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Scrooge, the beekeeper, presents five New Year resolutions

I am Scrooge, the beekeeper. The Scrooge part of me stays pretty well hidden until someone remarks, “Ask ten beekeepers and you will get twelve different answers!” This statement turns me to stone. I know better than to respond because what I would say isn’t friendly. What I would like to say is either, “Well, dah!” or “That’s the best they could do?

Raising children and dogs

Think about raising children. Is there one answer that helps all children? One technique that appeals to all parents? Or how about dogs. Is there one way to raise dogs? One way to train them? Of course not, so why would anyone think honey bees are different? If a beekeeper is thinking, he should have multiple answers for most any question. In fact, I would say that if ten beekeepers have only twelve answers, then eight of them aren’t really beekeepers. Or they’re asleep.

But kids and dogs are easier than bees because we have something they want. It might be affection, acceptance, food, a hug, or a pat on the head. But honey bees? We have absolutely nothing they want. They prefer we go away. Now. But that’s not going to happen. We’re beekeepers, and it’s our job to not go away.

Since appeasement and compromise are not effective beekeeping strategies—“Swallow your mite meds and I’ll give you a treat!” just doesn’t work—we have to use alternative management techniques. But the techniques to use always depend on the situation.

Multiple answers should be expected

If you understand that management depends on many factors, then multiple answers to a question shouldn’t be surprising, right? The correct answer depends on the situation, and the situation is always different.

Successful beekeepers know this and realize that what works for them might not work for someone down the road. Or in two adjacent hives. Or in two consecutive years.

The variability in colony strength, nectar flow, weather, environmental toxins, and bee genetics is why the learning curve for beekeepers is never-ending. No beekeeper ever arrived at the end of the curve. As I’ve said before, the more you know the less you know. That’s because the more you learn, the more possibilities you recognize. With each passing experience more choices appear along with new forks in the road.

The master and the novice

What, then, is a master beekeeper? A master beekeeper is not someone who knows it all. He or she is simply a person adept at learning and evaluating. A master beekeeper is someone open to possibility and to new ideas. A master beekeeper is someone who is willing to let go of dogma and look at the facts.

On the other hand, the new beekeeper wants specific instructions, very similar to the ones that come with a new gadget. I can just imagine a label pasted on the outside of a bee package. “For a healthy colony, follow steps 1-27, add syrup, wait six weeks. Kit contains no user serviceable parts.” That a newbee wants concrete instructions is understandable, but until he goes beyond that mindset, he won’t mature as a beekeeper.

How to do it

At this point in my rant, someone invariably will ask, “How?” How do you get past that mindset and become a true beekeeper? Well, guess what? Ten beekeepers will have fifty answers. Why? Because how you get there will vary with the individual.

Here are some thoughts on evolving as a beekeeper. You might call them resolutions for the New Year.

Resolution #1:  Look inside your hive often enough to recognize normal

Many beekeeper questions can only be answered by looking inside your beehive. If you don’t know what’s going on in your hive, certainly no one else will. The first step is learning to recognize “normal” when you see it. After that, recognizing “not normal” is a whole lot easier.

Resolution #2: Look outside your hive for changes in your bees’ environment

The next thing to notice is the environment. This involves looking outside your beehive. Are flowers in bloom? Is it rainy? Dry? Hot? Cold? Windy? Are your neighbors spraying chemicals? Is it noisy? Quiet? Foggy? We don’t keep bees in a vacuum. Many different environmental conditions influence a colony of bees.

Resolution #3: Learn to recognize the cyclic nature of nature

Recognize that nature is cyclic. Everything you will be dealing with as a beekeeper is cyclic. The seasons. The weather. The day length. The plant life cycle. The bee life cycle. The mite life cycle. The moth life cycle. The beetle life cycle.

These cycles can augment each other or cancel each other out. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the population of varroa mites explodes just as the honey bee population wanes. These two curves come crashing together in August and poof! The number of mites per bee explodes.

A similar thing happens with nectar dearths. They are cyclic and predictable in many parts of the world. If you know a dearth is coming, you can take proactive steps to protect your colonies from likely predators, including robbers and wasps.

If you understand these cycles you don’t have to wait to see what will happen. Instead, you can often predict what will happen. Beekeeping is a lot easier if you’re not always ambushed by the inevitable.

Resolution #4: Trust no one

I picked up this phrase years ago from the X-Files television show, but it serves me well. In the context of beekeeping, it means that you should always question the advice you hear, especially if it doesn’t make sense to you. I’ve questioned people and been persuaded both ways. Sometimes an explanation is crystal clear and logical, and I wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” At other times, it becomes obvious that the person giving the advice has no idea what he’s talking about and is only repeating something he heard.

