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You're a what? Apiarist.

You've heard of the French Connection? Well, I became an apiarist--or beekeeper--because of the Burmese connection. Let me explain.

About 15 years ago, one of my friends was a staff aviation advisor for the U.S. Government when his office received an unusual query: Could honeybees be shipped to Burma? As part of an antinarcotics effort, it seems, the Government of Burma wanted to discourage farmers from growing opium as a cash crop and encourage them to sell honey instead. Burmese officials had turned to the United States for help, and the plan was approved. The initial shipment of 500 colonies of honeybees survived a bizarre journey during which many bees escaped and stung the cargo handlers. The bees later contracted amoebic dysentery and had to be given medicine in a sugar-water solution. In all, 5,000 colonies were shipped to Burma. Today, many Burmese continue to raise bees for honey.

The success of the Burmese honeybee experiment so intrigued me that I decided to try raising honeybees myself. My first concern was whether there was even a market for honey where I lived. I did some research and discovered that the United States imports honey, but that was no guarantee I could make a profit on honey sales.

Commercial beekeeping requires a large capital investment when starting from scratch with new equipment, and new colonies don't produce much surplus honey the first year. It can take 3 to 5 years to realize any profit, unless you buy used equipment. It's also difficult to calculate returns, because costs and production rates vary from State to State. That's why most of the estimated 190,000 beekeepers in the United States are hobbyists who don't raise bees for profit. Only about 20 percent of all apiarists make half their earnings or more from keeping bees, and barely 4 percent depend solely on bees for income.

I knew I needed to learn more about beekeeping. So, I contacted my county's agriculture extension office, which referred me to local junior colleges offering apiculture courses. I already had some of the prerequisites, having taken classes in agriculture, biology, and entomology in high school and college. A hobby beekeeper can start by taking a short, 1- or 2-day course on beekeeping. I'd also recommend a course in woodworking, because carpentry skills are handy if you want to build or repair hives.

In addition to taking beekeeping classes, I joined an apiarist association. Besides learning about bees, I also found out that there are no qualification requirements for setting up apiaries, though some areas regulate where beekeepers can locate their colonies.

I studied bees both in the classroom and outdoors, often accompanying my teacher or other beekeepers when they went to retrieve swarms that had left colonies. Swarming, which happens in early spring and summer, results when a bee colony becomes too crowded. About half the bees fly away to look for a new place to live. Worker bees and their queen usually cluster on a tree branch until scout bees find a new nest site. Frightened residents would call my teacher or the association to retrieve the swarms. Many people are afraid of bees because they think they are allergic to bee stings, confuse bees with wasps or hornets--or are just scared of flying insects.

During the winter, bees are dormant, so I used that time to plan my operation. I decided to start small, as most beekeepers do, and bought five hive kits that I put together myself. Modern wooden beehives are constructed of a bottom board, which forms the floor of the hive; brood chambers, where the bees live, the queen lays her eggs, the brood is raised, and honey is stored for food; a queen excluder, to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers; honey supers, to store surplus honey; and top and inner covers, to protect and insulate the bees. When putting the hives together, I painted the wooden outside parts to protect them.

The kits also included a protective veil, gloves, and coveralls; a bee smoker, to calm the bees; and a hive tool, for prying apart frames. I also bought an uncapping knife and an extractor, to remove the honey from the combs, and a storage tank to hold it. All this equipment cost about $1,200.

One thing I didn't need to purchase was the bees. Beekeepers can buy 2-pound packages of bees (containing about 6,000 worker bees and 1 queen), but I actually enjoy retrieving swarms. So, to start up my apiary, I captured swarming bees and placed them in the new hives. Bees follow their queen, so once you've caught the queen, you've caught an entire colony.

After the bees became established in the hives, I put screens over the entrances until I moved them to a clover field. I set up my apiary there because beekeeping wasn't allowed within the limits of my town. The farmer who owned the field and surrounding land raised other crops--including alfalfa, cucumbers, watermelons, and apples--that needed the pollination aid my bees would provide.

