Table of contents
- Keeping bees is not like having a pet
- The learning curve is steep and long
- Beekeeping is more expensive than you imagined
- Spring build-up is the easiest part of beekeeping
- It’s more work than you imagined
- Expectations of honey production are not realistic
- Bee stings are no fun
- Pressure to quit comes from unhappy neighbors
- It’s easy to underestimate the varroa problem
- Beekeeping is about the environment
- Thinking of times gone by
- If I get so frustrated, why do I do it?
- Overwhelmed by the wonder
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.
Many new beekeepers have unrealistic estimates of the time and frustration that goes into beekeeping. Then, after a year or two, they quit and wander into some other activity.
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, 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. Many beekeepers quit because of the expense.
Spring build-up is the easiest part of beekeeping
Spring, the easy season, is when beginners begin. After a couple of 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. Scores of beekeepers quit after they lose their bees in 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 time 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 to quit comes from unhappy neighbors
You may think honey bees are the coolest thing 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 quitting myself. Even when I’m successful, I question the time, the expense, and the frustration of it all. I wonder about the opportunity costs, those things I could be doing if I wasn’t doing this. When I’m scraping frames, counting mite drops, 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 the bees 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 enslaved 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
I have no words, you said it all with grace and beauty.
Thanks, Sharon. I always worry when I post.
And we love you for it, Rusty. You are the best mentor out there. Thank you.
Thank you, Elena.
We are new beekeepers & happily, we survived the winter, and are buying a new hive & will try to catch a swarm this summer as well. My husband & I read everyone of your postings & enjoy them very much. I have also searched your postings for advice. We were unable to find a mentor in our area, so you are it! We enjoy reading everything you write! Thank you.
The pressure! I would hate to kill anyone’s bees. I worry all the time.
Thanks, Rusty, good article.
I’m still recommending your ’10 Beekeeping Crimes’ article to our branch members. 🙂
I’m glad you liked it. Thanks!
I have been through my first whole year tending bees, but the last of my 3 hives just bit the dust. I don’t know why really. There was plenty of honey, I paid lots of attention to mite control. I had hoped for a better outcome, but I am not deterred. My favorite pastime is to sit near the hives and watch them come and go. I would really miss that if I gave up. Next week I will be picking up a nuc to get started again. I learned so much last year and took copious notes. Maybe I will see my new bees through until next spring.
I’ve never been a great believer in luck, ascribing only to the philosophy of “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” However with beekeeping, I think luck (or something like it) plays a part. Sometimes a number of factors such as weather, foraging conditions, or seasonal timing, conspire against us. And sometimes unknowns, like pesticide spraying, take a toll we don’t realize. So when someone loses all their bees, I don’t automatically think it was beekeeper error. You could do the very same thing and have excellent results in a different year. This is the thing farmers have contended with for millenia, and beekeeping is just a form of farming: bees depend on plants which depend on a capricious environment.
My cats have either bit or scratched me at one time or another. My dog always argle-bargles and frequently bites me. My ferrets are always trying to escape, and some of them have been nasty biters. What do you mean the bees aren’t like the other pets!
I’ve just made it to the three year mark. Even if I quit now, at least I’m not in the 80%.
I subscribe to your new posts, I’m working my way through your archives (currently in 2011), and I often google up a question and find the best answer in some post of yours I haven’t gotten to yet. This is a great site. But don’t worry, I’m perfectly capable of screwing up my own bees without it being YOUR fault.
Yes. I should have remembered my husband went off to a business meeting with his hand wrapped in bandages. Why? Because he’d been playing cat and mouse with the kitty at breakfast. Looks like he was the mouse.
You absolutely nailed beekeeping. I just started my second year and hope to be here next year.
Great blog. Thank you for insight.
So well stated, Rusty. I used to be a Realtor and could never understand why I was drawn to a profession that was constantly like a roller coaster- incredible highs matched with disheartening lows. This must be why I’m attracted to beekeeping. I’m one of the 20%, but there have been times when I’ve definitely questioned whether I want to keep doing this. Just like that phone call from a seller who wants you to list their house, watching the bees go about their work is such a wonder and why I don’t throw in the towel. When there are more negatives than positives, I’ll reevaluate.
Hi Rusty: great article as always, there’s definitely a craze to “save the bees” to the delight of the many bee suppliers. Only in my 3rd year but love them, stings and all. It’s a form of animal husbandry for sure, being mindful of the responsibility and work involved to take care of your hives. And it’s refreshing when you have an ill hive and bring it back, had one this spring in dire need of some old fashion tlc, 1 queen about two cups bees and capped brood the diameter of a coffee cup. Keep up the great articles, so true you never stop learning.
I haven’t made it into the 20% club yet, but I’m still enchanted by these amazing little creatures. Made it through our first winter with 5 of our 6 hives, which has grown into an assortment of 11 hives, splits/nucs, and a bait hive awaiting its relocation to its forever hive. When I get home from work, the first thing I do is check on the ladies.
