March-April 2020

A Buzz About Beekeeping

How to add your garden visitors as permanent residents

Thousands of honeybees zip and dive around Betsey Spencer’s hatless and jacketless body. “They’re starting to get a little rambunctious,” the 67-year-old beekeeping mentor says calmly.

“Well, we woke them up, didn’t we?” replies 74-year-old beekeeping mentee Katie Verna.

Verna peers into the open hive to see frames stuffed with pollen, honey and brood. “Goldang! You girls have been busy!” she exclaims. As bees buzz and brush her bare legs, she fondly chastises them, “Hey, get off my sock!”

When Verne first got involved in beekeeping three years ago, she took a class through a local beekeeping store in Raleigh, N.C. She graduated with her first hive and immediately reached out to a county beekeeping association, which set her up with Spencer, an experienced beekeeper.

That’s when Verna’s beekeeping education truly began, fueled by Spencer’s 16 years of hands-on wisdom earned by maintaining as many as 140 hives.

The two share a passion for these prolific pollinators. In fact, we all should. It’s estimated that as much as one-third of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat only grow because these crops are pollinated by bees, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

You like to eat? Then you like bees.

‘Bee’ a Beekeeper

10 pieces of advice to kick off your beekeeping venture on the right wing.

1. ANSWER THE QUESTION: “CAN I HAVE BEES WHERE I LIVE?” – Make sure local regulations allow you to have bees. If you have an acre of land, this should be able to support a hive or two. Honeybees forage up to 5 miles from their home base, so they should do well if you have plenty of flowering plants, water and sunshine within your vicinity.

2. MAKE A BEELINE TO LEARN – Read some books or visit some sites like honeybeesuite.com. Try “Simple, Smart Beekeeping” by Kirsten Shoshanna Traynor or something gorgeous and moving like the memoir “A Book of Bees” by Sue Hubbell. Get inspired by these fascinating creatures. Bee biology, Varroa mites, flowers, beekeeping jargon, pollination — knowledge yields the wherewithal to keep your hives alive.

3. TAKE A CLASS – Local beekeeping stores and clubs often offer classes and culminate in your own package of 12,000-plus bees for kicking off your first hive.

4. FIND A MENTOR – This is where the bulk of your learning will happen. A local beekeeping club should be able to pair you with an experienced keeper who should be willing to dive into your hives with you. An hour with such a person is worth its weight in golden honey.

5. GO WITH THE FLOW – Beekeeping is a process. Put aside grand visions of sharing your vast honey harvest with friends and concentrate on learning. You will lose hives. You will make mistakes. But you will also become a better beekeeper.

6. SHARE THE BOUNTY – With the bees. Don’t be greedy; remember that bees need honey too. The first year or two, you may need to let them have it all until they are better established.

7. DOUBLE UP – Two hives are better than one. If one hive is failing and the other thriving, you can steal brood or food from the strong hive to supplement the weaker one.

8. PLAY WITH YOUR BEES – Learn by observing your new pets. See their pollen baskets, watch their orientation flights, pick out the queen (she can be hard to locate, like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”) and her entourage. Reverence!

9. KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR HIVES – Inspect your hives every 7-10 days in order to head off disease and maintain a healthy hive. Much more and your interference becomes a detriment to their work.

10. ACCEPT THAT STINGS HAPPEN – Stings are unavoidable when working with bees. Be aware of any allergies you or your family might have and be ready for a sting. But take heart that honey bees are generally docile. Plus, you can minimize stings with protective gear, and by working carefully and calmly around bees (most stings occur when keepers unknowingly smash a bee). If stung, you can use an extractor kit to quickly remove venom from the wound.

The more you learn about bees, the more respect you will have for this tiny insect. The worker honeybees (females that care for the hive) live 6-8 weeks and often die because their wings wear out. According to honey.com, these ladies fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of delicious honey. Given that, it’s the least we can do to be good stewards of the environment on the bees’ behalf.


Tara Verna is a beekeeper and creative director for Carolina Country magazine.