Keeping Honey Bees for Survival, by Michael J.

Why Keep Honey Bees?

Wandering into the woods and staying lost for months is something I love to do. I have been an Urban Guerrilla Survivalist for 24 years, and have been keeping bees for more than 10 of those years. With these experiences under my belt, I have begun to teach people how to be a survivalist, and one subject I focus on is the art of beekeeping.

Before I tell you the benefits of having bees and some cheap ways to keep them, I suggest that you find a book about beekeeping to help you understand the terms I use and show you more details on how to keep bees for the long haul. One of the best books I have read is The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia Pertaining to the Scientific and Practical Culture of Honey Bees by A. I. Root. I also suggest that you try to find some beekeeping courses in your area—not only to learn more about it, but to connect with peers and mentors.

For my disclaimer: You should also research your local and state laws on beekeeping.

Apis mellifera, more commonly referred to as the honey bee, is one of the most beneficial insects in the world. Did you know that we have the honey bee to thank for one third of all the food we eat? Why, without the honey bee, we would mostly eat rice, wheat, and corn instead of the wonderful variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts we enjoy every day. Not only do honey bees help make more food from pollination, they make a wide variety of products as well.

The most recognizable product, honey, is a sweet food made by bees from the nectar of flowers. Aside from its common use in sweetening teas, honey is used to treat burns, alleviate allergies and use in IVs for blood transfusions. It is also well known as a key ingredient in king’s mead, honey wine and man’s first alcoholic beverage. It is great for cooking in place of sugar, and has more nutritional value than cane or corn sugar. Honey has an endless shelf life when stored at room temperature in a sealed container. Most raw natural honey crystallizes, providing the survivalist with an endless supply of sugar that never goes bad.

Bee pollen, or pollen from flowers that is collected by bees during pollination, is harvested and used to fight allergies and treating mild cases of hay fever. Medications that use pollen include Claritin (loratadine), Benadryl (diphenhydramine), and chlorphenamine. Pollen is a great source of carbohydrates and is used to provide athletes energy boots.

Propolis, a resinous mixture that honey bees collect, relieves inflammation, viral diseases, ulcers, and superficial burns or scalds. It is also believed to promote heart health, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the chances of cataracts. Old beekeepers recommend that a piece of propolis be kept in the mouth as a remedy for a sore throat.

Beeswax, a natural wax produced in the hive, has long been called the ancient man’s plastic, and is used as such today. Common products you see beeswax used in include body creams, coating for cheeses, cosmetics, fine candles, furniture and shoe polishes, modeling materials to create jewelry and sculptures, pharmaceuticals, among hundreds of other items. It is often mixed with other ingredients such as olive oil (sweet oil) and sometimes paraffin. For hundreds of years, beeswax was used as a sealant or lubricant for bullets in cap and ball firearms that use black powder. Beeswax was also used to stabilize the military explosive Torpex, before it was replaced by a petroleum-based product.

Apitherapy is the medical use of bee products—most commonly associated with bee venom therapy, which uses bee venom in the use of health conditions. The active component of bee venom is melittin, which has a powerful anti-inflammatory action. Bee venom is a complex mix of a variety of peptides and proteins, some of which have strong neurotoxic and immunogenic effects. The most well-known bee venom therapy is for autoimmune diseases and multiple sclerosis. Bee venom therapy is also used to treat arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, dissolving scar tissue (keloids), and herpes zoster, among other illnesses.

As you have just read, the benefits of keeping honey bees for products and pollination is infinite. Not only can you use these products yourself, you can sell them to make money at local farmers markets or boutiques, or barter with clans around the woods. I recommend keeping three to five hives at your home or survival camp. The benefits of the honey bee can not be matched for the survivalist.

How to Get Started

Now that I have told you some of the many the benefits of having bees, I am going to tell you the basic style of beekeeping and some cheap ways to keep bees. Again, my focus is on survival beekeeping, or “off the grid” beekeeping. I will give you a list of what you need, and then tell you how to make some of the items, or find them cheap. Once again, I suggest that you find a book about beekeeping to help you understand the terms I use and the different kinds of hives available for beekeeping. You can find books everywhere—used book stores and yard sales are the cheapest, and you may even find used equipment there as well.

As a beekeeper you must have protection. Beekeepers suits can be expensive—cost of protective gear ranges from $100-$200, depending on what you get (hoods and gloves, full body suits, etc.). Suits can be found online, in beekeeping stores, swap meets, or yard sales. However, if you’d like to take a thrifty approach you need to have:

  • High rubber boots, which can be found at farm supply stores or retail centers such as Wal-Mart. Make sure you own a pair that you can get in and out of quickly and can go over your pants.
  • Pants that can be tucked into your boots. I like to use duck tape to take the boots onto the pants so your legs and feet are completely protected.
  • Long-sleeve shirts than can bed tucked in to your pants.
  • Hooded jackets, which can be cinched tightly around your face, so only your face shows.
  • A ball cap worn under the hood—the starting point of a screened hood. To make this, stitch screen over the top of the hooded jacket and then use duck tape all around the screen to keep the bees out. The cap pushes the screen away from your face.
  • Welding gloves that you duck tape the ends to the jacket sleeves so you’re all sealed up.

Another inexpensive way is to use a rain suit that you can duck tape your gloves, boots, waist, and stitch a screen over the face.

Now that you are protected from head to toe, let’s focus on where you will keep the bees, or the bee hive. The most commonly used hive is called a Langstroth hive. It is made as an open top hive and holds frames that can be removed to inspect brood (aka baby bees or larva) and to pull honey out of the hive. You can order a pre-built hive or find plans to build your own hive from the internet. There are also many books on how build and use the Langstroth hive. I will repeat myself again: find a book and use it as a resource. And take any classes you can find in your area. I have been keeping bees for more than 10 years, and have lost hives over my learning experience. But just like any thing, you never know until you try.

