There are so many benefits to keeping bees on your property. I am going to give you a behind-the-scenes look at beekeeping, what you need to know before you start, and the transition that we are making with beekeeping here at the Grace-Filled Homestead. Yes, there is a juicy story that we will be updating you on if you stick around to the end of this post!
How we got started Beekeeping
We have been beekeepers for many, many years and I will never forget our very first season and how excited the kids were. When you see your child’s beaming face after that first full finger of sticky, yummy honey, you know it was all worth it to get that liquid gold. Of course, we’ve lost a hive or two over the years to weather, beetles, or swarming, but most years we would have five healthy hives and lots of delicious sweet honey to harvest.
Apiary is a fancy term that simply means it’s the location of a beehive community. Our humble apiary consisted of five hives on the very south side of our small property. Other homesteads might have up to hundreds of hives in their apiary. The larger the apiary, the more sweet blessings and probably more stings.
Oftentimes people love the idea of beekeeping but they don’t live on a farm or their neighborhood won’t allow it. They feel left out like there are no options for them. But there are so many options! Many local farmers will welcome you onto their property in exchange for a few jars of honey. They will let you set your hives on the edge of their field and in turn their crops will flourish, with the busy bees pollinating all their plants. It is community at its finest. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
As I mentioned, our family has been keeping bees for many years and have had quite the adventures. Once CJ was driving home after picking up a swarm hive that he caught and the box lid opened inside his car when his tires hit a bump in the road. The car was swarming with bees and yet he was never stung. It took hours to clear out the car after he arrived home. I wish I had a video of him speeding into the driveway and jumping out. Each year we learn more about these fascinating creatures, and this year was no exception. Since we added bees many years ago, they have improved the pollination of our gardens, resulting in more flowers and a massive veggie harvest.
Before I jump into our story, I thought I would give you some quick facts on bees and beekeeping. Bees are moody little creatures, you may already know that. If they don’t like their accommodations or what’s going on around them, they will simply pack up their entire community and leave. They are also naturalists at heart. Of course, most beekeepers know that those cute little bodies have no tolerance for pesticides, so they forbid the chemicals on their farm and go organic. However, as you know, you can’t control what the farmer down the road is putting on his crops, or even the lawn pesticides in the nearby neighborhoods. We are doing our part, keeping our small homestead organic and planting the bees’ favorite flowers. The cause is near and dear to our hearts, but for us, honestly, it’s not about the environment. It’s all about the honey! Just keeping it real.
Honey, Sweet Local Honey
Honey is considered a superfood in the homeopathic community and beyond. Honey is revered for its properties. It’s a healthy alternative to refined sugar and can be full of nutrients like niacin, riboflavin, and iron. Some say eating local honey can help build up immunity to your allergies. The theory is that because the bees are gathering pollen from the area plants, when you eat the honey you consume a very tiny, small amount of that local pollen and become immunized, lowering the amount of irritation you feel during allergy season.
Many nutritionists, grandmas, and even those homestead hippies alike claim that honey has antibacterial properties that can soothe a sore throat and improve your overall health, and I would agree with them on that. Don’t even get them started talking about the benefits of royal jelly and propolis. They will talk your ear off! We use it in some of our fire cider and other tinctures as well, and it does work.
Local bee honey is delicious. A lot of the honey found when you go to the supermarket and on the shelves comes from China or South America and it has been pasteurized. The heat treatments destroy many of the nutrients. So of course, like anything local, fresh honey is always best. The types of flowers that bees collect change the flavor and color of the final product. The most common kinds that you’re probably used to are flavors of alfalfa and clover or wildflowers, but by keeping your bees and having them harvest from the flowers in your local area, you may end up with a one-of-a-kind honey. It is fun to do a taste test. We’ve done this before with freshly harvested honey next to one from somewhere across town. Your jar from last year changes year to year, so forget those trendy brewery beer flights. A honey flight tasting on your patio is even more fun! The flavors are always a bit different, so you should try it.
Social Structure and Jobs in the Bee Hive
Honey bees are known as hard workers, but they’re also social creatures. They teach us about successful community and hard work. A hive of bees has a complex social structure, its own way of communicating, and many other integral parts that are valuable to learn just by looking at them. When we open up that top and give them a puff of smoke, we can just watch how they work together. It’s so interesting. The bees in one hive have different roles and they work together to feed each other, stay healthy, and reproduce. They are hard workers and they take their jobs very, very seriously. Each bee diligently works to take care of the colony at large.
Each hive in the apiary is considered its own community, so each box is different and has three different types of bees in each box. A queen, a worker bee, and a drone, you may know most of this already, but it is just fascinating. They communicate with each other through sound and even a type of pheromone to ensure the health of their colony. The majority of the bees in the hive are female, almost all of them. They know how to adapt to their environment inside the hive in extreme temperatures to ensure their survival. Most hives will have close to 100,000 bees, all working in harmony, unless some of the worker bees are kicking those drones out of the hive for being lazy. It does happen, we’ve watched it, and they just take their little bodies and kick them out.
