It’s time to soapbox the new beekeepers

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.

Start here: New beekeepers must know how bees work! Diagram showing internal parts of a honey bee.
Start here: You must know how they work! Image by Raden Dedi Ashar Suryana from Pixabay

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 

Beekeeping is more fun when you know the science.
Beekeeping is more fun when you know the science. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


  • I definitely understand the part about knowing less after keeping bees more. I remember studying all about bees and beekeeping before I got them. I eventually came up with the perfect way to keep bees. I had no idea that many years later, I’d end up doing almost everything different than the way I planned. Even honey extraction is different. I was originally planning on cooking the honey to kill harmful bacteria, but I now I can see it’s not that big of a deal. Plus, cooked honey is 🙁

  • I don’t “enjoy” donning my bee apparel in 85+ degree southern heat to sweat through hive inspections…at least not every minute of it. But you are right. Now I’m trying to learn how to get ahead of my hives swarming by doing splits, etc. I’ve lost some huge swarms to height. It seems the larger the swarm, the higher into the trees they go for their initial congregation. All I can do is admire them from far below and wish them well as they make their loud exodus over the woods toward new digs.

    Thanks for your advice, Rusty!

    • Jeff,

      I hear you. The swarms I’ve lost go up, up, and up. I need binoculars to see them swaying on their tree limb.

    • Had one of those yesterday. A swarm the size of a basketball went up into the nut tree above the hive, way too high for me. A bit later, it apparently decided it needed a new vantage point and moved down onto the center of my (low-hanging) rose arch. Never had that happened before, but I’m glad it did! Three tries at shaking the bees out of the rose (three is my limit), the bees started fanning at the entrance even though there was still a large ball on the rose arch. An hour later, all bees in the hive! Whee!

      Speaking of new things all the time – this is my eleventh year beekeeping and each year there are bees doing things I don’t expect.

  • “Hey, guys…blahdy blah blah and don’t forget to like and subscribe to this video!”

    Not where I get bee education from.

  • ‘It depends’ seems to be the phrase I have used a lot* in regards to problems that the novice beekeeper is experiencing. In beekeeping, religion, and politics it seems that folks like a short and clever sound bite which never seems to work out well in the real world. ‘I have come to believe’ seems to be of more recent origin and expresses the idea that at one time I believed one thing but evidence now points in the opposite direction.

  • Amen! I am always – no, make that, “usually” – suspicious of advice that includes either the word “always” or “never”. More than once I have heard definitive advice from someone at the club, followed 10 minutes later by overhearing the exact opposite from someone else in the club – both of the speakers being experienced and generally successful beeks. Even in my first year (you know, before I knew everything, however briefly) those words triggered me to hunker down and re-ignite my carpal tunnel by engaging in exhaustive web searches. I’ve learned to take most advice with a grain of salt – even yours, Rusty. I’ve found posts where you appear to contradict yourself, although they are generally widely separated in time, and, a continuing theme in your posts is that you try different things to see what works better. I find your approach refreshing in the face of so many other dogmatic beeks. I always (um, usually!) learn something even if I find myself disagreeing with your premise. Plus you’re just fun to read!

    • So thanks, I think. But yes, I do contradict myself because I have changed from the time I began writing this website in 2009 until now. I’ve thought of going through and updating, but I don’t think there’s any harm in demonstrating a transition. Those older tidbits were honest when written, but like all beekeepers, I’ve honed my skills over the years.

      I appreciate your candor.

      • You’re welcome, definitely. I think the number-of-deeps and no-cook vs cooked candy are the most noticeable time-sequences where I found myself thinking “Why isn’t she updating or deleting those old posts?” On reflection, I’ve concluded there is indeed value in leaving everything out there. Heck, some people might decide that one of your discarded techniques is just right for *their* situation.

        You can be so tactful, too. “Candor”, eh? Pretty sure that’s not what some of my previous bosses and co-workers called it.

        • You put such a nice spin on it. Part of the reason for not updating everything is the sheer volume of it. If I tried to update all 2000 posts, they would be out-of-date again by the time I finished.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rusty!!

    New Valkyrie owners usually have questions that I can only answer with, “Well, it depends…” or, “What are you seeing in your colony right now?” and even then, I’m not going to have any answer and I’ll send an SOS to Naomi.

    May I post this to my website?


  • Smiling – the part that I liked was: “…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.”

    When I try to explain to the curious who ask why I keep native, stingless bees (Meliponi) and not non-native Apis, I explain that Apis are highly productive yet like domestic creatures – think Holsteins of the honey (and other derivatives) world. Everybody loves them but they don’t represent that plant/insect interdependence that the native plant species often require to survive. Oligoleges are bees that are specialized pollinators and many native bees do just that – serve very specific plants not served by other species. There are so many specialized pollinators and not all of them are even insects.

    When you think about that for a moment and the “diversity” we need to work on saving, well, not contemplating other pollinators and focusing on Apis could be a huge mistake.

