miscellaneous musings

Beekeeping myths, half-truths, and rumors

I found the following quote in a newspaper article this morning. It was attributed to the president of a large beekeeping club in the southern U.S.—someone who ought to know better.

Backyard beekeepers are offering a glimmer of hope for bee populations because every swarm that outgrows the hive and leaves to start a feral colony in the wild increases the health and survival of all bees.

I find not a glimmer of truth in this statement. Not only do swarms from managed hives hardly ever survive for more than a year or two, they are the very thing that contributed to the downfall of feral populations in the first place.

Bees escaping from managed stock took their parasites and diseases with them and ended up decimating feral colonies all across the continent. In addition, there is evidence that diseased bees are spreading their ailments to certain species of wild bees as well. In truth, escaping stock does just the opposite of increasing the “health and survival of all bees.”

I often skim the headlines for bee news and not a day goes by when I don’t find false or misleading statements about honey bees and beekeeping. With all the interest, with all the investigation, with all the money being poured into bee research, you would think there would be more “common knowledge” than there is.

Sadly, these erroneous statements often come from trusted sources. The beekeeping president quoted above is probably a really nice guy who knows how to run a meeting and get the dues collected. He’s probably an experienced beekeeper too. But honestly, his statement (assuming it was accurately reported) makes me wonder how much he knows about any aspect of beekeeping.

The statement reminded me of a beekeeper who taught a class of newbees to keep their syrup feeders full at all times, even with honey supers in place. Her heart was in the right place I’m sure, but she truly believed her bees stored nectar, ate sugar syrup, and never confused the two. She fed syrup all summer long and harvested it in the fall . . . while mentoring others to do the same. So sad.

But what’s a beginner to do? When all the really good information is hopelessly entangled with myths, half-truths, and unfounded rumors, how is a newbee supposed to figure it out? Truth is, I don’t have an answer; I’m just obsessing at the keyboard. Perhaps if I didn’t read the papers, I wouldn’t get so upset.



  • You’re absolutely right. I think that the large abundance of contradicting information is what keeps many prospective beekeepers away or makes them want to quit. Confusion makes a powerful blockade.

  • This has to be the biggest problem I have encountered as I get started in beekeeping; not just a few weeks ago I was at a workday for beginners and the person leading it was telling us one thing and then another long-time member of the club would would chime in his different opinion. I am sure they are both right but as a noob it is so confusing and frustrating. For the most part I have decided to keep what I am doing as a beginner to myself so I don’t have to constantly be told that it is wrong. All beekeeping isn’t just local it is personal.

    I just can’t wait to get my bees (in 2 days!) and start putting this tsunami of information I have been trying to absorb to use.

    And thank you Rusty for not just telling us how, but why.

    • Toby,

      “All beekeeping isn’t just local it is personal.” Great quote. Sounds like something I might say!

  • I love your site. However, one quick question or maybe comment. I am definitely not an expert (I read your site to gain knowledge), but my understanding is that the honey bee is not native to North America, and was brought over from Europe. So, in that case, there really aren’t any originally “wild” honey bees to begin with in the US, and all the feral stock came from managed bees at one time or another. Wouldn’t swarming bees now help to replenish the feral stock even if only a small percentage survived? I am guessing that in the wild they would revert back to the “survival of the fittest” and possibly increase the genetic strength as only those that survive continued to propagate.

    Just a thought. I could be way off base and 180 degrees wrong on this one. Love your website!

  • I find it hard to imagine that feral stock and managed stock would ever have isolated disease spheres, the main problem with spreading disease is travel, and managed stock tends to be used for pollination thus travelling vast distances in huge quantities (hundreds and thousands of colonies). I highly doubt they would need to swarm to spread ailments to local populations. Most if not all “native” feral honey bee colonies are from managed stock in the first place, since the honey bee is not a native creature. Feral colonies I have observed are often in the same location for many years (not necessarily the same colony), and do not have any trouble staying afloat without our help. Another issue is how long a colony would last “naturally” in any given location without those diseases pressures since everything in nature is born reproduces a few times then dies, it would be interesting to find out how long a colony’s lifespan is normally. Research is a tricky issue it always boils down to who is funding it and who will profit from it.

