I have been keeping bees for about 50 years. My first instructor was an older gentleman who told me about hauling bees out of the Santa Ana Mountains in 1912 in a solid-tire truck. Now I talk to beekeepers who move bees from North Carolina to California on semi trucks for the February almond pollination. I'd like to believe I know a bit about beekeeping by now, but when I hear, "My bees all died. What are you doing to keep yours alive?" I blink like an economist caught in the headlights. "Well, what I'm going to try this year is ..."
Honeybees recently had their 15 minutes of fame. In the last three years, great numbers of beehives have been lost in America and Europe to a malady labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, whose cause is still not fully understood. The disorder is characterized by a sudden drop in the adult bees, which fail to return to the hive, leaving untended brood behind. The adults die at a distance from the hive, which is sometimes interpreted as "losing their way." Another peculiar feature is that for a few days, the now-empty hive is not colonized by robber bees or various scavengers, who, under ordinary circumstances, would come to eat everything.
The publicity given this problem in the national news media has stimulated popular interest in gardening with plants advantageous to honeybees and other pollinators and even the thought of keeping a hive in the back corner of the yard.
But from a bee's wide-ranging perspective, your one-eighth acre garden is a drop in the bucket. Honeybees prefer to forage within a mile or two of their colony. If we take one-and-a-half miles as the practical radius, this provides about 3,000 acres of exploitable territory. Nevertheless, it is still a good thought to grow plants that are attractive to both you and the bees.
I recommend any of the native or varietal hollies (in Latin they are known as Ilex spp.), because they have attractive foliage, are drought resistant and yield good quantities of nectar. Among the herbs, mint, aster and sage are particularly good. The chaste tree, Vitex negundo, is a small, attractive tree that provides nectar in the summer. Our native sourwoods are a striking understory tree with an angular trunk, beautiful arching racemes of white flowers and red fall foliage. Maples yield nectar and pollen in late February that gives the bees an early boost, and our common tulip poplar tree is a major honey plant in early May.
But if I have one drum to beat it is this: Lose your chemically treated lawn. Fescue, which does not thrive in our climate and soils, requires considerable inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation to give you the AstroTurf look. Aside from the expense and pollution, it is a desert for bees. There is a healthier alternative: Lime it and throw some fescue and clover seed on it every spring, and let it be. Yes, it will be less even, with patches of differing shades of green, but it will have 15 species of grasses and herbs in it that rise and fall as the season progresses, which can be quite interesting (especially to bees). And if mowed frequently, it will still be a flat, green lawn that includes beneficial dandelions and white clover. Your yard may be only a drop in the bucket, but then, what kind of drop do you want to put in the bucket?
Keeping your own beehive can be very rewarding for both the experience of beekeeping and the pleasure of harvesting your own honey. Taken as a whole, a bee colony might be thought of as having the intelligence of a small mammal in the ways it gets food, protects itself and reproduces. It is fascinating to learn how bees do these things.
Beekeeping is best begun in the spring. Sources for equipment and the bees themselves can be found on the Internet, and there are several in-state producers of queens and nucleus colonies who can meet your needs. I am fond of the catalog put out by Brushy Mountain Bee Farm located near Wilkesboro. The equipment is well illustrated and its usage thoroughly described. You are probably looking at about $300 to buy the woodenware, bees, smoker, veil and gloves you need to start.
Be warned: Beekeeping in these times can be very frustrating. Several bee pests imported in the last two decades cause colony losses despite all best practices. Should you be set on it anyhow, here are a few considerations. Situate the hive so that the flight path for about 10 feet in front of the hive doesn't cross a frequented part of your yard (and NEVER your neighbor's yard). A low barrier placed in front will cause the bees to quickly rise above head height. A sunny location facing south is optimal, but just about any place they are out of the way will work. A flat roof with afternoon shade is a possibility.
Provide a water source. Bees need a lot of water in the summer to cool the hive, and if the most convenient nearby source is the top step of the ladder into your neighbor's swimming pool ... well, you get my gist. Rigging a bucket with a slow drip onto a sloping board is excellent. Throw a little salt in the water. Birdbaths, goldfish ponds, even a bucket with burlap draped out of it will suffice.
Be thoughtful about when you work with your bees. Sometimes they may become irritated and go a little afield looking for the culprit. You are presumably wearing a veil, but your neighbor is not.
Whether you choose to keep bees or just want to watch them flit busily from flower to flower, save a kindly thought for our little friends.