When most folks think of bees, two thoughts immediately come to mind: honey and stings.
While that's what made bees famous, these fascinating insects have plenty of other attributes. And, if you'll pardon the occasional sting, they really are great friends to have. Some folks even consider them "pets."
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Hillard Bryant is one of those. His Oswego backyard is a virtual bee hive, where thousands of bees live year-round. A certified beekeeper, Bryant's interest in bees has turned into a full-fledged hobby that is equal parts enjoyable and rewarding.
Bryant will share his experiences and pass along plenty of insight through a class at Blackberry Farm via the Fox Valley Park District.
"Beginning Beekeeper" is a six-session class that meets once a week starting Wednesday, Feb. 2. Because spring is the best time of year to set up hives, this class will show how to assemble and maintain hives. Participants will learn how honeybees magically work together so they can have their hives ready when the flowers begin to bloom.
Getting started is easy. Three-pound packages of about 10,000 bees, including a queen, are typically available through the first part of May. They are shipped through the mail (yes!) and cost about $50, available from various supply houses.
Buy at least two boxes to start; these are made of wood and typically are 9 by 15 inches. One box is where the bees live, where the queen lays her eggs, where the workers bring honey and nectar, and where the young are raised. The second box is where the bees store the honey they will need to survive winter.
Each of these boxes holds about 10 frames, and each must have a sheet of beeswax that the bees will use to build the combs.
Finally, you will need one to three "honey supers," the containers where the bees put the excess honey that the beekeeper gets to keep.
Bryant said each hive can produce up to 140 pounds of honey per year, making beekeeping a hobby that's as profitable as it is fun.
"It can be quite lucrative if you want it to be," Bryant said. "Besides all the honey, there are so many side products that can be made from beeswax such as cosmetics and lip balm that, along with the honey, can be sold as gifts at craft shows."
Get rid of the Robitussin and other cough medications, too. A teaspoon of honey does wonders, and is terrific for building immunity against allergies, beekeepers say.
Bees and their pollinating powers also play a crucial role in providing us with vegetables and fruits. Next time you're in the produce section, thank a honeybee. Without bees, those items would be scarce and their prices sky-high.
Bryant -- who was introduced to beekeeping by local expert Harry Patterson -- is now doing the same, spreading his beekeeping wisdom through mentoring. He keeps bees year-round (they winter in the hive) and says his neighbors hardly notice the large swarms that frequent his yard.
And about those stings? Well, it seems bees get a bad rap.
"Bees get the blame, but it's actually the yellow jackets (wasps) that are the culprits," Bryant said. "Bees are quite friendly -- and very hard workers."
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org