  • My personal opinion is that these people who speak on behalf of others commonly don’t clarify that their statement is their own opinion and not scientific fact. Or assuming the speaker has his/her head properly placed, the reporter fails to quote it as an opinion ….

    But I appreciate every bit of info you share, this will be my first season and I’m anxious to get started…I must keep telling myself, it seems warm, but the guys gilding my packages know more….and when it will be safe to install my girls in their new homes……

    Thanks Rusty, you rock.

  • More wisdom from Rusty. In the UK there is definitely a surge of interest and we have a good range of BKA’s most of whom have a beginners course. There is a shortfall in available bees and a proliferation of amateur and knowledgeable pundits. There are a few who see the high demand for bees as a way to make money – and possibly spread disease! I don’t claim to be knowledgeable which is why I like this blog so much. I have found that at least if I hear all the different ideas and view them with my common sense in gear I might get some of it right!
    Does anyone else use the beekeepers forum? If you ask a question you get 20 different solutions – but it is a great resource for the new beekeeper who hates to panic alone!

  • This website is great source of information. As for bees in nature – I have a mixed feeling. In some other posting in this website I told the story of my bees – they were neglected and live in semi-disintegrated hives without roof… but they survived and keep me company for now (in nice new hive with landing strip). They are prolific, disease-free (as far as I know) and workaholics… I think, if such colony will expand and mix with “wild” population – it should be just beneficial for everyone. In this sense, I do not mind if they swarm… but true is – they do not swarm, they are building a monster beehive – it is 5 boxes tall now, in spring. They already fill up 1.5 supers with honey – it is in urban condition, April… I have no idea where they find so much nectar…

  • Rusty – just for fun, I’ll be the contrarian today :). In my humble opinion, our chemical and biological treatment schemes do more long-term harm to bees than good. They allow a colony to tolerate pests, but this also allows the pests to evolve in response to those schemes (think antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans). So in a strange way the well-intentioned “expert” may be correct – that these swarms will indeed improve the overall health of the wild colonies.

    When a “managed” hive throws a swarm, that swarm becomes free of antibiotics and chemical treatments. The now-feral colony that DOES survive is a colony naturally, and therefore better, adapted to pests. I personally believe it is colonies like this which are our hope for the future of beekeeping – colonies which have adapted in response to pests, not colonies which survive through man-made chemistry.

    After all – we have no indication that truly wild colonies are expanding…so that expansion needs to come from somewhere.

    As for newbees and the plethora of (mis)information: we have to sort out the myths and half-truths for ourselves by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands sticky. Or by calling our mentor.

    I have my big boy pants on today – so feel free to disagree 🙂

  • I’ve been interviewed twice by local weekly newspapers and was seriously misquoted both times (ex: “…honey is made of pollen”). So embarrassing!

  • “Backyard beekeepers are offering a glimmer of hope for bee populations…”

    I would agree with that part of the quote, but not with his reason (my reason would be that it helps elevate awareness and “common knowledge” of honey bees and other pollinators).

    I would also agree that some (not “every”, or even the majority) of those swarms – specifically from backyard beekeepers – could be helpful at this point. Since feral stocks are already decimated, a swarm from a strong & healthy colony of locally adapted bees could be of benefit.

    At the very least, that type of swarm stands a greater chance to help “increase the health and survival of all bees” than does a swarm from a typical commercial pollinator. I liken those type of swarms to fish escaping from ocean-based salmon farms. When there is such a mass of bees/salmon in one place there is usually an accompanying mass of pathogens (eg. sea lice for salmon) that negatively impact the native or local populations.

    Bee clubs can be great, but they can also be very confusing for new beekeepers due to the large number of varying opinions, and misinformation. For example, in the March Newsletter of one bee association we are members of was an article advising members to “feed terramycin” to their colonies every 10-14 days during March and April. Just because. No reason was given, no explanation, just do it as part of regular spring management.

    Where to go for good info? I don’t have an answer either. I usually go to a whole lot of sources and soak up all the varying opinions until I am confused and frustrated enough to either do nothing or do something random.

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