Adding bees — nature’s most enthusiastic pollinators — to your backyard can bring a number of benefits. A bee box can encourage pollination, increase your garden yields and give you the chance to harvest fresh honey. You’ll also be supporting the honey bee population, which has fallen in recent years.
But this involves more than just setting a box in the backyard and hoping for the best. Ettamarie Peterson, owner of Peterson’s Farm outside Petaluma, California, past president of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association, and a 26-year-veteran of the field, shares some tips for aspiring beekeepers.
1. Educate yourself
Research as much as you can, and connect with a local beekeeping organization. That will put you in contact with other beekeepers who are familiar with your region’s specific needs.
“Study, get acquainted with other beekeepers and find a mentor who can guide you through this,” Peterson says. “I wouldn’t have made it past my first beehive without a mentor and an association to help me.”
Similarly, read up on your local laws for zoning codes or other ordinances that may govern beekeeping.
2. Buy local
Peterson says you’ll find the best bees by acquiring them from a local beekeeper or learning to capture a swarm yourself. You can purchase bees online or through supply stores, says Peterson, but by acquiring them locally you can be sure the bees are acclimated to your area.
3. Equip yourself properly
Keeping bees requires an investment of time and money. At a minimum, you need the bee box itself, a stand to keep it off the ground, a hive tool, a smoker, gloves, at least a hat and protective veil, and a jacket.
(For this reason, don’t think of beekeeping as a source of inexpensive honey. You’re working for what you get. “I always tell people, ‘There’s no such thing as free honey!’ ” Peterson says. “If they added up all the time and money they spent to get to that first jar, they’d never eat it.”)
4. Be ready for a sting
Sooner or later, if you’re keeping bees, you’ll get stung. Keep a supply of antihistamine handy, and if you’re allergic to bees, keep an EpiPen and pay even more attention to safety steps. (“You can still keep bees if you’re allergic, but you need to be very careful,” Peterson says.) Learn the proper remedies to treat a bee sting and minimize swelling — Peterson recommends chewing on a plantain leaf and applying it to the sting site.
5. Place carefully
Set your bee box in a dry area where it won’t be in front of much foot traffic, and leave a couple of feet around it so you can work. Most beekeeping work is done from behind or to the side, Peterson says. She advises placing it where it can get morning sun and afternoon shade, plus as much sunlight in winter as possible. “This is why deciduous trees are great for bee boxes,” she says.