To become the best beekeeper, learn it’s not a competitive sport

Once I remembered why I kept bees and decided beekeeping was not a competitive sport, I was able to shrink the apiary.

Once I remembered why I kept bees, and decided beekeeping was not a competitive sport, I was able to shrink the apiary.

Inside: Beekeeping should be a pleasant learning experience and a chance to be outside in nature. But instead, we turn it into a ruthless 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!

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 160 No 4, April 2020, pp. 431-433.

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.

Bees happen, and soon you have too many

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.

We spent days off not with the family but with bees, we schedule vacations 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.

Here is the first of my permanent hive stands. Before beekeeping became a competitive sport, I was sure it was the only one I would ever need.
Here is the first of my permanent hive stands. I was sure it was the only one I would ever need. All photos by Rusty Burlew

Apiary expansion can easily compete with reason

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 two 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.

When it becomes a competitive sport, it becomes a burden

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 the brood, and do other bee things. Their mystical lives easily hold me in thrall.

The more hive stands I needed, the simpler they became. This one is made of scraps.
The more hive stands I needed, the simpler they became. This one is made of scraps.

The mites tipped the scale: saving some things while killing others

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 became 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: expanding is natural

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 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.

The swarm on the inside moved in on the prior day. I was preparing to remove it when the second one coalesced beneath.
The swarm on the inside moved in on the prior day. I was preparing to remove it when the second one coalesced beneath.

Reduce the number and endure for longer

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.

When I scaled back, the competitive sport disappeared from my life. I no longer care about the number of hives, only the quality.

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.

Once I remembered why I kept bees and decided beekeeping was not a competitive sport, I was able to shrink the apiary.
Once I remembered why I kept bees and decided beekeeping was not a competitive sport, I was able to shrink the apiary.

The take-home message: 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

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

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  • Hi 🙂

    I am a new beekeeper (1st year) and have only one hive. As of this moment, one is plenty! I’ve already lost sleep when it was being robbed or the night before I do an inspection. A full deep is too heavy for me to lift which has also caused me angst.

    I love watching the bees at the front entrance to the hive. I have a water fountain on my deck which they have found and use as a water source. I sit for…well, too long…watching them fill up with water and head off to their home. I enjoy looking inside the hive during an inspection, although as I mentioned, the weight of a full deep is a real problem for me.

    I read everywhere that I’m supposed to have 2 hives to start but I just didn’t want to. At least not to start. Maybe next year, if this colony makes it through the winter, I’ll go to 2, but I really can’t see me going much higher than that.

    My goals when beginning were to 1) prove to myself that I could go out there with the bees and not be freaked out 2) Someday get enough honey for personal use. That’s about it!

    Maybe I’m just not the competitive type, but in this case, for me, less is more 🙂

    Thanks for the post!

    • Good for you, Kerry! Sometimes keeping our own goals in mind is the hardest thing to do.

    • Kerry, when harvesting you don’t need to pickup a full deep of honey. Take out the capped honey frame by frame, brush the bees off and place them in a container that can hold the size of the frames. Use a few containers so that it’s not too heavy for you to carry, and close the containers so that the bees don’t occupy it again. Just a thought.

  • Hi Rusty,

    What a great article, and some much needed advice! Over the years, I’ve come to two important conclusions, just from my own experience:
    1.) Honey bees are smarter than me.
    2.) I’m more of a “Bee Tender” than I am a “Beekeeper.”

    By the way, I can’t stand doing mite checks either. Thank you again for all the encouragement. ????☘️?✌️

  • This really hits home! I started with a simple springtime package in 2017 and by the end of the next summer, I had five hives when my intentions were to grow to two! I’m grateful for the bounty they provide but I have just this year learned it’s ok to recombine after swarm prevention splits rather than growing more and more hives. I have sold a few nucs along the way and paid it forward by providing a few hives to up and coming beeginners. Content to stay at seven and no more for now. When your enjoyable hobby becomes unfun work it’s time to rethink what you’re doing and you expressed that idea quite well, as always, Rusty!