    Matt in Brazil

  • I feel I’m starting again. I lost my one colony about January 2021 – they were a swarm from 2019. Very sad, but an unexpected health issue knocked me down from May 2021 until October. So, time for a new departure – I took delivery of two nucs from a nearby, established beekeeper. No previous experience of nucs for me. A couple of days with the nuc boxes on the hive stands to orientate, then transferred the colonies to their hives yesterday with the help of my octogenarian “tutor” [he gave me his kit about 4 years ago, and we work together]. Very dry in the UK, so shallow water and nets into water for thirsty bees. Rusty’s posts have been a great help. Spot on about each colony being individual. My two new ones are very different, but, like children, treasured!

  • Ditto for Mathew Berigan except I ran a native Bee Sanctuary for 20 years but shut down in 2016. Too far ahead of the times and wish I could have come up with such a perfect couple of lines as yours. Yes Rusty, you have changed but wiser than ever.

    • Thanks, Renée. Too bad you had to shut down, but even now most people aren’t ready to save insects, let alone bees.

  • I always enjoy your posts and hope you’ll keep them coming!

    We’re in our sixth year now (hard to believe), and our three hives all made it through winter. Do I think this means we did something right? Possibly. Could we finally have discovered the “magic formula?” Not likely. We try to do the right things, treat for varroa, inspect regularly, try to head off any possible problems we see, attend as many club meetings and conferences as we can, but mainly I think we just lucked out with a strong Queen who has made good daughters for our splits. Will this last? Probably not, but we will persevere.

    I also write a blog, partly about our beekeeping adventures, mostly to share the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, never assuming that what we’ve discovered applies to anyone else. It’s just so maybe others will understand that everyone goofs up at times, and our mistakes can sometimes be corrected if we are open to being proven wrong.

    I frequently find myself coming back to “the more you learn, the more you realize you know very little.” Most of the time, we are just making the best decisions we can while paying attention to what the bees are doing and following their lead.

    I remain in awe of those who seem to completely understand the science of beekeeping. They seem to know so much more than I ever will, and I’m okay with that. We are hobbyists, not scientists, and we can learn better practices from those who study bees, even if we never become entomologists.

    Again, thanks for your blog. I usually find some nugget of information to ponder.

    • Birdluki,

      “We are hobbyists, not scientists…” Perhaps, but you’re thinking like scientists, which is all that matters.

  • So true. Not only in bees but in most things in life, it depends. The only absolutes in this world are death and taxes. The bees can only experience one of those.

    Love your posts and your humor. As an “experienced” beekeeper of 4 years, I am still learning. I always check you first, then my scientific sources. I very seldom do the YouTubes as I find lots of mis-thinking in them. Before I speak to a mentor or fellow beekeeper, I usually say “it depends” at least I hope so. Since we are so new and still learning I am not comfortable expounding on bees. Know a lot more about flowers and gardening (my other passion) but even there I am not a master gardener. I usually refer everyone to your site first. So keep up the good work.

    • Martha,

      Thank you for the kind words. The more I learn, the more I see how many variables come into play in every question, which makes me less confident the next time. Answers can seem very clear when you don’t have a lot of knowledge to muck things up, but it’s all downhill after that!

      I think we’re all beginners when it comes to bees.

  • Thanks for the great read. Stumbled across your website a couple of days ago. I like it! I’ll be pointing students in this direction (I teach physics and beekeeping (not in the same class) at a high school on the west coast of Scotland).


    • Dave,

      Physics was my favorite subject in high school. Physics and beekeeping are quite complementary.

      • I’m gonna try posting again and if the site owner disapproves and deletes me, I’ll have no hard feelings. I know my statements on microwaves seem outlandish but they are the truth as I know it.

        In 2017 US gov realized from my research that phased array radar went further than they thought. The reason the amazon droughted was because the president of brazil agreed with the CIA to drought it to open up more farmland.

        This probably killed a lot of native bugs and bees. I believe it’s the reason for bat fungus and frog fungus that have been decimating North America. When my wife got breast cancer from microwaves, she moved back to her hometown and the cancer went away. So what I’m getting at is after I notified the air force, they lifted the radar up off the populace. I monitored them as they did it, using my test meter.

        What that may mean for beekeepers is fewer diseases in the future, less aggressive bees, and more honey production. This is the reason I finally started beekeeping after putting it off from my earliest desire as a teen. I’m now 54. I truly believe that the industry as a whole is gonna see major success in the next few years.

        For reference, I bought a super full of bees this spring for $300. I saw two swarm cells yesterday so I split my hive today. I still can’t find the queen but I have faith she isn’t in the split with the swarm cells. I went out this evening and the new split bees seem happy on the ledge.

        I like physics also. I specialize in kinetic energy and plasma physics as a hobby and even have a very large van de Graaf generator in my living room, my other buzzer: )

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