miscellaneous musings

Dances with bees: a beekeeping philosophy

I am sometimes amused and sometimes dismayed when I hear the do’s and don’ts—the “rules” if you will—of beekeeping.

New beekeepers want to know the “rules” because they are just learning and they want to be successful. This is easy to understand because beekeeping is extremely complex and knowing a few “rules” gives newbees a place to start. But when I hear an old-timer using the words always or never, I get uneasy.

Not only is every beekeeper different but his microclimate has its own peculiarities. Temperature, rainfall, humidity, hours of daylight, flora, predators, and diseases can be different in every location. The area may be agricultural or forested, or it may be rural, suburban, or urban. The hives may be windswept or protected, shady or sunny. The beekeeper may have a lot of money to spend or he may be working on a shoestring. He may be using Langstroths, top bars, Warrés, or something he designed himself.

Furthermore, beekeeper goals are different. Some want to provide pollination services or queens while others want to produce honey, propolis, royal jelly, pollen, or wax. Some do it for research and some just because they like bees. Nothing is wrong with any of these.

Ultimately, every successful beekeeper does a dance with his bees. He moves backward and forward, left and right, until he finds a system that works for him. But even that system changes as the external world changes: new diseases arise, invasive weeds replace native vegetation, monocropping replaces traditional farming, and new chemicals are sprayed on roadsides. The beekeeper’s dance with his bees and their environment is never ending.

At one time in my life I was a competitive skater. I had a series of coaches during that period, but one in particular was famous for his “try it” philosophy. He knew that what worked for one dance team didn’t necessarily work for another, and he was always full of ideas on how to change a move here or there to make the dance flow with the music. He would instruct us to turn quicker or slower, lean less or lean more, secure the bridge, relax the bridge, look straight, look left—whatever, until somehow we perfected the movement. He called these adjustments “try-its”—as in, “Here’s a try-it that occurred to me last night.”

My goal is to help people become better beekeepers—not by insisting they do things my way, but by demonstrating that there are a number of ways to approach any problem. If something doesn’t work for them, I want to be able to suggest a “try-it” and see if that does the trick. If not, a zillion other “try-its” wait in the wings.

That said, I am fairly inflexible on one point: I firmly believe the beekeeper’s first duty is to maintain respect for the animal. A bee has a life; a beekeeper has a life—I don’t see much difference. But if a beekeeper is sincerely trying to do the best for his bees, then errors, misjudgments, and gambles that fail must be forgiven. After all, it is only by reaching for new answers—and experimenting—that we perfect new and better techniques, and we discover more about the infinite complexities of beedom.

And so I believe that dances with bees must continue . . . and “try-its” will form the heart and soul of modern beekeeping.


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