By Henry Vogt
Anybody interested in getting free honey for the rest of your life? It's easy, and anybody can do it—even kids. As an 11-year-old, I have no problem keeping bees, and I know some 70-year-olds that have a hive or two.
Most beehives can produce as much as five gallons of honey per year. Although many people think bees are mean, honeybees really aren’t aggressive toward humans as long as you don't bother them too much. The only really aggressive species is the Africanized bee, which will actually chase you for just getting in their way, but don't worry because state bee inspectors make sure Africanized bees are kept out of Florida by checking all state beehives once a year.
Some tools you’ll need to get started are a hive tool, smoker, veil, gloves, frame holder and bee brush. To get the honey you’ll need an extractor, bottling bucket, a large strainer, capping scratcher (or fork) and an uncapping knife (not required but recommended). Most experienced beekeepers shrug off a couple stings here and there, but for those who hate being stung even once, you might want to consider a full bee suit.
You'll also need a brood box for the bees to live in, along with two supers, which are second story boxes that give the bees more living space as they grow in population. Make sure to place your hive in a spot that gets sun until about 1pm, and then it should be in the shade for the rest of the day. Also, point the front of your hive facing the rising sun or the bees will all gather on one side of the hive. Even if you have just a small yard, there’s enough room to have a hive if you can allow a 10-foot clearance in front of the hive entrance.
There are lots of local beekeepers who will sell you a bunch of bees and a queen for about $75 to get you started. After you get your hive going, you should check it at least once every two weeks in the spring and summer, once a month in the fall, and only in emergencies in the winter. I spend about an hour every two weeks checking my three hives.
Like most farming, the fun part is the harvest, but it does involve extra work. The bees pack the honey into individual cells of the honeycomb, then they cap each cell with wax. To extract the honey, first you remove the wooden frame containing the honeycomb from the hive and, after brushing off the bees, you cut off all the capping with your uncapping knife. Then you stick the frame into a metal barrel or drum called an extractor, where honey starts dripping into the bottom.
Once you get about five frames in the extractor, you spin the frames around for about a minute and a half, and centrifugal force splatters the remaining honey onto the inside of the drum, where it runs down the sides and collects at the bottom. You then take the frames out, flip them over, and repeat on the other side. When you get all of the honey out of the frames, drain it through a strainer into a bucket by opening the spigot at the bottom of the extractor, then let it sit for an hour while any non-honey particles settle to the bottom. Finally, you pour the honey from the bucket into little bear-shaped bottles and you're done.
You will get way more honey from just a few hives than you can ever eat, and you can then give the rest away to friends or relatives, or sell it at farmers’ markets. Just be careful not to mark it as organic unless you 're sure all the flowers within three miles of your hive have never been sprayed with pesticide, since the bees forage that far for pollen. By the way, the average current price for a 12 oz. bottle of homegrown honey is about $5.
In addition to free honey, bees also provide beeswax and pollen, and increase garden crop yields by pollinating the flowers. If you are into making soap or candles, you can use beeswax in both, and with bees you also get all the beeswax you want for free. Pollen itself is a highly nutritional food, and you can mix it with some honey and your mouth won’t notice a thing.
For more information, visit the website of the Apalachee Beekeepers Association at http://sites.google.com/site/apalacheebee/ or call me at 850-877-5641. The association usually puts on a how-to course for beginning beekeepers each February, which is how I got started.