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My advice for new beekeepers

With April comes the inevitable question, “What advice would you give a new beekeeper?” I seriously hate this question, mostly because it is fraught with undertones of philosophy.

But once again, I will attempt an answer. Please don’t write back and exclaim, “But that’s just your opinion!” Of course, it’s my opinion. If you want someone else’s opinion, you are in the wrong place.

Save the conclusions for later

First, I offer a pair of do nots. Do not spend your first year worrying about hive style (Warré, TBH, Langstroth) and defending your choice. Do not spend your first year worrying about management style (conventional, treatment-free, biodynamic) and defending your choice. You will develop your own thoughts on these issues as you gain experience, and you can always alter those choices later. A writer doesn’t develop style until he knows grammar, punctuation, and spelling. A beekeeper doesn’t develop style until he knows bees.

Begin with the basics

Instead, spend your first year learning everything you can about the two species you will be raising in your hives—honey bees and Varroa mites. By “everything” I mean biology, life cycles, population dynamics, and the interaction between these two housemates. Most new beekeepers make the mistake of underestimating the impact of Varroa on their colonies. You can’t know too much about bees or mites.

Second, learn everything you can about flowers, pollination, and the coevolution of bees and flowering plants. If you don’t understand pollination ecology, blooming cycles, flower morphology, and plant-pollinator mutualisms, you cannot be an effective beekeeper. New beekeepers often have no idea when nectar flows occur in their area nor when to expect a dearth, let alone how to prepare for them.

Learn the language

Whether you are a fashion designer, nuclear physicist, IT geek, or a beekeeper, you have to learn the words—the jargon—that go with it. Beekeepers waste a lot of time miscommunicating with each other. Beekeepers use words without knowing their meaning, they say one thing when they mean another, they use seven different terms for one item. The more they show off, the more their words devolve into mush.

No wonder it appears that ten beekeepers have fifteen answers to the same problem—since no one understands what anyone else is saying, everything sounds like a new idea. You will get better answers if you ask the right questions using the correct words.

Trust yourself

My philosophy of logic-based beekeeping is premised on the idea that you know lots about the world around you because of your own life experiences. In other words, even if you didn’t study science in school, you understand certain physical, chemical, and biological properties because you see them every day. You step out of the shower and shiver. You boil water and the steam goes up, not down. You set a cold beer on the table and it leaves a ring.

But for some strange reason, most of us forget everything we know when we open a beehive. We forget that warm air rises, we forget that living things respire, we forget that more mouths require more food, we forget that mold grows on damp surfaces. Basically, most of the “mysterious” things we see in a beehive can be explained with everyday knowledge. They’re just bees in a box, dude, not extraterrestrials.

If someone gives you a piece of advice and it doesn’t feel right, or it doesn’t makes sense, ask for an explanation. If they can’t explain their reasoning, move on. Beekeeping is not a secret society with chants, handshakes, and passwords. Advice should be transparent and logical. If it’s not, forgetaboutit.

Play with your bees

Watch your bees. Enjoy them. Talk to them. Delight in their being. For most of us, bees are pets. We can learn much by simply observing them in the hive, in the field, in a flower. Feel the tingle as they stroll up your arm. Revel in the power of their sting. I know of no better way to learn about bees than to watch them do what they do.

The beginning is not for perfection

No one expects perfection the first time they bake a cake, write a computer program, or fold into the lotus position. Yet we all expect to harvest gallons of honey our first season and overwinter without a hiccup. Put aside the idea of perfection and concentrate on learning. Beekeeping is a process. You learn as you go. You try and fail or you try and succeed. And then you try something else. Enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end. There is no end.

All beekeeping is local

This is probably the single most misunderstood fact in all of beekeeping. Your microclimate is different than the one across the street or down the road. The plants that grow in your region are different—or bloom at different times—than those in another state or province. Your seasons change at different times, you have different strains of bees, different pesticides in your environment, and different amounts of rain, noise, humidity, habitat, and agriculture. You cannot make rules for beekeeping because beekeeping for you is different than beekeeping for anyone else.

