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.