Monday, January 11, 2010

Food Production in Small Spaces: Honey Bees


I sort of threw down the gauntlet to my readers on the cusp of 2010. I'm curious to see how much food we can produce on our little property, and I invited others to find out and document how much food their backyards and back gardens, or balconies, or whatever, could produce. I'm far from an expert on this topic - maximizing food production in limited spaces. I wish I were, but I'm relatively new myself to serious attempts at feeding myself from my own property.

Still, having nudged people to play along at home, I feel somewhat obligated to offer some ideas to help out. I'm not going to do one monster length post on all the possibilities. I figured I would take the ideas one or two at a time and see if we can get conversations going about each of them. One thing that is much on my mind at the moment is the honey bee, because we're planning to start with them ourselves this year. I know this isn't for everyone, but as livestock go, honey bees are really quite special in a number of ways.

A bee hive takes up very, very little space; less space than you would need to allocate to just about any other livestock. Maybe you could keep a few quail in complete confinement in the same total area as a bee hive. But a hive's footprint on the ground is minuscule; you could put one on an apartment balcony. And if you did that, you wouldn't have to worry about mice, skunks, or bears that more rural beekeepers contend with. Bees also don't compete with humans or other livestock for the same feed. While the cost of equipment is undeniably high when starting up with bees, there are no pangs of conscience when it comes to feeding them. As far as stacking benefits (i.e. what else do they do for you other than produce food?) honey bees obviously help with the pollination of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Frequently overlooked is the soil amendment value of bee manure. Each colony can be expected to deposit 100 pounds (45 kg) of nitrogen-rich manure in a 120 foot (40 m) radius around the hive, each year. Over the years, that adds up to a lot of free organic nitrogen, a critical plant nutrient. Free fertilizer I don't have to shovel!! Bees are also very different from most other livestock in that they do not need daily tending. You can take a vacation away from home (provided you time it right) without getting a sitter for your bees. That's simply not true with most animals. Bees take care of themselves pretty well.

Additionally, there's no need to slaughter your bees in order to harvest. Granted, a great many bees will die natural deaths over the course of the year. But most people can handle a dead insect or several, and a strong colony will take care of most of their own mortuary duties. Some beekeepers will kill an underperforming queen, but this is a choice that other beekeepers will argue against. So if you're not up to the task of dispatching an animal, even a sick or injured one, bees may be the livestock for you.

Now as for the harvest, one can't count on any surplus honey at all the first year, as the colony needs to establish itself and build its strength. But after that, a healthy colony can easily produce twenty pounds of extra honey that you can harvest each year. Some backyard beekeepers see 50 or even 100 pounds of honey per healthy, established hive in good years! (Does it strike any of you as interesting that 100 pounds of honey per hive per year is outstanding, while 100 pounds of manure is a given?)

I can't think of ANY other way of producing as much high-quality food in a given area while still maintaining humane conditions for livestock. Obviously, yield will depend on many variables, as it does with all types of food production. Some studies show that city bees are exposed to fewer pesticides than bees in suburban or agricultural areas. So if you're a city dweller dealing with very limited space for food production, you may want to consider beekeeping. At this time of year you have almost no time left to mull the decision if you want to start this year. But a year of reading and learning about beekeeping is an excellent plan before getting started. In many areas you can find low-cost introductory beekeeping classes through Agricultural Extension offices or local beekeeping associations.

I would only caution an aspiring beekeeper not to underestimate the initial investment costs for equipment. The start up costs for bees are very high compared to some other livestock, as the housing and equipment for bees are so particular. Chickens can be housed in any number of ways and the housing can be made from easily found scrap materials. No equipment is needed for harvesting eggs (beyond a basket if you happen to have a large flock). Unfortunately, with so many diseases prevalent among honey bees, used hive boxes are not a good idea because they can be a vector for disease. Unless you know and absolutely trust the practices of the beekeeper selling such equipment, it's usually a better route to buy or build new hive boxes.

I'll be discussing both honey bees and techniques for producing food in limited spaces quite a bit this year. Stay tuned.

23 comments:

Tree Huggin Momma said...

Somehow I think beekeeping with my and my daughter's allergies would be a really bad idea.
She got stong over the summer (in between her toes) and it was aweful.
But I am interested in knowing more about beekeeping. I have heard that honey bees don't sting, so if that were the case...

Kate said...

THM, honey bees absolutely will sting if sufficiently riled. But they die when they sting, so they can only sting once and obviously don't do it casually. Smoking the hive helps to make bees calm and manageable. There are very docile races of honeybee, but any of them can sting in defense of their hive or if you accidentally step on them. If your family has allergies to bee stings, beekeeping probably isn't for you.

Lorna Jean said...

I'm excited to hear more about your beekeeping venture! I would like to keep bees in a few years (I'm still working on my husband with this one) and would love any suggestions for reading you might have--books, websites, etc.
An interesting story-we live in the UAE (dessert) but there are wonderful bee populations here. Some of the locals gather honey by sending men up quite high into the trees to cut out the honeycomb which is built up around the branches. It's quite amazing to watch, and I have no idea how they actually see these honeycombs in the first place! My son and I were fortunate to witness this happening during a visit to a local park. The man wanted to practice his English skills by speaking with us, and gave us a honeycomb to take home. The best honey I've ever tasted!