It is this single issue—localness—that makes learning bees more important than learning beekeeping. You have to understand bees so you can look inside your hive and make your management decision. Your situation is unlike any other. You can ask for advice as long as you understand that what works for Sarah might not work for Joe. Ultimately there is no recipe for success. There is no recipe for bees.


Related Posts:

Seven types of beekeeping advice to avoid

English for beekeepers

Beekeeping and the erosion of English


A song of the bees

Be prepared for a feel-good moment. I first met Mark Luterra and his partner, Liz, two years ago in Corvallis, Oregon. At the time, Mark took me through his apiary and prepared a list of beekeepers I should meet on my visit to the Willamette Valley. I could see Mark was intelligent and passionate about his work, but I was clueless about his hidden talents until this morning when I played this video.

Mark writes:

“We finally got around to finishing this project. It started as a song in February 2012, hoping that our first two beehives would make it through the winter (they didn’t…). The music video idea came in April 2013, and I did most of the video editing in the Denver airport. Then we moved, and the bees moved, and the project was mostly forgotten until now.”

I listened to his song four or fives times this morning and have been humming ever since. The lyrics are printed below, and if you would like to know more about Mark, he writes a blog called Musings from Mark that centers around nature, sustainability, energy, agriculture, and mead.

I hope you enjoy the video as much as I did. Let me know what you think!


A Song of the Bees

by Markael Luterra
Published on Jan 2, 2015


Sing a song of the bees
Thousands as one
Led by a queen

Bees by the thousands they are workin together
Bringin nectar and pollen whatever the weather
Gotta keep the queen fed layin two eggs a minute
For the next generation, the sky’s the limit

Coevolution we see
Flowers and bees
Nectar for fertile seeds

We pop off the top to inspect the brood
White larvae and eggs mean that things are all good
We try to avoid the end with the stinger
But every now and then we still get stung on the finger
Stung on the finger!

Put some ice on that sting
Cool down the burn
Easing the suffering

Got varroa and nosema and now tracheal mites
Its a mess with all these pests we might just give up the fight
But no disease will kill my bees cause I take care of my hives
And through the winter into April they will still be alive
Still be alive
My bees are alive!

(Piano interlude)

In the summer they’ll be haulin in the honey like a beast
And then in August we’ll collect it and we’ll have a great feast
With lots of mead and pie and honeycomb and cookies too
And we’ll still have enough to give honey to you
Honey to you

(Flute interlude)

Sing a song of the bees
Thousands as one
Led by a queen
Coevolution we see
Flowers and bees
Nectar for fertile seeds.

Bees in an icebox

This story from a brand new beekeeper is filled with the excitement of acquiring that very first colony. Her passion—and the odd place she found her bees—makes for a fun read. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your story.

I am very new to this even though I have family members up in Ohio that are beekeepers; I wish they were here in Texas to help me.

I noticed that there were not as many honeybees in my yard or anywhere else like there use to be, so I thought I could help by becoming a beekeeper. I even called the Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) about where I could purchase honeybees. I was told I would not be able to find any because most beekeepers were out, but to catch a hive if I could, and was told what to do. I began to slowly buy my equipment.

I drive a school bus out in the hill country and for the longest time we didn’t have a office but an icebox that we used to store our keys and papers. Yes, it is redneck, but we finally got a trailer for an office—but no toilets!

Our old office still sits under a massive oak tree and the maintenance men still cut the grass around the old icebox. One day, a bus tech was watching it and started to complain to the drivers that it was invested with bees and needed to be destroyed!!! The drivers came to me and told me of the situation.

I went to the old icebox with four other drivers, and we watched a small hole in the back were the plastic had come off. Not once did we get attacked! I got my phone out and recorded as I slowly opened it. The drivers and I saw the most beautiful creation ever!!! In the corner, top, six golden honey combs are hanging with yellow honeybees!!! We knew it would be destroyed by the school once they found out; school was ending in three days, which meant that I could not get back in once the gates were locked up for the summer!!!

I sent the video to my Uncle in Ohio and called him a few minutes later. He told me what to do but I had to do it at night so none of the bees would be left behind, and he thinks they are Italian. Saturday night, my husband and I had a date with the honeybees. We went back, watching the little entrance were they go in and out, nothing, all is still. With my gloves on, twisted newspaper in one hand, and strips of duct tape in the other, I began to plug it up!!! The honeybees were furious but never got out.