  • Once again in your own amazing literary style you have hit MY nail on the head. What was one in April is now 5- the plan was three. The bees had other thoughts. But that is where we will stop. My actual greater thrill is coming up with different plants to stagger flowering for as long as possible while I sit in the middle of the hive circle and think. I’m lucky I think- they are all just beyond mellow. You know things like California figwort planted this year half of which are flowering. Then there are two varieties of buckwheat some still pushing flowers after intentional very high mowing, dutch clover, of course, three varieties of goldenrod, squashes, and sweet sugar pumpkins to the point where we will be giving them away once the time comes. I’ve planted over 300 Lemon Queen sunflowers part of the first round of which are now flowering. Oops did I mention borage? And oh about those dahlias from a friend of yours? ALL the tubers are pushing flowers, albeit small ones. And every single seed we started seems to be thinking about it. I also get to blame the bees of all kinds for not mowing the yard because after all the dandelions and clover are part of what they need. Thank you again

    • Gary,

      I’m glad the dahlias are working out. This year, I have an entire garden full of them.

  • Serenity Now! It took me five years to realize what I want to achieve in “keeping homes for bees.”

    Started with two Langstroths and a TB which blossomed five with two more TBs. The past couple years I started having feelings of resentment about all the “work” of inspections, clearing cross combing, treating mites, redesigning hive stands, adding more entrances, scaping frames – scraping accumulated bits of wax off kitchen counters and the floor, the ‘stickiness’ of crushing comb, filtering and bottling honey, cutting and packaging comb honey, melting and rendering bees wax, composting casings, making candles… Not to mention cost of packages and queens.

    We’re good now, me and my family and the girls – five hives. I find joy and bliss watching the girls do their thing – particularly orientation flights, and staying out of their way. If a strong hive swarms, that’s what they needed to do. If they take up residence in one of my traps, I call a local apiary – someone knows somebody.

    Interesting, mite counts this year have been remarkably low. I only did one treatment on one of my three TBs. At least I got to try out my new Gas-Vap – love it, much nicer than using my Varrox; talk about cost of beekeeping!

    Another great read Rusty, thanks so much for sharing. I feel so much better being able to accept my feelings.


  • What a timely story. I’m in my second year of being “bee free” and I have to say I’m enjoying the lack of worry about swarms, mites, feeding, splitting, etc. One significant stressor was the fear of swarms, not because of the bees but because of the neighbours (I bee keep in the suburbs) not understanding or appreciating them as I might. Since having stopped I’ve gotten reacquainted with interests I’d lost touch with like bike riding and more time gardening. I do still wonder, however, if I’ll get back to it some time. I still watch beekeeping youtube channels and still enjoy honey bees and wild bees in my yard. I think you’re right, keeping it small is the right way to go if you’re not planning to make a living off it. Thanks for the honesty.

  • I promised my partner “No more than four hives”. Last year we had five because we caught a swarm. With three overwinter losses and two splits I’m back to four. I have a feeling that the small area inside the bear fence is the best substitute for self-control.

    Also, thank you for this soothing post, because I sometimes feel like a very bad beekeeper when I watch my swarms disappear into the woods.

  • Thank you for this very honest, insightful, and very entertaining post!! It feel like you told our story. We decided to stop the madness and take a break from beekeeping, after losing all our hives last winter. Good call, as we were both laid off, and then ……. I broke my wrist. No heavy lifting for me and no income!! Well, two funny things happened. #1: I signed up to be an online mentor last summer. When I got a request almost one year later, I was reluctant to accept. After all ~~ I had given up. I was a failure as a beekeeper (after 7 years with lots of successes, thanks to your blog). But the girl was so excited, so I accepted. It has been so much fun to see her learn and grow in her experiences. And rewarding beyond measure. #2: My husband slapped a swarm trap on top of our woodshed, just outside our now empty apiary. We had no expectations to catch a swarm and lots of expectations of relief from beekeeping for a summer. Lo and behold ~~ we caught a swarm!! Now a decision: Move it away for a bit so they could reset their GPS, then place it in the apiary, OR install it in a hive right on top of the woodshed, since it’s up high. And that’s what we did. Seems funny, as it is only a few hundred yards away from our apiary and the electric fence. But it’s doing quite well on the woodshed roof, and the view inside is as amazing as the view from the rooftop. Beekeeping has sparked joy once again ~~ thanks for your post!!

