If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!
Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:
The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.
Second-year beekeepers know the most
The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.
Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.
The tree of knowledge
You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.
Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.
But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.
Much less than before
I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.
‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.
Tee hee…from a second year beek! I got a major humbling (although honestly I was doing my best) this year when through noob mistakes I brought EFB into my apiary. The apicultural inspector gave me a major, and useful, dressing down at the end of his inspection. I learned a lot. A lot.
In defense of us noobs, Rusty, there is such a steep learning curve to beekeeping, and a lot of what you need to know, you only know from seeing and learning what it is you are looking at. There are things that books can’t teach you in beekeeping, a lot of things! This is part of why I decided to expand greatly in my second year, simply so that I could get more experience in actually observing the hives. Keeping bees is wonderful, fun, and interesting. But it is not easy.
You say, “In defense . . .” but you’re not supposed to feel defensive because you weren’t supposed to read it! Gotcha.
I hear what you are saying. But, as a 2y bkpt, I feel obliged to share the shallow knowledge I have with others in order to encourage them to raise bees. More bees, mo betta. Do I understand it all? No. Do I pretend to know it all? No. But don’t be mean to is who are in the middle.
Hi, Rusty. You should know that I resemble those remarks! I remember my first two years as a beekeeper. I went from 6 hives to 30, didn’t lose any hives the first winter, and only one the second. I did read a lot of books and research papers, but, still, I wrongly thought ‘This stuff is easy!’. So much so that I became president of our local bee club. I stood up there giving lectures each month on EXACTLY what folks should do to assure success in their beekeeping endeavors.
I’m up to 150 or so hives now, and I’ve been keeping them for 7 years which pales in comparison to many that I still give lectures to. However, now I look back at myself from those days and think ‘What a maroon!’. I often wondered why the old time beekeepers sat at the back of the presentation with amused grins on their faces. These days I am much more likely to answer questions beginning with the words ‘that depends’. And, as you know, ‘that depends’ can encompass a very large set of circumstances. Like you, I am completely smitten by my girls and find their befuddling behavior to be part of their charm. Often I feel unsure about the ultimate correct answer. When I do, I am happy to have those 2nd and 3rd year beekeepers in the audience to refer them to.
What a picture! I can just see those guys smirking in the back row.
Funny thing is that now, when I don’t know the answer, it’s the 2nd and 3rd year beekeepers in the front row smirking.
Another important point to be made here. I increased to a lot of hives very quickly, and that really sharpened my learning curve. However, I have discovered another component in the learning process that can’t be sped up; climate. With each year a whole new set of conditions presents itself via the climate for that year. Long cold wet/dry winter, short easy winter, late spring, early spring, late spring frosts, wet/dry summer/fall, etc.. The effects on the bees and the sources they forage on are infinite. If you do some migratory beekeeping timing is critical. Trying to outguess mother nature is folly. The best you can do is try to be prepared for whatever she can throw at you, and, then, prepare to be surprised anyway. Of course there’s always the additional effects of pests, predators, parasites, pathogens, and pesticides. But, hey, it’s only an infinite set of circumstances. What’s the big deal?
Every year, I am humbled by just how much I don’t know about life in the bee colony. I am more confident than ever, that I will always be in learning mode.
That reminds me of an old Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
I’m finding this to be true. Although, I am a 2nd year beekeeper and disobeyed and read it anyway. 🙂
I think the more we learn the more we learn what we don’t know. Like in high school I thought I knew everything. Then as I went to college I learned what I didn’t know and when I graduated I felt like I knew nothing even though I had learned so much.
When we start beekeeping we don’t know what we don’t know. I suppose that’s a good thing though, or we might never start. It’s overwhelming enough the first time you catch a swarm or install a package or nuc.
” . . . and read it anyway.” Why doesn’t that surprise me?
Oh yeah! Love it. As always, aprospo!
I am not supposed to comment on this because I too am a second year, disobedient, beekeeper, who is quickly realizing there is many more years worth of experience to put under my veil and much more to learn. Nice job on this post. We do need reminders.
