An Introduction to Beekeeping

Tending the Hive

Bees, like many other members of the insect family, are often unfairly maligned. As children, we all ducked at that buzzing sound in our ear, fearful of being stung, swatting furiously in the direction of the culprit. Thankfully, the reputation of bees is currently on the mend, and awareness of their contributions to our world is growing. Read on for an introduction to bees and beekeeping, as well as wise words from local experts on all things honeybee. 

 

By Anna Hill | Photography by Sarah Unger

Meet the Honeybee. To understand the importance and intricacies of beekeeping, one must first learn about the bees themselves. A honeybee colony is made up of a queen, who populates the hive; worker bees, who protect the hive and forage for pollen; and drones, who mate with the queen. In more temperate months of the year, a queen leaves a hive with a large number of worker bees to create a swarm, in which they locate a new nesting site to prevent overcrowding in a hive as well as propagate the race. 

Many of us are grateful for the delicious honey that bees provide; however, they contribute far more to our lives than simple jars of honey. Bees are pollinators, making them vital to the health and survival of trees and plants, which are in turn vital to human survival. Yet due to increasing urban development, use of pesticides, invasive species, and disease, bee populations have been on the decline. Luckily, interest in beekeeping is on the rise, and with a little help from us humans, the bee population might be able to bounce back.  

 

Honey Bee Illustration

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Gary Lockhart

 

So, You Want to Be a Beekeeper

Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby for the planet, but be warned – it’s not necessarily an easy undertaking. If you’re only in it for the honey, you might want to do a little more research. Beekeeping has a sharp learning curve, especially in its first year, but most beekeepers find their hives to be incredibly rewarding and become staunch advocates for their fuzzy little friends. Steve Sweeney, who owns Suburbia Bee Farm and is a community beekeeper with the Tennessee Valley Beekeepers Association (TVBA), highly recommends joining a local club or mentorship program when you’re starting out. “I was a member of TVBA for about six months before I went into the mentorship program and started keeping bees,” he explains. “That’s much easier than trying to just pick up things off the internet. You have all of these people eager to help you become a successful beekeeper, whereas many who strike out on their own only last for a year, maybe two.”

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What’s your favorite thing about beekeeping?

“In September, the bees work goldenrod and aster flowers. They make a thick, rich honey that you can smell throughout the bee yard. To me, it smells like butterscotch, and I love to just walk around the hives. It’s some of my favorite honey, too.” – Gary Lockhart

“I love the honey, but I love the community around it, too. I always look forward to meeting up with other beekeepers in the area, and since I also like woodworking, I love building hive sets for local beekeepers asking for them.” – Derick Forester

“You can learn something every day about the bees and beekeeping. Honeybees are the most studied insect in the world – there’s always something new and informative.” – Steve Sweeney

“I started beekeeping because I wanted to get honey from the hives each year. I really didn’t know much else about honeybees. Over the years, I have not produced much honey, but I have fallen in love with the honeybee – they are fascinating creatures. Also, keeping bees reconnects me with things that I ordinarily take for granted. I pay more attention to the seasons, when certain trees and flowers are blooming, how much they’ve bloomed, and so on.” – Randy Overton

“True beekeeping to me is being one with the bees in the moments you are in their home while doing inspections. The breeds of honeybees I keep are very gentle and rarely sting. That said, if you are having a bad day or are not paying attention to what you are doing, they will let you know really quickly they are unhappy.” – Lankford Partin

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Randy Overton

 

Outside of the strongly recommended mentorships and beekeeping courses, there are several tools you will need to begin. Of course, you’ll need the hives themselves – a place for your bees to call home. Many beekeepers advise getting two so that you can compare them and get a better idea of what’s working and what isn’t. To avoid stings, which can distract novice keepers from the task at hand, you’ll need a protective veil, jacket, and gloves, or even an entire suit. You’ll also need a smoker, which will calm the bees as you work in the hive, and a hive tool, which allows you to easily access the hive and maneuver the frames inside when you’re checking to see if the bees are healthy and well-fed. Last but not least, you’ll need to order some bees – look into ordering from local sources if possible. 

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Lankford Partin

 

Equipment aside, there are a few other things you should keep in mind. If you’re looking into acquiring a few hives, make sure you have space for them – a small porch alone won’t be suitable. Avoid setting up your hives in a busy, high-traffic part of your backyard, and place them in a location that gets at least some sun each day if possible. You should also be prepared to spend a bit of money upfront. The price tag may seem a little intimidating at first, but your gear and the hives themselves will often last several years, so they won’t be regularly recurring expenses. It’s also important to expect to set aside some time each week to tend to your hives, and some seasons, like spring, will be busier than others. 

