With April comes the inevitable question, “What advice would you give a new beekeeper?” I seriously hate this question, mostly because it is fraught with undertones of philosophy.
But once again, I will attempt an answer. Please don’t write back and exclaim, “But that’s just your opinion!” Of course, it’s my opinion. If you want someone else’s opinion, you are in the wrong place.
Save the conclusions for later
First, I offer a pair of do nots. Do not spend your first year worrying about hive style (Warré, TBH, Langstroth) and defending your choice. Do not spend your first year worrying about management style (conventional, treatment-free, biodynamic) and defending your choice. You will develop your own thoughts on these issues as you gain experience, and you can always alter those choices later. A writer doesn’t develop style until he knows grammar, punctuation, and spelling. A beekeeper doesn’t develop style until he knows bees.
Begin with the basics
Instead, spend your first year learning everything you can about the two species you will be raising in your hives—honey bees and Varroa mites. By “everything” I mean biology, life cycles, population dynamics, and the interaction between these two housemates. Most new beekeepers make the mistake of underestimating the impact of Varroa on their colonies. You can’t know too much about bees or mites.
Second, learn everything you can about flowers, pollination, and the coevolution of bees and flowering plants. If you don’t understand pollination ecology, blooming cycles, flower morphology, and plant-pollinator mutualisms, you cannot be an effective beekeeper. New beekeepers often have no idea when nectar flows occur in their area nor when to expect a dearth, let alone how to prepare for them.
Learn the language
Whether you are a fashion designer, nuclear physicist, IT geek, or a beekeeper, you have to learn the words—the jargon—that go with it. Beekeepers waste a lot of time miscommunicating with each other. Beekeepers use words without knowing their meaning, they say one thing when they mean another, they use seven different terms for one item. The more they show off, the more their words devolve into mush.
No wonder it appears that ten beekeepers have fifteen answers to the same problem—since no one understands what anyone else is saying, everything sounds like a new idea. You will get better answers if you ask the right questions using the correct words.
My philosophy of logic-based beekeeping is premised on the idea that you know lots about the world around you because of your own life experiences. In other words, even if you didn’t study science in school, you understand certain physical, chemical, and biological properties because you see them every day. You step out of the shower and shiver. You boil water and the steam goes up, not down. You set a cold beer on the table and it leaves a ring.
But for some strange reason, most of us forget everything we know when we open a beehive. We forget that warm air rises, we forget that living things respire, we forget that more mouths require more food, we forget that mold grows on damp surfaces. Basically, most of the “mysterious” things we see in a beehive can be explained with everyday knowledge. They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.
If someone gives you a piece of advice and it doesn’t feel right, or it doesn’t makes sense, ask for an explanation. If they can’t explain their reasoning, move on. Beekeeping is not a secret society with chants, handshakes, and passwords. Advice should be transparent and logical. If it’s not, forgetaboutit.
Play with your bees
Watch your bees. Enjoy them. Talk to them. Delight in their being. For most of us, bees are pets. We can learn much by simply observing them in the hive, in the field, in a flower. Feel the tingle as they stroll up your arm. Revel in the power of their sting. I know of no better way to learn about bees than to watch them do what they do.
The beginning is not for perfection
No one expects perfection the first time they bake a cake, write a computer program, or fold into the lotus position. Yet we all expect to harvest gallons of honey our first season and overwinter without a hiccup. Put aside the idea of perfection and concentrate on learning. Beekeeping is a process. You learn as you go. You try and fail or you try and succeed. And then you try something else. Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end. There is no end.
All beekeeping is local
This is probably the single most misunderstood fact in all of beekeeping. Your microclimate is different than the one across the street or down the road. The plants that grow in your region are different—or bloom at different times—than those in another state or province. Your seasons change at different times, you have different strains of bees, different pesticides in your environment, and different amounts of rain, noise, humidity, habitat, and agriculture. You cannot make rules for beekeeping because beekeeping for you is different than beekeeping for anyone else.
It is this single issue—localness—that makes learning bees more important than learning beekeeping. You have to understand bees so you can look inside your hive and make your management decision. Your situation is unlike any other. You can ask for advice as long as you understand that what works for Sarah might not work for Joe. Ultimately there is no recipe for success. There is no recipe for bees.