miscellaneous musings plant-pollinator mutualisms

The essence of beekeeping is not in the hive

I have an entire shelf filled with nothing but bee books. I have another shelf filled with nothing but books on gardening and field crops. So far, none of this is surprising. What is surprising, though, is that most of the bee books hardly mention plants and most of the plant books barely mention bees. Seriously.

Now, many—perhaps most—of the world’s flowering plants are dependent on animal pollinators (mostly bees) and the bees are entirely dependent on the plants. For all practical purposes they are a unit—one cannot survive without the other. Yet many, many people who study one side of the equation totally ignore the other side.

So what is beekeeping really about? What is the heart of it? The answer, of course, is flowers. Beekeeping is all about flowers.

I can’t stress this enough. Beekeepers get so immersed in hive designs and foundation types we forget about how the bees will fill them. We get so distracted with minutia like cell size, frame types, and queen rearing methods that we are blind to what the highway department is spraying on the roadways. We get so competitive with each other we forget that beekeeping is not about us, it’s about “them.” And what does this nebulous “them” have on its mind? Flowers.

Bee life is consumed with one goal: to find, harvest, and store enough food for the next generations. This food comes from one source—flowers—and all colony activity is based on the availability of flowering plants. What we do—treat for diseases, prevent swarming, check for solid brood patterns, and block moisture buildup—is nothing more than an annoyance to the bees that have one thing on their collective mind: flowers.

Whether your passion is gardening or beekeeping, your skill will grow with your knowledge of the other side of this fascinating co-dependency. You don’t need to make a systematic study of it, just appreciate, observe, and respect it. Learn to identify a new flower—or a new bee. Figure out who pollinates what. Watch what is happening overhead as well as underfoot. It will pay off in ways you can’t imagine.


It's all about the flowers. Photo by the author.


  • Thanks for the good reminder. My obsession with bees started when I was working on a botany minor in university and studying co-evolution of flowers and pollinators. I am a big fan of exclusive plant/pollinator relationships. It’s precarious, and probably not the best evolutionary strategy, but it is charming. Since I moved to a different climate & started keeping bees, I am always asking people (esp beekeepers) what is blooming right now? What is this pollen? What kind of nectar is flowing? I need a big calendar.

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