miscellaneous musings

How should we train the newbees?

Tis the season. My inbox is flush with “amazing” deals. Unfortunately, many of the hard-sell marketers are heading straight for the wallet of the soon-to-be new beekeeper. I’ve watched wannabees, still unable to tell a honey bee from a cockroach, buying specialty hives, extractors, and vaporizers so they will be ready when their bees arrive.

The marketers are slick, many offering “free” courses with anywhere from a dozen to 150 lessons to help get you started. Of course, this is nothing new. I first complained about the “lesson plan” back in 2010 when I saw poorly structured tutorials, each designed to sell you one more thing.

How much stuff do you really need?

Okay, I’m not a minimalist. I find that tinkering with hive design, equipment, gadgets, and technology is enormously fun and educational. On the other hand, you can be a first-rate beekeeper without breaking the bank. No one should be guilted into buying something he can’t afford or doesn’t need. Your need for equipment will evolve as your hobby expands, but purchasing should not be rushed or haphazard.

And all those lessons? How discouraging! A hundred lessons on any subject would make me run. Instead, I recommend that beginners read two good books: one that covers basic beekeeping practices and one dedicated to honey bee biology. My recommendation for the basics is either Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Kirsten and Michael Traynor or The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile. If you are a visual learner, the full-color photos in the Traynor book could not be better. For honey bee biology, nothing comes close to Honey-Maker by Rosanna Mattingly. I refer to it constantly.

Don’t forget the mites

The other thing a beginner needs to learn is varroa mite biology. It’s more difficult to find comprehensive, easy-to-read information on varroa, but you can’t be a competent beekeeper without it. The mite-bee-virus complex is fluid and evolving.

Regardless of whether you are treating for mites or trying to develop a mite-resistant strain, you need to understand the ebb and flow of each species, and how to recognize what is going on in your hive. You might try Randy Oliver’s website, Scientific Beekeeping, for up-to-date varroa information. His articles are also carried in the American Bee Journal.

Learn as you go

The rest of beekeeping can be picked up along the way. Each author, speaker, or mentor you encounter will have his own unique style. And that’s fine, as long as you remember that nothing is set in stone. In time, each new beekeeper will develop a personal style that meshes with his own opinions and rituals.

Sometimes I feel that we established beekeepers are not fair to the newbees. We explain how easy it is to get started in beekeeping, which is true. And the first few months are easy as well. But fall and winter can be brutal to novice beekeepers. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t write to me and say, “All my bees disappeared. I had a huge booming colony two weeks ago, and now it’s gone.”

It’s best to start with the truth

Not only have we failed to explain the difficulties, but we have in-filled the suburbs with beehives that are sharing diseases and parasites, robbing each other blind, and competing for forage. Far from “saving the bees,” adding more and more hives has hurt both bees and beekeepers, and made the craft much more difficult.

I certainly do not want to discourage potential beekeepers. On the other hand, I think we owe them both transparency and honesty. In today’s world, it is not easy to raise healthy bees. A beekeeper can do everything right, and still be taken down by a neighboring hive. Those first few months of geometric population growth and furious foraging belie the trouble ahead, yet we don’t mention that part. We often abandon the newbees when the going gets tough.

The bees have us

Folks like to gloss over honey bee problems by repeating the mantra, “Bees survived millions of years without us.” To which, I always reply. “But now they have us. And that is the problem.” And indeed it is. Humans have changed the face of the planet, and it is no longer the world bees evolved in. While we’ve managed to make the changes very quickly, we can’t expect mother nature to move as fast. Adaptations take time, if they happen at all. In the meantime, we have to care for our bees as best we can.

The joys and benefits of beekeeping are many and that part won’t go away. But I believe we need to be flexible in our thinking and willing to try new things. Our constantly changing planet calls for updated techniques. The innovative beekeepers out there who are always tinkering and always trying a hare-brained idea, may be our best friends.

The end of a season

My backyard leaves are squash yellow and pierced with sunlight. The air is both warm and cold, layered and unpredictable. Hardy kiwis still cling to the vine that I’m sharing with the jays. This is the time of year I worry about my bees the most, wondering how many, if any, will make it till spring. I review everything I’ve done, and a few things I haven’t. I cross my fingers and hope for the best.

At the same time, I make mental plans. Maybe a new kind of honey super. A different way to split. A plan for an altered hive. The wind quickens and I shiver. As I walk back to the house, I wonder what honey bee mysteries will reveal themselves in the year ahead and what the newbees will teach me.

Honey Bee Suite

We need to train the newbees about bees, not beekeeping.