I love your blog, and will be sharing it on my apiary page to help my non-beekeeping friends understand my fascination.
What a nice piece!
You beautifully captured the feelings unique to beekeepers in an enthusiastic style that leaves the reader encouraged.
As a bee keeper whose remaining beekeeping years will always outnumber his years beekeeping, I truly appreciate this writeup.
Now my husband thinks he has your permission to get his dream pick-up truck! He imagines he will be driving hives around. Ain’t happening. We are entering the third spring, plan to do a split to interrupt varroa, and still love it. You describe what is, for me, the balance between harsh reality and mystical experience! Thank you yet again.
That’s funny. Very similar to the way we got our first pick-up.
Today I installed my first three packages of bees. We have a very active local beekeepers association. Maybe it’ll help having so many who are willing to mentor.
So true, Rusty. I was going to get into maple production which I know well but didn’t have a decent sugarbush nearby. Then the idea of beekeeping arose. It’s a far more challenging endeavor than maple ever was. There are so many ways to lose our bees but I love the challenge of trying to keep these super-organisms thriving. And the extensive and ongoing learning is a real charge! Thank you for your posts!
Wonderful article, Rusty.
Happy to be in the 20%. My fourth year beekeeping, and have kept going despite a full-time job with long commute and “advice” from some people around me, who kindly suggested that I should not waste my time with bees. Fortunately, my husband is supportive of my beekeeping endeavors. Plus, he puts up with bees flying freely in the living room …
Much love, much frustration, much work, much to learn, …3rd year beeginer,… i’m hooked, maybe one day i’ll get the hang of it.
I actually quit because I became allergic and had an anaphylactic reaction. I am now on allergy shots. I have read that 1 in 10 beekeepers will become allergic. All the more reason to protect oneself from being stung early on contrary to what some say that it will do you good…. not if you are one of the unlucky ones…thanks for the article and all you do.
I’m sorry to hear that Therese. Yes, I’ve heard of many beekeepers becoming allergic. Some persist and some decide not to; I can certainly understand either decision. It seems so unfair.
My husband had an anaphylactic reaction to bee stings about 30 years ago. He was inspecting a feisty hive and got 5 or 10 stings. He felt his throat swelling, then became light-headed and collapsed for a couple of minutes. Epi-pens were not available at the time, so he just lay on the grass until he felt better! 🙂 I am not recommending that, of course. However, we still keep bees now, and he doesn’t get a severe reaction any more. So there is hope for you. You may not have to give up in the long run. We do have an Epi-Pen now, by the way, plus a large stash of Benadryl syrup (easier to swallow when your throat feels funny). Plus I won’t let him do beekeeping on his own, I am standing there ready to act if needed. A bit like a SCUBA diving buddy.
I wish you all the best.
Thx. Excellent post. Soft emotions welled up at your descriptions on the plus side. You have “writer” in you.
Thanks, Rebekah. You know how to flatter me!
Great read! I lost all my hives the first three years but never gave a thought to quitting. I am hooked and beekeeping is like riding a bike in my 7th year….with a few bumps in the road. The key for me is reading every book my library has and watch lots of YouTube. I’ve made every mistake from crushing my queen to not treating for mites. Its a science and an obsession. For all you new bee keepers, stick with it!
Oooh. Crushing queens. I hate that.
This is my fourth or fifth year. I keep Warre hives. I have always caught my bees. Have been disease and treatment free so far. Much luck I guess. But what you describe sounds a lot harder than what I do.
The most honest article about bees I have seen in a long time! I so understand the challenges, the frustrations and the elation of watching the girls flying in loaded with pollen. In the twelve or so years I have been doing it, I am still waiting for a real honey harvest of more than just a few jars but love every bit of the experience.
Sometimes those stolen tastes of honey are so wonderful because they are the only tastes. My last couple of years have been pretty spare.
“Only a beekeeper knows……..”
Beautifully put Rusty. Reminds me of why I keep bees.
Very nicely written Rusty. Thank you for putting into words what brings me back again and again to maintain our one top bar hive. Twice tonight, in conversation about our bees, I used the term “magic”. That is just my shorthand for “I don’t really understand the dynamics or how they do it, but I love seeing it happen”.
Best thing I read today. I’ve only been beekeeping for a month, but already faced some hard lessons. Your post is uplifting and confirming of the reasons I got into beekeeping in the first place.
I may lose one of my two colonies in the next few days but the lessons I’ve already learned from them have been amazing. Thank you.
A+ Thanks for writing–insightful.
As my first year anniversary is closing in, your post is full of wisdom.
Beautifully put, love your blog learn a lot from it. Thanks
Thank you for sharing.
Here in Kenya we don’t have winter to worry about, but the dry seasons can equally be challenging. Like the day I went to check on my hives only to find out they had invaded my neighbor’s home in search of water! And because the wife didn’t know what to do, she sure did provide water to the bees in a basin, and the poor insects ended up drowning!