Joel said...

>the cost of equipment is undeniably high

Hm...A full set of Langstroth-compatable equipment is really expensive, but I've read from several sources that a top-bar hive is simple and cheap. A smoker isn't to difficult to build, either. I know some beekeepers don't wear a veil, and they seem straightforward to make, for those who decide to wear one.

Using a top-bar method means foregoing the option of using an extractor: the whole comb is harvested, and can be eaten whole or strained or melted to separate wax from honey. That means the bees make more wax in relation to honey, but I hear old wax can be detrimental to their health...plus it saves the expense of the extractor.

mamafitz said...

i will enjoy reading about your beekeeping adventures. i read a bunch of book and went to a local meeting. then i found out it's illegal in my village (i live about 3 miles north of Milwaukee, WI); beekeeping is specifically listed as a nuisance. :(

a different nearby village had a group trying to legalize chickens, but lost. i'm hoping things like that will change (it HAS to, don't you think?).

Wendy said...

This will be a great series, Kate, and I'm really looking forward to reading all of your advice and ideas.

As you know, we're planning to keep bees, too. We plan to add the hive in the spring and won't be "stealing" any honey until next spring. So, honey won't be in our harvest totals for this year.

Speaking of ... I should be keeping a log of my egg harvests. Oops!

Anonymous said...

bees are absolutely the best thing our family has ever tried! We've had several hives for the past few years and have enjoyed the honey and the increased production in the gardens. Our blackberries that we harvest in the wild went from the size of a small marble to being over an inch long and more plump and juicy than I can describe. I have NOT noticed any "bee manure" type benefit at all so don't get into bees thinking that will be a big portion of the benefit. Bees definitely sting, depending on the time of year and type of bees they may not even need to be provoked beyond your being present in the area that they are patrolling for forage....if you keep bees you will be stung, how often is the question. Top bar hives are said to be much easier to maintain, can be made from scrap materials easily...I've seen some made from plastic barrels cut in half, and don't require so much expense. A package of bees will run from $75 to $90 depending on the source, you can get an inspectors jacket and veil for around $60 and a smoker for around $40. Over all it's a worthy investment but requires LOTS of education before you jump in. You can learn more at www.beekeepingforums.com or check your local university extension office to find out if there is a bee club in your area. Good luck!

karen said...

I am really looking forward to reading your progress on the beekeeping. I'm not sure if I could have bees in my neighborhood but I am starting to lean in that direction!

On another note, I have a recipe for lamb to share with you-I made this for my husband and son who raved about it. I don't eat meat but I did sample the broth and found it totally yummy. Here it is:

http://www.courant.com/features/food/sc-food-1224-dinner-lamb-20091228,0,2128223,full.story
Karen from CT

Laryssa Herbert said...

I've been thinking about getting bees too. Not just for the honey, but for the pollination they provide. I have seen less and less bees over the years and my harvests reflect their dwindling numbers. I'd like to do my part to help them return to their once bountiful numbers.

elsie said...

I kept bees with my Dad many years ago when we both knew nothing about it. It motivated me to get some as I settled into my place (THAT only took about 8 years)and after attending a course given by the local beekeeping association. I swiped a bunch of old equipment from my Dad's barn, which made it considerably less expensive to start up. I even had honey the first year which is totally unheard of, but somehow those girls did it. Unfortunately, they didn't make it through the winter... we had an unusually cold winter here in Virginia. I installed another package in April of 2009. Crossing my fingers that these make it, though they didn't have as much honey stored as I would have liked. I'll be feeding as soon as it is warm enough.

What is most interesting is how different the two colonies have been. The first was an amazing score. The bees were unbelievably docile and quiet. A total pleasure especially for a relatively new keeper. The new ones are docile when smoked, but you really need to keep at it, which is probably more like other bees, but not like my last hive. If they make it through the winter, I may try to requeen next fall.

I have some serious contract negotiations to engage in this spring though. I rarely see my bees on my crops. My bee mentor tells me that bees prefer large groupings of particular plants as opposed to, say a couple of squash plants. I figure if I have to feed them, they ought to be working MY garden, but so far we have reached no agreements.

I have only been stung once so far while tending my hive and I was doing something stupid and totally deserved it.

Amy Blogs @ River Rock Cottage said...

Kate, some of your readers might like to know that local bee clubs or groups often have classes for people interested in beekeeping. This is how I got my confidence up to give it a try. The class was only about $15, but I bought a suit. Some groups lend suits for a class. Anyway, I got to learn all about the process and actually get into some bee boxes. My fears were quickly relieved and I decided to give it a go.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your adventure.

Kate said...

Lorna Jean, I am reading and will continue to read books on beekeeping. When I find any that I can recommend, I'll certainly do so. Interesting to hear that bees fare well in the desert.

