How Beekeeping Works


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Humans and bees have enjoyed a unique agricultural relationship for millennia. Here, a beekeeper inspects a frame of built-out honey comb. Onfokus/Getty Images

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Honeybee colonies are ingenious engines of productivity. An individual worker bee may take on seven different functions in her short six-week life, from wet nurse to wax producer to ventilator to far-flung forager [source: Alvéole]. And male drones, well, they get one shot at glory before being dragged out of the hive and sacrificed to the winter cold.

All in the name of honey, the golden energy source that will get the colony through the winter and keep the intricate, interconnected life cycle going.

Beekeeping, when you get down to it, is the art and science of stealing honey from these hardworking bees without them knowing it. A beehive may be manmade, but the bees are very much wild animals doing what millions of years of evolution have taught them to do. The goal of the beekeeper is to keep the bees happy and healthy enough to do all the work while he collects the sweet, sweet profits.

Why Keep Bees?

Beekeeping is booming. In the United States alone, there were 2.67 million honeybee colonies as of 2017 [source: statista]. There are countless numbers of backyard beekeepers who have caught the "bug" and turned a pastime that was once reserved for hermit monks and rural farmers into a trendy hobby for suburbanites and urban lifehackers.

The attraction of beekeeping is obvious. Beyond the initial investment in some hive boxes, basic beekeeping equipment and bees, it doesn't require a lot of time, maybe 30 minutes a week plus two annual harvests. Then there's the daredevilish allure of playing with stinging insects, always good fodder for cocktail party conversation. And at the end of the day (or year), you get honey. Jars and jars of it. And who doesn't love honey?

But beekeeping – like growing your own organic vegetables or training a dog or raising children – is also harder than it looks. The weather is unpredictable, raining too much when the flowers are blooming, or not enough. Honeybees are susceptible to any number of pests and diseases, which you must learn to screen for and treat. If your hive is really healthy, it might swarm and you'll lose your best queen. Plus, bees sting. A lot.

Find a Mentor

Which is why our first tip about beekeeping is not to go it alone. Find yourself a beekeeping mentor. Most cities, towns and counties have a local beekeeping society. Join it. Go out with seasoned beekeepers and see their hives. Try to absorb their mountains of advice and then invite them over to help you load your first package of bees into the hive. And again, when you're not sure if your brood frames look right. And again, when you think you've spotted a queen cell, but you're not sure.

With a little luck and a lot of help, anyone can be a beekeeper. And there's nothing quite as satisfying as holding up that first dark amber jar of sweetness to the light, feeling its weight and thinking, "My bees made this for me" (though they really didn't and it's highly doubtful they're even aware of your existence).

Whether bees are actually aware of it or not, humans have enjoyed a unique agricultural relationship with them for millennia. Let's start with a trip back in time to meet the very first beekeepers.

The History of Beekeeping

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Antique illustration of an apiary with skep hives. Nastasic/Getty Images

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The first human beekeepers weren't "keepers" at all, but foragers of wild honey. In the Cueva de la Araña (Cave of the Spider) near Valencia, Spain, is a cave painting dating from 9,000 B.C.E. clearly depicting a brave man climbing a tree to stick his hand directly into a beehive [source: Comunitat Valenciana]. The prehistoric artist even sketched a few honeybees buzzing nearby.

Domesticated beekeeping was a common practice throughout the ancient world, starting at least as early as 2500 B.C.E. in Egypt and likely even earlier in China. Depictions of beehives and honeypots, and beekeepers using smoke to calm bees, were found on the walls of the Sun Temple of the Egyptian pharaoh Nyuserre Ini, and intact clay and straw hives from 900 B.C.E. were discovered in archaeological sites in Israel [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association].

Aristotle wrote about beekeeping and bee behavior in his book "Historia Animalium," and the Chinese statesman and philosopher Fan Li explained the benefits of a wooden hive box in his treatise "Golden Rules of Business Success" circa 500 B.C.E. [source: Foundation for Agriculture].