But the joy, the adventure, the heart throb of a beekeeper that’s me gives me so much satisfaction I want to keep going, and with 17 hives am just beginning…
Wow, Peter. Interesting water story.
Oh, what a treat. I love your articles, but this one deserves an Apiarists Oscar! Not only knowledgeable about our furry friends but a creative writer at her best. I love the onomatopaeically descriptive language which fits in so nicely with the musical bee notes…
As for bees not being pets, the only difference between them and my .other pets is that I can’t microchip them. Too labour intensive. But the symbiotic relationship between colony and keeper are just as much give and take as any other pet, except that I wouldn’t watch TV or read a book with them on my lap.
The build up of equiment required once the decision is made to go the whole hog gives me the feeling of deja vu when I started breeding budgies, then show canaries, then show dogs, then alpacas. Then I decided to downsize, but poultry, particularly the show variety, require just as much in investment. Then I decided to downsize again, to bees, which I had wanted all my life. (Can’t downsize any further -as far as size is concerned) I think The list you mentioned above can be ticked off as true and correct. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from plunging right in, because the joy of just watching individual little people sparring with robbers, defending against wasps, licking a homing forager and watching the nurses groom the queen, is all worth the effort.
Thank you for a very enjoyable and inspirational piece of literature.
I don’t deserve all the praise, but I enjoyed reading it anyway! Close as I’ll ever come to an Oscar …
Loved your description of why we the 20% continue on lol almost 10 years now for myself and it absolutely is addicting all of those stimulation of the senses.
The smell of the bees especially after a long winter compares to nothing. I just received my first sting of the season and even that sensation of venom has me.
The sound of the bees ascends me to another realm. And it makes all the work worthwhile ??
Thanks from the UK Rusty, your words moved me………….
Well said Rusty. This is my third year as a beekeeper. I finally got my hives through the winter. Previous years did not make it, so I am thrilled. Now I realize its another learning curve. I will never give this up.
I’m not crying! You’re crying!
On the flip side, the challenges faced by experienced beekeepers trying to bring along a new beekeeper are as daunting as the learning curve on their side. Also, there’s no question that anyone is free to take up beekeeping and although they have that right, it’s not always the right thing for them to do. That’s where those in a position to offer guidance have some work to do. Our message about what it takes to become a beekeeper has to include everything you mentioned and more. Thanks again and you have my vote for the Oscar.
Thanks for some good ideas. Maybe we need a handbook for mentors? I’ve considered it before, but with so many philosophies and management styles, it would be difficult to make anyone happy.
Oh, I’m dusting off the mantel for that Oscar …
Outstanding!!! You need to submit this one for publication to Bee Culture. Crystallizes many thoughts I’ve had as a teacher of beginning bee classes and being a mentor.
Can I use this as a handout for beginners?
Thanks, Neil. I will answer off-site.
Beautiful post, Rusty. Just lovely. Thanks for writing it. Wish it wasn’t raining so I could go out and smell my hives! Just did my first split yesterday, crossing my fingers. Two hives for the first time, in my my third year, here I go!
Congratulations on your first split!
That was a well written document on why some beekeepers choose to leave the hobby. Some go into the hobby ill prepared with the wrong information of cost and work involved and the occasional painful sting.
I enjoy the hobby knowing my small back yard business will never make any money. I stay in this beekeeping field because the rewards are great working with nature. Its not a lot of work except when collecting the honey in July. Then I need some help.
There are health benefits that I also enjoy. I take a warm cocktail of honey and apple cider vinegar with a plash of apple juice before bed. Nothing better than having my own natural local honey with all the vitamins and enzymes.
The bee sting does have a pinch, but I have found health benefits from the venom. The venom has a blood pressure lowering enzyme that lowers my numbers significantly lasting for almost a week. The venom also helps me with any aches and pains because its a natural anti-inflammation agent.
Thought I would share some reasons for being a beekeeper.
Interesting. I have extremely low blood pressure. I wonder if all those bees that get in my clothes have anything to do with it?
We are new to beekeeping. I must say your post is so incredibly spot on! This is our first experience with bees and suddenly we find ourselves with two purchased nucs we picked up last night, a swarm we caught, another swarm we bought from a removal service, and a hive we bought from an individual. All in about a month’s time. Oh my! Bees everywhere. I’m feeling overwhelmed but let the learning continue. We needed six hives to start the ag-exemption process on our 12 acres. I’m grateful you are sharing your knowledge and will definitely be following along. Thank you!
Six is quite an undertaking for a beginner, but you will certainly learn a lot in a hurry. Congratulations.
This is an excellent explanation of the addiction of a beekeeper. I started over 30 years ago and due to military deployments, health problems and moves I have had to abandon beekeeping 3 times. Each time I resumed within a few months of settling back in. This morning as I warmed up my metal body parts (The last war got me) in the hot tub I sat watching the bees spilling out of my hives on their morning flights. As I saw the sparkling diamonds of sunlight zipping through the air I was again filled with awe for these wonderful creatures. Since moving from Maryland to Florida I am once again a novice beekeeper- learning about small hive beetles and how to keep bees in a sub-tropical climate. As the post aptly implied – beekeepers are students for life. The girls are our instructors – We have to be attentive and quiet enough to learn what they can teach us.
