Several years ago I was introduced to a book called Passport to Survival written by Esther Dickey. This book elaborates on how you can provide for all the essential nutritional needs for you and your family with just four basic ingredients– wheat, powdered milk, honey, and salt. As I thought about these four items, I realized that I had it within my power to provide for one of these four items without much change in my lifestyle and without an excess of effort. I live in the city, so growing more than just a few handfuls of wheat in my garden isn’t practical. Powdered milk was out as well. I do know of a few natural sources of salt that I could feasibly collect from; however, based on the cost of salt, I figure it is much easier and more economical, in terms of time and effort, to just purchase plenty of salt and store it properly for my possible emergency needs. This left honey, which meant learning to keep bees.
The idea of beekeeping appealed to me so much that I went out and purchased several books on how to keep bees. After getting comfortable with the idea of beekeeping and getting support from my wife, I decided to go all in. Within a month I had purchased the basic equipment and ordered a starter package of bees. In the first year, with one hive in an area that would not be considered optimal for keeping bees, I was able to harvest 73 pounds of honey. My total time investment the first year was under 30 hours. My total financial investment was $473.
The exciting thing was that I never had to invest another penny into the venture, as long as I was careful about caring for my bees and prudent about caring for my equipment. According to the LDS Food Storage Calculator, a one-year food supply of sugar would include about 60 pounds of sugar. Without going into a long comparison between honey versus granulated sugar, any cook will tell you that when baking and cooking, you need less honey than granulated sugar to provide the same amount of “sweetness” in any particular recipe. Although 60 pounds of sugar is the suggested amount, if the majority of your sugar was in the form of honey, it is possible that you need a bit less than the suggested 60 pounds.
Be this as it may, after my first year of beekeeping, I quickly calculated that to create a steady source of sugar for my family would require more than one hive. The additional investment for each hive, for me, runs about $150. The original investment included the beekeeping clothing and tools as well as the parts for one hive. The second year, I only needed to buy the parts for another hive, since I already had all the other gear. So, I invested in another hive. Then, the second year I harvested 53 pounds from the first hive and 47 pounds from the second hive. My investment the second year was $150 and about 25 hours of work.
Being observant, I am quite certain you saw the minor discrepancy between the two years. The first year I had one hive and worked 30 hours. The second year I had two and only worked 25 hours. What gives? Well, the first year I had no idea what I was doing and spent many unnecessary hours fiddling with my hive and checking on my bees; this seems to be a normal reaction to an exciting new hobby. The second year, with one year of experience under my belt, I was much more efficient in my beekeeping efforts. I also realized there are two approaches to beekeeping. One demands that you spend many hours checking and assisting the little furry things. The other approach assumes that nature knows what it is doing. Since bees have been doing well on their own for several millennia, the beekeepers only real chore is to give them regular health checks and harvest the liquid gold. The second year, I chose the less invasive and less demanding approach for my beekeeping efforts.
If you are a math type, let’s calculate the value of my produce. Assuming that purchasing wildflower honey costs you about $5 a pound, this means that with a small investment of $623 over a two-year period I was able to produce 173 pounds or about $865 worth of honey. This doesn’t even take into account that my honey is far superior to whatever you may purchase in a store, because it has not been pasteurized and it contains the local pollen; this pollen imparts some proven anti-allergen health benefits to those who consume the honey produced in the area where they live. There are several other benefits from keeping bees.
Aside from the honey harvest, you also harvest a small amount of beeswax as a natural byproduct of the honey harvest. If you choose to, you can also set your hives up to harvest pollen and propolis. These four items are the main harvest gathered from a beehive.
Let me elaborate for a moment on the harvest and the benefits of each part of the harvest. First up is honey. As a sweetener, it doesn’t have much competition. Honey is an all-natural sweetener, and when stored correctly can keep indefinitely. As a matter of fact, edible honey has been found in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs.
