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Are Women Better Beekeepers?

I can be naïve at times, so when I was asked to write an article about “why women are better beekeepers” I said sure, no problem. After all, the hardest part of writing is finding a topic. But in truth, the assignment turned into a nightmare.

My first mistake was thinking it would be fun. Once I began working on it, though, I realized I didn’t actually believe that women were better beekeepers, just different. So I decided to send a survey to the readers of my blog to see what they thought. I changed the wording and simply asked who were the better beekeepers and why. I didn’t collect names or emails, so the answers were completely anonymous.

Caught off guard

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 7, July 2018, pp. 801-804.
Beekeepers seldom surprise me, but I was totally derailed by their replies. I was firmly chastised for even asking the question. Many responses were along the lines of, “Why would you even ask such a stupid question?” or “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Another wrote, “This is the dumbest survey I have ever seen. It’s just a way to cause friction and controversy for no good reason.” Whoa, I was just asking.

The responses made me wonder if anyone remembered the best-selling book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus? That book, which sold 50 million copies and spent 121 weeks on the best seller list, is about the distinct ways the sexes respond to stress and stressful situations. Personally, I believe the sexes respond in different ways, but it appears that most beekeepers do not agree—at least not on the surface.

Sex makes no difference

Of the approximately 500 responses I received, I estimate that at least 90% said there is absolutely no difference between the abilities of male and female beekeepers. They said that beekeeping was more about experience, willingness to learn, intelligence, and compassion. One said, “I don’t think gender affects beekeeper success, instead each person’s personality and essential nature are the big factors.”

Others balked at the word “better.” One man asked, “Is the better beekeeper the one with the healthiest bees or the one that makes the most honey?” Good point. A woman wrote, “It all depends on how you measure success. If I manage to overwinter my one hive, I’m happy.”

Reading between the lines

Still, with a deadline looming, I went back and re-read the responses. I was looking for tell-tale remarks that would give me some insight into how we each evaluate other beekeepers. It turns out that a lot of the answers were followed by the very revealing word “but.” For example, “I don’t think sex matters, but men are smarter.” Or this, “It’s not an appropriate question, but women are more uniformly thoughtful.” And “I don’t know any women beekeepers, but I wish I did.”

If there was any overarching agreement among all the people who elaborated, it was that men have the advantage of being physically stronger. The physical ability of men was mentioned over and over, more than any other single characteristic in the entire survey. “Men are generally built better for heavy lifting.” Another explained, “Men are better at moving supers and cranking extractors; women are better at record-keeping.” A third explained it this way, “Men are stronger and can lift heavy equipment more easily, but women have to be more resourceful to make up for it.”

It’s more than just muscle

Men are also seen as being more scientific, more expedient, and more business oriented.  A woman lamented, “My husband slams through the hive going by the UM book, nothing else matters.” One man explained that “Men are more dogmatic about how things should be done, while women are more open to new ideas.” Another writer put it like this, “I don’t think gender makes a difference, but since there is no “man power” movement, I choose men. After all, the drones need someone to cover their backs.”

Women, on the other hand, were almost universally seen as more caring and more deliberate. “Women are better suited to the finer points of bee breeding,” said one. In characterizing female beekeepers, respondents used words such as intuitive, nurturing, instinctive, detail-oriented, patient, gentle, and observant. One man said, “Unlike women, men can crush a few bees without becoming emotionally attached to each one.”

Business and art

Many respondents thought men were more interested in the business of bees, while women are more concerned with the welfare of bees. One women said, “My mentor, who is male, relates to the bees as a business while I think of them as a hobby. He’s all about money in, honey out. He wants productive bees, and I want happy bees.”

A number of beekeepers mentioned that women were more artistic when it came to decorating bee hives, and were more apt to paint their hives or make them look homey in some way. These comments surprised me because, from my perspective, the most artistic hives I’ve seen were created by men. That said, I’ve also noticed that women tend to decorate with paint while men decorate with wood.

The battle of the sexes

I also found a raft of comments that seemed to come out of nowhere. Again, many of these pronouncements were preceded by the vow that there is absolutely no difference between males and females. No difference at all, but:

“Men are more interested in dove tails than bee tales.”

“Women are afraid of bugs in general.”

“Some guys have a macho self-image to fill and will get themselves stung 20 times and then try to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Silly boys.”

“Women are not practical.”

“Men are too practical.”

