A personal note to cranky old beekeepers

Some "old" beekeepers don't seem to realize times have changed. This is not your grandfather's world.

“Old” has nothing to do with age but everything to do with attitude.

Inside: Times have changed since your grandfather kept bees. The cranky old beekeepers that drive us nuts are not those grandfathers, but their children, people who don’t realize the world has changed. Originally posted February 2013.

Sometimes it’s hard to be equable when people make ridiculous comments. For the most part, I succeed until someone writes, “My grandfather kept healthy bees for 50 years. If that method worked for him, it will work for me.”

Great. Fine. So why are you asking me how to fix your problem?

Based on other things they say, I’m guessing that many of these folks are about 60, give or take. If I add 20 to 25 years per generation, I can assume their grandfathers were born 100 to 110 years ago. Those newborn babes probably started beekeeping 10-20 years later (especially if they did it for 50 years) which means they began in 1910 to 1930.

The numbers don’t have to be exact. The point is that they were beekeeping

  • Before varroa mites
  • Before CCD
  • Before IAPV
  • Before small hive beetles
  • Before pervasive use of pesticides
  • Before migratory beekeeping
  • Before climate change
  • Before multi-lane highways
  • Before coast-to-coast suburbia
  • Before massive monoculture crops
  • Before genetically modified organisms
  • Before widespread habitat fragmentation
  • Before Africanized honey bees
  • Before polluted air, water, soil, and flowers
  • Before California almonds

Furthermore, if you belong to this group, your grandfather probably heated bathwater on the stove, got the news from a crotchety radio with hot tubes inside, and made calls from a telephone forever attached to the wall. If he had a car at all, he started it with a hand crank. Fast food meant it was running when shot. Heck, your grandfather needed a tool just to open a bottle of Coke.

But hey, if you think the old ways will work for you, knock yourself out. But if you are going to make inane statements about beekeeping, if you have no clue that the world has changed, then you have no business sending digital code to my computer. Write me a letter instead. Use a fountain pen and ink, paper and envelope, and a postage stamp to tell me the old ways are better.

Learn from the past, but move on

If you think I don’t care about the past, you are wrong. We learn from those who have gone before us. We are inspired by those who have tried and failed and those who have tried and triumphed.

What’s more, “cranky and old” has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude. Young people can be dull and prejudiced just as old people can be alert and receptive. It’s got to do with your brain, not the year you were born.

When we study the past, we see that a serious mistake is made by hanging on to a tradition, a belief, or an idea that is no longer sound in a modern world. Yes, things may have been better in a former time, but we are not there, we are here. We have to deal with things the way they are, not the way we would like them to be.

So take care of your bees by remembering that this is not your grandfather’s planet. This is the environment we’ve provided for our bees and ourselves, and it’s often not pretty. But it is what it is. Make the best of it and learn to handle it . . . that’s the better way to bee.

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  • I like your style. The past is the past. I wish things were what I remember them to be when I started beekeeping in 1977.

  • Very, very well put…
    More of us need this type of reviewing.
    You have my vote…
    When will you be ready to run for President..?

  • Yep! Very well put! Often the apple does not fall far from the tree when it comes to generational animal husbandry of any kind. Infuriating.

  • This is a stitch. Can’t wait for the next old-guy pronouncement, so I can say, “Right…and your mommaw heated your poppaw’s bathwater on a wood stove!” (Kentucky dialect)

    Even absent the more recent threats, we can’t assume the old ways were 100% wise and wonderful. I have heard hair-raising stories of animal neglect that were told to make the point that “sometimes ain’t nothin’ you can do,” when the story in fact proved the opposite. Locally, it was routine to keep hives in pasture, where cattle knocked them over while scratching their backs, or horses got in them to eat the honey. They were set “off a ways” from dwellings and were destroyed by skunks, who ate honey, comb, larvae and all.