The icebox has a metal stand attached to it, which made it so much bigger to carry so we had to have our faces up against it!!! You could hear and feel them moving inside and they were mad!!! We loaded it up into the truck gently and strapped it down so that it would not slide around as we drive home; a 15-minute drive seemed like forever because we drove so slow. We unloaded the truck and waited for an hour to remove the plug. Once we removed the plug, some of the honeybees came out but went back in.

The next morning I had to work at my second job but when I got home, my husband ever so gently put a chain under and around the steel base of the icebox and put a lock on it so no one could open it nor steal our hive. He said that the bees never stung him, just flew around him to see what he was doing and left him alone when they saw he was not going to harm their hive.

Once I get my tbh, how do I transfer their combs into the tbh? I thought of unscrewing the lid off but the screws are so rusting I don’t think it will be possible. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

Spring Branch, TX.

The old office. © Lisa Barrientes.
Combs hanging from the lid of the icebox. © Lisa Barrientes.

Book review | Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World

by Alison Gillespie (Croydon Hill 2014)

Hives in the City a fun read about urban beekeepers.

This entertaining book is not about beekeeping but about beekeepers—and a strange group they are. Gillespie, an environmental journalist, shadowed urban beekeepers through several eastern cities as they tended hives on rooftops and balconies, in vacant lots and forgotten alleys. Whether her cross section is typical is impossible to say, but she found some winners.

She interviews a beekeeper who erects a ladder in his bathtub and climbs through a skylight to get to his rooftop bees. She rides with another in a bucket truck to extract a huge colony three stories up in an antebellum building. The book offers an intriguing look at how urban beekeepers cope with landscapes, laws, and attitudes that are often antagonistic to the notion of stinging insects.

To be honest, I almost didn’t read the book. Being somewhat fanatical about the vocabulary of beekeeping (who me?) I nearly hyperventilated over her use of certain terms, super vs brood box being chief among them. And of course hive vs colony and caste vs sex. I longed to send her a copy of my post, “English for beekeepers,” but deciding that was impolitic, I put the book down and walked away.

I finally reminded myself that Gillespie is not a beekeeper, that she learned the unfortunate terms from beekeepers, and that beekeepers don’t care about them anyway. In short, after seven days and a sizable swig of whiskey, I convinced myself to get over it—and I am glad I did.

Although Gillespie begins with beginners, the text often reads like a who’s who of beekeeping in America. She managed to get interviews with many names you’ve heard before, including Toni Burnham, Kim Flottam, Andrew Coté, Tony Planakis, Bill Castro, Jeff Pettis, and Sam Droege. She is nothing if not complete.

Gillespie covers in depth the issues unique to urban hives, including air quality, amount and distribution of forage, the danger of hives being blown from their rooftop perches, antiquated laws, and the fear of swarms. But she also discusses the pride urban farmers have in their hobby, their honey, and the feelings of accomplishment they share with their cohorts.

Her portrayal of the various personalities drew me in, as did her description of beginner beekeeping classes in the downtown, and extraction demonstrations at the Maryland State Fair. Her prose is straightforward but sometimes touches on the lyrical, as when she describes bees in the cityscape:

“Gardens full of bees thriving in the middle of that urban core seem to mean the city is safe, livable, hospitable. Indeed, for some of the people I’ve interviewed, the bees form an unexpected sign of the urban good life. For centuries the honey bee has symbolized industriousness or selflessness, but now—in a new urban twist—it has become a symbol of a human willingness to acknowledge and connect with the natural, the good and the pure even in the most unlikely places.”

A chapter titled “What is killing the bees?” is particularly well crafted with solid explanations of why bee health is such a complex subject, and why answers are so slow in coming. She provides a short history of pesticide use and abuse, and provides a glimpse into the challenge of maintaining native pollinators.

The one thing I found lacking in the book was a good proofreader. Errors are sometimes funny—such as cows that have utters—and sometimes confusing. After one sentence (“A man is walking by below the hill where I’m sitting with a very well-groomed German Shepard on a leash . . .”) I spent considerable time trying to figure out when she acquired the dog.