Honey bees are doing their best to quickly adapt to a changing world. © Rusty Burlew.

Note: Ironically, this post contains affiliate links.


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  • This is a good subject you bring up. Even looking at the highly rated (on Amazon) books you recommend some people complain they are too complicated. I think beekeeping is complicated at first. I didn’t feel like I had a clue my first year. This year after taking classes and purchasing several books it is coming together. There are key points about bee life cycle, season and bee build up ability, and the indicators in the hive that tell how the hive is doing. Some of this comes down to screwing up sometimes and having more than one hive. Best to buy tools as you go.

  • Good advice. Some people just love the part of a new hobby where they have an excuse to buy stuff. You know who you are.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I teach a monthly Beekeeping 101 for my local association. I try to keep it simple, giving an overview of what new beekeepers might see and can expect from season to season, issues that might come up, and how to grow hives that thrive. All year I stand on soap boxes about requeening hot hives and sampling for Varroa. I’ve also made it my goal to talk any new beekeeper out of starting with 10 hives so they can get the ag exemption for our county. They have no idea how much work 10 hives will be. I’ve found that at least half of our members ignore me completely and then are surprised at the poor results. They don’t sample for Varroa (because they haven’t seen any), they let hot hives get so terrible they can’t get near the hives (I’ve done three shake outs this year for other beekeepers), they take every last frame of honey right before winter (because they’re going to feed), and they set up 10 hives right off the bat (because it takes 5 years to establish the ag exemption status and they want to get the ball rolling). Sigh. But I keep on pluggin’ because beekeeping can be a good experience and I want to share that with them.

    On a funny note, in February I covered equipment to get started, plus a list of tools and hardware that isn’t necessary but sure is handy. I popped into my local beek supply store shortly after and the owner said they sold out of slatted racks and had to back order more. So, I guess someone was listening. 😉

    I know I’ve learned an amazing amount from your blog and keep coming back for more. I’ve tried the two-queen hive, built a long Lang hive, put in upper entrances, and have slatted racks on all my hives. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and your experiments.

    • Laura and Rusty,

      Sounds like a great program, Laura: the frustrations are familiar. Years ago our State Association President gave a talk in which he emphasized planning to to develop “beeKEEPERS” rather than “BeeHAVERS.”

      Our local club picked up several members over winter who were gung-ho to “get bees.” Despite our urging that they spend a season following a beekeeper to learn to inspect and what they’re seeing in a hive, several of course plunged ahead with purchase and set-up. Our Extension Office paid for a good beginner book for everyone. We held demonstration inspections and sent notices inviting anyone to observe our own (with few responses, altho I did get one inviting ME to come inspect THEIR hive!)

      At the October meeting, there was quite a lively discussion of what to do about swarm cells this time of year. Some said cut them out, others said watch for a swarm and still others debated whether a colony could winter over with a virgin queen. “Anybody got a drone cell?” (laughter)

      As our president was summarizing, a beginner’s hand went up, to ask, “What’s a swarm cell?” To our credit, none of the mentors yelled “Read the book!”

      I hate to discourage eager novices at any trade, but when we discuss inspection, it is tempting to say “If you don’t have time to attend a demonstration, you probably don’t have time to care for bees properly.” A leader from an Indiana club nearby calls hive inspection “The heart of beekeeping.”

      Wishing everyone and your colonies a safe secure winter!

      Shady Grove Farm
      Corinth, Kentucky

  • I’m still a “newbee,” but I have wondered about many of these things already. Like backyard chickens and rescue pitbulls, sometimes our desire to help actually creates more problems; and, in the worst cases, supports not-so-healthy sub-industries. Thank you, Rusty. Most eloquent.

  • Hit the nail on the head again Rusty.

    I love your site & pass it on to my newbees & hope they take up the cudgel.


  • Thanks for this. Beekeeping is not easy and I worry about my hives as well. I do everything I can to help them but pick them up and bring them in the house with me. I lose some no matter what I do also. U do a wonderful job writing and trying to help beekeepers. Thanks for the time u spend writing and sharing your experiences. u have a wonderful day.

  • Great post, Rusty. Thank you. I refer people to your site. And, believe it or not, “Bee Keeping for Dummies” was a really good primer compared to the many I read. Will get Honey-Maker by Mattingly. Missed that one. Thanks again.

  • I’m a first year, but I’m also a veterinarian. I have a mentor from my bee club, which is invaluable…who helped me install my first packages etc. but he is a “no treatment” guy…so we kinda split paths. I got very tired of “it depends”. Kind of help but no help…hence I found Bee Suite…

    This is a “hobby”(?) which requires an unusually high intellectual investment to do well. I call it my anti-alzheimer therapy. The people who don’t investigate, and learn, will drop out. It just won’t be rewarding (plus expensive).