    • Michelle,

      That sounds like fun. I like the idea of rooftop hives in bear country. I’m glad you caught a swarm!

  • This was a great article! I’m a first year beekeeper and I just have one hive. It surely feels like enough! I think the next article should be “Bees aren’t pets”. I think that’s the problem I run into as a new beekeeper. I don’t want to do an alcohol wash. I don’t want to squish my bees when I put the box back on. I also don’t want them to die from the inevitable viruses that come with varroa mites. So beekeeping isn’t just hard because we have to keep them alive. It’s also hard because we have to accept a certain level of loss too. My goal started out as something to learn and try. It’s morphed into “honey for the family” and now I think it’s morphed into “honey for the family that pays for itself”. We’ll see! Thanks again for a great article.

    • A bee is not a pet. But a honey bee superorganism (the entire colony) could be a pet. When you squish a few bees because who can lower a heavy box slowly enough to nudge all the bees aside, you’re basically just scraping off a few superorganism skin cells. Yeah, don’t overdo that, but is your pet colony still healthy? That’s what counts.

  • Rusty it is a challenge. You can go for years with single hives when they are killed off by wasps or mites. A new package in spring – few issues, but then you learn and all of a sudden the colony survives. When that happens things change. All of a sudden your hard earned hive explodes. Now a new challenge – swarm management. You split, one hive becomes 2. Splits explode, more swarm management but you fail – new queen absconds leaving behind 6-9 lovely queen cells. You can’t crush – any. After years of struggles the last notion is to deprive those cells of a chance. Each becomes a NUC. Crazy. It just happens.

  • Truth! I purchased 2 nucs four years ago which very quickly turned into 260 colonies (thankfully not at the same time). I sell nucs and got up to 132 colonies at one point this season. Trying to downsize is a real thing. Currently at 75 colonies, not counting mating nucs. Bees are too prolific!

  • Amen sister! 5 years keeping bees and I usually have 2 colonies, sometimes 3. I know I’m an odd duck but other than a love of bees, I love the smell of the hive, propolis and anywhere bees have lived. Sometimes I crack the lid a bit and just breathe in that intoxicating smell! We’re not big honey eaters so I leave most of that for the bees. Great article. Thanks for all your work to document, you’re always my first go-to when I have a question.

  • Definitely one of your best stories, telling us about you and your relationship with bees.
    Thanks for writing and sharing, Rusty!

  • Great timing the article really hits home finding my place and enjoying the bees is truly peaceful sharing the world of bees priceless. Traveling to Montana with my wife and looking for backyard bee honey any suggestions? We will be in Big sky and Bozeman for a few days. Thanks for writing this and all the places that you fill with the love and knowledge of bees.

  • Great article Rusty. My original intent was 3 hives, the six, then 12, then 20. I was able to stop at 20 hives because I started selling nucs which takes care of the proliferation of bees. It also helps to pay for the ton of sugar those hives will need each year.

  • Although I am not a bee keeper, I thoroughly enjoyed the article. I was interested in your magazine but could not find a way to get more information about it. Please provide that. Thank you for the article. Entertaining and at the same time showing the trials and tribulations of a bee keeper.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Well done for saying what a lot of us feel but feel bad for admitting! I’m not in your league at all as I only have 3 colonies and a few nucs in my garden after 5 years (managed to keep it down! ) Even so I’ve had a difficult year; lots of swarms in my neighbours gardens (my fault for taking my eye off the ball!) and now after some failed unitings 2 are q- at the end of the season! So stressful!

