Beekeeping | A Sweet Investment
Honeybees are a buzz-worthy topic in the news. Reports about colony collapse, a devastating disorder that causes most of the worker bees to abandon their hive, may lead honey lovers to wonder, “How can I help the bee?” Backyard apiaries provide habitable spaces for new colonies to thrive, and area beekeepers Steve Villers and Chuck Vassar are happy to lend advice to newcomers. Villers and his wife, Joanne, own Blacksnake Meadery in Carroll County, where they raise honeybees for their mead, and they recently opened a tasting room in Roanoke called The Hive. Vassar is a member of the Botetourt Beekeepers Association, and has been keeping hives in his backyard for over five years. Both offer encouragement, knowledge, and tips for success to prospective beekeepers.
Beginners may be overwhelmed by the wealth of information available on beekeeping, and also confused by some misconceptions surrounding the practice. “Probably the biggest [misconception] is that bees are dangerous around children and neighbors, and that you need a lot of space for them,” says Villers. “They really don’t need a lot of space. As long as the hive is placed where people aren’t passing through their flight path, the bees won’t be aggressive.” He adds, “A six-foot fence helps keep their flight path above people’s heads. About ten feet of clearance in front of the hives does the same thing.”
Some assume that beekeeping is relatively simple; however, new pests and pesticides have complicated the practice. Vassar cautions, “You have to pay attention to the bees. There are insects that interfere with their lifestyle. Varroa mites are the most wellknown pest they face.” According to Villers, “There are some strains of bees that are showing some resistance to mites, but we don’t have any that are completely resistant. We should all still be managing varroa levels in the hive.”
Beginning beekeepers can find the equipment necessary to construct a backyard apiary in local stores around the Roanoke Valley. Some of the basic materials needed to construct an apiary include an inner and outer cover to close the hive, hive boxes to house the bees, frames and foundation wax to make the panels that bees use to build honeycomb, and a bottom board to serve as the base of the hive. Vassar recommends buying 8-frame boxes (boxes which hold eight frames) instead of 10-frame boxes because they are lighter, especially when the frames are loaded with honey and wax. You will also need a hive tool, a small handheld utensil used to remove frames from the hive.
Beekeepers can source bees in two different ways. “Bees can be purchased in a package, with a queen in a separate cage,” says Vassar, “Or as a ‘nuc’ (short for nucleus) colony with a queen that is already laying eggs.” Nucs can be started in the spring, because the colony is already established. Package bees may need to be started earlier, as they require time to adjust to their new queen. A mentor can help beginning beekeepers make decisions about building and establishing their hives.
Tips for beginners
New beekeepers should start with more than one hive. “Get at least two hives,” Villers advises. “That’s a pretty standard recommendation. Having two allows comparison so you might know what’s ‘normal’ or not.” To help control varroa mites, bees’ main pest, Villers suggests staying away from harsh pesticides if possible, which the mites can become resistant to. “Thymol (essential oil of thyme) and oxalic acid (wood bleach) are two effective treatments that tend not to cause resistance in the mites and are also safer for beekeepers,” he says. New beekeepers should be sure to purchase pest management materials when starting out.
Beginning beekeepers should not take any honey from their apiary in the first year because the bees need honey stores to sustain themselves over the winter. Villers says, “A growing number of beekeepers leave the honey ‘supers’ (the box used to collect honey) on until spring, so the bees can use what they need during the winter. This seems like a good idea for a backyard beekeeper.” Again, it’s wise for newcomers to consult a mentor or experienced beekeeper for determining when to harvest honey, and how much to take.
Attentiveness is important when caring for bees. “Pay attention to them. Work with the bees, and check on them once per week,’ advises Vassar, adding, “They live through the winter by huddling up and getting into a ball for warmth. They feed on the honey, but you also can help them survive by providing sugar water as extra food.” Bees are resilient, but they are more likely to thrive with the help of careful human stewardship.
Mentorship and community
Novice beekeepers are likely to be more successful if they can lean on the advice and teachings of a seasoned expert. “The Virginia State Beekeepers Association has an excellent network of beekeeping clubs,” says Villers. “Many of these clubs offer beekeeping classes in the winter or spring in which new beekeepers are paired with a mentor.” There are several associations in the area, including the Blue Ridge Beekeeper’s Association, the Botetourt Beekeeper’s Association, and the New River Valley Beekeeper’s Association. “The people in beekeeping associations are so helpful and willing to support newcomers. That’s how I got started,” Vassar says. Proving Vassar’s point, Villers says, “We’re still expanding our apiaries, and Jo and I might be able to mentor a few new beekeepers next year.”
Countless beekeepers find immense fulfillment in their practice, even beyond the sweet reward of honey. “I’ve always been fascinated with nature, especially the living world,” says Villers. “There’s always something new in beekeeping, so it keeps alive that sense of wonder and curiosity so important to science and education.” He adds, “It’s also very satisfying to be part of a system so vital to our food supply and overall ecosystem function.”
Bees are known to fascinate those who work with them. Vassar says he most enjoys watching them. “Inside the hive, they do everything in total darkness, then leave and come back with legs loaded with nectar,” he explains. “It’s amazing how they convert that to honey.” Beginning beekeepers can be assured that they are in for an exciting and informative endeavor.