The worker bees are the smallest in the bee family, yet they are the most numerous. Most of the bees in the hive are worker bees. In addition to gathering the nectar and making the honey, they are the ones that secrete the wax used to make the honeycombs. They also care for the queen and the babies and they defend the hive against intruders. I consider them the ultimate multi-taskers. They also have stingers that will send you away crying like a baby.
Now for the drones. The drones are the male honeybees. The only function of a drone is to fertilize a young queen bee. The drones are known as the laziest bees in the colony and only have one thing on their mind, and that’s finding a lady to mate with. They don’t help take care of the larva, they don’t produce wax, they don’t collect nectar or even make honey. They feed themselves directly from the honey cells or beg for food from the workers. It’s such an interesting fact that always makes me giggle just a little bit.
The queen is bigger than any of the others and has the most important role of reproduction and egg laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day. Poor thing. If a queen dies unexpectedly or becomes unproductive, she can be replaced. The other bees in the hive will feed royal jelly to one larva so it can mature into the next queen bee. Each kind of bee has a role critical to the survival and health of the colony.
Bee Stings and Starting Over
So on to the juicy story. It was a beautiful summer day and we were gearing up for the upcoming honey harvest. On our last hive check, the five colonies were thriving on the south side of our property. After we lost a hive the previous season, the replacement hive came from a new connection and these bees were making honey like crazy. This was going to be our best honey harvest yet, but we still had a couple of weeks to wait. I was heading out to Sprouts grocery store to gather some things for a charcuterie board I was working on for my next book and CJ was going to knock out mowing the lawn. He loves mowing on his rider and making those stripes in the yard.
So I was shopping and got a call from CJ, but when I answered I could hear the mower but he wasn’t talking. So I just thought he had butt dialed me and so I hung up. But then he called right back. He sounded a little weird when he told me that he had been stung a few times when he was mowing over by the hives like he had a million times before over the many years that we’ve had the bees. This new batch was super, super aggressive, and sounded a bit different every time we would do our hive checks and it seemed to take a lot more smoke to get them to calm down. But they were producing honey very well, so it’s all good right? We didn’t care.
CJ said that he was on the other side of the yard now but that they were still swarming him and following him, so he was going to go inside. No big deal. We’ve all been stung a couple of times here and there, so nothing new. He’s been mowing over there for ages. My college-age daughter was home in the carriage house, her apartment out back so I decided to call her and ask her to go inside and keep an eye on her Dad just until I made it back home, no big deal. When she arrived at the house, CJ was on the floor and couldn’t breathe. She was amazing and calmly called 911.
Long story short, he was crashing in the ambulance. I don’t think that they ended up intubating him, but they did give him Epi shots and other things and got them to the nearby emergency room. They moved super quick. They knew how serious it was and we’re so thankful for them. We almost lost him over what we estimate was close to only 20 stings. These stings were a bit different than normal, welting up and bleeding, and caused his throat to completely close. Of course, I’m cruising going, I’d like to say 90 miles an hour to the emergency room, but it was probably over a hundred. It was scary, but he was out of the woods once I got there. It truly did freak us all out.
Most of you know that CJ’s a fire chief here in Kansas City over the rescue division, and my boys are firefighters. We are so used to lots of drama and scares over here. CJ has had a couple of surgeries after falling through burning floors and an apartment stair rail. There is always something going on and every day one of them is on shift. I’m praying for their safety, but you don’t dream that something could happen on your property in your normal routine.
Of course, CJ had strict instructions to stay away from the bees. It could be the number of stings that he had and not that he was allergic, but we don’t know. Either way, they needed to go. My son, who lives on the five-acre farm across the street, has had beehives, so we considered just moving them over there. However, these bees were very super aggressive and I didn’t want to risk it with him either. So in the past, the bees have been primarily CJ’s responsibility and now they will be mine, starting next season. We made the tough decision to sell the beehive. Of course, the beekeeper who got them knew the entire story and was warned about how aggressive they were. We will have more bees, our original Italian bees. We’re going to keep them on my son’s apiary over there across the street and I will be tending to them, all hooded and suited up.
Of course, it was disappointing when we watched the beekeeper drive away with our hives on the trailer, so full of honey they could barely be moved. But it wasn’t worth the risk of harvesting and if you know my husband, you know that I have already caught him back over there by the bees before they were picked up. What on earth? He thinks he’s invincible.
So there you have it the twists and turns of homesteading, pivots in the process, and dodging that bullet. We are still in awe of bees and look forward to next season. We’re not giving it up, but making some adjustments. I’ll keep you posted. I’ve always said that since we’ve moved here, season after season, we have had a front-row seat to God’s intricate systems and miraculous nature.
Honey is a staple in my kitchen. I would be amiss if I didn’t share my yummy, sweet cornbread recipe. Sweet Honey Cornbread with Blackberry Honey Butter is melt-in-your-mouth fabulous! Yes, even your kids will love it.
Thanks for stopping by today. We are honored to have you join in the fun. Blessings to you my friend!