By J. D. and Maria Velikonja, Extension Master Gardeners
(In 2019, the authors decided to extend their gardening interests by learning to become honey beekeepers. This article documents their experience.)
There are a variety of reasons that folks find themselves interested in bees: some want to save them, some want to increase their fruit and vegetable pollination, others want to produce honey. Our reasons were a combination of those.
We began by seeking out our local beekeeping club and listened to their initial brief. For two hours, a seasoned beekeeper tried to list all the reasons we shouldn’t keep bees; stings, cost, upkeep, etc. We understood they were trying to cut the wheat from the chaff within the group that showed up to listen. Neither of us were dissuaded. We eagerly signed up for classes, showed up to each, asked lots of questions, and still had so much more to learn when we completed the course.
JD: I can remember my heightened emotions while purchasing my first small nucleus hive (called Nuc) from a local beekeeper. I was afraid but not hesitant. I don’t think it occurred to the seller that this was my first time around so many bees at once. I could hear my breathing within my bee veil—akin to listening to Darth Vader. After loading them securely in my vehicle, I was highly aware that I had five thousand bees in the back seat. By the time I had properly adjusted them to their new home in my backyard, I was quite pleased with myself. Since then, it has been a wonderful learning experience.
Maria: I had barely had my two hives one week when a neighbor posted online she needed help with a bee swarm. Out I went, with another beekeeper, to pick up the swarm. The bees were gentle and we did not need to wear a bee suit. They just needed a new home; the other beekeeper took them home and created a new hive with them.
Although honeybees are best known for pollination and honey production, native bees are also important pollinators for fruits and vegetables. Honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees live socially in colonies, but only honeybees live in hives. Apiculture or human beekeeping has been practiced since at least the times of ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.
Honeybees arrived in the United States from Europe beginning in the late 1700’s. Most of the honeybees kept by beekeepers in the United States are from Italy (Italian bees), Slovenia (Carniolan bees), or the central Caucasus (Caucasian bees), or are hybrids. The Carniolan bee is exceptionally gentle and less prone to stinging.
Keeping bees is both personally rewarding and a critical part of keeping bees a viable part of our natural world. Bee populations are down worldwide compared with 50 years ago. The reasons include pesticide and herbicide sprays widely used in much of agriculture today and also the predations of the varroa mite. Bees are also weaker and less able to hold off disease and cold weather. Last winter, 40 percent of the honeybee hives died over the winter in Virginia. In European capitals such as Ljubljana, Slovenia, where one out of every 12 people is a beekeeper, keeping bees in the city is recognized as the key to preserving the honeybee. In Arlington County, anyone can keep as many beehives as they want. In Fairfax County, homeowners are limited to four hives. Beekeeping is not regulated in the City of Alexandria. All beekeepers are encouraged to register their hives with the state of Virginia. It is important to register with Beewatch, so that those applying pesticide know not to spray certain toxic substances in the vicinity of bee hives.
Types of Hives
Beekeepers in the United States use several types of hives. The Langstroth hive, consisting of a series of boxes placed on top of one another, is the most commonly used type for housing honeybees. One or two boxes called brood chambers are placed on the bottom. Here the queen bee lays eggs, known as brood, that can produce tens of thousands of bees. These boxes can weigh upwards of 60 pounds each. The upper boxes, called supers, are where the worker bees store honey. Langstroth hives are easily adaptable as additional levels can be added or taken away. Two boxes are used with smaller hives. Larger hives can have two brood boxes, with one or more supers used for honey.
In this case, the lower box is the brood chamber, the upper is the super or honey box. To inspect the hive, each level or part must be removed separately, starting with the top. The bottle pictured here is used to feed sugar syrup to the bees. Bees need to be fed in winter, and during periods when pollen and nectar are low.
Other hives types include top bar hives, where all the frames are at the same level, and the AZ Slovenian hive model, pictured below. An advantage of the AZ hive is that it is much more accessible for a wider portion of the population. Whereas a Langstroth hive user must be able to lift up to 60 pounds, almost anyone can use the Slovenian style: the elderly, the disabled, and children.
The frames are easily pulled out for inspection. The beekeeper can be standing or sitting. Once made, the AZ hive is not separable. Most beekeepers use either two or three levels. Also, the AZ hives are typically stored inside a bee house, providing the bees better protection during the winter.
If you decide to keep bees, it is important that you not use any substances on your property that will kill the bees. Harmful substances include pesticides and herbicides, both toxic and organic. Talk to your neighbors about any products they or service companies they employ might use on their properties, because harmful sprays can easily drift onto your property. Also, bees fly up to four miles in search of pollen and nectar sources.
An established beehive not affected by toxic substances or varroa mites can produce between 80 and 150 pounds of honey per year.
Interested in Beekeeping?
Those interested in beekeeping with Langstroth hives can contact the Northern Virginia Bee Association (NVBA).
- Beekeeping classes are offered in January and February in Annandale.
- For bee swarms, email NVBA at the same website.
Anyone interested in more information on accessible hives, training with accessible hives, or training for children can contact Maria Velikonja at email@example.com for further information.
 Sammataro, Diana, and Avitabile, Alphonse, The Beekeeper’s Handbook, 4th Ed. 2011.