The sweet rewards of beekeeping

bees

UB staff member Nick Peterson inspects a hive frame that is almost entirely capped honey. Peterson says the wet cells are nectar and once they achieve the correct moisture content, the bees cap it and it becomes honey. Photo: Douglas Levere

Published October 19, 2016

“Beekeeping connects you with the natural world.”
Nick Peterson, interface designer
University Communications

Most people, even those who don’t want to keep bees, know at least two good reasons why someone would: pollination and honey.

These are the only reasons many beekeepers need, but if you are on the fence about whether or not to give it a try — or you need to convince a friend or a family member that there are other benefits — just ask a beekeeper.

“Sustainability is another reason. So is self-sufficiency,” says Nick Peterson, an interface designer with University Communications. He and his wife, Jill, are first-time beekeepers. They ordered their bees, bought the equipment, and attended seminars and a bee apprenticeship at Masterson’s Garden Center in East Aurora.

“Beekeeping connects you with the natural world. And they definitely are helpful. Depending on how you measure it, bees are responsible for a large percentage of the world’s pollination,” Peterson says.

Peterson and his wife have been tending their first two hives since April. They are finding the bees a lot of fun to learn about, but beekeeping also complements their lifestyle.

“We had begun talking about becoming more self-sufficient about 10 years ago,” Peterson says. “We were living in Buffalo at the time.

“Sustainability has always been important to us, but we didn’t have enough space for some of the things that we wanted to do. Beekeeping, for instance, is a tricky thing to do if you are a city dweller. Close-in neighbors are generally not happy to see beehives in your backyard.”

Peterson and his wife also had other ideas and projects that required more living space, which provided a reason to change from urban life to country living.

“We moved out to Colden in 2014,” Peterson says. “In some ways, we have been able to be more self-sufficient pretty quickly — heating our home entirely with wood, for example.”

Peterson and his wife are also able to enjoy farm-fresh dairy and eggs, with the extra space allowing them to raise goats, chickens, quail and ducks.

And, this fall, they are hoping their two new beehives will produce a harvest of raw honey.

“Honey is liquid magic,” says Peterson. “And, depending on the seasonal harvest time — spring or fall — bees will produce honey that has distinctly different characteristics.

“A spring honey will take on a lighter, more floral quality due to the pollination from spring flowers. Honey harvested in the fall generally has a darker, richer quality to it.”

Peterson says new hives can produce very well, but based on the hive’s health, you wouldn’t want to harvest too much and leave them short as they head into their first winter.

“We may take a little honey this year. You can take certain steps to grow your honey production each year, which is what we hope to do. A healthy hive produces between 40 and 80 pounds of spare honey for harvest.

“There is also mead — sometimes called honey wine. Mead production goes back to ancient times. Honey ferments very well: Mead can be sweet, dry, still or sparkling, fruity or spicy. There are many variations and it is enjoying a big resurgence these days.”

Peterson says two other products that bees produce — propolis and beeswax — bring a wide range of benefits.

“Propolis is a resinous material bees use to seal cracks to protect from the elements and keep things sterile inside the hive,” he explains. “Beeswax is primarily used to build the comb where they store food and raise brood. But both are useful. Propolis offers antimicrobial properties, helps heal burns and wounds, and has other medicinal qualities.

“Beeswax is a lot less mysterious. It makes great skin moisturizers, lip balm, candles that don’t drip, waterproofing, cosmetics — it’s a long list, really.”

Another reason many beekeepers keep bees is that they are amazing to watch.

“They are very organized, industrious little creatures. Bees are very communal but they also have a very finely tuned sense of direction, their own GPS — or BPS, you could say.

“They have a fly range of about five miles from their hive. And their directional ability is so precise that if you moved their hive just five feet from where they left it, you could come back and you would find a big pile of bees where the hive used to be. They are seriously amazing.”

Another reason Peterson and his wife are motivated to become beekeepers is to help rebuild the bee population.

“There have been many stories about ‘colony collapse,’ which is a serious problem for all of us,” Peterson says. “It is very likely that more people now realize the importance of bees in the pollination of plants, together with our native pollinators, such as butterflies, hummingbirds and other animals that do a fine job as well.”

Peterson also notes the bee population was just added to the endangered list.

“A big part of Jill and my interest in keeping bees is to help rebuild and maintain the bee population,” Peterson says. “And we are encouraging others who have an interest to do the same. There’s an ever-growing community of beekeepers who want to educate and encourage others to get started.”

Peterson doesn’t see many downsides to beekeeping. Not even the stings.

“Fear of stings is what makes many people skeptical about beekeeping,” he says, “but the reality is that honeybees are very docile and only purposefully sting to defend the hive. Unlike wasps or yellowjackets, who are more aggressive and can repeatedly sting.

“While hives do have different temperaments — some are calm, others more aggressive — it largely depends on the hive’s queen, as well as the personality of the person keeping them.

“I am finding the longer you work with bees, the easier it becomes to be relaxed around them. They are too busy being bees to go around attacking people.”