Rumor has it that 80% of new beekeepers will quit within the first two years. I don’t know how accurate that estimate is. Like other statistics related to beekeeping, it seems to survive with no one keeping score.
Beekeeping has a romantic aspect that attracts a wide following, but the day-to-day life of a beekeeper is anything but romantic. Here are some of the things that can cause a new beekeeper to run.
Keeping bees is not like having a pet
We’ve all grown up around house pets and we understand the rules: “Dogs have masters, cats have servants.” With that understanding, a good diet, lots of exercise, and annual trips to the vet, most of us can do pretty well. But bees are different. A honey bee will not curl up on your lap, lick your face, or play fetch. To honey bees, we are neither masters nor servants. Instead, we are predators to be dealt with as necessary.
The learning curve is steep and long
You don’t learn beekeeping in a season, or a year, or fifty years. A true beekeeper never stops learning and never stops being surprised. If you think you will know the ropes in a few months, you have a big disappointment ahead.
Beekeeping is more expensive than you imagined
First comes the “complete” beginner kit, something that is reasonably priced. But then it’s the bees, shipping cage, replacement queen and postage, hive stand, sugar, feeders, a better hive tool, books, magazines, all the woodenware that didn’t come with the “complete” kit, and a second bee suit that actually fits.
After your kit arrives you find you need a better screwdriver, hammer, carpenter’s square and some paint. A pneumatic nailer is nice, too, for all those frames. Or maybe you decide on a specialty hive so you don’t have to buy an extractor, but learn that it’s more expensive than a regular hive and extractor added together. And because you might be allergic, you throw in a few hundred dollars for an EpiPen. And that’s just the spring stuff.
Later you may want swarm traps, a nuc box, sieves, extractor, honey gate, jars, lids, and labels. Don’t forget the pollen supplement, either, or the robbing screens and mouse guards. Depending on how you decide to care for your bees you may also buy mite treatments, a vaporizer, a 12-volt battery, and a face mask. Or maybe you decide on treatments that don’t require so much equipment but cost eight times as much. It’s nice to have a scale too, and a temperature/humidity monitor, and an infrared camera. Insulation is good too, and maybe a hive wrap.
And finally, you might need a shed to keep it all in and a pick-up to haul it around. If you don’t believe me, it’s because you haven’t started yet.
Spring build-up is the easiest part of beekeeping
Spring, the easy season, is when beginners begin. After a couple months of massive population increase and furious foraging, complacency sets in. Beekeeping is easy, or so it seems. But the new beekeeper hasn’t yet faced winter—a “horse of a different color” as they say. Your mettle as a beekeeper is not determined by spring but by winter.
It’s more work than you imagined
You need to use tools, you need to lift, you need to actually do things inside the hive. You cannot set up a hive and forget it. Someone once wrote in a comment, “You mean now I have to build things?” It’s funny, unless you’re the type that doesn’t own tools and doesn’t want to.
Then too, the things that must be done, must be done on time. You cannot be late with feeding, late with splitting, or late with mite treatment. You can’t be late putting on your honey supers or taking them off. Late is too late. Once you become a beekeeper, you work on their schedule, not yours.
Expectations of honey production are not realistic
Before your first bees arrive, you promise honey to your mother, your wife, your kids, your boss, your neighbors, and your girlfriend on the side. Maybe you even rent a stall at the county fair so you can sell honey, candles, and “save the bee” posters. But when the times comes, not only are your honey supers empty, but you need to feed your bees just to keep them alive. How do you explain this to everyone who’s waiting?
Bee stings are no fun
Many beginners actually believe they won’t get stung. But so far, I’ve never met a beekeeper who hasn’t. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t get stung when you most expect it, but when you’re taking off your suit, putting away equipment, opening a door, watering the lawn, or just minding your own business.
Pressure from unhappy neighbors
You may think honey bees are the coolest things ever, but there are many who don’t agree. Panicky neighbors who fear for their children (it’s always the children, never themselves) can raise all kinds of trouble. They may even have lawyers who draft blizzards of paperwork. You may have remembered to check your local ordinances, but did you read your homeowner’s agreement? Therein lies the real problem.
It’s easy to underestimate the varroa problem
You can’t fix it and forget it. One of the most disheartening aspects of beekeeping is the realization that varroa mites take up most of your management time. Regardless of how you decide to handle them, they are a major part of beekeeping. It is very easy to underestimate the influence that mites will have on both you and your bees.
Beekeeping is about the environment
Many of the problems honey bees face are outside of the hive and not within the beekeeper’s control. Environmental issues like the weather, bloom times, pesticide use by others, pollutants, land use, predators, and even other beekeepers in your area can all influence your success. So even if you study and make good decisions, outside influences can wreak havoc with your colony.
Thinking of times gone by
When I really think about it, the surprising number is the 20% who make it past the second year. From my vantage point, they are often the quiet ones, the ones who don’t give advice but who absorb and evaluate everything they hear.
Personally, I understand why people quit. In fact, not a year goes by when I don’t consider it. Even when I’m successful, I question the time, the expense, and the frustration of it all. I wonder about the opportunity costs, the things I could be doing if I wasn’t doing this. When I’m scraping frames, counting mite drop, or haggling with another fifty-pound bag of sugar, I long to do something different.
I grew up before tracheal mites, varroa mites, hive beetles, obscure viruses, and colony collapse. Back then, small farms were ubiquitous and every farm had a few hives. No one paid much attention to the bees, except at harvest time, yet the colonies survived year after year. If a colony died for some reason, another moved in to fill the vacancy. You didn’t buy bees or queens, they just arrived. I often think of those days, but now they seem like an illusion, an enchanting fairy tale.
If I get so frustrated, why do I do it?
The other side of beekeeping, the part that keeps me going year after year, catches me unaware. Yesterday I opened a hive only to be overwhelmed by a smell: the damp, oozy, warm odor of brood, pollen, wax, and nectar. I stopped to inhale, mesmerized. Only a beekeeper knows that aroma.
How about the taste of honey straight from the hive? Warm. Viscous. Still tended by bees. Honey the way bears eat it bares no resemblance to honey in a jar. Trust me on this. Unextracted. Unfiltered. Unmixed. Only a beekeeper knows that taste.
Or the sound of a busy hive? I hear a finely tuned engine. A contented kitty. I hear the wind in the desert. Waves on a distant shore. The soft susurration of a sleeping baby. Reliable. Unceasing. Life affirming. Only a beekeeper knows that sound.
I know of no other hobby that is so tactile. The stickiness of honey. The tackiness of propolis. The silken texture of beeswax. The slippery, mucilaginous feel of royal jelly. The muscle-tearing weight of a full brood box. The burning heat of a sting. Only a beekeeper knows those sensations.
And let’s not forget the sights. To me, nothing comes close to a swarm for pure visual enchantment. Nature choreographed in a way no man could replicate, a visual reminder of the life force. Or how about a lacy festoon of bees, complicit, willful, turning labor into artwork? Only a beekeeper knows those sights.
Overwhelmed by the wonder
So I find myself enslaven by the sheer wonder of honey bees. Persisting another year, I mindlessly scrape one more frame, count one more mite. And I continue to answer the questions of the 20% and the 80% hoping that they, too, will fall under the spell of the honey bee.
Honey Bee Suite