Last year taught us a great deal about resilience, change and adaptability. In response to the global pandemic a huge number of people took up gardening, many for the first time. As people spent more time at home and witnessed the limits of grocery store shelves, they turned to their backyards as a food source and healthy hobby.
Of course gardening isn't just limited to growing vegetables and flowers, so new gardeners' interests naturally expanded. Many became interested in herbs, composting and pollinators. So it was no surprise to hear that there are more people now interested in beekeeping.
I've spoken to many over the past few months who are interested in bees, and who want to know more about how to add hives to their backyard. Many new and seasoned gardeners seem to feel a responsibility to help support their local ecosystems, which is a such a worthy cause. Whether it's increasing the pollination in their own home gardens or their community as a whole, managing a hive of bees can make it happen.
The Forsyth Cooperative Extension office has seen a rise in home gardening in 2020, which may lead to increased participation in educational bee programs.
“One of the things we've seen with coronavirus is that people are getting more interested in the outdoors, gardening and being more self-sufficient,” said Phyllis Smith, Forsyth County Extension Agent. “I don't know if that translates into more people wanting to be beekeepers; I don't have any data to back that up. I wonder if all the increased interest we're seeing in farming and gardening would translate into an increased interest in beekeeping, as well.”
If you have been considering getting into beekeeping, now is a great time to dive in, as there are plenty of resources available this time of year. Local extension offices, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and local bee associations are the ideal places for beginner beekeepers to start.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension, Forsyth County Center will have an online presentation on Jan. 22 called Becoming a Beekeeper in Piedmont North Carolina. This will be a Zoom meeting, hosted by Smith. The goal of the presentation is to encourage potential beekeepers to educate themselves and explore beekeeping support organizations.
“The class lets them know where help, resources and advice is available, the basic equipment needed,” Smith said. “Most of all it emphasizes that good seasonal management is necessary for hive success, especially when it comes to varroa mite management.”
One of the most important things that a new beekeeper needs to know, is that pests and disease are inevitable and can negatively impact the health of their hive. Management of these pests and disease is a part of beekeeping. Although there are many factors which pose a threat to hive populations, Smith stressed that varroa mites are a common culprit for killing bees.
“When (varroa mites) first hit North Carolina, it had a terrible impact, and it changed how we managed bees forever,” Smith said. “We'll always have varroa mites. We'll always have to deal with it. A key concept of having a healthy hive is to mange for varroa mites.”
The Forsyth County Beekeepers Association (FCBA) hosts an annual bee school every February, which is the most comprehensive way for a potential beekeeper to gain knowledge about the hobby. There are also other online bee schools, offered by other organizations.
This year's FCBA bee school will start Feb. 20 and will meet the following five Saturdays. This year's classes will be virtual and will allow students to learn a new skill set each week. FCBA's bee school gives participants a chance to get classroom and field knowledge of beekeeping, as well as establish a personal network of seasoned beekeepers.
“You need to go to a bee school, whether it's the one we offer here or an online bee school,” Smith said. “You need to get educated. You need to know what's involved. I don't want to discourage people from setting up hives, but I just want them to know what they're getting into, to be prepared for the problems and to manage those problems proactively.”
Both Smith's Zoom presentation and bee school will give a beginner beekeeper the basics of getting started. As for the necessary equipment starter equipment, remember to keep it simple. At bare minimum, you will need a brood box with a bottom board, inner cover and outer cover. PPE (personal protective equipment) such as a hat, veil, and gloves are highly recommended for beginners. And of course, you'll need the bees.
Bee supply companies throughout the Piedmont sell everything one would need for beekeeping. Most companies sell a starter kit, which includes the basics listed above and more. The average price for a starter kit it $250.
Live bees are most readily available for sale in January and February and range from $120 to $170 for a small colony. Bees are usually available for pick up late March into April.
June Hartness, FCBA Bee School Chairwoman, recommended attending bee school before buying bees, though, just to ensure that you are able to make the commitment to the practice.
“I would say sign up for bee school, but don't necessarily order your bees yet,” Hartness said. “There will be chances throughout the rest of the year to order more bees.”
Overall, Smith and Hartness stressed the commitment it requires to be a successful beekeeper. Monthly hive management and continuing education have to follow your initial education and equipment purchases. But once you've established your first hive, beekeeping becomes easier and more comfortable, especially since you form a strong network of fellow beekeepers.
“That's one of the best things about taking the Forsyth County Beekeepers bee school,” Smith said. “They don't cut you loose after it's over. They establish mentor relationships with beekeepers so you have that support throughout the year.”
Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or email@example.com, with "gardening" in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101