Should I keep bees?

Beekeeping goes in and out of popularity with the times. And if you haven’t noticed, right now beekeeping is the “in” thing to do. We are seeing the first major spike in hobby beekeeping since the 1970s when twentysomethings living in Volkswagen buses decided to save the planet by growing marijuana and keeping bees. Back then every hippie commune had a bee hive and a goat. At the time, my best friend and her husband even allowed the family goat to share their bed. (Okay, off topic but too weird not to mention.)

But then, as now, most people get in and out of beekeeping within a few years. I have no statistics on this but I hear from thousands of beekeepers. People start, spend a lot of money on equipment, read everything in print, and go to endless meetings. Even so, that first colony usually dies—if not the first year, then the second. The would-be beekeeper then buys the second—or even third—colony, but when that too dies, he gives up and sells his equipment on eBay.

I’m not being cynical; I’m just telling you what I see, what I hear. Personally, I’m down to the fewest number of hives I’ve had for years. It’s too much work for me to maintain a lot of hives and the website too. Something had to go.

I’m also not saying this short cycle is a bad thing. If you keep bees for awhile, learn a lot, and enjoy the experience, it is okay to go on to something else. But for many, the process is expensive and frustrating.

Some of the issues to consider:

  • Expense: Beekeeping equipment is not cheap. Shipping is not cheap. Even bees are not cheap, nor are queens. “Complete hive kits” are notoriously incomplete. There is always one more thing to buy.
  • Time: The bees themselves don’t require a lot of time, but things must be done at the right time, so you end up scheduling other activities around the bees. Also, most new beekeepers spend vast amounts of time learning and reading. This is important, but it cuts into other things in your life . . . just saying.
  • Space: You need a good place for your hive. It may seem charming to keep your hive on your little back porch, but eventually you may want to use your porch without feeling intimidated. It surprises me how often beekeepers write to say they want to move their hive a little further from the house, or further from their property line, wood shed, dog house, clothesline or whatever. Don’t just set it somewhere—think about it first.
  • Neighbors and local ordinances: These two items account for many lost beekeepers. Even though it seems like everyone is into bees right now, as soon as you actually have them, every third person you meet will be “terribly allergic.” And the threat of swarming can keep you awake at night. “What if they swarm into the street and cause a traffic accident?” “What if the swarm scares the neighbor lady who then falls off a ladder and breaks her neck?” The fear of lawsuits can make you crazy.
  • Difficulty: In spite of all those book titles, beekeeping is not easy. Oh, it seems easy in the beginning. You install a package and the colony erupts with bees—more bees than you’ve ever seen in your life. They are so healthy and so robust that you sneak a taste of honey that first year—and maybe skip a few of the winter preparations. They are so strong there is no way they will die in the winter. Then, come March when you’re all excited about the spring flow, no bees. Keeping bees alive from year to year is not easy.
  • The learning curve: Many people who start to keep bees know nothing about them, but they willingly put their heart into learning. That is great, but to be a good beekeeper you also need to know about your local climate, weather patterns, and freeze dates. It helps to know your local plants, including honey plants, pollen plants, what bees visit and what they don’t. It helps to know about other critters too, about wasps and wax moths and hive beetles and Varroa mites and tracheal mites and viruses and microsporidians and bacteria and fungi. It helps to know basic biology, chemistry, and physics. It helps to know something about pesticides and the difference between pathogens, parasites, predators, and pests. A bee doesn’t live in a vacuum and neither can a beekeeper.
  • That guilty feeling: Many folks feel terrible when their colonies die. The thing is, you can do everything right and still lose them. Honey bees are assaulted from every direction by a host of enemies that we don’t fully understand. When you lose a colony, you can’t beat yourself up over it. It happens. You try to learn from it and then move forward.

In spite of how it sounds, I’m not trying to discourage you from keeping bees. Heck, no. What would I do for an audience? Seriously, though, think about some of the issues before you jump in. If you still want to try it, go for it. You will learn much, you will never forget time spent with the bees, and you will develop a new appreciation for the environment around you. Just remember that beekeeping is a roller coaster ride where you’re down as often as you’re up—and you can get a bit dizzy in the process.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Christy Lemoine on Facebook
Reply

I love how honest this is. I am a first year keeper, who studied for 3 years before getting my first 3 hives. It amazes me when I go to a meeting and some other first year dosent even know what a queen cell is or why shes got 20 of them in her hive. I highly suggest everyone take the time to study their finances, local laws, and personal time that they can invest into the hobby before they try it. Expect to spend 2x the money that you think you will getting set up. Remeber in the spring, if your hive survived, it will swarm if not split and may swarm even if you do split. Figure out where all the extra hives are going to go and how you will get the equipment every year. Oh! and remember all hives act different!