I totally agree! I am a 3rd year beekeeper — and one of those “but I read it anyway” readers. 😉 Personally, I gained an immense amount of humility when I lost both my hives during the summer of my 2nd year. Though things have gone well so far this year, I always feel like it is a miracle that it is all working so well. I definitely know how much I don’t know!
Love you blog. I am a first year beekeeper. To say not to read is like telling a child to stay out of the cake frosting while you use the restroom. Its just doesn’t work. 🙂 I have found your statement to be very true. I started my two hives in late July. A bit late, but they are doing very well. I’ve had a lot of advice. I check them every two weeks and give them plenty of room. They look healthy, act healthy and are getting more defensive. They have all the syrup they want till they quit taking it. I don’t see a need to treat them. I build custom furniture and after getting into beekeeping started getting ideas about custom hives. My link to you is what I do. I’ve been told by many 2 year beekeepers that bees won’t live in red cedar. Well, they may know bees, but they don’t know wood. Cedar looses its smell when exposed to the sun. My strong hive is doing well in its new cedar home and I’ll be moving my smaller hive soon as soon as the smell is gone from the second build. I’ve learned so much from your blog. I love your humor. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at. I’m still waiting the day that I open my hive and 10,000 ladies have pms…. I think I’ll just close the lid and go back in the house
What a great piece this is. Inspired. Insightful.
Reminded me of this quote which I love.
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”
Given age and experience is such a wonderful thing I am surprised at how society always wants to look young and goes to such lengths to achieve it.
Nan, most of our club is middle aged…50+. Partly because that is when you start to have the time and money to take on beekeeping…and a backyard to do it in. But ALL the commercial beekeepers I know are 70+. I wonder what is going to happen to the industry. Will younger folk want the long hours, hard work and low, unpredictable pay that agriculture offers? That adds another layer of uncertainty to the future of the honey bee!
Rusty, I not only read it anyway, I knew in advance what you were going to say. How’s that for 2d-year hubris? Except that I hear myself saying to novice beekeepers that the longer (snort) I am in it, the less I feel I know.
One problem is a new learner is excited to share information and feel like they have something to offer. Another seems to be that novices, in our club anyway, feel more comfortable approaching someone who just survived a Winter, than asking the big old lanky grey-haired guy with 25 hives. But we are working away from the “bee school” model – nothing wrong with bee school except that you aren’t going to remember the 3/4 of it that you don’t get a chance to apply right away – to a mentoring model, where newcomers team with a veteran for hands-on learning before they ever order their own bees.
Also under this model, when a newcomer asks me a question, instead of telling them what to do, I take their elbow and say, “Let’s go ask Jim (or Leroy, or Junior).” The older fellows LOVE it. Plus their backs get a break from lifting all those boxes, when they have an apprentice.
BTW “Junior” is 75. Does that give you a picture of our Club?
Anyway thanks on behalf of ALL beekeepers for a warning against thinking we know it all.
Shady Grove Farm
I’m guilty. I used to talk like a know-it-all, like I knew what I was talking about. I hope I don’t do that anymore. I’m reaching the point, if I’m not already there, where I don’t want to talk to anyone about beekeeping. I’m still interested in learning, just not talking.
I hope that makes sense.
I totally understand. I stopped at a booth at the farmer’s market recently just to see what kind of varietals they had. Two woman who ran the booth started talking to me about bees and how wonderful they are, and how they’re going extinct because of colony collapse disorder, and how half of all our food comes from bees, and how if I didn’t support my local beekeeper the whole world would come to an end, etc. I just stood there nodding. I couldn’t say a word because I didn’t want to talk about it. I left only when they started in on someone else.
Rusty, I must say that talking to the old experienced guys is one of the most aggravating experiences I can go through. A a second year beekeeper, I often turn to a friend who has been keeping bees for many years. When asked a question, he never has anything to say other than, “maybe”, “you can try it”, or “who knows?”. Though it may be wisdom and experience talking, it doesn’t help me a whole lot.
Truthfully though, I am grateful for those with experience who have shared advice. I always find it more pleasant and efficient to learn from other’s hard lessons than having to produce them myself.
I see your point, but the quick and decisive answer often fails. That is why those who’ve kept bees awhile use those non-committal phrases. You say those answers don’t help you a lot, but honestly, the definitive answer that fails doesn’t help you a lot either; it just postpones learning that there are no definitive answers.
