Learning to fly
“What is the specific gravity of 1:1 syrup? I want to make it right for my bees.”
So what happened? Did your bees lose their little hydrometers? I’m repeating myself here, but sugar syrup is a man-made invention. A long time ago, some human decided that a ratio of one part sugar to one part water resembled nectar. One-to-one syrup—or any other type—does not exist in nature, so close is good enough.
What does exist in nature is nectar. Nectar contains sugars, water, and nutrients in an infinite variety of ratios. No two species of plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no two flowers on the same plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no single flower has the same ratio in the morning as in the afternoon. The bees are okay with this. They get it. You don’t.
The thing is, you can’t keep bees based on formulas, nor can you keep bees based on a list of rules. Bees are creatures that don’t come with instructions.
Think of it this way. When you learn to drive a car you are given a book of rules and maybe a course in driver education. You read the book, pass the test. Still, when most people start to drive, they glance back and forth between the road directly in front of them and the speedometer. This doesn’t work very well because everything else is blocked out.
When you drive, things happen that are not in the book. A doe leaps from the foliage followed by two more in spots, a poodle in your path stops to sniff, a football wobbles overhead followed by a kid looking up. Storms make puddles of unknown depth, potholes dent the pavement, boulders crash from road cuts.
When you least expect it, black ice releases your rear tires, or a glossy-nailed girl texts across six lanes. Suddenly, a drunk weaves in front of you, boys with partially-formed frontal lobes race side-by-side, and here in Washington, freeway bridges drop all of a piece into the river below.
You don’t have to drive very long before you learn to adapt, anticipate, adjust. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. And so it must be with beekeeping: you read the book, take the course, but then you have to use your brain.
I don’t teach beekeeping classes. I don’t teach them because nobody would come. Nobody would come because I would be mean.
That’s right, mean. The first week, when everyone was eager to learn the parts of a hive and how to light a smoker, I would teach bee biology, reproductive cycles, and population dynamics. Next, when they thought they had enough science for a lifetime, we would move on to Varroa mites—yes, mite biology, life cycles, and population dynamics. Treating mites like an afterthought is our first beekeeping mistake.
From there we would move on to—I’m not kidding—botany: plant life cycles, plant reproduction, pollination, and the composition of nectar and pollen. This would be followed by the evolution of plant-pollinator mutualisms. Bees could not exist without flowers, so treating flowers like an afterthought is our second beekeeping mistake.
Once you understand honey bees, Varroa mites, and flowers, all the rest of beekeeping is intuitive. You can figure out the details if you know the principles. In the same way you can intuit driving situations, you can intuit beekeeping situations. Armed with the principles, you don’t need to ask the specific gravity of sugar syrup or when to add a super: you can figure it out all by yourself. You’ve learned how to fly. Now that’s beekeeping.