“Women spend too much time in the hive because they need to name them all.”

“Men have more aggressive opinions on the right and wrong way to do things and an obsession with getting lots of honey.”

“My first hive is now four hives; his first two hives are now dead.”

On the other hand, many respondents mentioned the teamwork they enjoyed with their partners. One woman wrote, “My husband started with the bees 30 years ago, book in one hand, hive tool in the other. However, he gave up after a year. Now 30 years later, I am still the beekeeper, but he is the builder.” Another respondent said, “I wouldn’t do as well without my wife. She sees things I would miss, and she keeps good records.”

We all irritate each other

Whereas we may be equally skilled and competent beekeepers, the sexes do manage to irritate each other. Annoyances come in all forms, but it seems to be the little things that frequently rub us the wrong way.

Although I hear both men and women refer to bees as “girls,” I agree with several respondents that men excel at this irritating habit. One woman went even further and said, “I hate having to hear male beekeepers make sex jokes about worker bees, when they’re actually talking about women.” On the other hand, women make sex jokes about the lazy and worthless drones who are only interested in one thing. I have to admit I’m guilty as charged on that score.

What I found most interesting were the sweeping generalizations aimed at the opposite sex. Again, these respondents usually began by disclaiming any difference in beekeeping ability, but just had to mention their one little complaint:

“Men talk endlessly about DIY, gadgets, and sheds, while women collect every possible bee-related fashion accessory.”

“Men vacuum bees.”

“Women talk to bees.”

“Men kill bees because they’re clumsy.”

“Women kill bees because everything takes longer. A woman will spend all afternoon cooing at a half-dead bee and ignore the rest.”

“Men brandish hive tools like weapons.”

“If you lend a woman a hive tool, you will never see it again.”

“Women can’t keep a smoker lit.”

“My husband started the car on fire with his smoker.”

Many of the comments came from left field. These were the comments I couldn’t make heads nor tails of and which didn’t fit neatly into any category:

Better beekeepers: Many people think women are more artistic, but I disagree. This hive by Rick Cheverton honors the Tennessee Volunteers. The team mascot is a bluetick hound named Smokey.
Many people think women are more artistic, but I disagree. This hive by Rick Cheverton honors the Tennessee Volunteers. The team mascot is a bluetick hound named Smokey. Hive and photo © Rich Cheverton.

“Women have better eyesight.”

“Sexy bee suits make happy bees.”

“I wish you would start a dating site for beekeepers.”

“Men would rather deal with 70,000 angry women than just one.”

Summary of the sexes

One writer summed up the sexes like this, “The best comparison I can think of is the two most scientifically-sound popular bee sites on the Internet. Both are completely accurate, highly informative, exquisitely researched, and written by authors with environmentalist tendencies. But the one authored by a woman treats pollinators of all types as gems to be treasured, while the one by a man focuses heavily on identifying the best practices in commercial beekeeping. It’s impossible to say which is better.”

The original question was “Are women better beekeepers?” and the answer is simply, “They’re not.” To wrap this up, I go back to a comment Kirsten Traynor [editor of American Bee Journal] made when I took this assignment: “While I think there are definitely gender differences in behavior and how males and females handle challenges, there is also a wide range within each gender and extreme overlap across the genders.” To me that is the reality—male and female beekeepers are the same, but different.

Enough of this nonsense. It’s now time to leave this topic behind and get back to tending our girls…um…bees.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

sharon mckenna
Reply

Women are better beekeepers….than what?

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

I keep my literary license in my back pocket, right next to my driver license.

Laura Carosi
Reply

I had a good laugh on this article, AND I totally agree with you on the fact that women and men simply have different styles, but not necessarily better styles. My beekeeping mate is a gay man. I’m specifying this because he’s got many feminine features in life and that might make a difference. He opens his hives saying things like: “Hello little ones, daddy is here to bother you again.” I’m a frugal kind of woman and would never ever have that attitude, so I laugh at him all the time. He’s very compliant to the “standard” rules, while I chose Kenyan top bar hives to begin with and always suggest experimenting with new techniques from all over the world. He will kill a sick hive for fear of infecting the whole apiary, I will research for days until I find a way out. On the other hand, I won’t hold my queen bee for fear of hurting her, he does it for me. Then comes my boyfriend, who is a “secondary” beekeeper through me, and he is not afraid of picking up fallen combs full of bees and shake them and bring them home, while both of us were panicking…

My opinion? There certainly is a difference between sexes and that’s why doing it together is soooo much better!