    Also, I’m not getting any younger (or taller!) and find it all physically demanding esp in the summer heat with all those heavy supers. Sometimes it’s difficult to motivate myself to go out there when I know I need to! You can’t put stuff off with bees!

    I’ve relied on my non-beekeeping hubby to help with the lifting etc, but now he’s seriously allergic requiring a visit to the hospital!! So no more help with the heavy stuff and bye-bye bees in the garden.
    I’ve found a location for an out apiary but not sure how I’m going to cope with the extra travelling and planning required next season. Somehow it’s all seeming a bit much.

    Beekeeping should be enjoyable, not a chore however many/few hives you have.

    Guess I’ll think over the winter (when the tendency is to forget the bad things!) and see how next season goes. I still find bees fascinating but might look at other ways of keeping involved through my local club.

    Good luck next year and keep up the great blogs

  • Nicely said! As you probably know, I have fought the war for about a decade. I SO wanted to be an apiarist! I struggled to make it work. I studied, read books, read articles, I killed my girls by taking too much honey. I murdered my girls by not being tidy in harvesting honey, causing invaders to rape and ravage my colonies. I failed to treat for mites. In the end, last year, I surrendered and threw in the towel. Then, in early April (VERY early for swarms here), a swarm established itself in one of my two “dead outs”. They have gone mad. Now, I have two deeps, topped by two supers going. Sometimes, you just can’t stop life. This year, they get all the honey they want (and I saved 4 frames in the freezer from last year). Want to learn humility? Raise bees. Thank you so much for your blog.

    • It’s very nice to hear from you again, Renaldo. You see, the bees are speaking to you: They want you back!

  • Yup. 40ish full hives and 60 nucs……… And I count a nuc 12 frames and under ?

  • Agreed, 1st-year beek here but followed your blog for 9 months before that. Oh, what rabbit holes to go down here!, thank you for this, it’s very helpful.

    I think preparation and setting that line is very important. I started with two, now have five but my line for my particular circumstances and young kids is six… maybe it’s too much for this year, but it gives me as my grandma said “something to do and something to look forward to”.In those hours after they go to bed, I often go to the shop and work on equipment. Any more than six I happen to get from traps or whatever (Catching swarms is a rush and so interesting, not a competition!)…NUC and sell, that’s what I’ve decided… at firesale prices to pay for money down the drain so far.

    It’s been worth it, they are a microcosm for our macrocosm in many ways. And moments of bliss, hearing a queen tooting on the frame right in front of me, catching swarms, listening to a frame after lifting them out, their little clicks and buzzes… all worth it. And so many connections closer to the truth… about honeybees, some of them not so great: they displace native pollinators and pollinate invasive plants very well… so many other factors. So one really has to figure out one’s place in all this or at least question one’s place in all this…

    Anyway, thank you for this treasure trove!

  • Rusty, I had a scary experience with my own bees. I kept bees for 4 years, so my 5-year hive was my favorite. They were super gentle and hard working. One day last fall I was doing yard work and heard them all in a tiff. I walked over and right up to the hive, like always, and they were being really spicy. I worried that they were being robbed, so I proceeded to put an entrance reducer on. Suddenly, they attacked me. I had no suit on, and they found my arms an easy target. I ran, flicking bees off of myself. I had never been stung more than once at a time, so this was not good. Sure enough, I went into anaphylactic shock, had to use my epi-pen, then had my first ride ever in an ambulance. I had all of the symptoms of severe bee allergy. I had to spend the night in the ER. So, I was told by my beekeeper ER doc to get allergy shots (yes, what are the chances that your ER doc is a beekeeper?). The next morning (different) doc told me if I cared about my kids, I’d give up on the bees. So I chose to give up on the bees.

