How should we train the newbees?
Tis the season. My inbox is flush with “amazing” deals. Unfortunately, many of the hard-sell marketers are heading straight for the wallet of the soon-to-be new beekeeper. I’ve watched wannabees, still unable to tell a honey bee from a cockroach, buying specialty hives, extractors, and vaporizers so they will be ready when their bees arrive.
The marketers are slick, many offering “free” courses with anywhere from a dozen to 150 lessons to help get you started. Of course, this is nothing new. I first complained about the “lesson plan” back in 2010 when I saw poorly structured tutorials, each designed to sell you one more thing.
How much stuff do you really need?
Okay, I’m not a minimalist. I find that tinkering with hive design, equipment, gadgets, and technology is enormously fun and educational. On the other hand, you can be a first-rate beekeeper without breaking the bank. No one should be guilted into buying something he can’t afford or doesn’t need. Your need for equipment will evolve as your hobby expands, but purchasing should not be rushed or haphazard.
And all those lessons? How discouraging! A hundred lessons on any subject would make me run. Instead, I recommend that beginners read two good books: one that covers basic beekeeping practices and one dedicated to honey bee biology. My recommendation for the basics is either Simple, Smart Beekeeping by Kirsten and Michael Traynor or The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile. If you are a visual learner, the full-color photos in the Traynor book could not be better. For honey bee biology, nothing comes close to Honey-Maker by Rosanna Mattingly. I refer to it constantly.
Don’t forget the mites
The other thing a beginner needs to learn is varroa mite biology. It’s more difficult to find comprehensive, easy-to-read information on varroa, but you can’t be a competent beekeeper without it. The mite-bee-virus complex is fluid and evolving.
Regardless of whether you are treating for mites or trying to develop a mite-resistant strain, you need to understand the ebb and flow of each species, and how to recognize what is going on in your hive. You might try Randy Oliver’s website, Scientific Beekeeping, for up-to-date varroa information. His articles are also carried in the American Bee Journal.
Learn as you go
The rest of beekeeping can be picked up along the way. Each author, speaker, or mentor you encounter will have his own unique style. And that’s fine, as long as you remember that nothing is set in stone. In time, each new beekeeper will develop a personal style that meshes with his own opinions and rituals.
Sometimes I feel that we established beekeepers are not fair to the newbees. We explain how easy it is to get started in beekeeping, which is true. And the first few months are easy as well. But fall and winter can be brutal to novice beekeepers. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t write to me and say, “All my bees disappeared. I had a huge booming colony two weeks ago, and now it’s gone.”
It’s best to start with the truth
Not only have we failed to explain the difficulties, but we have in-filled the suburbs with beehives that are sharing diseases and parasites, robbing each other blind, and competing for forage. Far from “saving the bees,” adding more and more hives has hurt both bees and beekeepers, and made the craft much more difficult.
I certainly do not want to discourage potential beekeepers. On the other hand, I think we owe them both transparency and honesty. In today’s world, it is not easy to raise healthy bees. A beekeeper can do everything right, and still be taken down by a neighboring hive. Those first few months of geometric population growth and furious foraging belie the trouble ahead, yet we don’t mention that part. We often abandon the newbees when the going gets tough.
The bees have us
Folks like to gloss over honey bee problems by repeating the mantra, “Bees survived millions of years without us.” To which, I always reply. “But now they have us. And that is the problem.” And indeed it is. Humans have changed the face of the planet, and it is no longer the world bees evolved in. While we’ve managed to make the changes very quickly, we can’t expect mother nature to move as fast. Adaptations take time, if they happen at all. In the meantime, we have to care for our bees as best we can.
The joys and benefits of beekeeping are many and that part won’t go away. But I believe we need to be flexible in our thinking and willing to try new things. Our constantly changing planet calls for updated techniques. The innovative beekeepers out there who are always tinkering and always trying a hare-brained idea, may be our best friends.
The end of a season
My backyard leaves are squash yellow and pierced with sunlight. The air is both warm and cold, layered and unpredictable. Hardy kiwis still cling to the vine that I’m sharing with the jays. This is the time of year I worry about my bees the most, wondering how many, if any, will make it till spring. I review everything I’ve done, and a few things I haven’t. I cross my fingers and hope for the best.
At the same time, I make mental plans. Maybe a new kind of honey super. A different way to split. A plan for an altered hive. The wind quickens and I shiver. As I walk back to the house, I wonder what honey bee mysteries will reveal themselves in the year ahead and what the newbees will teach me.
Honey Bee Suite
Note: Ironically, this post contains affiliate links.