Of the many questions I receive each year, most are about how to do basic things. How to feed, how to split, how to prepare for winter. Each of these is an important question, and each deserves a careful answer.
But what I consider the most difficult aspect of beekeeping is seldom mentioned. It is the thing that experienced beekeepers know intuitively and that new beekeepers totally miss. It’s the reason second-year beekeepers know everything, and 20-year beekeepers wish they knew more. And it’s the thing that can make or break a colony.
This knowledge comes in bits and pieces. Even after many years, I have moments of clarity, aha moments when I suddenly understand something new. Each time, I wonder why I never saw it before.
A beekeeper must anticipate
The skill I’m talking about is the ability to understand and anticipate what is going on inside a hive, to know it before it happens. To develop that skill, a beekeeper needs a solid knowledge of the lifestyles and life cycles of everything that lives in the hive, including bees, mites, beetles, moths, and pathogens. And on top of that, the beekeeper needs to develop a feel for his local environment, including weather patterns, bloom times, drought cycles, and pesticide use.
What you see is not the whole story
As beginners, we rely on what we see or what we don’t see. But the experienced beekeeper relies on what he knows will happen next, long before he sees it. When we rely solely on what we see, we are often too late.
For example, many beekeepers report that they have no mite problem because they’ve never seen a mite on a bee. They’ve looked and looked. This is understandable, especially since we see so many spectacular mite-on-bee photos in books and on the Internet.
But those photos are remarkable because they are unusual. Personally, I’ve tried for years to get a good photo of a mite latched onto a bee, but I can never find one. Does that mean my bees don’t have mites? I wish.
Waiting for problems can set us back
Another example is robbing. A new beekeeper often waits until he sees robbing, and then tries to stop it. An experienced keeper knows when conditions are ripe for robbing, and he takes preventive measures. Like predicting the weather, the forecasts are not perfect, but they are accurate enough to be useful.
A third example is supplemental feeding. If bees need winter feed, a beginner gets accustomed to the rate of winter food consumption and imagines it will hold steady. The experienced keeper realizes that the rate will increase dramatically in late winter/early spring and he must be ready. Although I hate to admit it, I still make this mistake on occasion. How can I be so short-sighted?
Fourth, it takes a long time for beekeepers to understand that, basically, colonies grow for six months and contract for six months. On a hot sultry August afternoon, it’s hard to comprehend that your bees are getting ready for winter. The idea is at odds with what you see, which is a booming colony blackening the sky near the hive. Likewise, it is hard to realize that a quiet snow-covered hive on a 20-degree day in February is actively preparing for spring.
I could go on with dozens of examples, but you get the point. It’s often been said that beekeeping requires little time, but the things we do must be done on time. Anticipation is the trick that allows you to accomplish things on time.
Understanding how bees work
Assuming anticipation is the hardest thing to master, how can we help new beekeepers? The truth is, I don’t know. Some people are more intuitive than others and pick it up faster. Others prefer to stick with the recipe method and seek specific directions on what to do and when to do it. We all learn in different ways and our moments of clarity are triggered by different events.
I imagine the first thing a new race car driver wants to do is drive. Fast. But the good ones, the ones who persist, are those who understand how their car works. They know every last detail and how the system can fail.
Similarly, the first thing a new beekeeper wants to do is keep bees and harvest honey. But the good ones, the ones who persist, are those who understand how their bees work. They know every last detail and how the system can fail.
How we develop as beekeepers
When I look back on my own history, I learned the least from the how-to books, and the most from the honey bee biology books.
This may surprise you, but the second biggest leap in my beekeeping knowledge occurred when I began studying bees other than honey bees. In fact, when I speak to beekeeping groups, I love to compare and contrast honey bees to the many other bee species. Honey bees have many, many things in common with other bees but at the same time they are the outliers, a truly unique member of an incredibly diverse group.
Honey bees cannot be separated from the rest
Understanding how similar honey bees are to other bees provides a basis for understanding how different they are as well. As you study other bees, you soon begin to see how honey bees have misinformed our culture about bees in general. A statement like “male bees die after mating” has to be qualified since it is only true of honey bees. Similarly, “bees die after stinging” has to be qualified because that, too, is only true of honey bees. And swarming? Swarming as we define it is definitely a honey bee thing.
Studying other bees helped me understand the unique attributes of honey bees and how they work. At the same time, it became obvious that honey bees are just one small part of an enormous plant/pollinator system. Honey bees can’t be understood in a vacuum; they have to be studied in the context of their environment, and that environment is complex with many variables, including lots of other bees.
The take-home message
So the take-home message, the advice I would give to new beekeepers, is to start with a how-to book because this will allow you to set up your hive and get started. But as soon as possible, move on to honey bee biology. At the same time, become aware of other bees in your environment. If nothing else, learn how to distinguish a bee from a wasp. Does that sound too easy? You might be surprised. The differences between the two help clarify what makes a bee a bee. Once you know that, you can begin to understand what makes a honey bee different from the other bees, and why she is so special.
My goal here has always been to encompass all bees, not just honey bees. But it is easy to get distracted by honey bees because they are fascinating, because beekeepers have lots of questions, and because the word “bee” has become virtually synonymous with “honey bee” in our culture.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but I sincerely believe that the more you learn about all bees, the more your beekeeping skills will grow.
Honey Bee Suite