Joel, let me know when you start up as a novice beekeeper with no protective gear or equipment other than what you sew/produce yourself. No experienced source of information on beekeeping that I have seen advises any beekeeper to work without at least a veil, and especially not beginners. For my part, I'm going to work the bees from under full cover until I feel comfortable doing otherwise. I do agree with you on destruction harvesting over the expense of an extractor, even though many beekeepers can access free to borrow extractors if they join their local beekeeping groups.

mamafitz, I'm reading up on bees too, and have recently joined my local beekeeping association. Both are sources of inspiration, information and aid. I do think livestock codes are going to either change or simply not be enforced. When times are tough, some people begin to do for themselves. And times are certainly tough in many parts of the US.

Wendy, thanks. I will probably do a piece eventually on espaliered trees, which I know you mentioned in your interview for the podcast. It's something we probably won't do ourselves as our space constraints aren't *that* tight. But it's a great technique and can be quite beautiful as well. We also plan on no honey harvest until spring of 2011 at the earliest. Perhaps not until spring 2012. (Well, maybe we'll have to sneak just a taste with our fingertips. Who could resists, really?)

Anon, thanks for your comments. Very interesting to hear the bees improved blackberry yields. I do hope that our bees will be sufficiently docile not to sting us in forage areas, because I'll be situating them not far from our garden, which I hope they will show an interest in. I'll need to work the garden, so that could be a problem.

Karen, looks like a good recipe. Thanks for sharing it. A word of advice if you're uncertain about zoning regulations for bees or any other type of livestock: ask for forgiveness (if need be) rather than permission.

Laryssa, I would recommend that you spend a year reading a few books, attending a few classes, and talking to your local beekeeping group. There's a lot to learn and consider, so you may as well start early. I will certainly post about my beekeeping adventures and foibles. I've also got a post up my sleeve about wild bees, an option for many who can't afford honeybees or can't keep them because of zoning codes.

Elsie, we're going to start with two hives as well, for exactly the reason you describe. Two colonies in the same location can do very differently in a given year. We'll learn more by observing two hives, and if one fails or both are weak, we can unite the colonies and not lose the opportunity for a full year of beekeeping experience.

Amy, good point. We have taken one cheap class already and are signed up for two more, each given by local beekeepers with decades of experience. It's surprises me how cheap these classes are. Seems the old timer beekeepers are just eager to pass on the torch, so to speak.

timfromohio said...

What timing - I was just looking for beekeeping organizations around me and found an introductory class offered by a local group starting next month. It's $50, but is a 10 hour class and then there is the opportunity later in the Spring for hands-on demonstrations. Seems like a bargain for $50!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- I had no idea about the manure! You're definitely ahead of us on the novice beekeeper learning curve. We just decided on the site for our hive(s), and I'm very glad the garden is within 100 feet (do you suppose we can garden-train them?).

Ria said...

Beekeeping is something I've been interested in for a while now, but for the moment, I don't think it's feasible. My landlord isn't exactly hip to the green age, really, and I think he'd take exception to a hive on my front porch. I suspect it also might keep the mailman away, and scare other neighbours.

But once I move into a place where I've got a little more leeway, I will think seriously about taking up beekeeping as a hobby and a way to bring in some extra food. Honey gets used a lot where I live: everything from sweetening my morning tea to a spoonful being used to soothe a sore throat when I'm sick. And I've been wanting to try making mead, too, so extra honey would be wonderful!

onestraw said...

Had never thought about the impact of bee poop - awesomeness!

Kate said...

Tim, the $50 class does sound like a good deal. I took only one introductory class before taking the plunge and buying a good deal of equipment and gear. I'll squeeze in a four-week class and one all-day seminar before my bees arrive. And I'm reading just about as fast as I can. I don't feel totally under-prepared, but I still could have done more last year. So I encourage you to learn all you can.

Tamar & Rob - I know! The bee poop thing kinda blew me away. I wish we could situate our hives smack in the center of our garden. But that would be too sunny for them. Have you both seen that kid's book Everyone Poops? Birds do it... Bees do it...

Ria, I know the frustrations of rental living very well. I hope you find a place to call your own soon. My husband is the brewer in this marriage, and has experimented just a little with mead. I'll be sure to post about it whenever he gets around to doing another batch, especially if it's from our own honey.

Tricia said...

We have a small urban garden - and got bees only a few days ago. They take up so little space. Perfect for small gardens. I'm loving watching them buzz around.

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siegfried said...

dont forget about beeswax - you can make candles, soap, polishing materials and coating cheese with it :) I think in the future it may be more important that honey.

Kate said...

Tricia, congratulations on your bee set up. I hope it goes well for you.

Siegfried, believe me, I haven't forgotten about the beeswax and other "products of the hive." I agree with you that the beeswax may someday be more valuable than the honey. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of any bee products at all from my property.

Ottawa Gardener said...

I just happily stumbled upon your blog and am very glad to have. I am thinking about getting into bee keeping even though this is my Room 101 fear.

Kate said...

Ottawa Gardener, welcome. It seems there's a groundswell of interested prospective beekeepers at the moment. I can't speak from any experience in beekeeping, but I would encourage you to think about it nonetheless.