Kidding aside, allergies to bee stings are no joking matter. For a very small number of people, a sting can trigger anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Painful hives and swelling may progress rapidly to block off airways, causing circulatory collapse and, sometimes, death. If you or anyone in your family or close neighbourhood has an allergy to bee stings, in the immortal words of Tony Soprano, ‘fugetaboutit’ – beekeeping is not for you. It can take just minutes to die of a sting if you are seriously allergic, so check it out. On the other hand, if you consider yourself allergic because you swell up a bit at the site of a sting and it hu-u-urts, you should know that beekeeping is not for sissies, either, because you will get stung. That grandmother of a friend of the nephew of your grocer who was so in tune with her bees she never got stung in 50 years? Fugetabout that, too. Every beekeeper gets stung. It’s not personal.
(Mildly crazy helps, too, but not required.) Beekeeping is a long-haul endeavor. The first year, the colonies are busy building comb and population, so no honey to speak of. Second year onwards, lots of honey! Unless there is a drought. Or it’s too rainy. Or it was a terribly cold winter and your bees died. Or an early spring and your bees swarmed. Or Winnie-the-Pooh’s ex-con uncle and his pals paid a visit. If you have a ukulele gathering dust, or bunk beds almost built but your kids have moved out, or an out-of-control pumpkin patch that scares the local children, you may want to reconsider beekeeping. Bees are livestock and require responsible, consistent attention. Plus, abandoning or poorly managing your hives can cause considerable damage to the environment or to other beekeepers. Beekeeper, know thyself.
If you like to be the smartest guy/gal in the room, beekeeping may not be for you. As a (now) successful beekeeper said, “After the second year I thought ‘Hey, I’ve got this down’, then all hell broke loose”. Yes, hell breaks loose on a regular basis in beekeeping and it is often necessary to grovel up to other beekeepers for advice and assistance. If you are excited to learn and keep learning (things change as well as there being endless amounts to learn) and recognize that you know next to nothing, welcome to beekeeping.
Just kidding about the back, almost anyone can beekeep on a small scale with some help with the heavy lifting, and there are various sizes and weights of equipment if one is doing it alone, but beekeeping is physical work, no doubt about it. In terms of time, beekeeping on a small scale doesn’t require a huge investment in time – rather like a good-sized garden - but timeliness is a big issue. Hive management requires vigilance and intervention when the bees need it, not when you can fit it in. Spring and Fall are the most demanding times, but if you answered ‘yes’ to question 2, you will no doubt be spending lots of time with your bees anyway. With regard to the spare income, beekeepers say that it is possible to make a small fortune in beekeeping – provided you start with a big fortune. Realistically, the upfront investment is in the area of $500 to $1000 to get you started with a couple of hives and other basic equipment, but you can expect to break even within a couple of years if you are prudent, or sell your honey or surplus bees or get into queen rearing. If you are in this for the money, though, beekeeping may not be for you unless you plan to scale up considerably and work like a dog (not my dog, though, who spends his days plotting against squirrels and enjoying his private parts).
Location, location, location isn’t just about mobile home property in Florida. Hives need forage, light, access to water, friendly neighbours and protection from predators. And don’t forget to comply with your local zoning and other regulatory laws and licenses. If you are in farm country think about what is growing in the forage area. Pesticides and herbicides can be lethal to bees even when applied according to label.
If you answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, congratulations! You are about to embark on one of the most rewarding and interesting undertakings in the natural world. Take a look at Ten Steps to Get you Started.