    And as long ago as 100 years, “Paris green” was dipped out of buckets and brushed onto tobacco plants to reduce suckering. You could lose colonies if the tobacco wasn’t “topped” in bud, so that the bees were drawn to arsenic-contaminated blooms. The other night at our club, the local master beekeeper fussed about a speaker who proclaimed himself “non-chemical.” The old guy has the susceptibility to “modern” methods which (ironically) afflicts many older minds.

    But you’re right, it’s not old or young, modern/traditional, chemical/natural. It’s hard work, care and attention, common sense plus making the best of technology. Finding myself secretary of our club, I will borrow your list (with attribution of course) for next month’s handouts. Thanks again!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

    • It makes you wonder how much of that Paris green got smoked along with the tobacco. I’m sure it was plenty.

  • I thought your comments were a trifle curmudgeonly – if that is how you spell it – but entertaining anyway. I guess someone just pushed you too far and the red mist descended for a while 🙂

      • Keep it fresh, intellectually honest, and from the heart. This is what we need and what are are offering us. Many thanks!

  • Entertaining and informative … plus an elbow-in-the-ribs reminder to avoid that cliched phrase ‘Back in my day’ when giving advice. Thanks Rusty!

  • Thank you for making me laugh. I mean really laugh. I’m not a bee keeper but I’ve dealt with similar comments on lots of similar topics, so I could relate. I really appreciated this post and I think it should be an essay on NPR. Hearing you read this out loud would make a lot of people laugh. Please, please try to get a bigger audience for this. (If not NPR then maybe an opinion piece in a large print newspaper?)

  • I like your thinking. I’m 52. Feel 80 sometimes and act like a 2 year old other times. I’ve only had bees for 2 years and am absolutely facinated by them. In the past 2 years, I’ve already seen quite a few design improvements with trays and tools. Imagine how many minor modifications have occurred in the past 50 years.

    Good modifications can help us bee more effective.

  • Really? Not a single negative comment to your rant about the old, young, “fountain pen” users, people that don’t think things change, people that do think things change,….?

    NPR uses an actual ratio of positive to negative comments to reflect reader response. I think I would have to reconsider quite a fee things about myself if 100% of those that read what I wrote agreed with me 100% of the time. Or, God forbid, if I reflected that type of agreement in the responses I chose to print.

    I’m 82, never used a fountain pen, cranked a car, heated bath water on a woodstove or most of the things you mentioned when you weren’t talking about old people. However, I did keep bees long before varroa, the last time I lost a colony overwinter was in the early 80’s, I do treat for varroa now but I am very picky about what I use. At the risk of talking about “the good old days”, some weren’t so good. It hadn’t been that long since most of the country had one approved matricide.

    I only keep around a dozen colonies now but have kept up to 400 and worked another full time job at the same time. That statement has nothing to do with my age, work ethic or greed. I just love bees. I guess it might have a little to do with age; I was young enough to be able to pull it off with just brute force and awkwardness.

    Migratory beekeeping isn’t specific to the almond crop – things change – at times it has been clover or alfalfa or just name any crop grown in this country that requires insect pollination. If the farmers plant it and it requires bees to get a crop, be it fruit, vegetable or seed, they will, and they almost always have paid to get the bees to it and the beekeepers will be lined up to get their checks. They’ll load them on whatever means of transportation is available, be it a semi tractor trailer, a buckboard or burro and drive through that sea of suburbia awash in pesticides and crawling with genetically modified organisms just to get their piece of that almighty dollar bill.

    I won’t bother you with any sage advice or words of wisdom other than to say that a lot of the silly, amateurish complaints, and they’re mostly complaints, I read on this and other pages are problems caused by the bee ‘keeper’ not the bees or the pesticides nor the parasites.

    I believe you folks call it “user error”.

  • Hmph to the new-fangled fountain pen. In my day we sharpened our own quills. And ink was a solid block that had to be ground and mixed with water.

    Seriously, in that list of what’s changed since 1910, you left out we have three or four times as many humans now, and every one of them wants to grab a chunk of ecosystem and turn it into a lawn, plus they all want to eat, so there goes some more diversity. : (