March 22nd, 2012
02:03 PM ET

Backyard beekeeping creates buzz

Cassandra Lawson admits that beekeeping wasn't popular and was considered "a little eccentric" when she first started.

"Most people thought that it was weird," the Decatur, Georgia, beekeeping teacher says. "Why would you want bees and you live in the middle of a city?"

But Lawson's not the only one fascinated with bees these days. Interest in beekeeping, or apiculture, has been on the rise in the United States.

Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, estimates about 150,000 noncommercial beekeepers are in the United States - up from 110,000 in 2008.

The bee's role as a pollinator is an important part of commercial agriculture as well as gardening. Or as Lawson puts it, "Pretty much if we didn't have bees or other pollinators, we'd eat mush."

But what is the attraction for these urban and suburban beekeepers, who may live far from any large-scale crops?

One appears obvious: honey. Charles Berry, who came out for Lawson's introduction to beekeeping class, says, "I'm naturally a city boy, but I've always been very interested in bees and what they do, and I love honey."

But honey fiends should keep in mind that bees eat the honey as well, and Lawson recommends that you not take any honey from the bees for at least a year in order to have a productive hive.

But it's not just the honey. Some people say they are intrigued by the complex society and behaviors of the bees and see them as pets, while others find beekeeping as a way to connect with nature better.

"Bees pollinate everything that we eat so you're doing your benefit for Mother Nature," Berry says.

Michael Bush, a Nebraska computer programmer who has become a prominent voice in the backyard beekeeping community and the author of a book on the subject, said that bees are so fascinating to people that they become an obsession. " 'Bee Fever' has been well-documented for centuries. Bees are too interesting," he said via e-mail.

But while there has been a rise in backyard beekeeping in recent years, commercial beekeepers have been battling a problem known as colony collapse disorder.

The commercial beekeepers have found their bee colonies stricken by mysterious failures that have been attributed to various causes - from pesticides to lack of genetic diversity to the chemicals used in beekeeping to try to keep bees pest-free.

Some have even speculated that cell phones somehow interfere with bees' navigational senses. No definitive cause has been determined, with major studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finding a variety of factors responsible for the cases it documented.

Given the worry over the insect's future, many of the new wave of beekeepers see their role as defenders of bees to help propagate the population if commercial colonies suffer a catastrophic decline.

Bush said he recognizes that concerns about colony collapse disorder may be a driving force in the rise behind beekeeping, and he sees the increase as a good thing.

"For one thing, it makes people aware of reality," he said. "Bees are tied into the entire ecology around you, and when you keep bees, you begin to be aware of that ecology and that real world instead of the virtual world of TV and the Internet."

For her part, Lawson said the disorder - whatever the cause - is not something about which backyard beekeepers have to worry.

But there are plenty of other hazards that can befall urban beekeepers, and Lawson has some advice for neighbors who can make the environment more hospitable to bees: Avoid "monoculturing" their yards.

"Let the clover and dandelion grow. Don't mow all the time. Don't use pesticides unnecessarily. ... Let your yard be a meadow," she said.

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soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Lue Ann

    Loved the video.. let me know if you sell the honey as I'd be interested in buying some. I especially like the cream style honey.
    thanks,
    Lue Ann

    March 27, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  2. Saber

    For the folks who claim that wasps make honey, they are completely wrong. Paper Wasps, Yellowjackets, Hornets, and Mud-Daubers are all meat eating and predatory insects. Bees are not predatory insects, they do not collect nectar to make honey for a food source. Bees are the ONLY insect that manufactures a food that humans consume. As a former Beekeeper myself, there is more to this article than what they have here. It takes 18 Months for the hive to "establish" and start manufacturing enough overhead to harvest the honey. Also there are different breeds of bees, some of which are more prolific honey makers than others, but the consequesne is these breeds are also more aggressive than the Caucasian, (English Bee). I used to have German Black Bees, which make honey and wax faster than the English Bee, but as I mentioned they are more aggressive. Not South American Killer Bee aggressive, but they do react more to their hive being disturbed, and do not smoke as easy. As for the guy who nearly died handling his bees, well that is something entertaining. You never handle your bees without your "bunny suit", that is just basic safety. A comment on the honey purchased in stores. You can get good honey in the stores, but its normally very expensive in your basic supermarket. Places like Whole Foods, Trader Joes and other such gourmet markets will have the hone at a more reasonable price. Lastly, there is another product which many of you may not be familiar with. Honey is also fermented to make a beverage called Meade. Its essentailly a "Honey Wine". Its also quite tasty! Those of you are curious about it: http://www.newdaymeaderies.com. Enjoy!

    March 25, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  3. Dawn

    I wish the video had been longer. I really enjoyed watching it.

    March 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  4. countrycook

    My husband and I raised bees for about five years and the first year we had them my husband was putting the lid back on the top and there was one bee on the rim so I reached out to move it so it wouldn't be squished, well that is the WRONG thing to do because they swarmed out and attacked me. I had twenty-two stings on my head and face and ran a 103 fever for three days. NEVER, NEVER swat at bees they take that as an attack and THEY attack.

