Book review | Simple, Smart Beekeeping

Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Kirsten S. Traynor, PhD and Michael J. Traynor. Copyright © 2015. Image Design Publishing, Middletown, MD.

No beekeeping book is harder to write than the beginner book. Where do you start? What do you include? And perhaps the most difficult decision, what do you leave out? To write a solid guide, an experienced beekeeper must think like a beginner and remember what it was like to be totally lost.

In the past when people have asked me to recommend a beginner book, I often hedged, usually offering three or four adequate alternatives. But now I can now recommend a beginner book with enthusiasm. Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Kirsten S. Traynor and Michael J. Traynor should be on every beginner’s shelf.

Awesome, instructive photographs

cover-sm-traynorThe first thing that caught my attention was the photographs. The book is loaded cover-to-cover with clear, sharp photos that illustrate every topic covered in the text. I found only a single two-page spread that does not have at least one photo—often there are two, three, or even four, and many are close-up images that illustrate a specific point. I particularly appreciated the photo of a soapy water wash to determine Varroa levels, the image of what a gentle puff of smoke looks like, and the photo of how to hold a queen by the wings. And I would love to have a print of the bee bread photo for my wall!

It is no accident that the photos are magnificent. Michael J.Traynor is a commercial and fine art photographer as well as a beekeeper. He combines those skills to give you the perfect illustration whenever you need it. And many of the photos are full page, allowing you to see every detail with clarity.

Good information in the right order

The second thing I noticed was how Kirsten placed a list of definitions at the beginning of the book instead of waiting till the end. There is a glossary at the end of the book as well, but Kirsten recognized the need to define certain terms right away. So immediately after a short history of beekeeping in Chapter 1, she supplies “The Beekeeper’s Alphabet” that contains a selection of words a beginner needs in order to understand the basics. I’ve always believed that once you learn the vocabulary of any discipline, you are well on your way to understanding it, so I think this arrangement is brilliant.

From there, Kirsten guides you through your first year of beekeeping, stressing how to build a strong and healthy colony that can be successfully overwintered. I admire the way she relegates the honey harvest to something you will do in the future, not something you will do in the first year. She shares my philosophy of stealing a bite now and then in the form of burr or misshapen comb, but otherwise saving the first season honey for the bees.

Another point she stresses is the need to perform beekeeping tasks on time. As the book illustrates, beekeepers can make choices about how to do things. But regardless of how things are done, they must be done on time. These two basic—but often overlooked—principles can make or break a first-year colony.

Highly recommended

Kirsten earned her PhD studying bee biology at Arizona State University and is the editor of Bee World, published by IBRA. She writes in an easy-to-read, fluid style that makes each concept clear and approachable. I enjoyed reading Simple, Smart Beekeeping and have to admit I learned a few things on the way!

This book is a must-read for new beekeepers and a great refresher for those a few years into it. In addition, it would make a great gift for those still thinking about taking the leap into beekeeping because the authors paint a clear picture of both the work and rewards, while acknowledging that beekeeping is not for everyone. And others agree: the book was recently chosen by the University of Maryland for its beekeeping class.

So give it a try or give it to someone else; you will not be disappointed. Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Kirsten S. Traynor, PhD and Michael J. Traynor.

Honey Bee Suite

Picking up a queen from <em>Simple, Smart Beekeeping</em>. © Michael J Traynor.

Picking up a queen. © Michael J. Traynor 2015.

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  • Can’t click on the affiliate link to amazon to buy the book: it takes me to, your income preventer. If I’m the owner, it says, I should click something suspicious to open a ticket. But for me, it says I’m trying to get around some security safeguards.

    • Ivan,

      Bummer, bummer, but thanks. When I log out and click on it, it works fine, which means I’ll never figure out what’s wrong. Sucuri is great. They have saved me more than once, but they can get annoying sometimes.

  • I’ve found that it’s often a good idea for even the most experienced people to read a beginner’s book. No matter what the field you’re working in. People forget the basics over the years.

    I can’t count the number of times in my life that I’ve outsmarted myself due to this. You forget something simple and basic and it causes you to overthink a small problem into a big one.

    The longer you’ve been doing something, the more susceptible you are to this.

    • Craig,

      I agree. As I mentioned in the post, I even learned a couple new things that I’m going to apply next year. And yes, you do forget things over time, even basic things, so it helps to go back and read some more.

  • Coincidentally, the Traynors spoke at the Virginia SBA this weekend. I bought the book as well as her other, “Two Million Blossoms – Discovering the Medicinal Benefits of Honey”. Can’t keep my eyes off the photos in ” Simple, Smart Beekeeping”. Amazing. Good text too and straightforward. She was a great speaker as well.

  • Rusty,

    I saw the authors at the Virginia meeting as well this weekend and bought the book as a result (fantastic talks: one on pesticides in the U.S. and one on Germany beekeeping). Michael’s photos are truly amazing, and might be worth the rather high cost of the book.

    I wonder if you could resolve an issue I have, though. I’ve always understood the term “caste” in biology to be a specialization in a single gender, yet she refers to drones as a caste. I thought a drone was not a caste since this is the only one form of males in the hive. The castes in the hive are workers and the queen, both female. Do you know the definitive answer on this?

    I notice their definition of top bar hive implies they do not have removable frames as well, which is not accurate. I’m on Chapter 8 and my vote is still out on the overall book – appreciate the review as encouragement to finish the text.


    • Well, Erik, you touched on a pet peeve of mine when you mentioned castes. First, please read a post that I wrote back in 2010 and you will see I agree with you totally. This is what many of us were taught in school and I still abide by it.

      But the reality, I think, is that through years of misuse and misunderstanding, the acceptable definition has changed. Now people refer to castes as groups of individuals that are morphologically different or that take on different roles, and with that definition, you can include males. In recent years I’ve seen well-known and even famous entomologists evolve into this newer (and I think unsatisfactory) definition.

      The definition of caste was specific and nuanced, and you could always tell who knew their stuff by who used the word properly. I think it’s sad to lose unique and descriptive words, but I would say we have lost the battle on this one. Still, no way will you ever hear me referring to drones as a caste. I just can’t do it. I solve the problem by referring to three types of bees and I notice other people doing this as well. But I greatly miss the subtlety and specificity of the old term. It was a good word.

      • Well, thank you. Glad I’m not crazy, and I love (love) your 2010 post on the subject. Did I say I loved it? Well, I did. I was disappointed that the Simple Beekeeping book, authored by a Ph.D. no less, has a chapter, an entire chapter, that talks about the three castes (sic) in the hive.

        I say we keep fighting the good fight. Honey bees have two sexes, male and female, and two castes, both female.

        On the good news front, I just took the Apprentice Beekeeping exam for the state of Virginia. The study guide includes the statement that you should know the two castes in the hive. So perhaps we’ve lost the battle but not the war. Keep up the good fight!

        • Erik,

          That is very good news indeed. Congratulations to the state of—oops—Commonwealth of Virginia!