John Wheeler
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for the entertainment of reading the results of he said she said. My opinion is that the choice of survey respondents was in error. Wouldn’t the question of which sex are better beekeepers be best answered by the bees??? 🙂 Unfortunately their communication skills are a bit limited

Fully enjoyed your blog. Thank you.

John

Rusty
Reply

John,

Maybe it’s not their communication skills as much as our listening skills that are poor. But yes. Excellent point.

Sam
Reply

Entertaining and thought-provoking as always, Rusty. Thanks for making me laugh.

JWPalmer
Reply

Rusty, my wife and I are a beekeeping team. She lets me have and tend to my “girls” and I let her give away their honey. Great article. Wasn’t sure where it was going at first.

Craig
Reply

Can’t we just accept that men and women have different strengths and weaknesses?

Keith
Reply

Rusty, in my 62 years of male existence, I have come to the conclusion that women are pretty much better at EVERYTHING.

E.t. Ash
Reply

50+ years ago this topic would never have come up since any women you might see around a beekeeping operation were either a wife (she kept the books and paid the bills) or a daughter (who’s only accomplishment in regards to bees was to be a bee queen or princess for one of several bee organization).

Somewhere in the middle of this time line I started seeing women in bee keeping like Sue C. and Marla S. who without a doubt had done remarkable things in regards to beekeeping. Currently my part time boss (and friend) Dr Juliana Rangel is a pretty good example of where the academic/research beekeepers are headed and a bit more than half of her students (kind of my own beekeeping grandchildren) are women. This task of looking after research bees I have given up twice and both occasions we chose a young lady to take over my job… sadly both have lasted only a year at which time they added this experience to their resume and move on to a better paying job. I complain to my wife that looking back I have been very successful in my life’s ambitions but seem to be failing miserable at getting myself retired. Some thing I guess you do because you have a passion for the work and because you cannot say no to a friend?

A few years ago when bee keeping began to have some new appeal and I was selling a good number of nuclei to folks…. I did notice that in year 1 a couple would show up at my house to pick up 2 or 3 nuclei and the man would suit up (normally unnecessary) and the women would stay in the cab and hand me a check from the passenger side window. By year 2 the women would be shoving the man out of the way and assisting me in loading the nucs in the truck… I find it interesting that this new wave of beekeeper is often something the couple does together..

Some decades ago I ran a small cattle operation (about 125 momma cows) and was told by a good neighbor who I leaned on for advice and told me ‘you may notice the best cowboys are often women’..

Gene in Central Texas…

Brian
Reply

Rusty, my daughter and I started keeping bees at the same time but in widely separate locations. We have worked together on inspection several times at each of our apiaries.

I have nothing but the deepest admiration for her abilities during inspections. She always sees the queen, she sees spotty brood, can do a hive strength calculation in a few moments, and she is tough as nails for lifting/shifting/toting.

I remain in awe of her abilities as a beekeeper.

I stay focused on hive health, mite control, nutrition, and winter prep. I rarely see the queen; if there’s eggs there’s a queen. If there’s no pollen I need to provide sub. If honey stores are light, feed syrup. Mite counts at 2%, time to treat. Late October, time for the insulation and sugar boards (a la Rusty Burlew).

My daughter provides me with a model of efficiency of motion and smoothness of action that I try to replicate. There is such grace and ease with the way she surveys frames, I’m trying to get to that place.

I’m not the best model for a beekeeper, but if I can get to where my daughter is, I’ll be a happy man.

Ray
Reply

I was one of the 500 respondents to the survey but it seems this man was unusual in thinking women are better! Oh dear, I should have stuck to the industry norm of “men are better drivers”! haha

Archie McLellan
Reply

I loved this piece; so balanced and nuanced – and funny! Yours is my favourite blog, along with one other, by a university professor/scientist/researcher in Fife, Scotland. Both writers bring experience, anecdote, science and much more. Though I hadn’t considered before that the gender difference could be significant, now, I think it may be, and is something to celebrate.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Archie.

Debbie
Reply

“My first hive is now four hives; his first two hives are now dead.” The ‘best & funniest’ comment!

Roger
Reply

When an opinion is given, nothing before the “but” matters. When you consider a comment from that perspective the true prejudice is revealed, but that’s just my opinion.

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