    March 24, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  5. ponygirlmaui

    We recently lost a young man here in Maui. He was stung by his own bees when he replaced the cover to a hive, and did not know that he was extremely allergic to bee stings.

    March 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. krehator

    There is a problem in the HB population, which we all rely on for our food. Anyone helping this should be encouraged within reason.

    March 24, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  7. twang

    I used to let a bee keeper trap bees on a farm i lived on. He would tell me about bees,it was really interesting. I might try raising some bees

    March 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  8. moatsad2071-commenter

    I wont eat honey that didn't come from local beekeepers . It's great for allergies and so much better than store boaght.

    March 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  9. Darlene

    there is nothing like unprocessed honey. Raw honey isn't "plastic" like store bought. No wonder some of us have food allergies with all the chemicals, preservatives in our food. (me inc) If you like spun/creme honey & are too lazy to do it
    the right way, I just put some raw honey in my mixer & beat it until creamy. Yes, it will revert back to liquid, but I never have any left before that happens. Kudo's to those folks that are trying to keep our food sources NATURAL. I thought it was a very informative & interesting video.

    March 23, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  10. Martin Wright

    Wow!! seems like everything from the bee forums to people on the street only want to argue about things. This goes down to the smallest detail spelling,quotes or anything simply to disagree with others. We are sure a sad bunch!!
    My Grandfather taught me beekeeping from the age of maybe six or seven on.
    All this mess about prepping for the end of time also has lots keeping bees, go bees. Country people have unknowlingly been doing this from the start. We should not forget the past or the same mistake will happen over and over. Just a few thoughts, Thanks for your time.

    March 22, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  11. Chef Rick

    Hi all.....
    I am a Beekeeper, and Chef here in the north Georgia Mountains, and LOVE it. Currently have two hives, (second year), and starting three more next week. It is an amazing process, and does bring one closer to the foods which we eat. My garden, and fruit trees are thriving thanks to the hard work of the bees. I agree with B.D. It can get expensive, but it is worth every penny when you taste that amazing honey! Thanks Bert, I agree also, we merely supply an environment for them....they keep me!

    March 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  12. Shawn L

    Most of the "honey" sold in store, 3/4ths of it, is is not honey. The pollen has been removed from honey through a process called ultra filtering. The FDA and the World health Organization does not consider pollen free honey to actually be honey. The chinese started this trend to dump tons of their honey, tainted with antibiotics, into the US market.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • dmp

      How about some background. I know my honey from honeybees is in the stores labelled as such. How do you collect such huge amounts of honey from wasps?

      March 22, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
      • Shawn L

        Wasps make small amounts of honey, and only a few species do and its generally not safe for human consumption.

        March 22, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
      • Bob Darlington

        Wasps do not produce honey in any harvestable amount and most do not produce any at all. The stuff in the supermarket came from honeybees. Much of the time they use the ultra-filtration process and that is to remove air bubbles, wax, bee parts, and pollen. All of these things are potential crystallization sites. They do this so it stays liquid on the shelf longer. All honey crystallizes, but filtering it makes it stay in liquid form a long time and that's what the customer wants. A lot of the stuff in restaurants is a mixture of honey with HFCS and colorants. The reason for this is it's just too darn expensive to keep real bottles of honey on every table.

        March 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • dmp

      sorry my post was not meant for you but for the wasp honey post

      March 22, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  13. harold with a K

    Actually, its a little known fact that the honey we get in our supermarkets is from wasps. More bad reporting, sighs

    March 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • FunWeRhalving

      Dude....really? What kind of data is this? I smell conspiracy theorist on your breath. It stinks.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Bob Darlington

      Wasps do not produce honey in any harvestable amount and most do not produce any at all. The stuff in the supermarket came from honeybees.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • EaglesQuestions

      Wasps have smaller colonies than bees, are more aggressive, not all species produce honey, and the few that do produce only very small amounts of it.

      Do you have any IDEA how expensive wasp honey would be?!?!

      March 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  14. Flora

    These people do take the time to ensure that none of their neighbors are deathly allergic to bee stings, correct?

    March 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Judson

      My allergies make me deathly allergic to smog caused by auto emissions. Did you check with your neighbors before you bought your your highly polluting SUV or truck?

      Do some research before you spout off about bee stings. Some people are indeed allergic to HONEY BEE stings, but far fore folks are allergic to WASP and HORNET sting venom, which is a different venom and far more common.

      Honey bees also ONLY sting in self defense, and the act of stinging rips open their abdomen so the can only sting once and only once, and then they die. This makes them very reluctant to sting and will only do so if their hive (home and family) are being actively threatened. Wasps and hornets will sting repeatedly for much less reason.

