miscellaneous musings writing and blogging

Logic-based beekeeping

So what is “the better way to bee?” I now think of it as logic-based beekeeping—beekeeping built on science, experimentation, and reasoning—not on myth, wives’ tales, or hyperbole. Where I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, a high value was placed on “horse sense.” Also known as common sense, horse sense is the talent to apply what you already know to a different situation. General knowledge of how the natural world works provides an open window to understanding new things.

For example, we all know that a glass of water will drip with condensation on a hot and humid day. We’ve all seen our breath condense into a cloud on a frosty morning, or noticed water collect on the ceiling above a hot shower. Therefore, we should not be surprised when a colony of bees gets soaked from its own respiration. In fact, we should expect it.

I’ve always tried to cultivate my horse sense, and to this day, I try to understand things relative to what I already know. And when I don’t know the answer, it usually can be found in the elementary precepts of biology, physics, chemistry, or math.

Logic-based beekeeping is the opposite of rule-based beekeeping. I like to avoid rules because you can’t keep bees like you would bake a cake. Few things work that way. If I gave you ten rules for painting a portrait, could you do it? How about ten rules for flying a plane? Walking a tight rope?

Beekeeping is both an art and a science. The science you can learn; the art comes from experience, practice, and good judgment. And the very best beekeepers have an unfettered respect for the bees themselves.

Every year at this time, I write about mountain melancholy. It is the feeling that comes over me when the cool winds of autumn filter down from the hills, when the trees display their bones, and the honey bees retreat to their hives. It always makes be a bit sad, a bit lonely for my bees.

Inevitably, I also think about my website and try to decide on its future and direction. The phrase “logic-based beekeeping” came to me last week while I was in a tent in Chilliwack Provincial Park (BC), contemplating the stars through the mesh (or maybe it was all those fresh-caught mushrooms I sautéed for dinner). Anyway, it suddenly became obvious that logic in beekeeping—deductive reasoning—would be the cornerstone of the coming year.

So there you have it. I usually shed the melancholy after just one post so, phew, it’s over for another year.


Lindeman Lake, Chilliwack Provincial Park, Canada. © Rusty Burlew.

Lindeman Lake, Chilliwack Provincial Park, BC, Canada. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • Ah, so that’s what that’s called. I thought it was called I-am-so-sick-of-living-in-the-Puget-Sound-conversion-zone. Although apparently the zone is much further north from me, but it still rains plenty here.

  • I share your melancholy, Rusty. Although I am worn out from a long and fraught season, I will miss my bees over winter. As for developing good common sense in beekeeping, I think most of us learn the hard way that a lot of beekeeping advice is…questionable. I have had two older, more experienced beekeepers stop by my apiary in the community garden and freely dispense “advice”. The best one this year was being told to get that honey box off my two-deep hives, out of fear the bees would fail to put honey in the deeps, near the brood nest. No amount of explaining the honey box was already full changed their opinion. Last year this same beekeeper told me to put a honey box over my two deeps or they would never make it through the winter. Go figga.

    • W2,

      Lots of beekeepers like to say you’re wrong, and they will take the opposite side no matter what side you’re on. It’s some kind of cheap thrill, I think.

      This past summer I was at the local farmer’s market looking at a honey display. Some guy comes up behind me and starts saying that colony collapsing disease (his term) was caused by beekeepers harvesting honey after sundown. I think I must have offended him because I couldn’t quite stifle a little giggle.

  • Hi there,

    Love reading your thoughts. May I Tweet your phrase? “when the cool winds of autumn filter down from the hills, when the trees display their bones” I love it, very spiritual. Would post it on the Twitter account @ccpi I just harvested my honey, first time beekeeper and very late I know, but loving everything about it and helping out a bit with the bees. Cheers.

  • Rusty,

    I am always highly skeptical of the “science” of beekeeping. The latest science now tells us to strip away all honey and feed back syrups and HFCS because it’s safer and healthier for the bees. Even feeding soy based pollen substitutes throughout the year has become mainstream. Where does this “wisdom” come from? In my opinion, it comes from the need to sell products to the rest of the beekeeping world to generate revenue for the companies that market and sell products for “healthier bees”. I often have to ask myself how in the world did bees survive without humans for millions of years and without syrups, HFCS, and soy based pollen substitutes?