Thank you for your words of wisdom, and a special thanks for your service to our country.
I am starting this spring. Took an 8 week class (every Saturday)…ordered my nuc…buying all the equipment and tools. Did not get into it for the honey or pollen…simply to make a difference. Will never have more than 2 hives…planting a garden for my bees…know that it can be expensive, know that although I took my intro classes, that 1st day when I receive my bees will be one that I will not soon forget and may wonder what I have gotten us into. But it will be a love affair that I count on working hard at maintaining. So here we go!
Here is hoping that I am in the 20%. The smell, the sound and the taste soothe my soul like nothing else. The stings let you know you’re alive!
Thanks, Rusty. I’m a Seattle beekeeper with one hive. I’m just starting my third season. In each of my first two seasons, my colony died. I really struggled in deciding to try it one more time. I was motivated by the sheer time and money I’d spent to date. I loved everything about this post.
I always think about that too: the vast amount of resources and time I’ve already put into it. Third times a charm, so good for you!
Thanks Rusty –
I have participated in the local Beekeeper Assn for years, present as the non-Apis keeper. This year I just about quit mason bees that I’m twenty plus years into. I haven’t, but I do keep stretching myself — and them — and try to figure out how best to “raise” all the not-Apis in my little world.
Much of that stretching is that Mason Bees are no more a full solution than Honey Bees — or Leaf Cutter Bees or Bumble Bees, and on and on. Diversity keeps me both enthused and humbled. Diversity of pollinators, of habitats, of parasites and diseases, of opinions, of conditions, of plants, and on and on. It probably comes down to “Keep Calm and Carry On”, ignoring excess Hype and Panic while appreciating that H&P was part of the reason for doing this in the first place.
Glen, Olympia, WA
PS – Oscar, maybe maybe not. Pulitzer, make room for that instead.
I’m sorry to hear you were questioning your continued involvement with masons. One of the things that keeps me going is that I have breakthroughs after long periods of nothing. For example, bee identification has been a slow and frustrating endeavor for me. In some years I felt I learned nothing. But suddenly, I’ve reached a sort of milestone. Out of nowhere (it seems) I can suddenly glance at a bee and name the genus, something that used to take hours. Of course, this is restricted to our local bees, but it does feel like all of sudden a fog has lifted and I know what to look for. I know it’s not sudden, that I’ve been working through it for years, but it feels sudden. Just saying that we have emotional or mental ups and downs that affect how we think about things.
As for the Pulitzer vs Oscar, I thought about that. But I can’t very well receive a compliment like that and reply, “No. You mean I deserve a Pulitzer!” How pretentious! 🙂
I still have mason bees, some data on late-season cleaning and refrigeration (don’t), and a couple of poems. GB
So are you going to share?
Not here. Check email.
The paragraphs that end in only a beekeeper knows are why I do it. They are not the reasons why I started but the reason I do it now. Beekeeping touches all 5 of my senses. Thanks Rusty
Great article! Thank you, Rusty!
We are second year beekeepers who had all bad and a little bit of good experience in the first year. Bought second hand hives with bees from two different side liners. Huge mistake!. One batch was great, we harvested surplus of honey, enjoyed all of the things you are describing in this article! It was marvelous!
Second batch was a disaster. The bees died during the transportation, before winter and during winter. I am still scabbing and sanitizing all the equipment we bought from that batch. Master wax melter is added to that long list of expenses… We don’t sell posters “Save the bees” (just yet, although thanks for the idea!), but I do honey soap, cosmetics with honey, honey cakes… you name it, at the local farmer’s market. We are picking up new batch of nucs(35 of them) from a great stock from a local supplier. Learned from our mistakes from the first year. Seminars, workshops, books, etc….. Didn’t quit, but expending this year.
We are definitely in the club!:-) Love doing this!
Well told for Beekeeping!
You are some poet too!!
I have been both.
I started becoming involved with bees back in the final quarter of last century. I helped a semi commercial guy with his apiaries. It was easy! No Varroa in NZ at that time, the area was very close to vast areas of native forest and situated on marginal farmland that had excellent “bee”pasture. I had no capital investment, no real responsibility, all the colonies were strong double full depth brood boxes and management was pretty easy. I learned a lot and picked up some pretty carefree (read bad) habits.
Then due to urban living and employment that meant much time away from home, bees became a thing of the past, until earlier this century.
