminant you raise, is a rich treat.
5. They Are Fascinating
It takes 45,000 miles of flight to make one pound of honey. When a honeybee needs to tell her sisters where something is, she dances. Oh, and all worker bees are female. Only the drones who mate with the queens are male. For me, one of my favorite parts of working with bees is that they are a complex superorganism and endlessly interesting to study.
6. Honey, Of Course
Let us not forget that that one of the best reasons to get honeybees is, well, the honey. A single established hive in a good season can produce between 20 and 60 pounds of honey per year. Be it for the farmers market or for home use, honey is a reliably shelf-stable product that is not only nutritious but also healthful.
Remember Some Important Considerations
Every beginning beekeeper should get a mentor and dedicate him- or herself to the beekeeping literature. This is important for protecting yourself, your bees, your investment—and also your fellow beekeeper by learning to recognize pests and disease so as not to spread them. For every hive you build, also consider building some native pollinator habitat to protect those populations as well. Bees require more than 1 million flowers to create one pound of honey. Make it a little bit easier on them by planting some good bee flowers and clover around your house (maybe ask your neighbors to do the same). And of course, have fun.