miscellaneous musings

Beekeeping reality: Why does it depend?

Why indeed? In last week’s post about tossing and turning, I mentioned the beekeeper who said he never wanted to hear the words “it depends” ever again. He wanted concrete answers, a recipe for keeping bees. Yet we all know that’s never going to happen.

Today I received the following note from another new beekeeper, Scott Irving. In it, Scott provides a well-reasoned explanation of why it will always depend. It is well worth a read.

Why Does It Depend?
Yes, it depends. But why?

I spent most of my career building complex models and, in theory, we can get past “it depends.”

One of my favorite sayings is that in theory, theory and reality are the same, but in reality, they usually differ.

In theory, if you could account for everything, you would never need to say “it depends.” But therein lies the problem, you need to account for everything that causes variations, i.e. different outcomes. You’d need to account for:

  • Detailed differences in weather: day to day, year to year, my location vs yours, etc.
  • Latitude
  • Climate
  • Differences in genetics (at a much finer level of detail than Russian vs Italian vs Carniolan)
  • Queen quality and mating success (figuring out who she mated with should be fun)
  • Differences in available forage and the quality of the forage
  • Differences in predator populations
  • Differences in parasites
  • Differences in beekeeper behavior and decisions
  • Differences in the poisons sprayed by neighbors
  • Differences in hive conditions
  • Changing disease prevalence and mutations
  • Hive stress levels
  • Random luck of a predator eating the queen on her mating flight
  • Accidental killing or injuring a queen
  • Etc.

There are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of items not listed. Even what is listed would require massive efforts to collect equally massive amounts of information (data). Which is why in reality, it will likely always depend.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study, keep notes, and try to be accurate about what we do or say. The more we do understand, the less it may depend, but it will depend.

Scott Irving

Scott is absolutely right. And even as I was reading his list, I thought of others, such as:

  • hive type
  • feed type
  • water availability and quality
  • air pollution levels and types
  • ambient noise

But the specifics don’t matter as much as the concept. Different people with different training in different environments are never going to get identical outcomes, so what works well for one might fail for another. That is why I like to emphasize bee (and mite) biology. Once you can “read the colony,” you will be able to figure out the answers for yourself. Every single colony is different, which is why recipes don’t work.

Why does it depend? Because there are so many variables in beekeeping.

Once you learn to read your bees, you will know how to care for them. They will tell you everything you need to know. Pixabay photo.

Honey Bee Suite


  • I totally agree Rusty. I’m a new beekeeper and I can tell you the difference this year in rainfall impacted my area less than the lack of rainfall in the area where I got my queen and nuc in West Virginia. My mentor’s bees were starving in August due to lack of nectar in the fall goldenrod with the dry spell, while mine were booming so much, and got so honey bound, my hive swarmed their first year. New queen later… The weather held out so warm for so long here, way into November such that my bees are now very down on stores and I plan to feed fondant all winter. My mentor’s hives are now packed full. The difference… 200 miles between two climates…so it just depends. Watch your bees, be a good student of observation and let them tell you what they need. I just gather ideas, put them in my “things to try” box and when I see something that makes me think of a situation I have heard about, I give it a try. In the end, “it depends” eventually becomes “experience”.

  • Hi all
    Anyone who is flummoxed by the presence of so many variables and the difficulty of finding the perfect instruction manual to beekeeping, is missing the point. The fact that the colonies change day by day, depending on weather, management, and any number of unpredictable factors, is what makes it interesting. Unless one is trying to make a living at bees, which is a huge gamble, and not for the faint at heart.


  • Hi Rusty,

    When I was in my 20s I was very idealistic and pretty black and white. I needed defined answers. I would have made a terrible beekeeper. Now that I’m in my 50s I don’t just agree that the world is shades of grey, I embrace it. I love listening to all of the theories on why a colony was successful or not. I mentally note anything that might be noteworthy or relevant for me and then I go about my decisions. I am thankful that your posts are relaxed yet full of experience. Thanks for sharing.

  • Boy does it depend. I have 5 hives at my home. Backs to a river. Entrance faces west. Lots of trees and shade. Great foraging. I keep four hives at a farm brewery 8 miles away, eastern entrances, full sun all day, pond very close by. Everything I do to my home hives I do to the beer bees. One week ago I realized I had a big bad mite problem with my hives. A friend who is a state bee inspector came out to my home and we took them apart.