The first domesticated beehives were fashioned from the hollowed-out stumps of trees and fallen logs, which were natural destinations for swarming honeybee colonies. To harvest the honey, the hive would be cleared of bees and destroyed, the comb squeezed to extract the golden goodness.

Around 2,000 years ago, beekeepers began using the first artificial beehives, called skeps [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association]. Skeps look like overturned pots and were made from either baked clay or woven straw. A small hole near the bottom of the skep allowed the bees to come and go, and the comb was laid down inside.

Even though skeps are rarely used today outside of the developing world, the enduring image of the beehive – and of hardworking industry – is still a woven straw skep.

The use of a skep, unfortunately, still required the destruction of the hive, and often the death of the entire colony, to harvest the honey. So, beekeepers began looking for alternative hive designs.

Wooden hive boxes became more common by the 18th century, leading to Francois Huber's moveable hive or "leaf hive," a vertical stack of moveable book-like leaves, each holding its own section of comb. Those containing honey, and not brood, could be removed without disrupting the colony, but Huber's hive design never really caught on [source: Stamp].

Moving into the 19th century, other innovative apiarists, including Thomas Wildman, began experimenting with "bar hives," wooden boxes that are equipped with a row of bars across the top under which the bees build their comb in small hanging sections. Each section could conceivably be removed by lifting up on the bar, but not without some effort. The sections of comb would often get stuck together or to the side of the box, requiring a messy cutting job that destroyed comb and sacrificed honey [source: Borst].

The Langstroth Hive

Then came Lorenzo Langstroth, a minister and avid bee hobbyist from Pennsylvania, who is credited with discovering "bee space" and revolutionizing modern beekeeping.

In the 1850s, Langstroth built a wooden hive based on his observation that bees wouldn't build a comb in a space tighter than 1 centimeter 3/8 of an inch) [source: Oertel]. He invented a type of hanging bar hive with removable frames spaced exactly 1 centimeter apart and 1 centimeter from the box walls. Frames heavy with honey could be easily removed without sticking to or disturbing neighboring frames.

Langstroth hives are still the most popular hives for professional beekeepers and hobbyists, and we'll talk more about the parts of a Langstroth hive in the beekeeping equipment section. But next, let's cover the basics of honeybee biology and colony structure.

Honeybee Biology and Colony Structure

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The brood chamber is the place where the queen lays her eggs and where the larvae, as seen here, are fed and kept warm. Eric Tourneret/Getty Images

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Of the 20,000 species of wild bees, only the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is used in the United States and Europe for honey production [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association]. That's because the Western honeybee's unique biology and "superorganism" structure allow beekeepers to work in tandem with nature to share in the bee's bountiful honey harvests.

Honeybees are social insects that live in highly organized colonies with complex divisions of labor. A honeybee colony is called a superorganism because the survival of the entire colony depends on the coordinated actions of individuals. Working together, bee colonies build and maintain hives, regulate the hive temperature, reproduce and raise young, and collect and store food in the form of honey and pollen. None of them could do it alone.

Queen, Workers and Drones

A honeybee colony contains between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals composed of three types of bees: workers, drones and the queen. Each bee plays its own critical role in helping the hive thrive in the spring and summer and survive the cruel winter months in northern climates.

The vast majority of bees in a honeybee colony are worker bees. Worker bees are sexually undeveloped females who are responsible for just about everything that happens in the hive besides mating and laying eggs. Their small bodies are equipped with special scent glands, pollen baskets and brood food glands that allow them to perform a litany of different labors in their short lives (six weeks in the spring and summer, and up to six months in the late fall to survive the winter) [source: MAAREC].

Worker bees are in charge of building the wax comb that holds eggs and developing pupae (known as brood), feeding the brood, taking care of the queen, guarding the hive entrance from robbers and other pests, ventilating the hive, foraging for pollen, nectar and water, and capping the precious honey stores.

Every honeybee colony has only one queen at a time. The queen's only job (and it's an important one) is to lay eggs. The queen is about twice the size of a worker bee and can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day, 250,000 eggs per year and close to a million over her lifetime, which can span several years. The overall health of a honeybee colony depends largely on the quality of its queen and her egg-laying prowess [source: MAAREC].

