Is beekeeping a competitive sport?
After months of study, you finally take the plunge and buy your very first wooden hive. You sand the sweet-smelling boards until they feel like silk beneath your fingers. You browse the paint aisle of your local home improvement store and spend far too much money, buying colors that spark your imagination, colors with names like Peony, Key Lime, or Meyer Lemon. Once it’s complete, you place your gleaming hive on the lovingly built stand and install your first colony. Everything is perfect until your mentor says you really should have two hives, just in case you need some brood or want to raise a queen.
The two-is-better-than-one advice from experienced beekeepers makes sense, so you buy another hive, another colony, and repeat the entire process. Now your setup is to die for. In fact, you revel in your flawless apiary until the moment you realize your bees are about to swarm. Quickly you buy two more hives. You decide they really don’t need sanding, so you just paint them to match the others. Just in time, too. You manage to catch the first swarm and split the second colony proactively. You’re already up to four colonies in your very first year!
In a few days, you notice that the swarm trap hanging in your old maple tree is attracting a lot of attention. You run right out and buy a fifth hive just in case, slap on a coat of partially congealed paint, and balance the hive on some cinder blocks. Just in time again. Your trap enticed a swarm on the run, so now you’re up to five.
We constantly read the bad news. Headlines remind us that honey bee Armageddon is just around the corner, and we try to stay apprised of the burgeoning panoply of new threats. We read anxiously about each novel combatant poised to take down our bees. We attend lectures and classes, surf the net, and buy books, forever trying to prepare for the next assault.
But despite the naysayers, bees happen. No matter how you try to control the number of hives, it continues to multiply. We watch our little backyard apiaries expand, regardless of the news. Those who promised their partners “just a hive or two” to pollinate the vegetable garden and make a little honey for the family find themselves with more hives per acre than a California almond orchard.
When our backyards become overly intimidating, when we begin wearing veils to take out the trash, we seek friends and family who might be willing to park a hive on their property. We promise them honey and they agree. As soon as we can buy a pickup, we deliver a hive or perhaps two — if they said yes to one, certainly they wouldn’t mind two — to their homes. Now we have an outyard! How cool is that?
Does it stop there? Of course not. It never stops. In fact, it gets completely out of hand before we realize what’s happening. Like the delicately swaddled infant that morphs into an insolent teenager, the tiny backyard apiary evolves into an albatross, hindering our every move. It requires monitoring, maintenance, surveillance, healthcare, equipment, and heaps of dollar bills. Days off are spent not with the family but with bees, vacations are scheduled around swarm season, and the retirement nest egg is raided for mite meds and electronic monitoring devices that can measure everything from colony weight and humidity to sound and temperature.
Most of us have been there. Like so many others, I began beekeeping with one hive and quickly added a second. At that point, I coerced my engineer husband into building the hive stand of my dreams, a structure that holds my hives 18 inches off the ground and includes a roof to protect them from some of the northwest rain. It’s anchored in the ground with concrete and capable of holding a couple thousand pounds. The best feature was it could accommodate three hives — if for some reason I ever got that many — with three hive perches bolted to the stand itself so they couldn’t slide off. It was a dream come true.
My built-in hive stand was a showpiece — greatly admired by my beekeeping friends. It did everything I needed it to until I wanted a second one to take three more hives, and then a third to accommodate my nine. After that, Rich threw together a few single stands out of scrap lumber, and then a few more out of twisted second-use boards. After that, it was up to me.
Next came my first outyard and, with it, the requisite pickup. And then I needed a couple more bee suits so the friends hosting my hives could mow their lawn on occasion. The time and money to maintain my few hobby hives were becoming an issue. I promised myself that on no account would I ever add up the expenses. Some things are better left uncalculated.
This process went on for years. Oh sure, I had some winter losses, but I was able to replace them with little effort. Each year I ended up with more colonies than the year before. Hives cropped up like mushrooms, perched on hillsides, squatting beneath trees, and stilted in the wetlands.
But one spring day, an epiphany struck me like a thunderbolt. I was staring at a swarm trap high in a tilty alder tree, wondering how to get it down. It contained a swarm that had moved in the day before. And as I watched — unsure of my next move — a second swarm began collecting on the underside of the trap. I muttered unseemly words as it coalesced into a venomous mass.
Suddenly I realized I didn’t like beekeeping all that much. In fact, I began to dread the whole idea. I went inside and began making detailed lists of everything I had to do, materials I had to collect, and hives I had to set up. I outlined every step and then reordered it all. Although I was overwhelmed and the annotated list was a sure sign of procrastination, I figured if I tweaked the details long enough, I might actually avoid the whole two-in-one thing.
My dislike of beekeeping had nothing to do with the bees, of course. I love bees, and I can spend whole afternoons chasing them through the flowers. I like to watch them build comb, tend brood, and do other bee things. Their mystical lives easily hold me in thrall.
