Interesting in beekeeping? Welcome to the beehive.
Honeybees have finally begun to receive the buzz (sorry) they deserve in recent years. With a number of challenges threatening bees, with systemic pesticides at the core, there is a serious need to understand and nurture bees to prevent their further decline.
Preserving bees is not an altruistic venture, but a vital survival mission. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates “about one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination.” Without bees as a source of pollination, food shortages and increased expenses in food production lie in our future.
Backyard beekeeping, which is burgeoning practice around the world, is a powerful solution, which little by little increases bee populations and diversifies their geographic presence. Beekeeping can be an entertaining and educational addition to your garden or homestead. After my own adventures and mishaps as a “beek”, here are a few observations about the beehive collective and words of advice.
1. No course, book, blog, or mentor will ever fully prepare you for beekeeping, but they are all invaluable resources. Before populating my first hive, I read extensively, attended a weekend beekeeping school, and talked to many seasoned beekeepers in the region. These resources combined got me started, but they also left me unprepared for the problems and issues that I have encountered. Bees have much to teach you; the real learning begins once you catch your first swarm or empty the first package of bees into the hive.
2. Beekeeping is about making firm decisions and then undermining them. When I was first learning about bees, I made a number of decisions regarding how I planned to tend them. I wouldn’t use a smoker; I’d only use a top mounted tray feeder, and I would try to split my own hives, etc. For every firm decision I made, I quickly found myself reversing course based on circumstance and conditions. For my first months of beekeeping, I was dead set against utilizing a smoker because I felt it too invasive. However, when it came time to start mounting feeders, nearly a week of grey skies (which makes bees more hostile) and dropping temperatures (meaning increased health risk for the bees when opening the hive) forced my hand. Remaining flexible and open-minded is the best approach; otherwise you’ll lock yourself into a scenario that will put either you or the bees at risk.
3. Your vision of a serene garden beehive, predictable, well-managed bees, and an abundance of bee products is unlikely to manifest. Pictures of beehives are pristine. Real life beehives are another story. I started out with freshly painted equipment in a well-groomed section of my yard. By the end of my first growing season with bees, I had stacks of mismatched hive bodies and weedy patches surrounding the hives that the bees had no intention of letting me trim. If you’re a neat freak, plan on spending a lot of money on setting up your apiary and understand that you’re limiting your options when you need to catch swarms, split hives, and otherwise manage bees.
4. Every beehive, location, and season is unique. At the peak of my beekeeping experience, I managed four hives side by side. Each hive had its own personality and levels of hostility or docility; each had management preferences that needed to be observed and recorded. The differences between sunlight exposure between hives located two feet apart from one another created notably different bee behavior schedules. One hive would thrive next to a struggling one. The next season, the trend would be reversed. Lots of pictures and detailed notes will help unravel the subtlety and nuance of beekeeping. Over time, these records will allow you to understand correlations between conditions and behaviors building your intuitive capacity as a beekeeper.
5. Bees are sentient beings with their own ideas of management, survival needs, and sense of place. One of the biggest mistakes I made early on was not overcoming my own need to constantly check on my bees. I’m a big proponent of letting hives handle what bees do best. Management of hives should be focused on intervention and strengthening strategies rather than continuous micromanagement. In the bees’ minds we are intruders and we create stress. Working to minimize the stress of hive disturbance is arguably one of the best things you can do for your bees.
6. Despite the best planning efforts, circumstances that will not conform to expectations will inevitably arise. During my first year of beekeeping, I experienced a queen death about two months after populating a hive. A beehive cannot survive without a queen. Luckily a local bee guru had queens available to stabilize my queenless hives. At the end of the scenario, I had lost the original queen, the hive killed my replacement queen, and subsequently raised their own replacement queen. The hive eventually achieved a suitable strength only to be wiped out another few months later by hive beetles. None of my bee schooling prepared me for the politics and tragedy that occurs within the hive.
7. Bees are a part of nature. You see your bees as a way to help nature, but you will find yourself at times battling nature to protect your bees. After making it through the bulk of winter following my first season, I was happy to see that my hives were thriving on an uncharacteristically warm winter day. A week later, after a sustained cold snap, I lost every hive. The bees, all living in hives full of honey, had been unable to move during the cold and starved to death despite being mere inches from another frame full of honey. This devastating experience repeated itself the following year. My bees were again wiped out during my latest season by a hungry bear that had shaken itself from torpor in search of food. In addition to battling the stresses induced by humans, bees are fighting odds for their survival within nature. Hive beetles, varroa mite, bears, rodents, and climate are all challenges I’ve encountered. Nature is a force we can attempt to mitigate, but we can never hope to control it.
8. Beekeeping is about the bees and their well-being, not the honey. People always ask me how much honey I’ve gotten from my bees. The answer is none. Beekeeping requires a philosophical orientation. When I first started I had dreams of honey, mead, and propolis-based home remedies. Given the struggles my bees were facing, I have never felt comfortable making their lives harder by reducing their food stores. As a beekeeper, you have to keep the health of the hives at the forefront of your mind. Honey may seem like a lucrative venture or a way to gain favor from your neighbors, but the ethics and risk of harvesting honey may limit your take.
9. Building relationships with other beekeepers is key. Beekeeping can often be a struggle, so. it really helps to find ways to network with other beekeepers to borrow equipment, compare notes, and figure out what the hell is going on each season. Unraveling the mysteries of bees depends on having a large body of information to which you can compare your bees and a group of friends that understands your obsessive rants about them. Consider joining a local beekeeping club or online listserv.
10. Beekeeping is an exercise in science, art, mythology, chance, and magic. If beekeeping were simply an exercise in placing a hive in your garden and following a prescriptive path to management, it would lack much of its appeal. Bees are an amazing opportunity to observe nature on a finite and observable scale. Managing bees requires an intuitive knowledge that is constantly evolving and adapting to conditions.