Beekeeping 101: How to Be a Backyard Beekeeper

Beekeeper Cassandra Lawson heralds the benefits of keeping bees. A number of natural beauty companies are also extoling honey's beauty benefits.


Suited Up

Georgia beekeeper and educator Cassandra Lawson inspecting her hive.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Ben Rollins

Image courtesy of Ben Rollins

Georgia beekeeper and educator Cassandra Lawson inspecting her hive.

Beekeeper Cassandra Lawson loves to talk about the many benefits of keeping bees. Over the course of her 15- year career, she has seen beekeeping shift from an esoteric hobby (once mostly pursued by men she says) to a hobby that has attracted more and more homesteading fans, many of them women.

Lawson loves her bees.

"I love everything about them. I love that I am connecting children and adults to the season...they are in tune with what's going on in the world and the Earth." Bees are the harbingers of the health of the planet, says Lawson. "They are a check engine light for what is happening in the world."

Lawson is the official beekeeper at the Decatur, Georgia community garden and education center, the Wylde Center. But she is also a visiting hive-watcher for many neighborhood families and gardeners, who pay her to maintain their hives. Lawson spends a lot of time handling bees, talking about bees and educating about bees. She teaches bee classes, runs bee summer camps and even, when asked, will guide a beekeeping novice like myself, and a photographer around her Wylde Center lair. Lawson's enthusiasm for apiculture is evident, and it's easy to see how she would inspire both adults and children to see the many benefits in bees. "It's the education aspect about it I really like, because I connect people with the Earth," says Lawson.

Lawson sees many advantages to beekeeping. It's a fulfilling hobby, a way to preserve the much-discussed imperiled bee population and a celebration of the utility of bees' products. Honeycomb, honey, pollen and propolis are homesteader essentials in cooking, candle-making and even beauty products (Lawson makes her own lip balm from her bees' wax). Some claim propolis has myriad health benefits including reducing inflammation and anti-bacterial properties. "Propolis is an antibiotic. A lot of the older farmers chew on it when they feel like they're getting sick," says Lawson.

Not up to keeping bees quite yet? Do the next best thing and lay your hands on a host of beauty products that harness the advantageous properties of bees: their honey, propolis and pollen which Lawson says is packed with amino acids and minerals.

Natural beauty companies tend to agree and create a whole host of products that blend the benefits of bee-products into oils, lip balms, soaps, face creams and lotions. The household name in bee-friendly products is, undeniably, Burt's Bees. A highlight of their newest honey line is the kind of ultra-fragrant, rich foot cream that makes honey-scent fans go nuts. The foot cream also features bilberry, a natural Alpha-Hydroxy Acid. Burt's Bees also blends honey into its nourishing Milk and Honey Body Lotion, a Honey and Shea Body Butter and a so delicious you want to eat it Honey Lip Balm.

A high-end natural beauty line with packaging that screams "gift-giving" Farmaesthetics features a number of products centered on honey.

Farmaesthetics owner Brenda Brock is the daughter of a 7th generation Texas farming family whose company specializes in 100% natural and homemade beauty products. With their glass bottles and handwritten, minimalist labels, these refined products suggest something from a turn-of-the-century apothecary. The scent of products like the Midnight Honey Bath and Beauty Oil is understated, a nice benefit for the scent-sensitive. The emphasis instead is on a luscious texture that feels like it's instantly revitalizing winter-ravaged skin. The Honey Dust Body Scrub offers a dose of refreshing exfoliation in typically beautiful packaging.

My time living in Greece has made honey forever synonymous with that country for me. Greek yogurt drizzled with thick local honey is the simplest and most delicious dessert served at many a taverna. Honey is a cornerstone of the Greek beauty company Apivita, the first natural beauty product in the country when it was founded in 1979. Apivita features a full line of honey-infused products as well as products centered on herbal infusions and native plants. Their Cleansing Milk includes lavender and geranium and an utterly delicious-smelling Soap With Honey features a seductively sweet honey-fragrance.

In addition to their honey, bees use a resinous mixture—propolis—sourced from trees and plants, to seal fissures in the hive. The Pasadena, California company Lather features a Honey Moisture Mask with Propolis Extract among an extensive honey-based beauty line. It's bracing Honey Mint Body Wash is a refreshing way to start the day. A Manuka Body Butter features manuka honey from New Zealand bees, said to contain anti-bacterial properties.

Cassandra's Must-Have Beekeeping Tools

  • Smoker. Like a magician's slight of hand, a smoker is an essential device when working with bees, to keep them from stinging. It helps disguise the smell of human fear pheromones that can cause bees to sting.
  • Veil. Invest in a good one advises Lawson, or run the risk of more stings.
  • Hive tool. Lawson advises potential beekeepers to try several out and see which one pries best and feels good in your hand.
  • Gloves. Lawson likes plain old Nitrile gloves from the drugstore.
  • Two hives. The total cost for two hives, shipping and equipment should come to approximately $500.
  • Bees! Lawson likes to order her bees from the Fat Bee Man.

Cassandra's Cool Bee Tips

Dress Appropriately

Wear light colors while beekeeping or when you are around bees, "so you don't look like a bear or a raccoon. They don't like dark clothes."

Chickens and Bees are Buddies

If you are going to keep bees, think about keeping chickens too, which eat the small hive beetles that often infest beehives. In a beautifully symbiotic relationship, the chicken then eat the pollen that drops from the beehive, which has beneficial amino acids and proteins "really, really good for the chickens," says Lawson.

Start a Hive, Save the Planet

"Hobbyists are what are keeping bees alive. Hobbyists are what's keeping Colony Collapse Disorder from ruining us."

Rent a Hive

Maybe you don't want to keep bees, but as an avid gardener, you'd like to attract more pollinators to your garden. Lawson offers a service not unlike the pool guy, where she will rent and maintain hives for an average of 12 gardeners a year. For info about beekeepers in your area check the American Beekeeping Federation website.

Healthy Bees

Honey and propolis have been championed by many for their immune-boosting, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties in a range of medicinal applications.

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