    I’m new, but I think perhaps people should be more informed from the beginning that it isn’t exactly easy or ‘barely takes any time.’

    Plus I’m not alone I’m sure… in not being able to sleep sometimes when I can’t figure out what the hell is going on. Which sets me to researching even more.

    It is not simple…it is immensely fun and mind growing. I suspect some people are not expecting that much investment.

    • Carol,

      I agree. We are still telling people it is easy and requires a minimum of time, which just isn’t true. And it is expensive.

      And you’re not alone: I’ve spent many a night tossing and turning, trying to figure out what I should be doing with my bees.

    • Carol,

      I agree. We are still telling people it is easy and requires a minimum of time, which just isn’t true. And it is expensive.

      And you’re not alone: I’ve spent many a night tossing and turning, trying to figure out what I should be doing with my bees.

  • Great article for new beekeepers. The marketing for beekeepers and in general has gone crazy. It is more a sign of our society than beekeeping specifically. Keep up the good work.

    Bob Zniedermayer

  • Try comparing bees to chickens. Everyone can do chickens, they are lovely, wonderful easy rewarding livestock.

    Bees seem to more recently be promoted as something similar, as in every small land holder, roof holder… should have them. It’s a bit different.

  • Rusty –

    I would’ve loved reading this post three plus years ago when wading through all the websites – “Beekeeping Starter Kit With Hive” – and books. The two 1-day UC Davis Extension courses were good value, but nothing really prepared me for the “newbee” angst and work involved.

    Now, eating comb honey, sharing bottled honey with family and friends, frames scraped, all the comb rendered, wax filtered, and hives readied for fall… It’s easy to forget the level of effort and dollar$ invested getting here.

    But…, when gifting honey and someone says, “Thank you. I’ve thought about getting a bee hive.” I always invite them to join me for hive inspections and/or mite treatment. The one person, besides family who took me up on the offer concluded beekeeping was more time and work than they were willing to invest.

    “News From The Hive” keeps me grounded with my hives.

    Thanks bunches,

    • Doug,

      Thanks. I agree that when things are going well, it seems so easy. But once things start going bad, it can get worse in a hurry.

  • Well said. One of the things lacking in beginner and even higher classes is education on drug\drug interactions of the miticides and the very serious side effects they exert on bees of all castes and in all stages, and correction on the thinking you are buying pure beeswax foundation. Having knowledge of these will really help you have better outcomes with your honey bee colonies.

  • Thank you Rusty.

    Amazon does not carry Rosanna Mattingly’s book. But one can buy direct from the (small independent) publisher: http://www.beargrasspress.com/product/honey-maker/ (or like me, put it on the Christmas wish list …).

    I am bothered (greatly) that people enter beekeeping to “save the bees”. The pessimist in me longs to divert even some of the start-up money to be misspent by all the destined-to-quit newbees into habitat gardens and land conservation, although my inner optimist believes that clear, literate, passionate, amusing beek writers like you (and others) are successfully doing that very thing.

    • Glen,

      Please DO encourage those people to help the bees by planting gardens and conserving habitat. Explain that some of the problems with bees (honey & native) is not population per se but food supplies and suitable habitat. I’d rather see more native (and non-native) gardens in my neighborhood than hives. (I’m in SoCal suburbia.)

      We can act locally on this. We can encourage people to become educated before (or rather than) rushing into beekeeping. We can achieve a better environment by speaking up to our friends and neighbors.


      • Marian,

        Glen Buschmann, a good friend of mine, works tirelessly in the interest of native pollinators, as does his wife and sister-in-law. Good people.

        • Thanks for the kind words Rusty.

          Marian, one thing I have done for years now is belong to and attend meetings of the local beekeeper association, even though I do not raise honey bees, so as to be available (present) with beeks, regularly help them learn both about native pollinators and about planting. I particularly enjoy bringing my stuff to beek booths to expand the honey bee displays with lots of native bee stuff. Years ago when I joined I did so because I figured that I kept bees, they just were not HB’s. And I realized that I like hanging about with other folk who don’t conform to standard of “smash first ask questions later”.

