Home & Garden

Want bees? How to get started raising your own

A honeybee sits on basil.
A honeybee sits on basil. MCT

Beekeeping was so much simpler in 1980 when John Strickland started.

One of Strickland’s rural Chatham County neighbors had bees, but the man was getting up in years. “If I ever have to leave them and can’t come back, I want you to take the bees and take care of them,” he told Strickland. “These people living around here, they’ll burn them.” One night, the neighbor was taken to the hospital and didn’t come home.

“They took him to a nursing home,” Strickland said. “So I went over there and got the bees. That’s how I got started. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

In those days, Strickland said, you could just have a hive in the yard. You didn’t have to worry about chemicals destroying the bees’ ability to navigate. You could trust a hive that was there in the fall would still be populated in the spring. These days, beekeepers like Strickland, owner of Busy Bee Farm in Pittsboro, battle increased pest threats and epidemic phenomena like colony collapse disorder, in which entire colonies of bees can vanish.

“If I put in 30 hives and I have 15 of them come through the winter without colony collapse, I feel like I’ve been successful,” he said. In 1980, all 30 would have survived.

“It seems rare anymore that people are not losing bees,” said Moya Hallstein, president of the Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association. “It’s part of beekeeping now.”

It seems rare anymore that people are not losing bees. It’s part of beekeeping now.

Moya Hallstein, president of the Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association

Strickland and Hallstein stand together and look out at Strickland’s rows upon rows of pick-your-own blackberries and blueberries. Just adjacent is a grassy field with his clusters of bee boxes. Here, 15 minutes out of Pittsboro, the distance from pollinator to flower is only a few yards. Strickland’s peacocks call, and they are loud. Turkeys and even a doe wander by unafraid, and Strickland doesn’t bat an eye. He’s surrounded by animals, by honeybees: it’s his life.

“Once you’ve got so much money and equipment and stuff like that, you can’t get out of it,” Strickland said, sounding pleased more than trapped by this cycle. “You just keep going.” Each bee box can cost a couple of hundred dollars, and there’s the constant threat of pests and disease. But flowers need pollinating, and it’s the only way to get honey – one of few foods that will not spoil, Strickland said.

Getting into beekeeping isn’t easy, but Strickland and Hallstein share a few tips.

Engage the bee community: Watch videos, read up on bees, and most importantly, find a beekeeper who will let you work with them for a year. After that time, you will have seen the effort and expense that goes into it, and you’ll know whether you want to be a beekeeper.

“Go to your local beekeeper association meetings,” Hallstein said. “We have a really active beekeeping association in North Carolina. We’re really lucky.”

There’s a master of beekeeping program through the N.C. State Beekeepers Association too, she said, adding that Strickland is a master beekeeper. If you’re really serious, go to a beekeeping school. Find a listing of these at ncbeekeepers.org. (The closest beekeeping school is May 14 and May 21 in Vass in Moore County, about an hour southwest of Raleigh.)

Two hives are better than one: If you’re starting off small, at least start a pair of hives. Different queens have different attitudes, different hives produce differently and you can compare how they both perform. Plus, if one hive leaves or fails, you can split the surviving one and repopulate the empty one.

Place your hives properly: “Location is really, really important,” Hallstein said. Bees navigate by the sun, so hives need to face east and be in open fields. They can’t be by bodies of water, either: the sun’s reflection in a pond, say, can disorient bees, causing them to flip over and drown.

Be gentle: “I think of John as the bee whisperer,” Hallstein said as Strickland gently, methodically opens a hive and pulls out a frame. He carried a smoker, but wore no protective gear and showed no fear. The bees don’t bother him. Bees remember how you treat them, and an easy touch can lead to a docile hive.

Pests: The major pests, Strickland and Hallstein say, are wax moths, small hive beetles, Varroa mites and skunks. They can move extraordinarily fast – Hallstein lost all six hives to the invasive small hive beetle last year, all in the span of about a week – so keep a close eye on your bees.

Feed your bees: Her first year as a beekeeper, Hallstein said she stubbornly insisted her bees didn’t need feeding, but they actually did and they died. “I had to take responsibility for not feeding them because they didn’t have enough in there to survive,” she said. “We pretty much killed our bees.” Bee food, simply enough, is sugar water, mixed in different ratios for different situations. Another way of feeding bees is to plant tulip poplars, which are an excellent source of nectar flow. “Keep your bees strong,” she said.

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com.

Want to learn more about beekeeping?

Join a local beekeeping club or attend one of their monthly meetings.

▪ Wake County Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at Wake County Commons Building, 4011 Carya Drive, Raleigh. Info: wakecountybeekeepers.org

▪ Durham Beekeepers meet at 6:30 p.m. on the third Monday of the month at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, 420 Anderson St., Durham. Info: durhambeekeepers.org

▪ Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the Chatham County Cooperative Extension Center, 65 E. Chatham St., Pittsboro. Info: chathambeekeepers.wordpress.com

▪ Orange County Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Hillsborough, 1710 Old N.C. 10, Hillsborough. Info: theocba.org

▪ Johnston County Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of the month at Johnston County Agricultural Center, 2736 N.C. 210, Smithfield. Info: jocobee.org

Find more local beekeepers associations at ncbeekeepers.org.