Pollination is necessary for the production of many crops. Bees are important in the process because they carry pollen from plant to plant when looking for nectar. Usually, farmers allow beekeepers to set up apiaries on their land in exchange for the pollination service of the bees. But sometimes beekeepers rent out their colonies for pollinating. In California, for example, almond growers pay beekeepers about $35 per colony for pollination purposes. This can be a good source of income for beekeepers, so it's important to maintain colonies all the time.

I pay close attention to my hives year-round. To inspect the hives, I puff smoke from my smoker into the entrance. Smoke calms the bees while I check their condition and make sure the hives haven't become overcrowded.

While a colony is becoming established, it makes just enough honey to survive. But after that, well-cared for bees like mine produce more than they need for food. This extra honey is what I harvest. Usually, my first harvest is in late spring or early summer. To collect the surplus honey, I first remove the frames of honeycombs from the supers. Then I cut off the wax cap seals and use an extractor to remove the honey, which drains into a storage tank. After straining the honey for impurities, 1 bottle and label the harvest for sale. I can also sell the wax.

But I can't sit back and wait for the money to roll in. I have many annual expenses, such as medicine for the bees and jars for the honey. These costs total about $200. I also have to keep records on my colonies, including facts such as the age of the queens (they need to be replaced every 2 years) and the amount of honey harvested. I like to make a note of the harvest date, because the earlier yields in my area are usually a lighter color and have a milder flavor than honey produced later in the season.

In the fall, I prepare the hives for winter. Each hive needs about 50 pounds of honey for the bees to survive until spring. When the temperature falls below 50 degrees, the bees become dormant. They stay in the hives, clustered together to keep warm, and move from outer to inner layers.

Wintertime isn't the same season throughout the United States, and many full-time commercial beekeepers transport their hives to warmer areas. That way their bees can pollinate citrus crops, maintain honey production, or continue to grow and divide. As you may have guessed, most bee colonies are located in Florida and California. North Dakota and South Dakota are also major beekeeping areas. But there are apiarists in all 50 States, including Alaska--some just have short harvest seasons.

Maybe when my apiary gets bigger, I'll move my bees to a warmer climate during the winter, so they can be productive all year. But for now I use the colder months to make repairs and clean my equipment in preparation for the next harvest season. Of course, I can't ignore the hives, so I regularly check on them.

Working around the hives is less dangerous than it might seem. Generally, bees won't bother you if you don't bother them. Apiarists may become immune to bee venom over time, but people allergic or sensitive to bee stings shouldn't become beekeepers. At certain times of the day (early in the morning, late in the afternoon and evenings), it's best just to leave them alone. And never, never, disturb bees in cool, cloudy, or rainy weather, when they're defensive. Most beekeepers can tell you hair-raising stories about times when they didn't follow those simple rules and suffered many bee stings as a result.

For more information about beekeeping, check with your county agriculture extension office. Every State has a beekeeping organization, and many offer courses on beekeeping. Most groups also provide swarm retrieval services and supply information to correct public misconception about bees.

Bee Culture magazine publishes the names of other people to contact for more information. To receive a copy of the list, printed annually in the April issue, write

Bee Culture

The A.I. Root Co., publishers

623 W. Liberty St.

Medina, OH 44256

(216) 725-6677

Organizations that can provide information include the following:

American Beekeeping Federation, Inc.

P. O. Box 1038

Jesup, GA 31545

(912) 427-8447

Apiary Inspectors of America

c/o Maryland Department of


50 Harry S. Truman Parkway

Annapolis, MD 21401

(410) 841-5920

The Agricultural Technical Institute at The Ohio State University offers the country's only 2-year program concentrating on beekeeping. Students earn an Associate of Applied Sciences degree in laboratory science, which, according to Adjunct Professor James E. Tew, sounds a lot more practical than beekeeping to bank loan officers. Tew said about 140 students from 45 countries have participated since the program began in 1975. For more information, contact

Dr. James E. Tew

Agricultural Technical Institute

The Ohio State University

Wooster, OH 44691

(216) 264-3911

The U.S. Peace Corps has a beekeeping program in Paraguay for which it actively seeks qualified volunteers. Some volunteers set up beekeeping as a secondary project in other countries, such as Bolivia. For more information call the Peace Corps office toll-free, (800) 424-8580.
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Title Annotation:beekeeper
Author:Green, Kathleen
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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