          I’ve probably influenced a few folk, certainly learned a lot, and am also encouraged that mostly folk who make the effort to attend beek meetings get a good introduction to habitat needs, from planting to pesticides. But in ten years I have also noticed the huge turnover of beek members, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of drop off is not because they no longer need the advice that comes at member meetings — though that does happen — but that it took them a lot of time and money to figure out that they shouldn’t have taken up the sport in the first place. So that is my optimist pessimist struggle.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I like Bee-sentials: A Field Guide by Larry Connor for the pictures, almost as much as what he has to say. I will have to check out the Traynor book – I’m not familiar with it. Don’t forget the old standby: Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees by Malcolm Sandford. Although a 2010 book, it is a good ‘un.

    Around here I’d say the most common beginner bee school book is The Beekeepers Handbook, 4th Edition, by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile. I use that for my Intermediate Class.

  • As treasurer of our local branch, I have been keenly aware of how many newcomers there are looking for startup info. At the beginning of this year, I asked our board to support a series of powerpoint presentations that would take the newcomer from the beginning of the beekeeping year (set up, siting, nuc or package, etc) to the end (eg fall inspection, winter preparation, and gifts from the hive). They agreed to it. We used our members to do each presentation, using 1, 2 and several-person teams. We had an excellent turnout, from both new and seasoned beeks. We will do it again this year. Happy to share an outline of our stuff if anyone is interested. The next challenge is to create a mentoring program for the newbies. That cannot be done by powerpoint!

    • Ann,

      It sounds like an excellent program. With a good Powerpoint and a live speaker, the audience can ask questions, which is not so easily done with books, YouTubes, or electronic lessons. And the questions are sometimes surprising. What we think of as “obvious” is often anything but.

  • Thanks again for your most appropriate and pointed articles. I have recently started a 4-H honeybee project in our area. The kids took to it like fish to water, but getting some to make the time for sugar shakes and integrated pest management was challenging. Even with mentors, lectures, books, scoring, and good intentions, etc…the gravity of why and what we do as beekeepers to keep our bees healthy may not always get through until they experience it themselves.

    • Paula,

      I find it hardest to communicate with new beekeepers in late spring and early summer when their colonies are huge and bees are boiling out in large numbers. They look at all those bees and think, “This is easy!” It seems like all the warnings and explanations in the world mean nothing, at least not until their colonies start crashing in the fall.

  • My fave bee text is the British Beekeeping Association Guide to Beekeeping:

    I also teach Apprentice Beekeeping and since my students are the impoverished interns at our local community farm, I put a text online for them:

    I always say beekeeping is easy to go but difficult to do well! You have to show up, as many commenters above have pointed out.

    However, the biggest challenges I have had have been from other beekeepers. On a regular basis, somebody moves in a huge beekeeping operation into the fields around our little town. We are still semi-rural so there is a sense that this is a fab place for bees. In truth our forage base is limited (this is a small peninsula) and is disappearing with local development of the land. We have had treatment free survivor projects come to town…50 hives with no Varroa control. We have had researchers plonk their research hives down in the fields nearby. They never think that maybe they should plant a field or two in mixed clovers and forage plants to reduce their impact on the roughly 150 local colonies.

    Our other big challenge comes from the hundreds of mobile pollination hives that come to the local berry fields, mostly blueberry so in normal years these hives are gone by the time the big nectar flow (blackberry) happens. But whenever they are here, we have to think about drift and competition.

    • Janet,

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m not familiar with that one.

      For people who are not worried about drift, I recently read that in certain areas of high hive density, up to 40% of the bees in a colony may be from elsewhere. I was so startled by that number, I went back to check references but now I can’t remember where I saw it in the first place. In any case, I agree that drifting bees—many of which carry diseases and parasites—are an enormous problem. It’s easy for a new beekeeper to believe his bees are separate and distinct from all the others, buy they are not.

      All good points. Thank you.

  • Four years in, I’m still a newbie myself, and it’s pretty easy to get me going with tiresome enthusiasm about the wonders of beekeeping.

    But if someone says they want to help save the bees, I switch to my ‘native bees are in more trouble than honey bees’ rant, and how all kinds of bees would benefit from planting things that bloom in our July/August dearth, and if you really want to save honey bees, buy local honey, you’ll likely find it’s totally worth the extra cost, and the beekeeper probably isn’t making much, if any, profit.

    If someone is actually looking into becoming a beekeeper, I tell them to make sure they get themselves stung by a honey bee first. No point in investing thousands (I always say thousands) of dollars if you’re gonna react badly to stings.

    I also recommend the Sammataro/Avitabile The Beekeeper’s Handbook, which will make you think it’s too complicated, and Beekeeping For Dummies, which will make you think, wait, I can do this. You need both those things, if I can’t talk you out of it.