Over time, all honey will crystallize. This doesn’t affect the taste or the quality of the honey. Simply put the honey jar in a hot bath of water, and shortly your honey will be back to its liquid state. Honey has the advantage over sugar, because it also imparts several health benefits.
The ancient Sumerians referred to honey as a beneficial drug and ointment. The great Aristotle wrote that honey was “good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds”. In the King James Bible, King Solomon is quoted in Proverbs 24:13, “My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste”. The ancients knew that honey was good for us, and modern medicine is coming to the same realization.
Honey contains flavonoids, which are antioxidants. Antioxidants can help reduce the risk of some cancers as well as heart disease. Honey is also anti-bacterial. This is because the bees add the same enzyme to honey that is used to make hydrogen peroxide. Because of these anti-bacterial properties, honey has been shown to help some ulcers as well as bacterial gastroenteritis.
Honey works wonders on coughs and throat irritations. A couple of studies have shown a single dose of honey to be just as effective as a dose of dextromethorphan in relieving nighttime coughs. So the next time you are coughing yourself out of a good night of sleep, take a tablespoon of honey and sleep well.
Honey is also used in healing wounds and burns. Because it is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from its surroundings, honey actually pulls moisture out of wounds and burns. The combination of the drying effect of honey with the anti-bacterial nature of honey makes for a great wound and burn treatment. In some studies, it has been shown to be just as effective as silver sulfadiazine.
Honey is also a probiotic.
Warning: On the flip side, natural unpasteurized honey can possibly contain the spores that can cause infant botulism, so if you decide to keep bees and harvest honey, do not under any circumstances feed the honey to infants under the age of one.
Wax can also be harvested from your beehives. The energy expended by the bees to produce a pound of beeswax is equivalent to about eight pounds of honey. So unless you are keeping bees specifically to harvest beeswax, it most likely will be a small byproduct for you. When you are harvesting your honey, you naturally end up with about one to two pounds of beeswax for each 100 pounds of honey you harvest. This takes the form of cappings. When the bees have their honey to just the perfect level of “ripeness”, they seal the honey in the honeycomb with a small wax cap. To harvest the honey, you slice off these caps and spin the honeycomb. This gets you the honey and the cappings of wax.
What can you do with the beeswax? Well, it makes a great base for producing healing salves, lip balms, as well as candles. With four hives, you will probably walk away with nearly six pounds of wax every year. That’s plenty for producing hundreds of lip balms, several dozen hand salves, or even 20 or so poured beeswax candles.
After having such wonderful success keeping bees my first two years, I decided that I wanted to grow my apiary to a size that would provide enough honey for all my sweetener needs.
So what did I do? You guessed it; I went out and purchased the hive boxes so I could keep two more hives. This incurred an additional investment of $300. Every year since then, I have had between two and four bee colonies producing honey for me. One of the benefits of having multiple hives is that if one hive dies or disappears, you can easily split one of your hives into two. This means with a bit of effort and planning, you don’t even need to purchase starter packages of bees for your new hives anymore. Often, a hive will swarm, which is nature’s way of reproducing at a colony level. This is another easy way to replace a lost or dead colony. Catch a bee swarm and place it in the empty hive boxes.
Each year my hives produce between 100 and 300 pounds of honey for me and my family. Some is used during the year for our cooking and baking needs; the excess is stored away against a future need. With my experience keeping bees, I am confident that if the need arose, I could quickly build and fill several more hives within a short period of time, even with no access to any other resources other than what I have in my home and yard.
The honey and wax produced from this expanded apiary could easily be used as a barter item in a post crash economy.
If you are interested in keeping bees, let me suggest a few books that will get you up and running in no time at all.
- Keeping Bees by John Vivian
- Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston
- The Beekeeper’s Guide by Trevor Darby
Any one of these books will give you all the basics you need to fully understand and begin beekeeping. From there, your learning will grow exponentially from the actual experience.
The benefits of beekeeping in summary are a ready, reliable, and renewable source of sugar and wax, a reasonable expense up front that is easily recouped in the first year or two, and minimal time demands that can be adjusted to your schedule.