Drones are male bees with one simple task: mate with the queen. Mating happens in mid-air outside of the hive. The queen can mate with a dozen drones at once, storing their sperm in a special sac from which she can release measured amounts at the moment of laying her eggs [source: Orkin]. Drones are born from unfertilized eggs and are only allowed in the hive during the spring and summer. When winter sets in and resources are scarce, the drones are forced out and left to die.

A successful beekeeper must understand both the life cycle of individual bees and the life cycle of the larger colony superorganism. For example, a bee colony has different nutritional requirements during different seasons of the year, and if left to its own devices, a thriving colony in the springtime is likely to raise a second queen and swarm to a new hive site. All of this needs to be carefully managed if the beekeeper wants to benefit from the bees' hard work.

But before we dive deeper into starting a beehive and managing a bee colony, it's time to talk equipment.

Beekeeping Equipment

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The smoker is a key piece of equipment for a beekeeper. It releases a steady, gentle stream of smoke, keeping the bees calm while the beekeeper works. StefaNikolic/Getty Images

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First, a word of caution. If you're new to beekeeping and eager to set up your first hive, avoid buying secondhand beekeeping equipment or inheriting used boxes and tools from a friend or neighbor. As we'll discuss in our section on bee diseases, the bacteria that causes American and European foulbrood can linger in old equipment and spoil your beekeeping adventure before you even begin. New, clean equipment is your best bet.

The Langstroth hive is the most popular hive for both beginning and experienced beekeepers, so that's what we'll focus on in terms of equipment. But know that there are alternative hive setups like Warre and top bar hives, each with its own advantages. Warre hives more closely replicate the space within a hollow log and are prized by "natural" beekeepers, while top bar hives don't require the lifting of heavy boxes, which could be better for older beekeepers or those with physical disabilities [source: PerfectBee].

The basic structure of a Langstroth hive starts with a large lower box called a hive body, or brood chamber, which is set aside for the bees themselves. The hive body is where the bees build the comb in which the queen lays her eggs, and this is where the bees raise brood and store honey for their own use.

On top of the hive body is a second, shallower box called a honey super. This is where the bees store surplus honey during the "nectar flow," which happens during certain months of the year when local flowering plants and trees are in full bloom. The beekeeper harvests the excess honey from the super.

A Langstroth hive includes other pieces that make hive management easier and maximize the honey harvest. Each hive box contains removable frames that hang vertically and are pre-printed with beeswax or plastic foundation to spur the formation of the tell-tale hexagonal honeycomb cells.

A special cover called a queen excluder is placed between the lower hive box and upper super with slats precisely spaced to allow only worker bees to pass through. This prevents the queen from laying eggs in the honey super.

A feeder is necessary to supply the bees with extra nutrition when nature's nectar and pollen resources are low, such as during later summer and winter. The simplest type of feeder can be made by filling a small Ziploc bag with sugar water and laying it across the top of the brood frames in the hive box with a small slit cut into it for the bees to feed. Other feeders attach to the entrance of the hive or hang vertically in place of a brood frame. All feeding methods, like many of the elements of beekeeping, have their staunch adherents, detractors and their pros and cons [source: University of Georgia].

Tools of the Trade

Then there are the beekeeper's tools. First, the protective clothing. All beekeepers wear at least a veil that protects their face and neck from stings. Many others choose to wear a full-body protective suit plus gloves. Some experienced beekeepers prefer to work without gloves and minimal protection. It can get hot in all that gear and once a beekeeper has some experience working with bees, she will know what level of protection she is most comfortable using.

Every beekeeper needs a smoker. A stream of cool smoke puts bees in a mellow mood, which is exactly what you want when you're poking around in their hive. A smoker looks like an elongated metal teapot with a spout and a handle. The handle has a trigger that operates a bellows inside the smoke chamber to fan slowly burning cardboard, dry leaves or other materials.