    • All good stuff, Roberta. I like to remind people that when they do things to help native bees, they are helping all bees, including the honeys. Doing just two things—planting flowers and limiting pesticides—will have an enormous impact on all bees.

      • Wait, did you edit me or did I get autocorrected? I really meant to write “You need both those thinks”. I suppose I should have said “both those thoughts”.

        Of COURSE they’re good ideas; I got most of them from you.

        (I’m not kidding. This site is the main reason I started worrying about all the other bees.) (But I still can’t identify them beyond not-a-honey-bee, despite all your Herculean efforts.)

  • Hi Rusty, the posts and responses are wonderful. You did make my first 2 years beekeeping much easier. I read lots of books before getting them but still wish for a book about the odd things that come up. Like a queen cell in October, or why only one colony of 3 had enough stores for winter (I took only a frame or 2 from them). Why a colony sick with black shiny bees (CBP) got real healthy after their 3rd queen replacement (did the virus go with the old queens?)

    They all had oxalic acid vaporization in July, after a brood break where I caged queens for 2 weeks, then Hopguard in September. I fed till stores were sufficient and moisture quilts are on and bee cozy wraps. Your pollen and candy boards will be given soon. Like everyone else….. hoping for the best. I didn’t mind all the work, it’s just hard when it doesn’t guarantee great outcomes. Disappointment is a large part of this game. Tell the newbees that!

  • Thanks again for a very thoughtful blog, Rusty. As an add-on to teaching and informing “new want to be a beekeeper” people the learning curve of honey bee, which I believe is the foundation of being a good beekeeper, are the usage of the products from the hive by non-beekeepers, especially adding essential oils to make natural products like lip balm, soaps, etc. I recently shared this story with another beekeeper. My neighbor called me quite upset and told me her tenant had honey bees COMPLETELY covering her sliding glass doors to the patio. (They had just cleaned them). They freaked out at that and sprayed the bees off. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why those honey bees did that until I remembered seeing in our local grocery store an organic cleaning product for windows with lemongrass! The store was notified of what happened and the cleaner pulled from the shelves. Now here is a company that has no idea that lemongrass is a honey bee attractant.

  • And now Happy Halloween! Wow, after reading all these ideas and posts for 18 months of beeking, I am no more aware of doing all the right or wrong things than when we first started our first hive in the spring of 2016. There are always more questions than answers and there aren’t enough people around in person to get good answers. Stepping into the picture, Rusty with all her first-hand knowledge and training to offer ideas and suggestions that we can all learn from. I love those moisture quilts and the whole idea of good ventilation! Slatted racks, outer insulation from wind and food boxes are all wonderful tips to make the whole thing work, but the biology of the bee? We all better buy a book or two and just keep reading and learning.

    Love this site! Thank you, Rusty!
    Linda from mid-Michigan

  • Thanks, great subject as always. 3 year here. I was told buy bees and you’ll have bees wrong, after 2 yrs. of winter deadouts and lots of reading. I’m finally going into winter this year, after treatment (OA) with 6 hives with fingers crossed. There is so much not explained to new beeks. Especially drifting and robbing (in my case feral bees). And $$$ spent.

    Thanks again.

  • I’ve found that my enthusiastic tales of bee adventures seem to discourage more people than draw them in. But they still ask “So what’s going on with the bees NOW?” So at least I’ve increased awareness.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I really enjoy talking with you thru the blog. My question sort of follows the topic but not really.

    I’m a Newbee, but am completely addicted to the bee and really enjoy learning about keeping “healthy” colonies. I watched the documentary about brother Adam and his Buckfast bee. Very good stuff.

    Brother Adam mentioned in the doc. That you will have healthier bees in a large brood box.

    I did not know that. And Europe has some big brood boxes like the national and commercial. We yanks (American) run a smaller Langstroth hive.

    I was planning on going with 10 frame medium Langstroth. But after learning about healthy bees I’ll be going with deeps for my brood.

    I guess you learn everyday.

    Thanks for all you do.

    • Greg,

      Interesting, but much of the talk these days is towards maintaining smaller, not larger, colonies. Mites and some other pests seem to have an advantage in a large hive, and so many people are going smaller. At one time I kept triples, then I went to doubles, and starting a little over a year ago, I went to singles with a medium of honey for overwintering.

      Part of this comes from the studies of feral hives, which are nearly all small, and the well-adapted Africanized bees, which also maintain small colonies.

      I’m not saying we know the correct answer, only that with the modern pests, smaller often seems healthier. Brother Adam didn’t have to deal with varroa mites, the viruses mites carry, or small hive beetles. It is truly a different world.