    So I treated them with oxalic acid vaporization. Did the beer bees the next day, assumed I had the same problem with them. Treated them the next day. Mite drop at home first day ranged from 50-60 to maybe 20-30. went to the farm. Total dead mites from all four hives 6-8. Now remember, I did everything to all of the hives. Why was there such an enormous difference? Well it might depend on the full sun vs shade. It might depend that the farm has horses who sometimes stick their heads over the fence and nudge me. It might be that there are untreated hives near my home and none near the beer bees. Then again, maybe just maybe it is the close proximity to the beer. Works for me.

  • All so very true! Been wanting to ask about planting clover, is there one brand that bees get the most nutrition from? I live on a farm in Nebraska, so looking to plant about 6 acres. We can put it in with our wildflowers. Thanks!

    • Janet,

      I don’t know about brands, but be sure to get the right species. Honey bees like crimson clover, yellow sweet clover, and white dutch clover. However the flowers of red clover are too deep for them, so don’t use red. See this post on crimson clover.

      • Rusty,

        I sow red clover in the grass ways between garden plots, to attract bumble bees for the eggplant & tomatoes. Not only do I often see honey bees foraging the shorter peripheral florets of the red clover head, but the red has been self-sowing far beyond what I have sown myself. After ten years, I wonder if the honey bees, by pollinating flowers with more short florets, have “selected” for a shorter variety? Fun to speculate.

        But I can’t agree more about the white clover (crimson for some reason doesn’t thrive here). I do have to mention Ladino clover (available at rural feed stores). It is taller than white dutch, but the blooms are the same size. It’s good in areas that aren’t mowed as often, and very vigorous, NB Monarch butterflies like red clover!

        As for “it depends,” from keeping goats, horses, dogs & cats, as well as raising vegetables: a certain comfort level with uncertainty is a great help against frustration.

        Thank you and all these readers.

        Corinth, Kentucky

  • I am not convinced that best practices cannot be developed, more so than I have seen. With that sort of toolkit, then the individual beekeeper can adapt to circumstances. But what we have is a strong cultural adherence to total individuality in beekeeping practice, I think.

  • I love last line!!!!!!!!! I work in forest restoration and over a career of working with people I always said – if you want to know the desired future condition of a riparian forest – ask mother nature. “The bees will tell you everything you need to know”.

  • Thank you Rusty and Scott for a much needed explanation on why mentors cannot always explain what is going on in our “dependent” buggsnests. The reference to “ambient noise” is one I will spend this winter thinking about, as I notice each time I place insulation around my hives, they seem to quiet down.

  • Hey there! I had 2 hives? now I barely have one? To make a very long story short I believe I starved my hive. I am feeding my remaining hive 2-1, is that a good start? They have no honey, which blows me away, I had flowers, figs, all kinds of good stuff. I’m at a loss as what happened and what to do now! The hive I lost was 2 years old. I live in middle Ga, not at all cold. I appreciate ur knowledge, I’m so sorry!

    • Debra,

      Perhaps your hive was robbed by other honey bees. It is possible to overwinter on sugar or syrup alone, but you have to keep at it and not let them run out.

  • Our bee club has a question and answer period for an hour at the beginning of each meeting. Someone will ask a question and the leader with a sly smile will say “Well, it depends.” Everyone chuckles and then we have a discussion of the variables involved.

    I think as a newbie, when I first started, things like the precision with the bee space made me feel there might be the same precision involved with everything. It kept me a bit paralyzed at first for fear of doing something wrong. It’s actually kind of freeing to find out “it depends.” It’s up to me to learn as much as I can about bees so I can decide what makes sense in my situation. Of course I know that the more I learn the more I realize there is left to learn. I’m lucky to have a mentor who reminds me to “Have fun!”

  • We took off about 50# of honey in October and left the girls with good stores for the early cold season. Mid Michigan is rainy too right now so we fed them sugar and wintergreen patties in their food box just below the ventilation box and plan to put cut comb back for them when we check again. The whole 50# went into the freezer to feed all winter. They need it more than we do!


  • So many of the above comments rang so true… I once was a person who was detail oriented, but being a beekeeper these last 7 years has helped me so much to open my mind to so many causes, types, and ways to keep bees. We are in interesting times, so many stressors on honey bees and our native pollinators. Hopefully, things will continue to get better and we will still have keepers of bees in 20 years…

  • I love gardening and my husband used to tease me because I often said “it depends” in response to his questions about plants. When I worked as a lawyer, “it depends,” was often the most honest and accurate response I could give to clients’ questions. It always “depends” when living things are involved. And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? It’s the messy variability and complexity of life that keeps us engaged and curious.

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