A hive tool is a small metal bar that has many uses in a beehive. It is used for prying open parts of the hive boxes that have been glued together by propolis, also called "bee glue." Bees produce propolis by mixing saliva and beeswax with resinous material gathered from botanical sources and they use it to seal up gaps in the hive. A hive tool is sharp enough to scrape away propolis and old comb, but won't gouge or damage wood like a screwdriver or putty knife. A hive tool is also the perfect implement for helping the beekeeper to gently pry up frames to remove them for inspection.

We'll talk about honey extraction tools in a minute, but before we jump to honey harvesting, let's walk you through the basics of starting up your first hive.

Getting Started as a Beekeeper

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Beekeeping is a hobby that even young children can enjoy. Teresa Short/Getty Images

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Once you have your hive boxes, protective clothing and tools, it's time to pick a location for your hive. Make sure you follow all local ordinances about the number and location of hives. Consider your neighbors and direct bee traffic by facing the entrance of the hive away from a neighbor's property. A nearby bush or fence line will encourage the bees to fly upward when leaving the hive, which also lowers the odds of accidental stings. You want to make sure that your bees have unobstructed access to the hive entrance and that you have plenty of room to work around your hives on all sides.

The ideal location will be protected from strong winds and face south or southeast to maximize morning sun. The early sun gets the bees moving in the morning to forage in the springtime. But any spot with dappled sun and shade will do.

You'll also want a water source nearby. Bees forage for water, which they bring back to cool the hive and blend with pollen to make a special treat called bee bread [source: Bee Built]. If you don't have a pond or creek on your property, consider installing a small bird bath or putting out a large platter of water with sloped sides. Providing a water source will prevent the bees from wandering onto a neighbor's property.

Now that you have a spot for your hive, it's time to buy some bees! There are two main ways to get bees. The first is to buy a package of bees, which costs between $80 and $140 for 10,000 bees plus a mated queen [source: PerfectBee]. Packages should be ordered in the winter from a local bee supplier and picked up in late March. Always buy your bees from a local source to avoid causing your bees the stress of shipping and to ensure that they are already acclimated to your locale. You will receive them in a shoebox-sized cage with the queen separated in her own cell.

After smoking the bees to calm them, open the cage and shake the bees into your hive box. Then place the queen cage in the hive box, without setting her free. The cage is plugged with a candy cork that the bees will slowly eat away over the course of a few days. During that time, the queen will be emitting her pheromones, critical to winning acceptance from the hive.

Since the queen is pre-mated, once she's free she'll immediately start laying eggs and the colony will be on its way.

A second option is to buy a preloaded hive box that's already stocked with an active queen, eggs, brood, pollen stores and honey. That type of hive box is called a nucleus colony or a "nuc" for short. Nucs run from $120 to $200 and arrive in their own small hive box with five or so frames containing freshly laid eggs, brood, honey and pollen, active workers and an accepted queen [source: PerfectBee]. Simply transfer the frames and bees into your hive box (don't lose the queen!) and you're good to go. Most often, bee sellers will "mark" the queen with a small dot of paint, which helps the beekeeper to identify and locate the queen.

Of course, nothing is "simple" when you're a beginner working with living creatures. So next we'll talk about hive and colony management, particularly disease management.

Hive Management

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Successful hive management depends on three main activities: feeding your bees, avoiding a swarm and checking for and treating against mites and other diseases. vgajic/Getty Images

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Remember, the entire goal of beekeeping is to get the colony at maximum strength right as the local flowering plants and trees are blooming and the nectar flow begins. This will spur the bees to store lots of excess honey in the honey supers and ensure a hefty harvest for the beekeeper.

Successful hive management hinges on three main activities: feeding the bees, avoiding a swarm and checking for mites and other diseases.

Since beekeepers harvest their bees' excess honey stores ("steal" is such an ugly word), this lost nutrition needs to be supplemented through feeding. In most locations, natural nectar and pollen resources are low in the late summer and fall, and dangerously so in the winter. During those times, the bees will be fed with a sugar water syrup of equal parts sugar and water, or even two parts sugar to one part water when resources are the most scarce [source: University of Georgia].