    To me the “science” of the beekeeping industry is whimsical…always avoiding the real problems, asking the wrong questions, and coming up with solutions that are completely against nature and it’s rules. Why has beekeeping become a way for humans to make money over keeping healthy bees? I am always impressed what winter brings my treatment free apiary come spring…

    All the best, Bill Castro

    • Bill,

      Wow, I think you need a new source of reading material. That sounds like something out of a trade journal, not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Whenever I think of agricultural trade journals, I am reminded that they were the first to push feeding grain to cattle because they grow faster. Now we have a host of related cattle diseases and the introduction of mutant strains of E.coli which are dangerous to human health as well. Many of these diseases are related to changes in the pH of the rumen. The trade journals were also the first to push pesticides for crop management. What a mess.

      Nowhere have I read that HFCS is safer or healthier for bees. In fact, it lacks nutrients, the pH is wrong, and it contains HMF. Pollen substitutes are just that, substitutes. They don’t come close to the real thing in terms of bee nutrition.

      Aside from all that (or because of it) I think you completely missed the point of my post. If a reader misses the point it is because the writer did a bad job, so allow me to restate.

      I am not advocating that beekeepers read scientific journal articles and base their beekeeping on that. Quite the opposite. I said specifically that we should combine logic with the science we already know. I don’t mean book-learned science. I mean the stuff we know intuitively about the world around us. That is why I used the example of condensation. We all know many of the physical properties of water vapor just from day to day life. We should use those bits and pieces of knowledge to become better beekeepers.

      I also say that answers can “be found in the elementary precepts of biology, physics, chemistry, or math.” This is true. Your basic knowledge of biology combined with your common sense tells you that no food is better for bees than honey. We all know that, so why are we not listening to ourselves? Your basic knowledge of physics tells you that heat rises from the cluster. Your basic knowledge of chemistry tells you that honey is degraded by heat. Your basic knowledge of math tells you that at some point you don’t have enough bees to sustain a colony.

      You say you are “highly skeptical of the ‘science’ of beekeeping .” That sounds like you believe science is something “they” do, and not something you do. But science is everywhere; you can’t avoid it. When you designed those wonderful gabled roofs, you used your knowledge of biology, physics, and math to make it work: the biology of wintering bees, the physics of heat transfer and condensation, and geometry for the angles and cuts. All of that is the science of beekeeping and you are a bee scientist—a good one.

      Using what we already know, combined with a healthy dose of logical thinking, will make us all better beekeepers. No journals are needed. No textbooks are needed. All we need to do is take what we know about the world and use it in a logical manner.

      • Hmm… Interesting.

        In the four or five years that I’ve been bumbling through beekeeping, I’ve noticed how quite often people idealize beekeeping to the point of delusion, which, by definition, is “a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact.” I’ve met new beekeepers who never seem to get past that stage.

        I mean, really, how many times have I spoken to people who are completely out to lunch once they start talking about honey bees and beekeeping? (Probably not unlike your “colony collapse disease” friend.) And they look at me like I’m Siddartha just because I mentioned that I keep bees.

        I think everyone puts on the rose-coloured glasses to some degree when they first get into beekeeping. No one’s immune. But then one day a bee gets inside your veil and stings you in the face — and you wake up. Thus begins one’s relationship with science.

        That’s more or less how it’s played out for me.

        I also thank you, Rusty, for demonstrating and, in a way, demystifying science, bringing it down to earth in a manner that’s tangible, accessible. It’s perhaps more accessible to me because I have access to half a dozen or so honey bee colonies and can directly confirm most of the things you describe, but nevertheless, I love it. It’s what I’m all about, or at least it’s what I strive for, keeping it real. Thanks.

  • Hi. I am a beekeeper by default (son went to college 4 years ago and I jumped in to split a hive that was swarming and have loved it since) upstate NY here. I’m an engineer by nature and have modified all 10 hives with PVC shut-off valves so hives can be “opened and closed” which is awesome for moving them. I’ve also placed screened holes (2 that are 4″ each) on my bottom boards. I am thinking of taking my bees into a heated garage (52 degrees) this winter so that I can go from 90-100 lbs of winter-over honey to 40. To aid in this I am planning on a screened cover (top) for ventilation improvement and to enjoy my bees in the winter. We treat for mites and always leave enough food but I always lose a few hives due to high wind and bitter cold – often snow still in April. Is my plan flawed? Am I missing something like needing to give each hive the ability to access outside by opening the port and attaching PVC pipe that exits outside the building? Over engineering it yes….but the valve method I started with when catching a wild hive I knew I’d move later allows great flexibility and “wintering indoors” is my next concept to tackle…any input from anyone would be appreciated – love my bees and this site!