    Guess what happened. One hive absconded, and the second strong hive died over the winter (MI). Then guess what happened? I was not going to do bees but the bees found me. I cleaned out the hives and put one out back near my shed in the shade because I didn’t have room anywhere else for it. A colony moved into my hive! They started small, and now they are very numerous. I didn’t even set up the hive right…there are two entrances, the front and a huge gap in the back bottom board. I just watch them, Rusty. I have an awesome suit, but I cannot bring myself to go in and see what’s going on. I just see them growing and know I need to add a super, but I am scared and don’t have anyone to help me. See, I never got those allergy shots that I planned on. The bees found me. I think it’s kinda cute, but I know others would chew me out for being negligent. I watch them every day and wonder if they were from my hive to begin with and they decided to swarm home from wherever they were. They are not spicy so far…I wouldn’t call them a “feral colony” but just some gals who were happy to find a magical hive all set up and ready to go. I assume I must fix that bad gap in the back before a Michigan winter though?

  • Rusty, if it were not for some facts…I am on the Atlantic Coast and you are on the Pacific Coast, the virus, we have never met…I would just hug the stuffing out of you! Thank you for publishing this wonderful piece and putting into words so many of my thoughts. You found a way to validate my feelings!

    I so enjoy your practical, down to earth articles.



  • Thank you Rusty for a lovely piece of writing. I’m an aged Englishman who as of this moment has 45 days as a beekeeper under his belt, and I was dimly beginning to understand this thing about hive proliferation when I stumbled upon this blog. We have a single “bee box” in our back garden, ordered from Italy via Indiegogo. It should have come with lots of support, but the boxes of components arrived just as Italy was struck down by C19. We joined our local and national BKAs, but they were somewhat hobbled by C19, too. I have become addicted to watching bee videos on YouTube, and joining as many FB bee groups as I can (I even started one for UK bee-box owners.)

    We began with a six-frame nuc with a Carnelian queen and we added four jumbo Langstroths (our bee box has a very deep brood chamber). We were feeling good by how fast Melissa (our queen) was laying and how fast the colony was developing until I realized that they’re probably going to run out of space. Hopefully, this won’t become an acute problem until spring, which gives me a few months to tidy my workshop, build an elegant long Lang, and find an out-apiary in which to keep it.

    In the meantime, I need to hide your blog post from my wife!

    If you scroll down this webpage you will see my son talking to granddaughter Zoë about the bees. It’s why we got a bee box.

  • So true, Rusty! And so well described. I didn’t realize why I was reluctant to downsize until you described it. I did downsize my bee yards a few years ago when I downsized my house. I went from 6 sites (65 miles between the two outermost sites – what was I thinking?!) to 2 sites (24 miles apart). It’s fun again!

  • Wow. On spot. This was the year, number 5, that things went crazeeeee. All 8 hives in my urban residential backyard made it through the winter. What with swarms, swarm cells, and splits I got up to 12 hives, 5 nucs and two packed 2 framers. With some combines have gotten down to 10 hives and 6 nucs; need to shrink to 5 and 3, but that means selling off my babies or sacrificing queens, each of which is a sweetheart 2020 model raised from my own stock; that would be some painful pinching. Thanks for sharing; like many, I suspect, I thought I was the only beek feeling overwhelmed.

  • Bravo!
    Absolutely Love Your Expression of Truth and Humor! Thank You for Continuing to Write.

  • Yesterday I almost brought home some baby chicks. My husband softly said, “Aren’t you sort of busy now?” The reason for his concern is that in 2 years I have gone from 2 hives to 10 and spring is on the way.

    Then I picked up my phone to find your email article on competitive beekeeping.

    You did not realize you wrote this one for me. Every thought I have had lately. I believe things happen for a reason. We can either blow it off or pay attention. etween my loving husband and you, a person I have never met, I am getting back to my joy of beekeeping. My “little apiary” is getting to be too much for me so I am downsizing. I already feel better.