With the help of your beekeeping mentor, learn how to remove and examine brood frames to check for healthy pollen and honey stores. Learn how to lift the back of a hive box to test its weight and know if honey stores are low and extra feeding is required. Since pollen is the bees' chief protein source, ask your mentor about commercially available pollen supplements.

A healthy and well-fed hive will produce so much brood that the hive box will become overcrowded. The bees' natural response to overcrowding is to swarm. When bees swarm, half of the colony escapes with the original queen and the other half stays in the old hive with a new queen, though sometimes the entire colony will abscond with their queen.

If you have a healthy and productive queen, you don't want to lose her to a swarm. So, your options are to grow your beekeeping operation by splitting the hive, or avoid overcrowding by removing brood frames and giving them to fellow beekeepers. AS you get to know your bees and your hives, you'll get to know which behaviors are normal behaviors, such as bearding, and which might signal an impending swarm.

Bees bearding on the front of their hive on a hot summer day – a perfectly normal behavior that helps bees regulate hive temperature.
Teresa Crowder

Swarming season is early spring, around March or April in most of the U.S., so beekeepers need to prepare by checking their hives for signs of an impending swarm, most importantly the presence of queen cells, which are oversized brood chambers that look somewhat like a peanut, where the colony is raising a new queen.

If your intention is to split a hive yourself – move half of your colony to a new hive box in a new location – then you need to remove all queen cells from any brood frames that you'll be placing in the new hive. Then you'll need to locate the original queen and transfer her with a good supply of brood frames, pollen and honey (your own homemade nuc, essentially) to the new location. The old hive will raise a new queen from the queen cells and continue humming along [source: University of Georgia].

You can also avoid splitting or swarming entirely by keeping your colony small enough to manage in one hive. This requires either having multiple hives between which you can move around brood frames to keep them equally full, or beekeeping friends who will take your excess brood to balance out their own weaker hives.

Which brings us to the third major responsibility of a successful beekeeper: disease management. This part of beekeeping is critical, so keep reading to learn more about managing the most common honeybee problems, especially the nasty varroa mite.

Disease Management in the Apiary

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A beekeeper uses formic acid to treat his bees against deadly varroa mites. SashaFoxWalters/Getty Images

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No discussion of beekeeping is complete without talking about the varroa mite. This parasitic pest, no larger than the tip of a needle, first arrived in the U.S. in the late 1980s and has quickly become the most common cause of bee death and colony failure. According to the USDA, 42 percent of commercial beehives were infected with varroa in the spring of 2017 [source:USDA].

Varroa mites harm bees in several different ways. A mated female mite will crawl into the brood chamber of a developing bee and lay eggs on the larvae. The baby mites will feed on the bee pupae, either killing it or deforming it. Other mites will attach themselves to adult bees and feed on their blood. While the blood-sucking alone can kill bees, it's also a portal for infecting the bees with a number of deadly viruses that can spread quickly to take out a whole colony [source: NC State Extension].

It's important to test for varroa infestations throughout the year and treat your hives accordingly. One of the most popular ways to test for varroa is to buy a special sticky board from a bee supply company. The board sits below a mesh on the bottom of the hive box, which keeps bees from getting caught on its gluey surface, while allowing dead mites to fall through. After 24 hours, you check the board and count the number of mites.

Another method is the sugar shaker technique. First, you equip a small mason jar with a lid made from 1/8-inch (3-millimeter) mesh cloth. Remove the lid and dump in approximately 200 bees from the hive. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar, screw on the lid and shake. The open the jar and shake the sugar-covered bees over a white napkin or cloth. The mites should fall out onto the cloth, allowing you to count them. More than 10 mites for every 200 bees means that you have a mite problem [source: NC State Extension].

Treatment methods for varroa mite range from powerful insecticides to dusting the brood frames with powdered sugar or talcum powder, which causes the mites to lose their grip on adult bees [source: NC State Extension]. Organic beekeepers looking for a stronger but natural solution often use formic acid. Pads soaked in the acid, first isolated from ants, are laid on the top of the hive, but only when the temperature is within a certain range and not during the nectar flow season. The fumes from the acid can even penetrate brood cells and kill mites feeding on bee larvae [source: Bayer].