In spite of a few rough spots, I think the book provides a fair and unbiased look at the urban side of beekeeping and an especially good portrait of the personalities behind city hives. If you are interested in urban beekeeping or the people who do it, the book offers a comprehensive peek into a very different—and sometimes strange—world. Go ahead and give it a try.

Get the softcover edition here: Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World

Get the Kindle edition here:Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World


Why is beekeeping so hard?

Beekeeping is tuff. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. I mean, how hard can it be to raise bees that have been raising themselves forever? ——John

When you are feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of beekeeping, the thing to remember is this: Although bees have been raising themselves forever, they haven’t raised themselves in our present environment.

Evolution is a glacially slow process. As the environment changes, lifeforms slowly evolve to fit the changes. But humans have altered the planet so fast—especially since the close of WWII—that only species with multiple generations per year and extremely flexible genetics have been able to keep up. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and many single-celled organisms, for example, have managed just fine. Many species have not.

The bees’ environment is not natural

So even if you are a natural beekeeper following biodynamic or organic principles of beekeeping, the environment where the bees are living is not natural. Like it or not, our present conditions are clearly man made.

For example, the air is polluted. It has been found that bees in polluted air have more difficulty finding forage because it interferes with their sense of smell. Some of the air pollutants stick onto raindrops and fall into the world’s water bodies, causing them to be more acidic. The acidity of water changes what will live in it and affects the things that drink it.  We don’t know the details of how it affects all living things, but we know the potential for harm is there. We know there is much we don’t know.

In addition to the air, the soil and water are also tainted with industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, and nuclear waste. For example, high levels of progestin and estrogen have been found in fresh water supplies. These hormones have been found to persist in spite of water treatment and they interfere with the development of aquatic animals. Although some places are worse than others, the earth is a closed system. Eventually everything spreads everywhere; like oil on water, it gets thinner but it doesn’t go away.

Monocultures are not limited to farms

Agrochemicals have allowed us to take something nature hates—the monoculture—and put it everywhere. Farms, which for thousands of years were a tapestry of plants and animals, have been split into various specialties. The corn is grown here, the pigs there, the cows somewhere else. Each of these monocultures requires more and more chemical intervention to keep them alive.

Even honey bees placed in an almond orchard are a monoculture in a monoculture—all the other insects and plants are killed before the honey bees are brought in, which means our bees are competing with each other for resources, and their pests are free to move from bee to bee with nothing to get in their way. And don’t forget: the residual poisons are left for the bees to eat.

We tend to think that other people are responsible for monocultures: it’s them, not us. But the biggest monoculture in the U.S. is lawn grass, and homeowners tend to use higher concentrations of weed killer than farmers–weed killers that wash off the lawns and into the water supplies and fish-bearing streams.

A missing American beauty

Hardly anyone remembers the majestic beauty of the American elm. The tree was tall and stately. It had few, if any, lower limbs which meant it was perfect for lining streets and parks and ball fields. It was so shady, so magnificent, that it was planted everywhere in the Northeast and Midwest. The towns became tree monocultures. So when Dutch elm disease struck, it ripped up and down those leafy roads and byways and knocked out virtually every tree, state after state, until not an elm was standing.

But monocultures and pollutants are not the only features of the modern Earth. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that monarch butterflies are covering just 1.65 acres of their wintering grounds in Mexico this year, down from 44.5 acres in 1995. The reason? Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl, herbicides: cities too big to span, food too hard to find. This egregious loss, like many others, has happened on our watch. If it continues, our grandchildren will read about monarchs they way we read about passenger pigeons, eastern elk, and silver trout.

Beekeepers must not become discouraged

I could go on, but the point is that it is not always your fault when bees die. You cannot get discouraged. You have to remember that everything is different for them regardless of how natural you attempt to be. The modern Earth is not the planet they evolved on. Your attempts to do things right will always be tempered by environmental conditions that are new and rapidly changing.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough: A chance mutation? A better breed? A magic bullet for mites? We don’t know what it might be or whence it may come. But every last beekeeper is an important part of the process. So hang in there. Believe in yourself. Keep learning. Who knows? The ultimate answer may come from you.