 

Lankford Partin's honey

 

One piece of advice that all seasoned beekeepers will agree on: Don’t get discouraged. Randy Overton, a beekeeper in Dunlap, Tennessee, emphasizes that it can be difficult when you’re first starting out. “Most beekeepers will experience some disappointment in beekeeping,” he shares. “Sometimes your bees are going to die. I lost mine the first and second year.” Losing bees is common for novice keepers – what’s important is to keep trying. Lankford Partin, owner of Woolie B’s Apiary and Honey Bee Farm in Jasper, Tennessee, reiterates the value of a good mentor when you begin keeping bees. “I cannot stress enough that people looking to get into beekeeping or those who have been going it alone should find a mentor who keeps bees alive year to year, not one who buys bees every spring after losing colonies in the fall or winter,” says Partin. 

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What’s something you wish everyone knew about bees and beekeeping?

“Anyone can help the bees and all of the pollinators just by planting a few flowers. We can also support the programs that are establishing pollinator gardens and habitats.” – Gary Lockhart

“If you’ve got a swarm, don’t panic over it. Call one of your local beekeepers, and we’ll come get them for you. It’s always good for us to have more bees.” – Derick Forester

“The bees provide a service for all of us. People really should stop and think about the fruits and vegetables and how we get them. Were it not for pollinators, we wouldn’t have boundless options. The endless pursuit for a perfectly manicured yard comes at a cost. We are programmed by large box stores to believe that dandelions and clover are weeds we don’t need in our yards – but the bees need them.” – Steve Sweeney

“We need to focus on increasing native habitat for all pollinators. I think the issue is that we have pollinators competing for declining resources, and we should address that. If a person or a school or a business wants to do something about pollinator decline and can’t keep bees, they can help all pollinators by planting, or at least not destroying native habitats.” – Randy Overton

“Neither honeybees nor our native pollinators are immune to the pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides you spray on your flowers or the dandelions on your lawn. Please be mindful of how you tend to your yard.” – Lankford Partin

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Derick Forester

 

Getting Involved

As previously mentioned, aspiring beekeepers can greatly benefit from reaching out to a local beekeeping community. There are beekeeper’s associations all over the country, and many universities have co-op extensions that offer beekeeping programs and mentorships. In the greater Chattanooga area, options abound for those looking to get involved. Gary Lockhart, who keeps his bees at his property, Swinging Rock Farm on Flat Top Mountain, is grateful for the resources available nearby. “Chattanooga has an excellent beekeeping club and a very thorough beginners’ class,” he shares. The TVBA meets monthly and offers a mentorship class for beginners, which pairs up a newcomer with an experienced local beekeeper over a few months in order to thoroughly and safely introduce them to the ins and outs of keeping their own hives. 

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Steve Sweeney

 

For those looking to purchase beekeeping supplies, Derick Forester of Forester Farms and Apiary has opened a shop in Rossville, Georgia, and he’s happy to help you find anything and everything you’ll need for your hives – including nucleus colonies, or “nucs,” which are frames of comb from established hives and one of the easiest ways to start a new hive. Forester is a third-generation beekeeper and has taken classes himself from TVBA in order to continue carrying on his family’s beekeeping tradition. Now, he’s opened his shop to support the community. “Today, I am a distributor for a couple of different companies that supply me with quality beekeeping supplies,” he says. “Our main goal is promoting beekeeping and providing good products to our friends and neighbors, as well as the hobbyist beekeeper.”

If you’re not quite ready to keep your own bees but would still like to support your local beekeepers, consider shopping local for your honey. All of our local beekeepers agree on the importance of knowing your beekeeper and bypassing mass-distributed grocery store honey. “Store-bought honey may be cut with corn syrup, and there isn’t a law that keeps them honest about that,” warns Sweeney. For top-quality honey, reach out to your local keepers, or look for them at nearby produce stands and farmers markets. 

The lives of honeybees and our stewardship of them is so complex that we’ve barely scratched the surface here. If you’d like to learn more, be sure to reach out to local beekeepers or beekeeping organizations –they’d love to talk to you about bees, hives, honey, and more. 

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Honey Bee Illustration

 

Did You Know?

“Telling the bees” is a centuries-old European custom in which beekeepers inform the bees of important life events. Failing to do so was believed to bring bad luck.  

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