The bees forced my hand a little. Two large prime swarms arrived on my property. I possessed a bit of knowledge, but absolutely no hiveware! As I am a qualified carpenter, I hurriedly knocked up a couple of top bar hives and housed each swarm, basically leaving them to their own devices. They built comb and did all the usual bee things, they exhibited no signs of disease that I had been previously exposed to and knew a little about. I knew both were a little light on stores going in to their first Winter, but I had already booked a six week trip to the other side of the World. So I left them with what I thought was enough sugar and went on holiday. Now, also in NZ early this century, the Varroa mite arrived. I knew it was here, but didn’t consider it a real threat, the bees looked okay in Autumn. Needless to say I arrived home to one dead out and one with just a handful of bees left that were queenless. Varroa and starvation killed both colonies, or rather bad management on my behalf killed both colonies.
Those two top bar hives sat empty for a few years. In the meanwhile I started to research more modern keeping practice, read a LOT, visited a lot of keepers and twisted a lot of ears. I learned about Varroa and treatments, I learned about the new pre-emergent herbicides used for crop planting preparations and how pasture structure has changed in the last 30 odd years. Things ain’t so easy no more!
I also made considerable inroads in to making Langstroth boxes, floors, roofs, top inner covers, frames… Then I went and bought bees from local keepers, bees I knew would suit my neck of the woods and from proven stock.
I have a few years back under my belt now as a hobby bee keeper and I am doing okay. Will never be a retirement fund, but it sure is good for the sanity.
I’m not convinced 80% quit. I think Del summed it up well above, peoples situations change and bees cannot always change with them.
Very eloquently written though Rusty, many keepers feel or have experienced what you have written above, but few of us could capture it in written verse.
I kept bees until the Black Bears destroyed my hives.
Well, that’s a bummer. I worry about bears here where I live. I think it’s just a matter of time.
The best time to put up the bear fence is BEFORE the bear attack, not AFTER.
(Speaking from personal experience, here.)
Another thought that has crossed my mind about the benefits of your descriptive writing, it should really sift out the wheat from the chaff. Our bee group had a stall in the lush mountains and valley of the Victorian countryside of Australia during a farm and produce festival last month. During the manning of the stall and answering many questions, some intelligent, some less so – I came across a mind-set which was as disturbing as the one that triggered people wanting to buy one of my puppies -and whom I had to refuse.
“I think I will get a beehive. How long before I can harvest my first honey?” is identical to: “I heard your Dachshund puppies are show-winners. Have you got any cream coloured ones? I want one to match my sitting room décor.”
I would discourage people from getting into bees for a quick fix. These are also the ones interested in buying flow hives, and then commenting that it is to labour intensive to look after. The pros and cons of any hobby involving living creatures must be emphasized before committing .
I agree that it’s a bad sign when the first question is “When can I harvest?” But people actually try to match their dog to their decor? Wow. Does that mean when they redecorate the dog has gotta go?
Rusty, what beautiful words. Literally brought a tear to my eye. I am a new beekeeper and am so mesmerized by it all. I love your site and am grateful for your knowledge and your passion for these fascinating little creatures. You inspire me so, thank you!
Great article. I’m just getting started and was “chosen” by a swarm moving into a hollow tree in the back yard. I have a lot to learn. Damn bees are messing up my plans but hey, I’ll take it as it comes. I now have a boxed hive and another in the tree that I’m trying to figure out how to get out but intend to get them into a hive of their own.
Thanks for the website, If I don’t make it through the first 2 years I know a couple people that I can give them to at least. So I have a plan. Sort of…….
Thanks for putting our feelings into words, Rusty. It really can get discouraging at times, but even after the hard years it would be so sad to think of not keeping bees. There really is magic in the hive and I want to keep up the struggle as long as I’m on this earth. For me the key is to keep learning and trying to figure out the problem when my colonies die or abscond. Maybe this year for sure!
From the other side of the world, the feeling is the same, only difference is that as yet we still do not have mites.
So well said.
🙂 So true. You made me laugh at myself in a self-deprecating kind of way a few times. I don’t think I will have any honey this year (third of harvesting) but I already have all those who got honey last year waiting for refills! It’s a bit masochistic, beekeeping, but you counted the pleasures so well in the end.
I have my hives close to home and once or twice a day I just leave the house and go take a look at the apiary. If I’m stuck with my work, feeling listless, upset, or for no good reason, I go and look at them, what they are up to (they are always up to something, the buggers) and it gives me energy back.
Feeling more and more clueless with time, though, that I didn’t expect. Sometimes I just go: “Aaahhh… What happened?! I didn’t see that coming!”. I open a hive thinking I will find one thing and end up being a midwife to 3 queens who decided it was time (I’m still unable to kill a fully formed queen which is becoming a bit of a problem…).They never stop surprising me (and raiding my bank account…). What a challenge!
Great comment. It sheds a whole new light on honey bees to think they rob banks as well as honey. Crafty critters.
They really are great therapy, are they not? I find that I can’t wait to go see them when I get home. If you’ve ever seen the BBC series “From Larkrise to Candleford” you’ll be familiar w/ Queenie. If not, she’s an old woman who one would often find “just sittin’ with the bees”, watching her hives (those old-time thatch hives, what were they called, Skeps? or something). Or she’d be upset about something and go out to talk to the bees (catch myself doing that).