      Honey bees pollinate our flowers and food crops. They are also threatened. Please take your knee jerk energy and use it to educate yourself about the facts of beekeeping.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • dmp

      Yes, we do check with the neighbors, but there will not necessarily be more bees on their property than there were before. If your flowers are in bloom the bees can be coming for up to 3 miles around. If you don't want bees, don't plant anything, even your maple tree attracts them. Also more people are allergic to the yellow jacket wasps than they are the honey bee.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Chuck Steak

      Who cares? If you were my neighbor, I'd be the King of Bees, and I'd grow and process deadly peanuts, too!

      March 22, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Joel

      Its a common courtesy to let your neighbors know you are keeping hives. They may be apprehensive at first so ply them with free honey. After a short time around honey bees, people see how gentle they actually are (very reluctant to sting away from the hive, non erratic flying, etc) many come to enjoy the presence of them.
      It's not just about stings either. If your bees swarm and you have neighbors, there is a good chance of them gathering in your neighbor's yard so if they know who to call, you at least have a chance at getting them back although swarm catching is risky and you should not attempt it without some study and some protective gear and NEVER if the bees are up high enough where a sudden fall will cause injury.
      I have several small children who absolutely LOVE the bees and know not to swat at them and how to treat them respectfully. My son will even let the bees take a "drink" from his cup while he enjoys a sunny day on the porch. Another fun thing to do is to put a little dollop of honey on a window and watch for forage bees to find it. You can watch from inside as the bee eats it up and carries it home.

      March 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  15. prairiegal57

    I went to a backyard beekeeping seminar a while back and decided that I'm probably not able to get that deeply involved. Still, I decided that I could easily keep a backyard with plenty of bee attractions. I never use pesticides or herbicides though my neighbors often do. But they also do not plant the flowers that draw the bees. I buy honey from a local beekeeper leaving both the bees and me satisfied with the arrangement. Nurture the bees!

    March 22, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  16. gary

    I had five back-yard hives in Rockwall, TX until my HOA threw a fit and made me get rid of my bees. The HOA is a sad, mis-informed bunch.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  17. Bert

    We like keeping bees in NH. We harvest propolis, honey and pollen. You don't really 'keep' bees. All you do is try to provide an environment that they want to stay in. I've been stung many times but honey bees are fairly docile. They only sting when very provoked. Honey and pollen are a 'super food'.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  18. Tom Tucker

    I kept bees for several years, I'm not sure I agree with the "bee teacher" to let my lawn become a medow but if if you have a community garden area I bet they would be glad to host your backyard bee hive.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  19. Lila

    I bought some native bushes specifically for the local bees and they go crazy for them. I also left an area with dry soil so they could dig burrows. They did for a few years but haven't come back. Hopefully this year.Beekeeping seems like fun, now if only I had the time.....

    March 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • skytag

      Honeybees don't dig burrows.

      March 22, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Lila

      I wrote local bees which do.

      March 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  20. dwerbil

    From Emily Dickenson:

    To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
    One clover, and a bee.
    And revery.
    The revery alone will do,
    If bees are few.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  21. Burbank

    I smell a lawsuit coming from allergic neighbors.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • LaLa

      And how are they going to prove that "my" bee was the cause of their reaction & not on from a wild hive ?

      March 22, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • dmp

      honestly, if you don't want bees on your property don't plant anything – not even trees. If there is nothing for them, they won't come. But to plant a garden that needs to be pollinated then complain because a bee arrives on your property is a little short sighted

      March 22, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Chuck Steak

      Live in a ****ing bubble or carry an EpiPen.

      March 22, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Ben Frankly

      Spoken like a true Angelino.

      March 23, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  22. James K.

    Bees are nothing short of a living miracle. As Albert Einstein said “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” Kudos to all those noncommercial beekeepers out there!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Jeff Michaels

      I'm on my 2nd year with 2 hives – everyone I've given comb honey to is surpirsed that you can eat it and equally suprised at how good it tastes. I have to say having the bees has been a real eye opener as to how special they are. And yes if you keep bees you will get stung – especially in the face when your snooping in on the hive. BTW – it gets expensive. I recommend it if you have an inner scientist lurking in your personality.

      March 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Bob Darlington

      Actually, they've been discussing that quote on the Bee-L list this week. Einstein made no such statement. It was written by Alin Caillas, who lived from 1887 to 1994. The author of "Vivez vieux, restez jeunes : grace aux abeilles" (Live old, stay young: thanks to the bees).

      March 22, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • phred

      Regardless of who actually said it, it is patently wrong. The honeybee, which is what they are referring to, is not native to the Americas. And people survived here quite well without them. There were native "bees", but thay are not a truly significant pollinator.

      March 22, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Ringostarr1

      Albert Einstein never uttered that quote, nor any other quote about bees, and before you get your under britches in a knot and fire up your search engine to prove me wrong, Albert Switzer never said it either.

      March 24, 2012 at 11:36 pm |

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