Another common honeybee disease in the U.S. is American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that kills brood larvae in their cells, eventually leading to colony failure. American foulbrood gets its name from the distinctive sulphurous odor emitted by a brood frame infected with the disease. Telltale signs of foulbrood are sunken and darkened caps on the brood cells or irregular brood patterns on the frame.

Unfortunately, there's no cure for American foulbrood, which means the colony and all hive equipment must be destroyed.

Harvesting Honey

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Fresh, organic honey is one of nature's perfect foods. It is sterile and storable straight out of the comb if handled properly. gustavo ramirez/Getty Images

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Of course, the sweetest (ha!) part of beekeeping is harvesting all that delicious honey. If you only have one hive, it isn't necessary to invest in a lot of extraction equipment. But as you get more serious about your hobby, or if you intend to sell your honey, you'll want to buy more equipment to make extraction and filtering more efficient.

The beauty of honey is that it doesn't need any processing or purifying. Honey is sterile and storable straight out of the comb if handled properly. Large commercial honey companies sometimes pasteurize the honey before jarring, but that's only to kill off any yeast carried by pollen in the honey, which isn't bad for your health, but can affect the color of the honey and speed crystallization [source: LocalFloridaRawHoney].

To remove honey-filled frames from a honey super, it's helpful to shoo away as many bees as possible. Smoking will drive some bees down into the hive box, but some beekeepers also use a bee brush to brush bees away, or a special electric blower [source: Staton]. Once the honey frame is free of bees, place it inside a separate box with a lid while you remove the rest of the frames.

To extract the honey, you'll first need to uncap, or remove the wax covering, from the cells of the frame so that the honey can flow. There are special scrapers and heated knives for this purpose, or you can heat up your own large knife in some boiling water and experiment. Save the waxy caps to melt down and make your own beeswax products like candles.

An extractor makes the next part easy. You place the uncapped frame in a large tub equipped with a hand-cranked or motorized centrifuge. As the frames spin, the honey flies out against the walls of the extractor and settles at the bottom, where there's a handy spigot. The honey can be filtered of any wax bits or insect parts by running it through cheesecloth or a fine mesh screen.

If you don't have an extractor, you can simply lay the uncapped frames on a rack over a large pot or tub and let the honey ooze out slowly. Remember to flip the frame over and empty the other side.

Jars of raw honey will literally store forever. The honey may start to crystallize and change color after a time, but crystallization is easily reversed by placing the jar in a hot water bath.

For more experienced beekeepers, the honey harvest can be timed to coincide with the flowering of specific plants and trees, creating a single-source honey with a distinct flavor profile. Professional beekeepers will transport hives across a state and even across the country to catch a particularly bountiful nectar flow from a prized variety.

Author's Note: How Beekeeping Works

I was once stung by the beekeeping bug. At the time, I was a part-time organic vegetable farmer, raising and selling veggies at our local farmer's market. As part of my back-to-the-earth ethos, I wanted to produce my own honey. A beekeeping friend told me about a neighbor who died and left behind boxes and boxes of active hives. Did I want one? I immediately went out and bought a full bee suit, smoker and hive tool. Excited, we drove my friend's truck into the backwoods of Pennsylvania to pick up my new hive. The boxes were stacked in an overgrown field and a storm was rolling in. The bees were none too happy to see us. They stung every tiny patch of bare skin they could find and buzzed angrily as we loaded them into the truck. The rain poured down so heavily that we couldn't get them all the way to my garden, so my friend offered to babysit them until I could come back and relocate them to their permanent home. They never left his place, and my suit never again made it out of the box. Homemade honey, I decided, tastes just as good when it comes from someone else's home.

Special thanks to Mark Bedillion of Bedillion Honey Farm in Pennsylvania for his expert advice on the art and science of beekeeping.

Related Articles

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