7 Surprising Truths from a Beginning Beekeeper

A new apiarist shares a few things she learned from her first foray into beekeeping.

Beekeeping, Harvest Inn
Paige Green.

When culinary horticulturist Laura McNiff first saw the grounds at Charlie Palmer’s Harvest Inn in St. Helena, California, one word came to mind: bees. Setting up a colony would have many benefits. The five edible gardens would get pollinated, the bees would (hopefully) thrive, and the Inn’s restaurant, Harvest Table, would get delicious, ultra-local honey for desserts, cocktails and tea. There was just one catch: McNiff, while she holds a degree in environmental studies and specialized in utility forestry, had never before done anything bee-related. But after studying up and interviewing many expert apiarists, she dove head first into beekeeping. Three months later, McNiff boasts two healthy hives that are home to about 100,000 honey-happy bees. Here, she shares a few things she learned from her first foray into beekeeping.

Bees come in boxes. “We have a local shop, Beekind, in Sebastopol. I took classes there,” McNiff says. “The owner, Doug Vincent, breeds his own queens.” Vincent doesn’t ship his bees, so McNiff had to pick her new wards up. She drove back to the inn with a box of 13,000 bees.

You need more than hives, bees and flowers. Beekeeping requires a good amount of equipment. “You need a hive tool, which you use to break open the hives and lift the cell frames,” she says. “You want a bee suit—or at least a head screen.” She also recommends a smoker, which helps push the bees away from the top of the hive so you can inspect their work and will subdue them in an emergency. Also on the list: a serrated knife to uncap the cells of the honeycomb; a honey extractor, which spins the honey out of the cells; and a tub to collect the honey.

Bees are very efficient. “I was really surprised by how quickly the bees set up,” McNiff says. “Within 24 hours, they had released their queen and started building the comb. Within 48 hours, I saw scouts out collecting pollen. Two weeks later, the hives were already half-filled with comb.”

Bees get stressed. If you’re approaching a hive, make sure you come in from the back or the side. “If you walk towards their flight entrance, they’ll feel stressed,” she says. “They also really react to our hormones and pheromones, so if you see that they’re getting agitated, it’s best to back away.” Unsurprisingly, bees will also become stressed and attack if you smoosh one. That’s because when a bee is killed, it lets off a pheromone signal that is essentially a call to arms.

Honey is off-limits for the first season. After three months, McNiff’s bees have made a full box of honey. But she’s holding off on harvesting it for the first year. She believes that by letting the bees keep their honey for the first season, they will be happier and healthier than if she harvested right away. “Going in and removing their hard work stresses them out,” she says. “Instead, I am allowing them to eat their own honey and produce as much as they want. Then, next spring, we’ll start to harvest.”

Honey changes flavor depending on what the bees pollenate. “Honey really takes on the flavor of the pollen that the bees carry,” she says. McNiff expects to have four differently flavored honeys next year: first eucalyptus, then wildflower, then lavender and finally blackberry.

You will get stung (but not that much if you know what you’re doing). “It only hurts for 60 seconds,” McNiff says. “Just remove the stinger right away—the longer it’s in there, the more it will hurt.” She also suggests having menthol patches on hand to stop the itching and burning. “Only the worker bees sting and they’ll only sting if they feel threatened,” she says. “Just don’t swat or threaten them.”

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