    Just wanted to say Thanks.

    N W Georgia

    • Susan,

      I laughed when I read your comment. I have done the baby chick thing, and you can’t believe how fast they become full-blown chickens dropping eggs everywhere. We had one coop, then two, and fenced yards, an automatic watering system, multiple feeders, free-choice minerals, oyster shells, scratch, and on and on. It was the most labor-intensive thing I ever did and someone always had to be here to tend to them. During peak season, there was no place to put hundreds of eggs. I used to get up early and take them to the state parks and give them to campers who were cooking breakfast. If you think bees get out of hand…

  • Yeah, been down the chick road. Took almost 10 years before they were no longer part of our lives. 5 hives this year, plan was 3. Bees had a different idea. Assuming my summer/fall/winter support of them is successful, I fully expect 4 of them to swarm. We have already made arrangements with a really good friend of ours to absorb any swarms [assuming we can catch them] into their apiraries. 🙂 Thou shalt know your limitations!

  • Good morning all. One of the previous commenters mentioned how she felt you wrote this article just for her. I need to second that. Four-and-a-half years ago I finally convinced my wife that my taking the beekeeping class from our local beekeepers’ association would not be a problem. She has an allergy to stings and was understandably dubious about the whole prospect.

    Took the class and afterward joined the club. My friend and future mentor stated that he would move one of his hives over to the house that I could work that summer and if I (we) liked it, we could have any splits. If things didn’t work out, well, all we would be out would be the cost of some jackets and tools. That hive split, so I got my first colony which I carried over the winter. Some packages/splits/new colonies later, I’m sitting here with nine hives (would have been ten, but a swarm I caught a few weeks ago had a run-in with somebody’s poison, so I’m back to nine.

    Two things I’ve found that I would like to pass on which helps me as a 65-year-old working bees here in the South Carolina summer heat and humidity. One: I’m working on reducing my deeps to mediums when I can. My basic hive is a deep with a medium super. I did a split onto medium frames which is currently running as one of my strong colonies.

    Two: Even though I try to get out early, it doesn’t always happen (just my nature). I find that I can do all my inspecting business best if I split it up over a couple of days. So I just figure on an hour and a half over two days gets me in and out easily without ending up dead on the grass. If something pops up, it’s taken care of without too much extra effort.

    I too am not at all fond of the whole parasite issue. I’m doing essential oils with any feed I give. Some may approve, some may not. I’ve gotten to that point in my life where I can be polite, thank them for their input, and go on with my life. I’ve seen what works in my apiary, and when I mess up (which I do more than I care to expound on), the number of hives I have allows me the flexibility to move on.

    Yes, moving down to mediums will probably mean that I have to be a bit more proactive in my checks, and if not, I’ll be looking at more swarms, but hey, I’m repopulating the local populations. Lastly, I can relate also to the chicken thing. Dang if they weren’t cute when they were chicks. Ten years later, they’re a pain, but one that has to be dealt with as their population dwindles down. They are great four tick/flea/SHB control around the yard and apiary. Not much more to add. Really did enjoy the dialog on this post. Take care all.

  • Beautifully said and make me chuckle because it is all so true. Question about your comb honey in the boxes….do you have photos of your comb honey production, boxes, etc? I’d love to see them. I’m much more interested in comb honey too, rather that the mess of jarring it up!

  • You nailed it, Rusty! I think you said what a lot of beekeepers feel or can sense coming down the road. There can be too much of a good thing.

  • Rusty,

    So true! This article should be sent to all new beekeepers at the end of their first year, so they know what is ahead of them. How to reduce? Uniting? And be happy with less colonies! As my wife keeps reminding me when the chores get to me, “but you’re doing it because you love your hobby”. Hmm.