John
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If you are diligent you can dramatically reduce swarming, even with colonies that come through the winter really strong. Giving them space where they need it and prudent re-queening helps dramatically. Old queens and crowding will push them out, and swarming often occurs much earlier than we think.

Rusty
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Hi Christy,

You make excellent points. It is so easy to order a hive and some bees, but so very difficult to go on from there. I have spent an extraordinary amount of money on bees and I absolutely refuse to add it up. No matter how large I think the number is, I know in my heart it is even larger. And the time? I don’t even want to think about it. I wrote this post because I’m in the midst of helping a beekeeper I’ve never met with a legal problem brought on by her bees, and it made me think of all the things that can go wrong.

Charlie
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Everyone who is thinking about keeping bees should read this article first. Too many people go into it not being forewarned and wind up very disappointed when their hives die.

Janet Wilson
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Wonderful information . . . My first year hive boomed and swarmed (no one warned me that even a first year hive can swarm) into the fussy neighbour’s yard. He was livid. I immediately began a search for beeyard space outside our urban neighbourhood, and because we are close to rural properties, I had good options. But a lot of urban beekeepers may live in a city so large they do not have alternatives (although I feel quite wistful, noting all the empty, empty rooftops in the city . . . they should all have bees on them!). But beekeeping is like parenthood; you just won’t understand what it truly involves until you get there. At least you can sell the bees and equipment! So I would say, if you are interested, go for it. You may find it’s not your thing, but you won’t know till you try.

Herb
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RUSTY …. I love how you write the truth! Write on …. I love reading your blogs! Can’t wait till the next sermon.

Rusty
Reply

Sermon? You’re kidding, right?

Paulette Minatre
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Thanks – Excellent article 4 me as a 1st year beekeeper. I’ve experienced a swarm, the season joys, and the unknowns of next season, but the rewards of watching what the girls were attracted to, sitting with my evening glass of wine observing their magnificent lifestyle empowers me to keep my passion going.

John
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Bees first came into my life in 1964. On one hand it’s been a fascinating learning experience and introduction to the world of entomology. We’ve done hundreds of farmer’s markets and focused on all the standard products from the hive and a few outliers. Never, ever start with just one hive. You have far too good a chance that you’ll lose it in one manner or another and you’ll obsess about it. It is a challenge. It’s hot. It’s heavy. It’s frustrating. Mites are frustrating. Colony collapse is frustrating. Your neighbor’s obsession with pesticides is frustrating. Skunks are frustrating. Bears are frustrating. Having said that, winter is just around the corner in MN so I’m starting to wrap the hives up. This is the time of the year that I tell my wife “I’m done.” Of course sometime after the first of year I’ll put on my snowshoes and check out the hives. The honey is fine. Just don’t expect to make any money, and you’ll spend far more than you think you will on both things you need and things you don’t. You will be a hit at any parties, however.

John
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I’m looking at the gallery. The hives from Illinois on the cement blocks are pretty unsafe unless this is just for the photo. You don’t want them tipping over on you or your dog.

Lee Mike
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Now that was a great post. Enjoyed the read, every word is true for a new beekeeper or an old beekeeper.

Tricia Lockhart
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Rusty is definitely honest – and more than that makes us THINK about our bees, our environment and even our motives. I always feel, though, that for all that she encourages us to forgive ourselves for being human, for having Other Things in our lives. Add to that she has a very scientific approach on which we can anchor our learning. So sermon is not quite the word I’d use – but perhaps I’ve just heard the wrong sermons in my time!
Tricia

Honey Bee Suite on Facebook
Reply

Phillip commented on Honey Bee Suite:

Expense: check!
Time: check!
Space: check!
Neighbours: double-check!
Difficulty: check!
Learning curve: check!
Guilty feeling: not yet (because I haven’t lost a colony so far).

There’s always next year.