Yes, therapy is the right word. When I get home, I first let the dogs free and then I go take a look at my hives, like a ritual. I have sat a few times close by just watching them come and go. Today was a perfect day for inspection, warm and still. I was happy to confirm that they all had brood, after catching 3 swarms from my 4 hives a few weeks ago (and now having 7 hives.). When things go right and stress free the feeling of satisfaction is wonderful. A thriving, expanding colony is a pleasure to watch.
I haven’t seen the BBC series you mention, I will look out for it. I think skeps is the right word. There is a wonderful open hair museum in Arnhem, The Netherlands, the Openlucht Museum with an exhibition on beekeeping over time. They have a wonderful small collection of skeps of different times and keep a couple of modern examples with bees. If you ever in the area make sure to take a look.
Thank you for your comment,
You are getting good traction on this. It just showed up in my Facebook feed from Project Apis M.
Thanks for telling me. The response has really surprised me, breaking all my “personal best” metrics.
I posted a link on my FB page. This is advice and wisdom every new beekeeper should read!!
Thank you, Pam!
I absolutely love this blog post. Thanks for sharing this, Rusty.
It’s so good to hear from you! And thanks for writing. It was a fun post.
You have a wonderful way with words:)
I look forward to every post you write! I’m just starting my second year and am always worrying and wanting advice. Thank you for being willing to share your knowledge! I have so much to learn.
Rusty….your thoughtful essay on the agony and ecstasy of beekeeping really touched my heart. I gave up beekeeping at the end of last season mostly because of issues with osteoarthritis in my hands and shoulders, but also because the negatives had begun to outweigh the positives. I had begun to be on the edge of worry a lot of the time and, even knowing I would have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, was pretty self-critical and thought I should know ‘more’ than I did. I also had a difficult time withstanding some of the setbacks although I can say that in four seasons I never lost a hive. I posted here when I gave up ☹️ And spent several long, really sad months, because I do understand the magic. I experienced it!! Bees are infinitely fascinating and I will miss being with them but one thing I do know for sure, I will never forget those experiences, the sights, the smells, the sweat, the connection. I also understand the deep pull in to this hobby and throughout my years with the bees often said that I wish someone had told me the things you have so beautifully articulated here. Probably woulda still done it but maybe not been so disappointed when it came to an end. Keep up your great work. Blessings to you and best wishes for a good season ahead.
You are one of several that wrote to say you needed to give up beekeeping, and each of you expressed a valid reason for doing so. What surprises me, is that you (and they) are still reading about it. I would probably immerse myself in something else and try not to think about it. It’s interesting that we are all so different.
i found a honey bee hive in an apple tree how can i get it to my box
You can cut the combs from the limb and tie them, one-by-one, into your frames or onto your top bars. The bees will soon connect the combs and remove the ties.
it is hallow tree with a small hole entrence i dont have access inside hive
Then you will have to do a trap-out.
If the tree doesn’t have to come down, then consider leaving the colony in the tree and catching a swarm. You could set up a swarm trap. It’s easier on you and the bees! Good luck.
Great post. Entering my second year beekeeping and following your blog. Lost both my hives last year–one to a swarm just a week after installing the package. The other was lost in late summer due to robbing wasps! Turns out having a baby and bees at the same time is not so great. Planned not to purchase again this spring, but was hopeful to catch a swarm…and I did! Just checked on them today and found the queen, larva, capped brood, pollen and even some honey! So glad I have another chance at this, and relieved I’m not the only one with this crazy, unexplainable passion for these little ladies. When I brought this swarm home to our little farm, my kids remarked, “Now Mama has the most pets again!”
Cute story. When the kids get bored you can assign them the task of naming each of your pets.
Rusty, My family think I’m too old for beekeeping: it’s bad for my back my arthritic knee, etc. etc. etc. Your charming article reminded me why I am so distracted and mesmerized by my bees and has reinstalled my determination to continue. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I think beekeeping keeps people young. It forces you to be active, to be outside, to be problem-solving, to be caring for living things, and to be worried about problems other than your own. I think it’s good Rx.
Beautifully said, Rusty!
I picked up my bees and hived them less than a week ago and have been losing sleep worrying about my girls. I am told I can’t peek for a week, but the waiting is killing me. I do see girls coming in and out and some are carrying pollen so I will take it as a good sign. So happy to have found your site and to read everyone’s thoughts. It’s good to have company in a new adventure. I don’t have a bee club nearby so this is my club. Thank you to everyone!
If they are carrying in pollen, you can relax a bit.
We made it through the first year, but it was disheartening. We lost a complete hive, all the bees left. Thought we did everything right? The other hive is trying to survive, at this point in time do not know if we will continue. I am looking for a mentor also! Thank you for the your article!
Where are you located? When you say your bees left, do you mean they absconded or left slowly? On the surface, it sounds like a mite problem.
