By Andrew Larson:
No doubt about it, bees are a hot topic lately. Whether it is in the ranching, gardening, or permaculture world it seems like interest in wonders of beekeeping in on the rise. So, what’s all the buzz about?
Surely you are aware that bees can be an essential part of the pollination process for the crops that feed our country. Along with producing the eternally precious golden honey, bees are also an excellent resource to have around your ranch, hobby farm, or even your residential backyard for a variety of benefits and uses.
One of the recent concerns with honeybees is a global trend of mass die-offs in populations. Large die-offs can play a critically harmful role in crop production. Though many crops are able to grow without the assistance of honeybee pollination, some crops (such as almonds) depend almost entirely on honeybees.
For almonds specifically, the vast majority of U.S. commercial beehives are shipped to groves in the spring to serve as pollinators during the crucial flowering season; all in all, we are talking millions and millions of bees.
Honeybees can also play a vital role in pollination of crops on small-scale hobby farms. When farming in drier regions that may have a small number of native pollinators, bringing beehives onto your operation can help increase yields. This is particularly the case with fruit trees, which have lots of flowers that require pollination in a relatively short window of time.
Harvesting the fruits of your colony’s labor, coupled with labor of your own of course, is an incredibly rewarding process. In addition to harvesting your own honey, beehives produce a multitude of other substances with a variety of benefits. These substances are useful on their own or when combined with other ingredients. These beehive byproducts can be marketed and sold as well, helping to offset some of the operational costs.
Beeswax is a long-cherished good produced by bees. Its historic applications varied from bowstring wax to a fabric water-proofer to a letter sealer. Today, beeswax is often used in candles, lotions, salves, lip balms, soaps, and even in cooking. With beeswax from your own hives, you could produce these personal goods at home quite easily. Beeswax is a highly versatile substance, and I am always sure to have some on hand for whatever needs may come up.
The figurative and literal “glue that holds the hive together” is bee propolis. This is a substance produced by the bees and used throughout the inner hive in securing objects and sealing gaps.
This resin-like material offers a variety of medicinal uses, as it is believed to have properties that fight against viruses, bacterium, and fungi. Propolis is most often used as a topical ointment used for wound cleansing, herpes sores, and minor burns. It has also been suggested that, when mixed as a mouthwash, will assist in healing after oral surgeries. As always, consult with your doctor if these health-related applications sound interesting.
Protein-packed pollen is an essential energy source for bees. Honey, which began as nectar, is a very sugary substance that lacks any sort of proteins. This leaves bees left to collect pollen in order to provide for their protein needs and feed their rapidly growing young.
Pollen collected from beehives is often used as a dietary supplement in food and to help combat allergies. By consuming honey or pollen from a specific allergen plant, it is believed that you stand a good chance of lessening your allergic reactions during upcoming pollen seasons.
The Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona and the University of Santiago de Compostelo in Spain are just a few of the many research groups that have shown the potential widespread benefits of pollen. Some positive benefits of ingesting pollen include: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, stress relieving, and healing acceleration properties. At the Medical University of Silesia in Poland, several therapeutic uses for bee pollen were suggested such as boosting immune and liver health.
I will be the first to admit, beekeeping can be a lot of work at times. Heavy boxes, hot bee suits, bee mortality and disease all make me question my little hobby at times. Though time and time again, I come to the realization that it really is just downright fun in the end.
Just like any other pet, it is enjoyable to go out and see how your bees are doing, to see the visible change and progress from the last hive check. Maybe that means a whole new frame of brood or maybe even a whole new frame of honey. I get personal enjoyment out of watching this change and progress.
As my little pets of the yard, I enjoy seeing them when they come to visit the rim of my drink, and I’ve come to recognize visitors from my hives. There is some visual variability in the way bees look from hive to hive. I am able to recognize the way certain bees look from local wild hives versus my own bees. It is quite fun to make that identification and connection with your own bees. Nothing beats going into your own garden and watching bees, some of which are obviously yours, working feverishly to bring valuable contributions back to their hive all while pollinating your vegetables and flowers.
Despite European Honeybees not being native to North America, they are a vital component of our modern day agricultural food system. Every year, it is estimated that honeybees pollinate around $15 billion in crops across over 120 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables (Calderone 2012). Hives of bees are trucked thousands of miles across the country year-round to help achieve these astronomical numbers.
While our system depends on assistance from the commercial hives, establishing your own colonies helps to maintain a local population and adds long-term genetic diversity and resilience to the bee population as a whole. I am personally interested in the role hobbyist beekeepers can play in bolstering this local layer of the population equation. Knowing that die-off in bees could be linked to the stress of moving colonies in commercial operations, and that commercial populations living in close proximity facilitates disease transfer, I believe I’m making a positive impact. I feel good taking this step for the future of honeybees as a whole and think that it would be beneficial for more people to join in on this role.
In high-density settings, honeybees certainly have the potential to displace native pollinators, mostly large solitary types of bees. However, in a smaller scale setting, honeybees can and do coexist with native bees just fine. In fact, honeybees can even be a benefit to your native local flora species along with your own crops.
Are You In?
Beekeeping is a hobby that involves continual learning through trial and error. There is a seemingly infinite amount of knowledge to be gained about the inner-working complexities of the hive. However, beekeeping has been one of my most rewarding hobbies to date. There is something about trying to harness the power of this wild and independent beehive. Not necessarily to tame it, but to work in synchrony with it to the benefit of all. I hope you are able to enjoy the fulfilling rewards that beekeeping offers through knowledge and good old hard work.
Andrew is a biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department where he works on native fish, reptile, and amphibian conservation in the high mountains. His personal life is centered on living connected to nature, and a full circle lifestyle. He does this through hunting and fishing in the outdoors and at home through a permaculture-driven life that includes gardening, beekeeping, and small animal farming.
Calderone, Nicholas. 2012. Insect Pollinated Crops, Insect Pollinators and US Agriculture: Trend Analysis of Aggregate Data for the Period 1992–2009. University Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.