I appreciate your words. For me, I admit to getting somewhat drawn into the mystique of beekeeping, like it’s some kind of wonderful, Zenful occupation. Which it can be. But so can milking cows. I’ll stop there. Thanks for your post. I’ll pass it on to my Facebook beekeeping pals.

Ron
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No VW wagon for us. In the 60s we had a Chevy van with a wood bathtub-like raised roof. Except for being family-centered and employed, we did all that other stuff. Both planted gardens as children. Sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, geese, one beautiful daughter, huge gardens, all of it except the dope and free thing. Miss chickens a lot
but it just won’t work here.

We love our vegetable and flower gardens, 80-tree orchard, vineyard, bramble fruit and bees. Don’t recommend olive trees here but we tried. Last winter we lost both hives. One starved (shame is a heavy load) one just died and left lots of honey and pollen. Life is a mystery. Our feral hive is over 5 years and going strong. The girls are bringing little tight almost orange pollen packets in even now. Not a lot but every 50 bees or so.

So, don’t look for us to give up on bees. Ever. Both hives seem light so we will be feeding some through the winter. It’s a journey and a hoot.

Thanks for your honest, direct attitude.

Ron and Lois R.

Phillip
Reply

Expense: check!
Time: check!
Space: check!
Neighbours: double-check!
Difficulty: check!
Learning curve: check!
Guilty feeling: not yet (because I haven’t lost a colony so far).

There’s always next year.

I appreciate your words. For me, I admit to getting somewhat drawn into the mystique of beekeeping, like it’s some kind of wonderful, Zenful occupation. Which it can be. But so can milking cows. I’ll stop there. Thanks for your post. I’ll pass it on to my Facebook beekeeping pals.

Ken Rhodes
Reply

Well, being a new beekeeper, I was a little intimidated by the latest post. But really that is good. Keeping bees is enjoyable, just blundering along through the summer, watching the girls come and go. Being worried about, oh no, we lost the queen, are they storing enough honey for the winter, wonder why there is no brood, we lost the queen again(?!), we have a laying worker, quick, what does the book say about that(?), combining a nuc with existing colony, now we have bees, oh, varroa mites, being robbed, fall inspection . . . Really, this has not bothered me, though I wish we could have avoided much of this. Okay, so lets try to make it through the winter.

It’s kinda like a kid with a new toy, when the newness wears of, well, now its not as much fun to play with. Not that that is how I really feel. It just brings back to mind the responsibility of keeping these little creatures. I want the best for them, and am doing my level best to help them so they will survive ’til next year. I have plans to get more colonies, some in the country and one more here in town, so I want them to survive then I will feel successful (for the first year).

So your post is sobering but reminds us that we need to be well-studied and informed, do what we can to make life a little easier for the “girls”, if we can. If we (they) suffer losses, move ahead, regroup, learn from the experience. I’d like to tell those little bees, “Live long and prosper”, though I don’t think they would know what I was saying. So I will just continue to care for them the best I know how, continue to learn about them, and hope for the best! :) (Winter grease patties are going on today, hope they like them.)

Ken Rhodes
Willow Creek Honey Producers

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

My only comment would be that the newness never wears off. Trust me. They are always up to something you don’t expect. It’s the main reason some people keep bees for 50 or 60 years. Just this week, when I learned honey bees bite parasites, I was amazed. Whoa. Who woulda thunk it?

suz
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It’s great to hear a truthful description of beekeeping. I was very much confused by what I was being told, “anyone can keep bees” with “beekeeping is easy”. Had I known then what I know now, I really don’t think I would have gotten bees. I have worked extra hard at learning from books, online and my new circle of beekeeping friends. I have done everything I think I should, homemade pollen patties, moisture quilt, essential oil, lots of sugar syrup feeding, homemade fondant so that there are no chemicals or additives, etc. I live in a suburban neighborhood with a fence around the whole yard. I was shocked when I walked into the yard to find my hives all torn apart.

Rusty
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Suz,

Did this just happen? What tore your hives apart? Do you know? Are any bees remaining?

suz
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My honest opinion, after beekeeping from April to October, is that if you are a single mom ( and are like me who thinks they can do everything and usually do), I wish I would have known how extremely time intensive keeping bees is, if you are trying to do everything right. My daughter said the other day, “Mom, all you ever do is do bee stuff and all you ever have is more bee stuff to do. You never have time to do anything else.” And I have plenty of bee stuff do do over the winter too.

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