Notes from a Backyard Beekeeper


Photo by Clayton Aynesworth

“Can we really handle a beehive in this tiny yard?”My first response to my partner John’s announcement that he was getting a beehive for the yard was a little less than enthusiastic. I actually knew a fair amount about bees, through my work at Whole Foods Market® and with the USDA, and I consider myself a bee advocate, but there’s a very important line between having an academic and abstract appreciation of honey bees and having 50,000 of them actually live in your backyard, on purpose.

Fortunately for the bees, my fears proved fully unfounded, and three years later we have at least six hives, and the number will probably grow again soon.

The first year we had a single Langstroth hive (learn more about some of the types of hives here opens in a new tab) and about a dozen beekeeping books. The following year, we started out with three hives (a top bar hive and two Warré hives; two in the yard and one at a friend’s farm nearby), and we quickly added a fourth when a swarm picked our friend’s chicken coop as its new home.

This year, I’ve more or less lost count. John has started building top bar hives, installing hives and helping other folks in town learn to keep bees. Last count, he had a hand in maintaining somewhere around twelve hives in the Austin area. While there are dozens of things you can do to help bees and other pollinators – planting pollinator-friendly crops, buying pollinator-friendly products, supporting organic farming, and more – in my biased opinion, one of the best ways to support the honey bee is to become a beekeeper.


Photo by Jerry Cunningham

It’s easier than you think. Well, not always that easy, but compared to raising any other form of livestock, it’s easy. Managing a bee colony requires that you understand basic bee needs and behavior and know how to monitor the health of the colony. A number of accessible and excellent beginner beekeeping books make the art easy to learn. A personal favorite that focuses on natural methods is The Practical Beekeeper' data-csa-c-slot-id='Hyperlink' data-csa-c-type='link'>Michael Bush's The Practical Beekeeper opens in a new tab.

And while not a manual, one of the best books on beekeeping is Robbing the Bees by Holly Bishop opens in a new tab. It's a beautiful combination of history, exploration of contemporary honey production, and reflections on the author's own discovery of backyard beekeeping.  Also, look into area backyard beekeeping groups and local honey producers offer beginning beekeeping classes. There’s also a flourishing online world of advice, tips, tricks and experts waiting to answer any question.

You can do it (almost) anywhere. We currently have two hives in a very small urban backyard in Austin and three on a friend’s farm outside the city, and we’ve helped others put hives in locations both urban and rural.Beekeepers keep hives on rooftops, in vast expanses of uninhabited desert, and in nearly any climate. While you need to observe local regulations on beekeeping (some cities restrict hive type and require that you get your neighbor’s permission), as long as the bees have a good source of forage and a good flyway, they can flourish in an incredibly diverse range of places.

Honey. We’re definitely in it for more than the honey, but the honey itself is a very satisfying byproduct of the hobby, and it’s the quest for this beautiful liquid that has driven the development of the art of beekeeping for thousands of years. Honey is delicious, and it’s even more delicious when it’s made from nectar from the flowers blooming around where you live. And talk about a thoughtful gift for the neighbors!

Deeper connections to the natural world. Not only does beekeeping entail learning lots of biology about one of the most beautiful and complicated insects on Earth (check out this incredible Nova episode opens in a new tab for some breathtaking detail), it tunes you in to what’s going on in the environment in a very deep way. Looking after bees has caused me to look at the world around me through their eyes – noticing what’s flowering at any given time, what our neighbors are spraying in their yard and overall rainfall levels. It’s also amazing to see the bees at work every single day, buzzing around the garden and the neighborhood and coming home each evening struggling under the weight of sacs full of pollen.

Photo by Jerry Cunningham

Preserving the bees. Finally, beekeeping has given us a feeling that we’re doing something concrete and meaningful to preserve an incredibly important and gravely threatened group of insects. Whether backyard and small-scale beekeeping can “save the honey bee” is a complicated question, but it’s fairly certain that hives like ours – in areas of diverse forage, abundant water, and far from conventional agricultural acreage – are insulated from the factors that have led to Colony Collapse Disorder.

There’s also some evidence that treatment-free beekeeping – in which no chemical treatments are given to the bees – leads to stronger bee genetics, yielding bees that are naturally resistant to mites and disease. The possibility that we are helping to solve an ominous problem facing the bees is another reason that beekeeping’s rewards are deep.

There are literally dozens of great reasons to keep bees, and thriving communities of backyard beekeepers nearly everywhere. If you’re curious, talk to a beekeeper and find out how rewarding and easy it can bee - Bee Culture maintains a list of local beekeeping clubs opens in a new tab in the US and Canada on their website.

Do you have a beehive in your yard? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Top photo by Clayton Aynesworth. Second and fourth photos by Jerry Cunningham.

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