Okay, new beekeepers, I’ve never seen a soapbox either. Long ago, soap was shipped to retailers in sturdy wooden crates which were sometimes repurposed as small stages. The boxes could elevate an impromptu speaker above the crowd so he (usually he) could be heard by everyone. Because it was a favorite tactic of snake oil salesmen, anything proclaimed from a soapbox was considered bull.
But did that ever stop me? Heck no. Every year around this time, I like to espouse my own brand of beekeeping as if I were standing on such a box. Here’s this year’s version of beekeeping advice.
Forget the cookbook method
You cannot raise bees using a recipe. Recipes gloss over the finer points and don’t teach you anything. Last week’s question about a virgin queen’s pull date is a good example. The cookbook answer one beekeeper received was “eight days.” The real answer is much more nuanced and subtle.
Whenever you get a short answer that fits in one sentence, you should be suspicious. A honey bee colony is one of the most complex organisms you’ll ever meet. It doesn’t do things that fit in one sentence. Everything a colony does is dependent on genetics and its current situation. That’s why “it depends” is a famous but accurate answer to almost any beekeeping question.
So, no. Anything that looks like Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 is out.
Remember: your colony isn’t typical
What worked for the guy down the road might not work for you. What worked for the girl at the farmer’s market might spell disaster for your bees. Actually, what worked for one of your hives might not work for another in the same yard.
You see, the bee books don’t tell you that colonies are like children. Just as there is no single way to raise kids, there is no single way to raise bees. Every colony is different from the next. Sure, some aspects are similar, some basics hold true, but each colony has its own personality and limitations.
Genetics, latitude, and local threats make a difference. Food sources, microenvironments, pollutants, and sun exposure play a part. And their handlers (that means you) have different values, goals, and expectations.
Know why you keep bees
Knowing your purpose is essential because it will influence your management decisions. For example, a commercial beekeeper is very different from a backyard hobbyist. If you intend to be a hobbyist, some of the practices of a commercial beekeeper won’t be right for you, and vice versa. Either choice is fine but make one. You can always change your mind later.
On the other hand, if you are planning to save the bees, the insects, the world. or whatever, perhaps it’s time to rethink. Honey bees are livestock that require management just like chickens and pigs. Although many bee species need to be saved, honey bees are not among them.
Begin your beekeeping journey with biology and botany
Beekeeping is not about which super to use or how to mix syrup. Beekeeping is about bees and their interdependence with flowers. If you don’t understand how bees work, or if you don’t understand basic reproductive botany, you will be lost when you start to keep bees. Bees and flowers were built for each other, and you need to understand that interdependence.
If you begin beekeeping with no knowledge of either, you have a long row to hoe. But fear not! It can be incredibly satisfying if you keep an open mind through the rough spots. You won’t find much on the natural sciences on social media, you need to go back to the basics — the stuff you slept through in high school.
Trust no one
If you don’t understand something, or if something doesn’t make sense to you, dig deeper. Search for answers. Don’t trust something you heard in a meeting, don’t trust a mentor, don’t trust me. If the advice feels contrary to everything you know about the world, it’s probably wrong.
You know more basic science than you think you do. You have a lifetime of experience and observation behind you. Use it. Trust it. Think for yourself. I see too many newbies throw out everything they know in favor of following a self-appointed guru who knows nothing but how to get followers. Maybe he has great ideas, but maybe not. Always consider the source.
Black boxes are for airplanes
You can’t raise bees without opening the hive and evaluating your colony. Even if you have a raft of instruments gumming up the interior, they can’t possibly tell you everything you need to know. You need to open that hive and take a look.
Similarly, I hear many questions attached to calendar dates. Should I add my supers by May 1? Should I treat the mites by August 31? Shall I feed before Thanksgiving?
Dates are fine as reminders, but the real answer depends on what you find in the hive. You should add supers when the colony needs more room to store nectar; you should treat for mites when their population starts to rise; you should feed when your colony is running short of food. The calendar has little to do with it. These tasks and many more depend on what’s inside the box.
The longer you keep bees, the less you will know about them
The only people who don’t believe this are second-year beekeepers. The experienced keepers who’ve been around the block just grin and nod. You will never stop learning about bees, and the more you learn the more you realize what you don’t know.
After writing this, I looked back at the new beekeeper post I wrote seven years ago. I’m surprised at how similar the two are, but it shows I haven’t changed my mind. In fact, I’m more confident than ever that you can do this and love every minute of it.
Honey Bee Suite