Oklahoma welcomes backyard beekeeping trend
Friday, June 4, 2021
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Backyard adventures and DIY projects are all the rage right now, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted people to rediscover some of the joys of being at home and pass the time with new hobbies.
First, it was gardening, then chickens, and now the latest backyard buzz is bees.
“The calls county educators are receiving on these topics is increasing,” Bir said. “Gardening seed companies were selling out of seeds in January, and a growing interest in poultry is part of the reason why OSU Extension developed a backyard chicken course.”
Already an avid gardener, Bir became so curious about the rising number of bee inquiries that she decided to establish her own hive. The first step involved understanding her city’s rules on backyard beehives. Oklahoma is a beekeeper friendly state; beehives are governed by the Apiary Act, which states Stillwater or any other community in Oklahoma cannot prohibit bees within city limits.
“Urban beekeepers are protected by this law, and a housing subdivision can’t restrict bees,” Bir said. “Having said that, it’s good to be a good neighbor. Make sure that when you install your hive, it’s in a spot that’s not going to greatly impede your neighbors.”
Hives are available commercially at farm and ranch supply stores, online or at specialty beekeeping shops. They are comprised of bees that have been collected from the wild, split from another hive or marketed as a package or nucleus.
A nucleus looks like a tote with bees and wooden frames on which the bees draw comb. These cells of wax store everything they need to survive including pollen, eggs, the larvae or brood as well as honey. A package includes just the bees so they can be sent via mail.
Native Oklahoma bees were sold out when Bir attempted to order some early in the spring, so she purchased a package of them from Texas. Her 3 pounds of bees arrived in April via U.S. mail.
When building a hive from scratch, Bir said it’s important to allow enough space for bees to move around, but not too much that they begin building comb in unwanted areas. The first level of the hive — the brood box — houses the queen, her army of worker bees and male drones whose primary purpose is to breed. Worker bees live at least 28 days, and queens can live up two years or more.
Bir said there are several different philosophies on beehive upkeep. If bee farmers notice their hive is about to swarm, they can do a split, which involves removing the queen, placing her in a new box and creating a second hive.
“Some people just leave them alone, but others take a more active approach,” she said. “Swarming happens in the spring where there are too many bees in one hive. If the hive is too busy for them, the queen and a big chunk of bees will leave, and those left behind will create a new queen.”
The basic list of items required to start a hive is estimated to cost $400 to $500. While a basic package of bees ranges from $80 to $100, a nucleus, like what Bir purchased, costs between $150 and $250. As the hive grows, additional wooden frames and boxes, treatment for mites and other supplies can rise to $700.
Zach Royko, an OSU entomology senior and president of OSU’s Beekeeping Club, has raised bees for the past five years after discovering the hobby with his grandmother and a family friend. In his experience, he has learned that more aggressive bees ward off pests better and produce more honey. During the winter months, a typical hive includes 30,000 to 40,000 bees and increases to as many as 80,000 in the summer.
Most new hives won’t produce any honey the first year, but once the hive is established, honey is collected from the second level of the box and higher. Oklahoma’s commercial honey production is difficult to track because honey often is sold through private transactions at farmers markets or on web platforms such as Etsy. Earlier this spring, Royko collected 12 pounds of honey from the hive he manages at the Insect Adventure facility in Stillwater.
“I’ve always had a fascination with bees. It’s a very enjoyable hobby even though it comes with its fair share of pain,” Royko said. “To see them progress in the hive and grow is very peaceful.”
Bees are livestock
Oklahoma crops do not require exclusive bee pollination like California and other states where pollination is critical to production in almond tree groves. Bees sleep five to eight hours a night, allowing farmers to transport them to different fields for pollination with little disruption during the evening hours.
“Native pollinators in Oklahoma do a great job, but crops like watermelon, cantaloupe and seed alfalfa do better when there are more pollinators,” Bir said. “This poses an opportunity for larger beekeepers and farmers to team up for increased pollination that can help crops produce higher yields.”
The U.S. Farm Bill’s Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish program established federal support for bee loss in 2008. Farmers can receive a $100 reimbursement for a lost colony due to weather or other related disasters, and reimbursements for an entire hive can pay out about $200. Registration with the state is required, and after a loss farmers must notify their local Farm Service Agency office as soon as possible.
Oklahoma is home to several beekeeping clubs and organizations including the Oklahoma State Beekeepers Association. To learn more about establishing a new hive and beekeeping in your own backyard, see the bee fact sheets available through OSU Extension Agriculture publications.