Keeping Bees

Aug 19, 2014

So you want to keep bees in your backyard...

When do you start? What should you do?

Newly retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, continues to field questions. He's kindly agreed to respond to beekeeping queries until the new Extension apiculturist, Elina Lastro Niño of Pennsylvania State University, comes on board in September. (Actually, we expect to see Mussen buzzing around Briggs Hall and at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility quite a bit in his retirement years.)

Some questions come from 4-H leaders who organize the youth beekeeping projects.

Mussen is quite familiar with 4-H (head, heart, health and hands), a youth development program that emphasizes "learning by doing" and "making the best better."  For decades, he's judged the annual California State 4-H Beekeeping Essay Contest.

Since 4-H'ers usually launch their projects in late summer or early fall, continuing through June, does a beekeeping project lend itself to that schedule?

No, not in the late summer or early fall.

"I won't tell you that you cannot start a colony of honey bees in the late summer or fall, but they will have a real uphill battle," Mussen recently told a 4-H leader. "The colony has to have enough time and food to rear a large enough colony population to make it through the winter.  The harder part is having access to enough nectar and pollens to rear all the brood they need and still have enough extra nectar to store as a honey crop to get them through winter.  They also need quite a bit of stored pollens to consume slowly during the winter and consume like crazy when brood-rearing starts for real around the end of December."

"Also, it will be a bit difficult to get a bunch of bees at this late date, unless you are in good with a beekeeper who will sacrifice a colony.  And, if that is the case, I would take everything and overwinter it.  Next spring you can split off some bees if you wish to raise a 'homemade' package."

Mussen says those who wish to reserve a package for next spring, should contact the bee breeder now. "They will be booked solid, due to winter colony losses this winter.  You may have to hunt around for a smaller operation that will deal with “onesies.”  The bigger producers sometimes do not like to ship less than 100 at a time.

"Otherwise, chase down a local beekeeping club and add your request (and dollars) to a larger order that the clubs put out in the spring. While packages can be obtained in late March, the mating weather can be pretty 'iffy.'  A week or two into April sounds better to me."

So, bottom line: if you want to keep bees, contact the bee breeder now.  Join a local beekeeping club and find a mentor; read beekeeping magazines, journals and books; and peruse back issues of Mussen's online newsletter, from the UC Apiaries and his Bee Briefs.