miscellaneous musings muddled thinking

An open letter to Phillip and HB

Dear Phillip and HB,

I read your words of frustration with sadness. You have both been told how beekeeping “should” be done and then felt discouraged and annoyed when it didn’t come together. And when you try to think outside the proverbial box, you get criticized by the self-proclaimed beekeeping elite.

In my very first beekeeping post I wrote,

“The answer to most beekeeping questions should start with the words, “It depends.” The one-size-fits-all answer simply doesn’t work very often or very well.”

In that post I was specifically thinking about the rift that exists between the hobby and commercial beekeepers, and I explained it this way:

The management options for these groups are different. They have to be. We can learn the most about bees–and beekeeping–by keeping an open mind to the goals and problems of each group. Yes, there are those of us who go to great effort to spare every bee when we enter a hive. We brush them aside, shoo them away, talk to them in reassuring tones. We are, in fact, nuts. But a commercial beekeeper with 1500 hives simply doesn’t have time for the same light touch. He or she is a businessperson with deadlines, contracts, and responsibilities. The commercial beekeeper keeps food on all our tables, but does he care any less about his bees? Absolutely not.

But as time has passed, I feel even bigger rifts exist between the so-called all-natural camp and those who employ various other methods, and between Langstroth keepers and keepers who use other equipment. Each group tries to impose its techniques and values on everyone else and it just doesn’t work.

In my third post I wrote about how “all the challenges are local”—meaning that what works in one climatic region doesn’t work well in another, or what is good in the country may not be good in the city. In fact, these extreme differences are exactly the reason I started writing. I simply do not believe there is any one “right” or “wrong” way to keep bees . . . there are just “different” ways, and beekeeping is one long game of “try-it.” Why is this so hard for people to accept?

HB, if you want to super your top-bar hives, go for it. You don’t need permission from the know-it-all top-bar keepers who try to discourage creativity. Remember that Mr. Langstroth and Mr. Warre and Mr. Top-Bar were all experimenters. That is exactly how they happened onto something new. But I have no doubt they–like many great thinkers–were derided by their contemporaries. And if the so-called natural beekeepers think it is unnatural to super a top-bar, I’d like them to explain why they don’t just release their bees into the wild. Now that would be natural.

Phillip, you are not a bad beekeeper if you want to use foundation. The people who are telling you otherwise are living in the balmy California sunshine. You have an extremely short season and you don’t have time for the bees to draw out all that comb and raise half a billion drones and put-up honey for themselves and put up more for you. Something has to give. To be a good beekeeper, you need a working knowledge of bee biology and bee behavior . . . not a set of rules decreed by a cult.

Although I’ve had the typical ups and downs, overall I’ve been very successful with my bees. But I don’t belong to any one camp. I’ve stolen ideas from the natural guys and the commercial guys, from Warre keepers, top-bar keepers, National keepers, and Langstroth keepers. I’ve taken advice from those with 50 years of experience and those with 50 days, and from beekeepers I’ve liked and ones I haven’t. I’ve used plenty of ideas from non-beekeepers as well. There are so many points of view, so much clever thinking out there, that I always have a backlog of things I want to try.

If we keep an open mind, the possibilities are endless. Once we shut down, we are the ones living in a box . . . and the bees are having a belly laugh.

So, you two, be sure to let me know how your ideas work out. I’m eager to learn more from you both.


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  • Thank you for a very sensible post. I’ve been distressed by the rifts you mention too, and like you pinch ideas from wherever that seem to work for my bees and me. As you say, it must be important not to be shut in the box of dogma.

  • Thanks, Rusty, for the words of encouragement. Although I kicked myself out of a couple of forums over this very topic (supering a TBH), my blog rant wasn’t for me but rather was on the behalf of others. It distresses me, this Roadie vs. Mtn Biker, Skier vs. Boarder, Langstroth vs. “Alternative Hive” mentality we endure. It’s a reflection of humanity that is sad. Come on people, let’s put on a face that, when we look in the mirror, makes us proud!

    And for the record: I put a Warré hive box on top of my top-bar hive last year, when I thought my colony was going to swarm. That action put an immediate stop to the bearding, and coincidentally I ended up up with 7 full combs of honey. So I guess you could say I have “supered” but I think of it as swarm prevention. I doubt I could have that kind of “success” again if I planned it. We shall see.

  • That sums up the whole reason I read your stuff. I would think I’m not “following the rules” and get discouraged as a new beekeeper. Not anymore thanks to you. I try stuff and learn and I know I’m not alone now.

  • I’m glad you wrote this post too, Rusty. I just went and read Phillip’s most recent post (man, I’m behind on my reading big time) and had a bit of heartbreak too. I agree, I’m sick of the cults too. More beekeeping support and idea-sharing; less dogma and people feeling bad for not living up to arbitrary ideals.

  • I’m contemplating supering my top bar. Haven’t figured out the best way to approach it yet, but I will. If not this year, then next year, with another try.

    Yours is the only bee blog I read. I belong to a beekeeping list, but mostly I read. I don’t engage. The crabby “you have to do it this way” people are loud, and if they have something useful to say, I keep it. If they don’t, I don’t.

    I have two Warre hives, two Langstroths, and a top bar. This year I had to renovate a Langstroth, and I’m approaching it something like a Warre – I’m adding boxes from the bottom. Want to see how it goes. It’ll be interesting, if nothing else! I’m willing to experiment, and I’m independent and stubborn enough to do my own thing even if people say no. Sometimes it blows up, sometimes it works beautifully. 😉 I’ve been learning WHY some of the practices are the way they are first hand, and that some of them may just be “that’s how we’ve always done it” with no real reason behind it. It’s all good.