    • Bob,

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say, “I am thinking of taking my bees into a heated garage (52 degrees) this winter so that I can go from 90-100 lbs of winter-over honey to 40.” It sounds like you think you will need less honey at the higher temperature.

      Actually, bees that are warmer are more active and tend to use more stored food than bees that are colder. There’s nothing like a warm spell to eat up honey supplies. Another point is that bees tend to go outside for cleansing flights on warmish days. You would need a way for them to do this, and the warmer they are, the more they eat, the more frequently they need to fly.

      You also say that in the past you lost some hives due to “high wind and bitter cold.” Since a healthy bee colony seldom dies of cold, I’m wondering how you determined that this was the cause of the loss.

      If I were you, I think I would consult with some of the Canadian beekeepers who routinely house their bees indoors. This is something I’ve never done, so I don’t know the issues like someone who practices it. One of the things I would check is temperatures inside the building: too hot and they are going to want to fly.

      • Great input, as usual. I suspect you are alluding to much without really stepping out, another reason I like this site. We have access to Cornell here and a beekeeper with 800 hives that got my son his first hive at 15. We dissect failed hives. Last year we were not seeing evidence of mite deaths, dysentery, or mold (high moisture). Admittedly, we saw some granulated honey but not an alarming amount. I say this because 4 failed hives all had lots of capped honey when we knew there was a problem in April.

        Our hives are in the middle of 80 acres of natural clover, apples, wild flowers, goldenrod and full open sun dusk to dawn, zero wind protection. Last year we had 2 spells of -10 weather. It was the coldest in all my time here for 20 years. Dissection showed the ball moved up and down the hive (up and down) on the far side middle (away from the wind). I am not saying something else may not have been wrong, but my “horse sense” told me to have others check it out. We were referred to the university of Ottawa. As an engineer I feel awesome right now because my thought to give these bees a “southern-styled winter environment” seemed logical as Ottawa has done “bee cellar” studies.

        Fifty-two (52 F) degrees is the high side of the 40-52 degrees they suggest to keep bees mellow and away from moisture and dysentery issues. The idea of less honey stores for wintering comes solely from what we leave annually versus what my NC friends leave. My hope in finally speaking up in your forum was to help someone wintering indoors. My bee hobby is one huge experiment with my son. I’ll let you know how it goes next and would love any advice if you see an obvious error!

        • Bob,

          Okay, that’s good to know. I thought that 52 was on the high side, but I didn’t know for sure. Thanks for the info.

  • I would recommend ”practical beekeeper” but it’s already taken.

    In Phx., AZ we are waiting yet for the fall, it’s 104 F. today.

    Thanks for the entertaining, insightful, and informative site.

  • I am in California and dreaming of fall, winter, and rain. It is so hot, windy and DRY here. The drought is terrible and my bees have little forage and I am already being advised to feed them. I am new to bees and trying to get my girls through the season. I am so grateful for your column and sane advice.

  • Rusty,
    Love your site and insights. I have a totally unrelated to this post situation I’d like your input on.

    I came home today and walked back by my hive to discover a lot of bees in the air and what looks like combative bearding. Clumps of bees falling from the hive top entrance. AND what looks like new piles of dead bees on the ground and a few dead on top of the hive. Only saw one battle occurring on the ground though.

    I’m guessing another colony is trying to take over my hive. Possibly Africanized bees at that.

    This is the first time I have encountered this situation. Do you surmise that I am correct in thinking that my hive is being attacked? Any suggestions on what to do?

    Is this possibly not an attack and swarm behavior instead?

    I’m sure hoping it’s not an African take over attempt. I can send (email) a photo if that would help.

    • Scott,

      It could be a usurpation. A photo would be great. Attach it to an e-mail and send it here: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[dot]com.

      Also, you mentioned Africanized bees. Where are you?

  • Hello,

    When I first read this post I immediately thought of the expression “Evidence Based Medicine”:


    I think this is what you are advocating for beekeeping: “Evidence Based Beekeeping”!

    And I think you are 100% correct. That is the way forward at a time of mounting challenges to our bees. There are, I believe, a lot of things in common between the health sciences and beekeeping. I get the feeling most beekeepers look after their bees as a health carer looks after the people they care for.

    I hope you don’t mind me suggesting that alternative expression for the type of beekeeping you advocate.

    I acquired a colony in late July, not a good time, but I just couldn’t be without bees any longer. The bee hive is surviving so far, probably until I do a typical beginner huge mistake. But the sure thing is that your blog and posts are giving me a huge hand in trying to avoid them!

    Thank you very much.

    All the best,

    Pedro (in Portugal)

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