Beekeeping: Taking the Plunge

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By guest blogger Uri Laio. Uri is an alumnus of Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship and is the founder of the Los Angeles-based foods company Brassica & Brine. He writes on the topics of organic gardening, sustainable living, and traditional foodways and maintains a blog called Old Growth Yiddishkeit. And of course he keeps bees.

I have had my own colony of honeybees for just a couple of months now. It is calming to sit near them and watch the workers flying in and out—those returning are often laden with pollen and nectar. They have already filled ten frames with mostly brood comb and some honeycomb.

I decided to start beekeeping because, first and foremost, I have been fascinated with bees since I was a child. I used to watch bumblebees alighting on the bog sage in my family’s front yard and used to catch honeybees gathering nectar from clover blossoms in the elementary school field.

In addition to this fascination, I’m alarmed by the rapid decline in honeybee populations caused by colony collapse disorder.

Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is the name given to a mysterious phenomenon where a colony of honeybees dies for no clear reason (it’s like the SIDS of the bee world), leaving behind a hive full of brood and honey.

Theoretical factors contributing to CCD include exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and pollution, exploitation, mites, fungi, and viruses. Between 50-80% of commercial bees have been lost in areas affected by CCD. To make matters worse, up to 90% of wild bee populations have been wiped out because of habitat destruction. If you’ve noticed honey prices rising over the last few years, this is one of the reasons why.

Besides producing honey, we also depend on bees to pollinate over two-thirds of our food crops which require pollination. That’s a lot of our food. Life without pollinators would be quite boring, to say the least.

The more bees we have and the healthier they are, the more our food supply is secure. There are many ways to help the bees without beekeeping, including planting bee-friendly plants in your yard and supporting local organic farmers and beekeepers. And, of course, if unwanted bees move onto your property, you should call a bee rescue hotline rather than an exterminator.

Taking the Plunge

I was convinced to actually start beekeeping by attending a Backwards Beekeepersmeeting in Los Angeles this past March. They meet monthly and are dedicated to empowering new beekeepers and teaching them how to keep bees beyond-organically.

Challenges and Miracles

The two big challenges to getting a hive are acquiring equipment and acquiring the bees. Location isn’t a big issue because you can keep bees just about anywhere, even on a balcony, on a roof, behind your rose bushes, etc. You can get your equipment from a local retailer like L.A. Honey Supply in Los Angeles, CA; the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, CA; or the Urban Farm Store in Portland, OR. You can also buy online at websites like Brushy Mountain or Dadant.

The minimum you’ll need is a hive box with bottom and top board, frames, a bee suit (including a veil and gloves), a smoker, and a hive tool. Depending on how resourceful you are, prices could range from $50-$100 ($100-$150 is normal though).

Acquiring Bees

As for bees, there are a number of ways to get them. My colony of bees just moved into my hive box on their own. I set up the box in the location I wanted it and put a little honey inside. This was during swarming season. My hope was that when a colony swarmed, one or two of their scouts would smell the honey in my box, would crawl in and find a welcoming home, and then report back to the swarm and then they would move in. And so it was. I just showed up one day and they were already established in there.

The other ways to get bees are by 1) locating a swarm and catching it; 2) by locating an established colony of bees and transferring it into a hive box; and 3) the more mainstream path which is to buy a mail-order queen, which is the only option which costs money and involves more risks for the bees (the queen could die in transit).

Legal Issues

Surprisingly (to me), beekeeping is legal in most cities as long as the hive is kept some minimum distance from your neighbor’s dwelling. People also keep bees in cities where it is not yet legal. If you think your neighbors will have a problem with this, you can either find a way to do it under the radar, or entice your neighbors with honey so they won’t report you to vector control.


Of course safety is one of the first things people think about when it comes to bees. The media gave a lot of attention to Africanized killer bees and you read stories from time to time about bees killing dogs. While some colonies are more aggressive than others, by and large honeybees are a calm bunch and will only attack if they perceive a clear threat. I’ve opened my hive and worked with the bees without smoking them and without a suit on (NOT RECOMMENDED FOR BEEGINNERS!), and they remained relatively calm. Nevertheless, if you’re going to keep bees it is a good idea to keep an EpiPen around in case anyone does get stung and has a major allergic reaction.

If you’ve never been stung, get an allergy test just to be safe before working with bees.

More Information

Bees – Living for the Queen – Free documentary on hulu

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer

Three Things We Know About Colony Collapse Disorder and Two Things We Don’t – Planet Green

A Way to Save America’s Bees: Buy Free-Range Beef – The Atlantic

Do Bees Have Feelings – Scientific American

Los Angeles Resources

Backwards Beekeepers

Backwards Beekeepers Yahoo group

Los Angeles Bee Rescue Hotline

This post is linked to Food Renegade | Fight Back Friday.

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