by David Anderson, Ph.D.
Learn surprising ways beekeeping can help your children grow in their academic studies while providing a unique and fun way to learn.
Beekeeping is packed with educational opportunities especially well suited for home schoolers. However, a few questions immediately come to mind: How is beekeeping educational? How much effort, money, and time does this take? Is it dangerous? Will our neighbors mind? How much honey will we get? Can we sell the honey? Let’s consider the benefits of beekeeping in the home school.
It’s a pretty straightforward process to build a beehive—really just a wooden box with several removable frames inside that hold beeswax—and establish a colony. You can order hives from a supply company, or you can find hive plans and instructions in numerous beekeeping books and on the Internet. You should follow the standard hive dimensions, partly so that your equipment is compatible with other equipment and partly because the standard dimensions consider the importance of "bee space."
You’ll also need a smoker, a veil (better yet, buy or improvise a bee suit), gloves, wax foundation, a hive tool, and, of course, bees. Toward the end of the first season you will need to purchase some medications (for the bees, not yourself) and, if you wish, more equipment to expand your operation.
If you purchase everything from a bee supply company, plan on spending $200 initially. I acquired new, used, and homemade equipment, ordered package bees, and purchased some nonessential items, all for approximately $150. For each additional hive after your first, expect to spend up to $100.
Bees for your hive are delivered through the mail. (Expect questions from post office employees when you collect your buzzing package!) Detailed instructions for getting the bees into their new home are available in books and on the Internet. In short, put the queen in the hive (she initially stays in her own small cage). Then release the three pounds of bees (yes, you buy them by the pound) into the hive and replace the lid.
Packaged bees are less expensive, but you probably will not harvest any honey from them the first year. Alternatively you can purchase a mini colony called a nuc. Nucs are more expensive but probably will give you a good honey harvest the first year.
Plan on setting up your new colony when the apple trees are in blossom in your area. You need to place your order for bees in January (they sell out in February). The bees are mailed in springtime at the appropriate time for your area. Other important annual events are adding supers to the colony (supers are smaller boxes with frames where the bees store honeycomb), harvesting the honey, preparing the colony for winter, and applying medications to control diseases and pests.
Safety is a concern, especially if someone in your family is allergic to bee stings. You will get stung, but not often, and honeybee stings are not as painful as other stings. I keep a bee sting kit with my equipment just in case. (By the way, the mean-tempered Africanized bees have not reached my area. If they are in your area, be especially cautious.)
Depending on where you live, you might need to consult your neighbors before getting honeybees. Living in a residential area is not necessarily prohibitive, although you should check local regulations. You might cooperate with a rural family or farmer and keep your hive on his property. Common sense and neighborly etiquette are a must. For example, do not put your hive near your neighbor’s playground, even if the hive is on your side of the property line. Avoid putting your hive where there is a human pathway nearby. Bees take the shortest route—a beeline— to their destination, so the intersection of the beeline and a human path can be annoying.
Locate your hive so that the bees’ water source is closer than your neighbor’s swimming pool. Also, the area a few feet in front of a beehive is defended air space; seasoned beekeepers approach the hive from the side or rear.
Prior to starting your first colony, have your children do some background research on keeping bees. Keep a journal or other record of their findings for reference. Depending on your climate, you can do hands-on activities from spring through October. But even the middle of winter offers a fascinating look into the life of a colony. If you briefly open the hive, you will observe that the bees are clustered, quite warm (in the 90-degree range in the cluster center), and raising new bees—not hibernating.
Consult your resources for directions on harvesting honey—an exciting event! How much you get depends on several factors, but in 2003 the national average was seventy pounds per colony. In addition to the honey, you can collect beeswax, pollen, and propolis, all potentially marketable products.
Be sure to check the laws concerning the sale of honey. For the small-time honey producer there are some labeling requirements, some laws regulating the use of medications on bees, and of course business license/tax laws. If you supply honey to a retail store or sell more than 10,000 units (a unit is a container of honey regardless of size), then you may be required to provide nutritional labeling on your honey containers. Also, if you sell honey to or through a retail store, then your honey processing structure (your house) is subject to food preparation laws and inspections. Check the National Honey Board website for more information.
In deference to my fellow beekeepers, I admit that this summary is very simplified. Beekeeping does take some effort and commitment, and not everything about it is intuitive. But once you get started, you can eagerly look forward to your first taste of your own homegrown honey . . . it truly is better than store-bought!
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