We are located in Hampton County, South Carolina. I believe the bees absconded or left slowly, with the queen. No dead bees found? Earlier this year there we noticed some swarming and thought it might be over-crowding. Then within a few weeks the one hive was completely gone. We had a very warm and early spring and then hit with a freeze, with the loss of peach and pear trees. Not sure if this is weather related?
Just one more question: did you treat the colonies for varroa mites? It’s just that a colony that seems to disappear sometime in the late fall, winter, or early spring has often collapsed due to varroa. There are usually no dead bees in the hive, no queen, but often there is some honey left over. The appearance of “swarming” so early in the year could have been robbing bees cleaning up any honey that the old colony left behind. I doubt overcrowding, especially at that time of year.
Unfortunately we did not treat for mites. I feel bad but everything looked so good until spring. We thought they left from over crowding or lack of food. Now what do you recommend for the other hive? Oxalic acid drip? Would appreciate your input and I have learned so much from your site.
The reason I asked about mite treatments is that what you describe sounded like classic mite collapse. The bees die not from mites but from the viruses the mites carry and spread. Bees sick with viral diseases fly out of the hive to die, which is why there are no bees left in the hive. Two posts that may help you understand this are “Absconding bees or death by varroa?” and “It’s not about mites anymore.”
Because this is not a broodless time of year, oxalic drip is probably not the best option. You would have to repeat it three times, which is hard on the bees. You could try ApiLife Var, but if you use it you have to monitor the temperature ranges closely. If the colony is already weak, you may have trouble saving it at this point. If you want to try, I think you should go to one of the bee catalogs, see what they offer offer for mite treatment, and then pick one that works for your climate and the health of the colony. I’m sorry I can’t give you a more specific answer, but each area of the country is different, and each colony is different. If the colony is really weak, you might be better off starting over. See “Should you try to save a failing colony?“
I have been a beekeeper for 43 years, and you really nailed it with your 80%-20% article! When I started (1976) you just put bees in a box, notified the Police Depts. in the neighboring towns about your availability, and waited for a half dozen calls each summer about swarms. Farmers were using Sevin then, but it was a minor problem, and there was no such thing as varroa or agribusiness. Good old days. Thanks.
Rusty, Not a home run, a Grand Slam.
I agree with all that you said. It is a lot of work, but the love is great. They truely get you hooked, and there is nothing better than beeing with your bees.
Can’t quit. Killed so many bees through my ignorance that it shames me but we soldier on. Love having them in our yard. Love having them share our world and us sharing theirs. Sit next to our “best” hive and read by the hour. Stop from time to time and watch them weave and tumble their way in and out of their home. Intense comics, single minded fanatics. Keep a stick in front of the entrance so I have time to observe their ins and outs. Looks like a honey year this year. Very cold, wet spring but long. Still have blossoms on apple trees here in southern Oregon. Lots of blossoms everywhere as we go into May. Still have clover to come. Best nectar year in at least 10. Life is good. Love your comments. You write good. Thank you.
Thank you, Renaldo.
I’m not a beekeeper myself, but my “across the street” neighbor is. We live on a busy main road heading into the University of New Hampshire campus. Not exactly the kind of spot you’d picture a beehive. But I cherish my neighbor’s bees in my flowers. I’ve started a program with our Agricultural Commission to educate residents about the dangers of pesticides. Our town has also become a “Bee City” community. The Commission in working hard to encourage backyard and small scale food production throughout the town. That means we all have to work together to create a patchwork of safe green spaces which can become a quilt of restored habitat and food production. There is a role for everyone to support pollinators, beekeepers or not.
“There is a role for everyone to support pollinators, beekeepers or not.” Absolutely!
7th year now. Lost quite a few, one year lost all, had to start over with nucs and swarm captures.
1. You are a very talented writer. I consider myself an editor, and never find something to correct. And, you are creative, a natural teacher, etc, etc. OK, enough flattery!
2. As you have said, if you love bees, love the environment, love nature, then plant native, plant pollinator friendly, don’t use pesticides. That is more important than ‘keeping’ thousands of insects in boxes.
3. Also, as you have said in the past, anyone can be a ‘natural, treatment free’ beekeeper in the first year, but the varroa mites will wipe you out in the second year. Rusty has great articles about mite and bee life-cycles, which explains why. To quote Rusty: ‘If you keep bees, you keep mites’ (or was it ‘raise bees, raise mites?).
4. Today, first day back to Hood River this spring to check on our two of three hives which overwintered well. I was removing screened bottom plastic boards, opening the second of two entrances, wearing no protection, and was stung multiple times while wildly wiping off the thousands of ‘sugar ants’ which were streaming up my arm. The upper lip sting left my 4 year old grandson not wanting to kiss Papa good night, preferring to shake my hand as he stared at my swollen face! Ah, beekeeping!
Thank you for your love of science, clear rational thinking, love of bees (native and Apis m.) and your skill in writing.
I hardly know what to say. Thank you for the vote of confidence and the donation, as well. You are much appreciated!