David, I have found that many of the older beekeepers mean well, but hesitate to TELL you what to do. I find asking “what are my options here”, and “what outcomes are we looking for” helps get them talking about your possible courses of action. Bees don’t always read the books, and this spring I had a hive that wanted to swarm in late March…not a drone in sight. The advice I got was: never do splits in March. But I had to, the hive was full of swarm cells. I split, and let them requeen…took a LONG time and help with eggs as we waited for the drones. I should have split, waited a bit, recombined, and split at the right time. That advice I got at the end of the summer, too late, but I was asking the question in a way that elicited more answers and information.
I think you make some key points but I think the spirit of Rusty’s article still applies.
It’s tempting for experienced beekeepers to offer simple aphorisms to new beekeepers who might not have the patience or inclination to hear the longer complicated answers.
Amen Sister! I think the glory of beekeeping is the wonderment of it. Every day I thank the Big Queen Bee in the sky (and sometimes at least ten times a day) that I’m not actually trying to make a house payment with proceeds from my hives. The more I learn, the higher my spirit soars and the smaller my wallet shrinks. Commercial beekeepers have my unblinking respect.
Guilty, guilty, guilty. And MORE guilty. Before I even started I watched the Delaplane videos. Read books, read articles, cruised the net. Man o Man, I knew stuff and hadn’t even started yet. Got a 3 pound pack, did well, got another, did well.
Took 12 gallons of honey off the two hives year two. Man Oh Man, I knew things about bees. “My girls”, I cried. “I am a bee keeper, not a bee owner”, I crowed. Now, in year five, I know a bit more about humility. Should have known from a lifetime of experience. I am a failure. A klutz. Stupid.
My hives both died out two years running. Now I know nothing.
I am humbled, ignorant, foolish, even.
Never screw with the cockey god. He will humble you. Every time.
I will persevere because I am stubborn and can afford to buy package bees but I shall going forward, remain humble on this subject. Meanwhile, “our” feral hive in an oak tree continues to thrive this past decade.
I love your letter and it’s a good reminder for newbees. Thank you for writing!
First year; we are wide-eyed babes to the new-bee world and try to let the bee club or mentor teach us.
Second year; moderate success or failure aside, there really is a lot to “know” so we seek to learn the answers and knowledge in books.
Third year; we have learned so much through scholarly pursuit and either been successful with our one or two hives or an utter failure. Now, we look to expand to 100 hives or just keep two alive and try to listen to what the “pros” have to say on the Internet or in lectures.
Fourth/fifth year; we either are frustrated and start dropping by the wayside or MUST learn it (so invested in both time and money) that, finally, we look towards the greatest beekeeping teachers of all for truth and guidance…the bees themselves.
Good analysis from Captain Jack.
I figured your intro was more guidelines than rules, so I too took a gander at what you had to write. I can honestly say as a second year beekeeper, I don’t resemble that remark at all. Probably has something to do with being hit hard my first year with hive beetles and wax moths even after doing everything my mentor advised me to do.
So, I did what any stubborn woman would do, I learned from it. I learned that no one can possibly have all the answers. I learned to read a ton of information from a lot of different resources, talk to other beekeepers, then follow my gut. So far, it’s working for me. However, I’m determined to enjoy this road of knowledge I’m traveling on and not be in such a hurry to “arrive” at my final destination (whatever that may bee). Ha ha!
Good for you! Nature has a way of teaching us things we can’t learn from each other, but I don’t think any of us ever “arrive.” Beekeeping is a process.
You forgot to go below ground into the root area of the tree. These are the people who know the most of all, the people who don’t have bees yet but read it in a book. They will confidently tell long term beekeepers where they are wrong and why they should know better.
This changes as soon as they get their bees. Confronted by the prospect of trying to open their hive, they suddenly realise they know nothing.
At that point they find humbleness, start asking questions, and morph into the eager to learn, first year beekeeper you describe.
Hi Rusty, What a great and funny post! I am a sixteen year old beekeeper to be in 17 days! I have read, read, read, and read some more. But still feel my tree of knowledge has not yet sprouted! Thank you for such an AMAZING site!