    I’d like to say that for the most part, my local beekeeping association is very open to all kinds of weird things. There are a few naysayers, but for the most part it’s full of fairly new keepers who are willing to try stuff. I like that.

  • A lot of beekeepers tell you that you “have” to do it one way or another to justify their own lack of creativity. I sound like a smart ass but I’m serious! I think there is a basic level of experience, knowledge and confidence that most new beekeepers lack, so it is useful to follow some rules and general ideas in the beginning, but once you understand the nature of bees and hives, too much experience and knowledge can practically become a handicap.

    Also, a lot of rigid rules come from people who are selling something. Hmmm, I wonder what that relationship is.

    I worry about many people getting into TBH beekeeping simply because it’s cheap without knowledge about the best practices for those hives or how they function in their local environment, but I try not to say anything & just watch and learn…. because, really, mediocre beekeepers are still more interesting than non-beekeepers, and the learning curve is steep for all of us.

  • I have been chased through the halls of cyberspace by both camps bearing torches and pitch forks. I have read everything humanly possible, and have come to certain conclusions that the All Natural Camp has some skeletons in their closet, that they don’t want brought out into the light of day. After all, they base their little cottage industry on one primary person in Arizona. Her bees have African genes, more than I would want. Not to mention the Cape Bee genes. That is documented fact. When I brought it up, all h@## broke loose! Oh well, they’ll get over it.

    The commercial beekeepers are just a no nonsense bunch of fellows. If you get too bee cuddly, they will turn you into their private joke. A person with 1, 2, 3, or 10 hives, has a lot of time to experiment and wonder about things that a commercial beek would think silly. Commercial beekeepers don’t have time for it.

    I decided a long time ago to leave them all to their own thing, and just do mine. I lurk everywhere, and I only post here, occasionally, until the torches and pitch forks come out, that is. I just try to take the best from both worlds, and use it to my advantage.

  • Yup, I’m living and learning from all this. I mention in my latest post that the Backwards Beekeeping methods are not working out well in my local environment. Like you said, Rusty, in the extremely short summer we have in Newfoundland, there isn’t enough time for the bees to draw out all foundationless comb, raise up a kajillion drones and put-up honey for themselves and then more for me. It’s not going to happen. We’ve had an unusually wet May and June with, I would guess, maybe five days of sunshine in the past forty days. That’s harsh even for Newfoundland. Add to that thousands of drones eating up all the hives’ resources, and I’m left with two seriously weakened colonies.

    Much of my frustration comes from jumping onto the Backwards Beekeeping wagon when I should have followed the methods that have been proven to work in my local environment. I’m still not completely turned off by the all-natural approach to beekeeping, but I should have waited until I had some established colonies before I began experimenting.

    I’m not sure what I should do next. Maybe combine my two weak hives into one strong hive, so I might have a chance at harvesting some honey this year. I could leave the hives alone and hope they recover when the weather gets better. I’ve also been told I can install a mesh that will exclude only the drones from the hive. I’m not sure how that one works. We’ll see.

    I shall overcome, and I’m sure the bees will be alright no matter what I do to them.

  • Our weather here finally broke and now our bees are building up nicely. We had a cold, wet, nasty spring up until about two weeks ago. I had to keep feeding syrup and patties. A few hives are still getting it. My strong cell builders turned into donor hives. I might have time to raise some queens, but I don’t know if I will have plenty of bees to go around. I guess that’s just part of the game. One thing for sure though, with all the rain, when your flow hits, it should be good. All is not lost…yet!
    It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

  • My beekeeping season was discouraging at first, but eventually I migrated all the foundationless frames to a single hive (out of spite), leaving me with one hive all foundationless and another hive with all foundation. The foundationless hive is now on its way to filling a honey super. I had lowered my expectations to zero, so this is a huge surprise.

    On the other hand, the hive with conventional frames has filled more than two honey supers so far and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. (Unusually hot and humid weather with an explosion of delayed blossoms might have something to do with it. It’s been a weird summer.) I pulled a few frames of honey from that hive yesterday and now the bees are more defensive than I’ve seen before. I’m staying clear of them for the rest of the week. I guess I should have used smoke on them. I think I’m on their danger scent radar. They’re coming for me every chance they get.

    At any rate, the all-natural approach (there really is no such thing) wasn’t what I thought it would be. Going foundationless hasn’t been a complete bust, but if I “let the bees be bees” in Newfoundland and followed all the Backwards Beekeeping practices, sooner than later I’d end up with a bunch of dead bees.

    Like everything that’s out there, I guess it’s best to take what you like and leave the rest — use what works for you in your particular environment. I’m getting a better sense of what works and what doesn’t work where I live, and a better sense of when to listen to other beekeepers and when to humour them while thinking, “Nah, I like what I’m doing better.” I still make my fair share of mistakes (like not using smoke when digging deep in the hives), but the learning experience is more relaxing and enjoyable because I’m not hung up on what I “should” do. There are some shouldn’ts, but not necessarily shoulds.

    • Well said, Phillip. I’m with you 100%. I think that’s how beekeeping should be: experimentation until you find what works for you in your particular environment. Guidelines are great, but there should be can be no rules.

  • Dear Rusty, Thank You. Bravo!

    I am 65 and have scoliosis. Hive inspections can put me thru a lot of pain. I wear a brace but doesn’t help much. So what does one do? I don’t have help. You either quit or seek alternatives.

    I went with Slovenian hives. I can sit in a chair, slide a frame out, and rest it on the work table. You bet, I get a little snubbing. I have even been called lazy. Yes, I tried 8 frames and mediums. Same problem. This works for me. I enjoy my bees and go home happy without Advil.

    Thank you so much for this article and always sharing your knowledge.

    NW Georgia