The hive I am going to show you is calling a Robo’s barrel top drum hive. It is made with a plastic 55 gallon drum. From one barrel you can make two hives. These drums can be found at car washes, dumps, and food centers. Always wash the drum out first to make sure it is clean. He started by marking the barrel lengthwise to cut it in half. Although the barrel had a seam that would make it easy to cut it in half; he wanted to use the bung holes for entrances, so he ended up marking his own lines. It is possible to cut the barrel with a handsaw, but for the sake of time, use an electric saber saw. Once the barrel was cut in two,
build a box out of 2 inch by 3 inch lumber, to fit snugly around the barrel. This frame acts as a stiffener, preventing the barrel from warping out of shape. It also acts as the support for the top bars. This will also keep the top of you hive even so when you get your lid ready it will fit snug. Before the barrel half could be slid into the wooden frame, a portion on the barrel rim had to be cut off so that the barrel would fit squarely into the frame. Once this was done, the barrel and frame were put together and decking screws were used to secure the barrel to the frame. Counter sink the screws a little so the comb will not stick to the sides. The bees will make comb around the screws and it will be hard to get the top bars out with them stuck to the sides.

Next a set of legs were added. Try to keep the legs from extending out too far from the barrel and becoming a trip hazard while working on the hive. Also try to avoid covering the bung hole so that there is an entrance for the bees. When making the top bars out of 3/4 inch rough-cut pine (1 inch thickness) and made them long enough to extend to the outside edges of the support frame. The lid will cover the whole top so you want it even all the way around.
Robo uses corrugated metal for roofing. This will get hot but you do not have to paint it or stain it every other year. Make sure you drill two holes in the front and back of the hive to help with air flow. In the winter time you can place a cork in the holes to help keep the bees warm. In colder places you can place spray foam in the holes to keep the cold air out. You can either tie down the corrugated metal with rope or just set a couple of rocks on top. Since it is corrugated, there is plenty of ventilation as well. One sheet from The Home Depot is big enough to make covers for both hives. (In Robo’s demonstration, he built a stand to hold up the top bar so you can look at the comb—the bees comb mimicked the shape of the drum half.)
You need to put a little bit of wax on the top bar so the bee know where to start building comb, but other than that you have just made a hive from stuff that is commonly throw way. This is a great way to save drums, even metal ones, and use for something other than a trash can. It’s a great home for your bees, and keeps the dump free of landfill.
Note: Information and all pictures are taken from an article, Barrel Top Bar Hive, on Robo’s World web site.


Getting Your Bees

Now that you have your protective gear, a hive for the bees, and a book to reference, you are ready for the bees. There are nearly 20,000 species of bees—honey bees represent a small fraction of the species with between seven and 11 species and 44 subspecies—and they come from all around the globe. Bees can be ordered online, and from local bee clubs—most are shipped via UPS.  A package of bees can cost around $80-$200, depending on the species that you decide to purchase. The package weighs between three to four pounds, and has around 10 to 20 thousand bees inside, which is a good number to start building your hive. Bees can be installed into the hive in a manner of minutes—and if you take your time, you can watch them get to work in the hive immediately.

Naturally, my favorite bee is the free bee. Free bees can be found when bees swarm, which happens when the queen bee leaves a colony with a group of worker bees in search of a new hive. They often gather in trees or the eves of houses, which leave them in harms way by people who do not want them around. By offering to collect swarms, you can get free bees for your hive. Put an advertisement in the newspaper, or local listing, that you are willing to remove swarms. When the swarm first settles down and forms a cluster, it is fairly simple to capture. Swarms normally last no more than 24 hours, so you must be ready. To capture a swarm, you’ll need: 

  • A box or a bucket with a lid. I use five gallon buckets that have a hole in the top laced with screen so the bees are able to breathe until you can put them into a hive.
  • A soft brush and a wide scraper. These help to move the bees, if needed.
  • A ladder to climb on to get to the bees so you are not reaching up in the air swatting at them—sometimes they are  high in the trees, or the roof of the house.
  • Your protective gear—you do not want to get stung when collecting a swarm of bees for your hive.

When collecting a swarm of bees in a bush or tree, put the bucket below the area the swarm is in and give the branch a good shake. Let the nest fall into the bucket. Use the brush to sweep the remaining bees into the bucket, and then place the lid on the bucket. If the swarm is on something that you cannot shake, take the wide scraper and place it so you can scoop the bees and place them into the bucket. Use your brush to sweep the bees on the scraper and drop them in the bucket as well. When you have nearly 90 percent of the bees in the bucket, place the lid on your bucket and look to see if the remaining bees start landing on the lid. They will start to land on the bucket and fan, which tells the bees that the queen is inside the bucket and they are moving. Let the bucket set for 30 minutes and let the bees inside and outside of the bucket collect on the lid. Then pop the top of the bucket so all the bees drop to the bottom of the bucket and take the lid off. Flip the lid and brush the bees on the lid into the bucket. Then replace the lid and take the bees to their new hive.

When you get to the hive you’re going to place the bees in, open it and remove four to five frames, or top bars, out of your way. Pop the bucket on the lid once more so the bees fall to the bottom of the bucket and open the lid. Then shake bees in the bucket into the hive. Once you have the swarm in the hive, replace the frames or top bars and cover the hive. You have successfully placed your bees into the hive. Be sure to check the bees in one week to see if they are building comb.

Now you have your bee hive. Read your book and if you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at I would enjoy reading about your experiences and looking at photos of your work.

As I said, I am a survivalist and love the outdoors and keeping bees will get you outdoors more. Like gardening, the work you put in yields great rewards.