As for editing, no matter how many times I go through a post, I find an error as soon as I publish. Never fails. I often have between 15 and 20 drafts before I go with it and then I still find errors! Frustrating.
Great post, bang on the money, Maybe it was on one of your posts I am not sure but someone said that bees eat honey, They also eat money as it can be an expensive hobby.
What a lovely article! Every word is true. I am in my 3rd year of beekeeping. I had 3 hives last year and lost them all. I essentially started over this year. I will not be in the 80%! I learned a ton over the past two years and I will not give up on my dream of having a successful bee yard. Thanks for sharing this with us. This gives me such encouragement!
Beautifully said! I am one of the extra lucky ones. Some years ago (at least 5 or 6) a beekeeper that I bought raw wax from for years, asked me if I had space for some hives. He contracts with an orchard to pollinate their apple trees, and invariably he gets a call saying the pollination is done and they will start spraying the next day. He needs a space to park 6 hives for the summer. My backyard serves this purpose nicely. This year he had 4 additional hives that overwintered well and brought them over yesterday.
Your comment about the bees considering us predators came to mind. While I watched from a “safe distance” as he placed the hives, a worker decided i was too close and gave me a gift squarely on top of my head as a thank you.
Tomorrow the other 6 hives arrive, I get honey, wax at a good price and an occasional gift of a sting LOL while he does the hard work.
That sounds right. I always get stung when I least expect it.
A second comment / question sort of related to pest treatment.
It occurred to me that since oxalic acid is a treatment for mites, and rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid,
has anyone tried placing a large rhubarb leaf or 2 under the hive cover as a long term low level treatment? I asked my beekeeper friend and he looked at me with the “HMMMM” look.
The amount of oxalic acid in a rhubarb leaf is minuscule compared to pure oxalic acid. A leaf or two won’t make any difference to the mites.
I was thinking less of treatment and more along the lines of providing an environment that is unpleasant to the mites. Prevention is usually better than treatment. Of course if the amount is so small, then it would not help at all.
Okay, I get it. But still, I don’t think there is enough oxalic in rhubarb for them to even notice.
Very interesting info and am interested. Do you consider the flow hive an alternative option and do you supply these please?
I’m not sure what you mean by “an alternative option.” A Flow hive is a Langstroth hive with a self-extracting super. It’s not an alternative to a Langstroth because it is a Langstroth. The Flow honey super is an alternative to other Langstroth honey supers such as a Kelley, a Ross, or an extracting super. So, the only real difference is the honey super and that’s something you use just a short time each year. And no, I do not sell equipment.
Magnificent words. You will keep the 20% of us out here going with your encouragement, shared observations and poetic grasp of the magical ongoings within the hive.
Thank you, kindly for all that you do. It matters. ?
Wonderful. After over 60 years (probably about 70) of mucking about with those wonderful creatures called bees, I have read, experienced a huge variety of situations with bees. I am dedicated to their study. Nothing is easy, I am still a learner but in the recent 40 or 50 years of keeping bees in the urban environment, I have never received such accolades on the taste of the honey. I put down to the variety of nectars available.
May I use this site as one of the references in my article, “A Dutch Uncle Talk About Beekeeping”?
Sure, Ernie. That is fine.
One reason I see new beekeepers quitting is that they learn that the honey bee is competing with all the native species, and some of the glamour around beekeeping diminishes when they realize that beekeeping can be hurting our native pollinators.
I am writing an article for a beekeeper’s newsletter and I would love to quote you on some of this information. I was actually “attending” a virtual seminar this past weekend and one of the guest speakers gave this statistic. I was honestly stunned. I am doing some research now and I find this to be the best explanation I have read, bar none! Would you mind if I quote you and use your blog as a reference? Thank you so much!
Rusty, you say that the romanticism around keeping bees sometimes overshadows the reality of it for the 80%, and then you write this Pulitzer prize of an article… Thanks a lot! >:/ Now I want to keep pursuing this with more articles and more YouTube videos and more seminars. I’m not even in the 80% yet. I haven’t even started. I plan to keep learning first, get a good knowledge base, and then start actually doing it after I’m done parenting infants (hoping 2nd one is on the way). Your caution about beekeeping about having to do everything on time, at THEIR schedule, sounds like my experience with parenting. Although I’m sure it’s different in many ways. I just hope I will have the pluck for it and that this won’t be just a passing fancy for me. Thank you for sharing your passion and inspiring potential newbies like me!
Beeswax and honey candles are made from natural ingredients and are a far healthier choice than conventional paraffin candles.
Have you seen a good paper comparing the toxins released by burning beeswax vs paraffin? Apparently, both can release some nasty chemicals. Also, I never heard of honey candles. That makes no sense.
Rusty, I thankfully just stumbled across this article Your descriptions of the different experiences of working in the hive gave me goosebumps, they are authentic and spot on. I’m grateful to have had the pleasure to read it. I always tell people who ask about keeping bees there’s almost a spiritual component to the experience. You nailed it… Thank you!!