The mites tipped the scale
For me, varroa mites were the last straw, the stubble that took down the camel. I hate treating mites. For many years I consoled myself that it only needed to be done once a year, and I could live with that. Then it was twice a year. And then three times. Last year it was four and I still had losses. I began to loathe taking samples, calculating mite drop, assembling treatments, and recording it all with actuarial precision. I lost sleep, wondering if the treatment would work, or whether I would need to do it yet again. Although I never envisioned a hobby as an amateur exterminator, that’s where I landed. Killing was a way of life, killing in increasingly novel and complex ways. Whacking wasps. Murdering mites. Poisoning parasites. Waxing moths.
The kicker for me was boredom. I can treat one hive, fine. Two hives, still okay. But when it comes to repeating the same action over and over, I resent it. Tedious repetition reminds me of pushups and musical scales, both of which I endured in high school. It reminds me of ironing my dad’s white shirts and pulling dandelions and washing dishes. If you think I have some kind of personality disorder, you’re probably right, but I have to deal with it nonetheless.
I am not alone
I know I’m not the first person to mindlessly acquire too many bees. Many unpleasant aspects of beekeeping are not about honey bees themselves — those creatures we know and love — but about the peripherals. It’s easy to love bees and still have too many. For some folks, it’s the spiraling expense; for some, it’s the heavy lifting; and for others, it’s the constant battle with predators such as bears and skunks and hornets. For still others, it’s the hassle of harvesting, bottling, marketing, and selling.
And we haven’t even addressed the stickies. Everything about bees is sticky — the honey, the propolis, the beeswax, the feces. If you touch something on my property, you run the risk of remaining attached to it forevermore. In an act of supreme desperation, my husband changed all the household door handles, inside and out, to levers so I can open them with my elbows. Even at this very moment, I’m forbidden to touch a handle of any type.
The paradox within beekeeping is simple. When we are successful we invariably acquire more and more colonies, which translates into more and more work. Too much work, especially the kind we don’t enjoy or don’t have time for, can lead to unhappiness and frustration. Time and time again, I’ve seen people get in too deep before they’ve really decided how deep they want to go, or before they understand the commitment it requires. I think many people leave beekeeping not because of failure but because, at some level, the work isn’t enjoyable or it isn’t the type of work they imagined.
Reduce and Endure
In my own case, reducing the number of colonies had a positive effect on my attitude. For example, I found making seven candy boards much more conceivable than making 15, partly because it required lifting fewer fifty-pound bags of sugar. Administering 28 mite treatments a year was better than 60, and it minimized the number of heavy boxes I had to lift.
In the past, I would panic over such a low number of colonies, but a few years ago I consciously decided not to replace losses until I got down to a reasonable number. At first, it was difficult because making up losses and increasing our stock is ingrained in our collective beekeeping psyche. I still go through moments of panic, wondering what I will do if I lose them all. Will I immediately restart? Take a year off? Write a memoir? I have no idea, but I’ve decided to cross that bridge when I come to it.
Despite the uncertainty, the decision to go smaller greatly enhanced my enjoyment of beekeeping. I can now remember what I need to do without spreadsheets, software, and cell phones. I can treat for mites when I have a few minutes, instead of setting aside days for a despicable task, and I can buy sugar when I’m in town instead of making special excursions for fifty-pound bags and having strangers stare and ask what I’m planning to bake.
All the time saved leaves more moments to enjoy the bees, watch them, play with them. Instead of starting the day with a to-do list of items I detest, I now have time for observing, learning, considering, and questioning.
Honey, I shrunk the apiary
Like many beekeepers, I once thought that shrinking the operation was a type of failure. After all, when people ask how many colonies you have, they are impressed with big numbers. Tell them you have three, five, or seven and they say “oh,” their voice falling in disappointment. The pity in their eyes is a not-so-subtle insinuation that you can’t do better, that you’re not a real beekeeper. But say five hundred and they say “Wow!”
I was finally able to shrink my apiary by remembering why I started. My foray into beekeeping had nothing to do with saving the bees or pollinating crops or selling honey. It had nothing to do with being with nature or curing allergies or making candles. None of that. All I wanted was a dependable supply of ethereal comb honey for the table.
I did that and I still do, but I don’t need dozens of colonies to meet that goal. I realized that I, like so many others, had forgotten my vision and fallen into the “more is better” mindset until the bees that once brought me peace were bringing angst instead.
Beekeeping is not a competition
We live in a supremely competitive society where we compete in sports, academics, salary, and job titles. We compete for friends, likes, page views, and possessions. Then we reach for ginormous houses, outsized cars, and fancy vacations. Do we really need to compete in the bee yard, too?
Beekeeping should never be a competitive sport. I don’t need more bees than my neighbor, or more honey, or the tallest hive. What I do need is a sense of oneness with the bees, the sense of wonder that only a healthy colony can provide. I want to smell the meaty aroma of an open brood nest, feel the softness of freshly secreted beeswax, and taste the confusion of nectar in a newly harvested comb. “How many colonies?” just doesn’t matter.
The perfect number of hives is the number that is right for you, be it two or ten thousand. A life with bees is well-lived, but don’t let other beekeepers drive your train. Decide on the number that makes you happy and hold the line. In the end, you will be a better and happier beekeeper. You will be the winner.
Honey Bee Suite