Learning to fly

“What is the specific gravity of 1:1 syrup? I want to make it right for my bees.”

So what happened? Did your bees lose their little hydrometers? I’m repeating myself here, but sugar syrup is a man-made invention. A long time ago, some human decided that a ratio of one part sugar to one part water resembled nectar. One-to-one syrup—or any other type—does not exist in nature, so close is good enough.

What does exist in nature is nectar. Nectar contains sugars, water, and nutrients in an infinite variety of ratios. No two species of plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no two flowers on the same plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no single flower has the same ratio in the morning as in the afternoon. The bees are okay with this. They get it. You don’t.

The thing is, you can’t keep bees based on formulas, nor can you keep bees based on a list of rules. Bees are creatures that don’t come with instructions.

Learning to drive

Think of it this way. When you learn to drive a car you are given a book of rules and maybe a course in driver education. You read the book, pass the test. Still, when most people start to drive, they glance back and forth between the road directly in front of them and the speedometer. This doesn’t work very well because everything else is blocked out.

When you drive, things happen that are not in the book. A doe leaps from the foliage followed by two more in spots, a poodle in your path stops to sniff, a football wobbles overhead followed by a kid looking up. Storms make puddles of unknown depth, potholes dent the pavement, boulders crash from road cuts.

When you least expect it, black ice releases your rear tires, or a glossy-nailed girl texts across six lanes. Suddenly, a drunk weaves in front of you, boys with partially-formed frontal lobes race side-by-side, and here in Washington, freeway bridges drop all of a piece into the river below.

You don’t have to drive very long before you learn to adapt, anticipate, adjust. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. And so it must be with beekeeping: you read the book, take the course, but then you have to use your brain.

Learning to fly

I don’t teach beekeeping classes. I don’t teach them because nobody would come. Nobody would come because I would be mean.

That’s right, mean. The first week, when everyone was eager to learn the parts of a hive and how to light a smoker, I would teach bee biology, reproductive cycles, and population dynamics. Next, when they thought they had enough science for a lifetime, we would move on to Varroa mites—yes, mite biology, life cycles, and population dynamics. Treating mites like an afterthought is our first beekeeping mistake.

From there we would move on to—I’m not kidding—botany: plant life cycles, plant reproduction, pollination, and the composition of nectar and pollen. This would be followed by the evolution of plant-pollinator mutualisms. Bees could not exist without flowers, so treating flowers like an afterthought is our second beekeeping mistake.

Once you understand honey bees, Varroa mites, and flowers, all the rest of beekeeping is intuitive. You can figure out the details if you know the principles. In the same way you can intuit driving situations, you can intuit beekeeping situations. Armed with the principles, you don’t need to ask the specific gravity of sugar syrup or when to add a super: you can figure it out all by yourself. You’ve learned how to fly. Now that’s beekeeping.

Honey Bee Suite

Learning to fly is for the keepers. Photo of honey bee on everlasting pea.

A honey bee working everlasting pea. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Bee forums drive me a bit batty because everyone has a different opinion about every little detail- it’s hard for me to learn there. What you say makes sense and learning about all the aspects of nature is where the joy and fascination comes in for me. I would take your class, meanness and all.

  • Rusty, love your answer. As a chemist I know about being accurate, but as a chemist I also know when to be an artist and I have found that beekeeping is an art.


  • Oh I don’t know, I think I’d love to have the opportunity to come to your classes. If being ‘mean’ (and I highly doubt that you’d be that mean) is what it takes to get the information across and the knowledge disseminated, then so be it. I’ve been to a couple “intro to beekeeping” classes where the instructor was too nice. They let the ‘students’ run all over them in their eagerness; too much time spent on questions that would be better answered through a little bit more structured teaching. Of course I don’t expect to learn everything I need to know, in one weekend class, but learning the history, biology, etc would be better than the free-for-alls that I’ve been to in the past.

  • That was funny. I’ve been reading your site for some time now. I just started keeping bees! It’s interesting. I’m a gardener; I’ve been taking care of other people’s properties for 12 years now. I’ve always loved watching the bees busy on the lavender or salvias or anything. I’ve seen the decline happen thru the years first hand in nearly all the areas I’ve worked. I appreciate all your insight. Now I’m finally learning first hand instead of just reading. For me, the best thing is to observe. People just don’t take time to study what’s right in front of them. Thanks for all you do! Valerie

  • Eloquent. I would TOTALLY take your beekeeping course.

    Beekeeping classes are full of how-to’s, do’s and don’t’s, more than you can possibly assimilate in a day. You forget whatever you don’t get a chance to use immediately, anyway.

    What really helped me overwinter 5 of 7 colonies was the science I read here: that bees can’t eat liquid that’s below 60, that a sphere is the most efficient shape to conserve energy, that condensation is a greater threat than cold.

    And (my bias, coming from organic gardening into beekeeping) the most neglected science of all is botany. People’s eyes glaze over at mention of plant science. ( Because animals hop around, while plants just sit there? Because animals have big sad eyes? Because Disney cartoon heroes have animal sidekicks, not cute singing dancing PLANTS?)

    Beekeepers are no exception…. how can this be? I took some dead brood to a real bee scientist at our university Bee Lab, and in the course of a general chat he said, “Well, I don’t know anything about plants.” WHAAAT?

    And lay people are worried about the bees, but they’re still spraying chemicals to kill the clover in their lawns. Has anyone mentioned the bulldozing of millions of acres of farmland during the housing bubble, in connection with colony loss? Noooooo.

    Well, please go ahead with that course outline on Botany for Beekeepers. Post it online. I’ll take it, thanks!


  • Rusty, I am a new beekeeper, and I am glad to have found you. I really do enjoy your articles! Please do more articles on Varroa mites and flowers, for that matter. 😉 I would love to read what you have to say. Thanks!

  • Do any of you have any particular favorite sources (books or websites) that you think are particularly good for learning about both bee and mite biology, population dynamics and reproductive cycles?

    I, too, would jump at the chance to go to your classes, Rusty!

  • Rusty,
    Well somebody pushed your botton!
    I think I have either your course synopsis or an outline for your upcoming book (or more likely, the first book in the set):

    I The Bee
    A. Bee Biology
    B. Reproductive Cycles
    C. Population Dynamics

    II The Mite
    A. Mite Biology
    B. Mite Life Cyles
    C. Mite population dynamics

    III The Plants
    A. Botany for Bees
    B. Plant Life Cycles
    C. Plant Reproduction
    D. Pollination
    E. Nectar & Pollen Composition

    In either case I would love to sign up for the class or a copy of your first edition 🙂

  • Good post, I laughed so hard! I agree about beginner bee classes! Go for it Rusty, I know a lot of people who would attend!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.