  • This is such a timely article for me, such a wonderful reminder, that I am not out to prove anything with the three hives that I have. Let me be as wise and excellent at beekeeping as I can be, and then may these bees succeed and live their lives well, while they are enriching mine. Thank you for the honesty in your writing. I relate to so much of it.

  • OMG Rusty you had me in fits of laughter with the first few paragraphs. That was me totally last year from 0 to 5 hives in exactly the same way. You are my go to blog for most things bee. I am in the UK so have to amend things slightly but love your wonderfully written, eloquent and comical posts. Keep it up. P.S. up to 45 hives this year in all shapes and sizes and colours lol!!

  • I started with 2 nucs, and have not bought any additional bees except for some queens for diversity. I have sold over 220 nucs and am idling at 90 colonies all in 5&1/2 years. My current overwintering success rate is over 98% in growing zone 6/6b. I am 65 years old and am the first female VA state-certified Master beekeeper. The plan is to continue to try to decrease my colony numbers (a tough proposition for me) but to continue to teach. I love what I do. I teach people hands-on beekeeping in my apiary. I love experimenting and have several different types of colonies and honey supers. I can only imagine how I will feel once I get my sleep deprivation controlled (which has nothing to do with bees) and get Lyme disease co-infections in check. If you don’t thoroughly enjoy what is set before you every day, then it is definitely time to change things up. I love that my bees have paid for all of the “bee stuff” they have needed. And I have met so many wonderful people through keeping these amazing creatures. May God Bless our Passion, our honey bees, and all beekeepers everywhere. Thank you Rusty for your words of wisdom.

  • Thank you for the article. Do you have advice for beekeepers who only want to keep less than 5 hives, preferably without needing to split? Or is that a pipe dream? Spring is crazy with trying to decide whether if we split or not, finding someone to take splits on an unpredictable schedule, inspecting weekly for swarm management. I’d love to see an article on successful strategies managing hives without splits and swarms.

    • SS,

      Honestly, it really is a pipe dream. That’s because we all want to raise healthy bees, yet when a bee colony is vibrant and healthy, it’s going to want to reproduce (swarm). The colonies that don’t swarm are often smaller and/or weaker.

      But one thing that is often overlooked is short-term splitting. It works like this: you split the colony to avoid swarming. Then, as soon as swarm season is over (six weeks give or take), you recombine the two hives after removing one queen. This way, you don’t lose bees, yet you don’t have to overwinter more colonies.

      Also, depending on where you keep bees, you can just let them swarm. If you live in an urban or compact suburban area, letting swarms go is considered bad form because they scare people. But if you’re out in the countryside or in the woods, letting the swarm leave is usually okay. It’s what would happen to any colony living on its own. And lots of beekeepers lose swarms without even knowing it.

      Only you can make these kinds of decisions. They are based on your personal beekeeping philosophy, your goals, and your levels of patience, skill, and finance to keep bees. Everyone is different and we all live in different kinds of places. Personally, I split until I run out of room and let the rest go into the woods. I don’t live near people or livestock, so I’ve never had a swarm complaint.

      Think about your goals and your surroundings, then try to come up with a strategy that suits you.

      • Thank you, I was thinking it might be a pipe dream. We’ve got 4 hives and maybe space to put 2 more, but I’d like to keep it to 3-4 max because they just keep multiplying! We are in the city so we inspect weekly during swarm season because we do considering letting the bees swarm to be irresponsible. I think going forward, giving away splits at the start of the season is likely the way to go.

        • SS,

          That sounds reasonable. I remember when I decided to go from 14 hives down to 6. I thought it was a crazy thing to do but, on the other hand, I have other interests in life. In retrospect, it was the best thing I ever did. I wouldn’t still be keeping bees if I hadn’t reduced the apiary to small and manageable.

          Try to have all your ducks in a row before swarm season starts to make it go as smooth as possible. For me at least, having a plan for when things (bees) seem out-of-hand, really helps. Thinking about it in advance, just like you are doing, is the best strategy.