Humans and bees have always enjoyed a close relationship. There are cave images of people collecting honey from wild hives from as long as 10,000 years ago, and evidence of human-aided hives dating back as early as 9,000 years ago.
Keeping bees appears, from the outside, to be complex and even slightly dangerous work—but for the right kind of person, it’s an interesting and rewarding hobby.
“It was just fascinating, there was always so much stuff to learn every time I opened up the hive. It was sort of accidental that I started doing it, but I really started to enjoy it,” said Erin Masterson Holko, a beekeeper and beekeeping instructor.
Masterson Holko came upon a small hive in a bird feeder in her yard almost 10 years ago and decided to transfer it to a man-made hive with the help of a local beekeeper. She taught herself how to take care of the bees via trial and error, Google and asking other beekeepers. Eventually she opened her own shop in San Diego that taught people how to keep bees before coming back home to Western New York in 2016.
It doesn’t cost as much as you may expect to get involved in the hobby, though it does require a bit of upfront investment. The bees need a hive to live in, which is usually a box or series of boxes with frames inside of them. The beekeeper also needs a few tools of the trade: a hive tool to help take the frames out, a smoker to calm the bees while working on the hive and a protective suit to keep from getting stung.
“You need some money for an initial investment because you are buying all your stuff up front. Theoretically, you shouldn’t have to buy anything once you’re set up,” Masterson Holko said. She estimates an initial cost of $500-$600 to purchase the bees, hive equipment and key tools plus the basic safety gear.
If you ask 10 beekeepers a question about keeping bees, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. It’s a pastime that requires ingenuity and a willingness to work out problems as they arise.
“I’m a go-getter; I like to research myself and go do it. I make mistakes and I learn,” said David Newman, president of the Western New York Honey Producers Association.
To get started yourself, nearly everyone recommends taking a class to learn about all the ins and outs of the process. There are a handful of good options in the Buffalo area on how to get started offered by the Honey Producers Association, Masterson’s Garden Center and the Massachusetts Avenue Project.
“Anyone nowadays can just Google beekeeping, but it’s always better to be in a classroom and to have a little bit of instruction. Take classes to learn as much as you can over the course of the year, and then start in the spring of the following year,” Newman said.
It’s best to start a hive in the spring to give the bees as long as possible to prepare for the winter. They’ll need to make plenty of honey for themselves—as well as for whatever you as the beekeeper will take—in order to survive the season.
The bees themselves come from three different sources. The cheapest is finding a wild hive and, usually with the help of a seasoned beekeeper, transferring it to a man-made hive. The second is buying a package, which is a 3-pound ball of bees with a queen that can be transferred into a man-made hive. This approach is slightly riskier as it takes longer for bees to establish themselves: They’ll have to construct the honeycomb in the hive and get the queen laying eggs before they can start to grow.
The third option, which is most expensive but is also the most likely to survive, is a Nucleus hive (Nuc for short)—five hive-ready frames with a laying queen inside.
“In a Nuc, the queen is already laying and there are bees at every developmental stage inside, as opposed to a package, which is just a pile of bees and a queen,” Newman said. “There are different reasons for both; one is cost. But when you have a package, it takes a little longer for that hive to get established.”
Many beekeepers live out in the country with acres and acres of land to house their bees, but bees can be kept nearly anywhere in any yard or land situation. In the city of Buffalo, the green code allows homeowners to keep two hives on their property. Other municipalities have their own laws.
Bees simply need a clear runway in front of the hive to come in and out of, a water source and to be left alone. They’ll travel one to three miles in search of nectar, so filling your yard with flowers isn’t a necessity. Even on a small plot of land, beekeeping is possible without disruption.
“I use my San Diego yard as an example,” Masterson Holko said. “Our lot was 6,000 square-feet and I had two hives in the yard. It’s Southern California, so you are outside a lot. We had kids, we had dogs, we had people over all the time and not one single time did we have a stinging incident just because we had people in the yard.”
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