Resolution #5: Tap into your own knowledge

You know lots of things about the world. You know bits and pieces of math, chemistry, physics, and biology, most of which you don’t realize you know. For example, you know warm air rises, you know warm, moist air condenses on cold surfaces, you know bleach kills living things, you know light-colored things reflect heat, you know animals release CO2 and plants use it.

All these tidbits of knowledge can be used to answer many of your own questions, or at least get you started on the right track. Too many new beekeepers think “I know nothing about this.” But they should recognize that they already know many things that might apply. This is what I call common sense or horse sense. Don’t sell yourself short. If you’re still living and breathing, you have a wealth of knowledge ready to use. All you have to do is stop and think.

Scrooge, the beekeeper, wishes you a Happy New Year

I could go on and on, but I’ve decided not to include the obvious such as books and videos. What could be easier than reading a book or watching someone else manipulate the frames? What I’m suggesting is much harder and requires more self discipline, but it will get your there much faster.

Think about it. But in the meantime, enjoy a happy and safe New Year holiday.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Many honey bees on the top bars of a Langstroth hive.
All of beekeeping is based on natural cycles. Bee populations ebb and flow with the seasons. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Pete
Reply

Hi Rusty

Great list! I would add these footnotes to the numbered items on the list:

1. take photos. sometimes showing the photo to another beekeeper can help you see.

2. talk weather and plants with other beekeepers. this may help in determining if the conditions are unusual or not.

3. everything is cyclical, true, — but overlapping cycles can create unexpected peaks and valleys (phase interference).

4. trust someone! especially someone like Rusty who is encouraging you to think for yourself and be skeptical.

5. this last one is great. a good beekeeper is not overly specialized but knows about many different things which all add up.

Rusty
Reply

Pete,

Thank you for the great annotations and the compliment. Happy New Year!

sharon
Reply

There’s a great nursing book, short title, “From Novice to Expert” asking what makes the difference between the two. The novice is rule bound and doesn’t vary much from what the book says. The expert looks at a situation and immediately relates it to a prior and similar situation and thinks about what was done in the first scenario, and what that outcome was. The application of previous knowledge/outcomes to a new situation makes an expert. And don’t let anybody tell you that they’ve been nursing/beekeeping for 20 years so that makes them an expert. That’s their SENIORITY, not their expertise, especially if they have been doing the same wrong thing over and over for 19 of the 20 years.

Rusty, thanks for all the work you do for all of us; I hope that 2018 will bring you much “comfort and joy.”

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

That’s a great example, and you stated it perfectly. And seniority? What a great concept!

ET Ash
Reply

Stated bias..i sell bees here @ honey. To recognize normal or average you need a sample size greater than 1. 3 is a prime number & is exactly how many hives (ie packages + equipment) I started with decades ago. That small number also gives you the opportunity to see the exceptional and the ‘dink’.

Everything about beekeeping is local so with 12 opinions there is a good possibility 1 of them might be right. The first learning curve is largely about seasonal variation in a location botany. See 2 & 3 above..

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Rusty

Nice

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Gene. And thanks for reading.

Larry
Reply

Three days left in the year and this post shoots past all of the great posts I’ve read this year and into the number one position. Well said!

Rusty
Reply

Well thank you, Larry. What’s funny is most posts I plan, write an outline, and think about for a day or more. This one, I just sat down and wrote without even knowing where I was going with it. Life is funny like that.

Ken Matley
Reply

“Beekeeping is a lot easier if you’re not always ambushed by the inevitable.”

Beautifully stated!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Ken. I like that one, too!

Kris Krems
Reply

My turfgrass Prof. in college would always say one must qualify a statement before giving an answer.

Simple but good advice.

Rusty
Reply

Jeese, Kris. I had a turfgrass professor too. How many people can say that?

Nancy Ogg
Reply

LOL Rusty – when I read Kris’s comment, I was just thinking, “Aaw – you had a turfgrass professor!”

One of my friends was a forage specialist at UK til he retired to farm full-time. Forage-crop information does come in useful for beekeepers.

On the point you make here, there is a pre-printed Hive Inspection checklist with this item:

2. Hive Mood: a. calm b. active c. aggressive d. time to re-queen.

I use it as a bad example, telling learners a. there are reasons for aggressive mood that have nothing to do with a need to re-queen, and b. there are reasons to re-queen which have nothing to do with a colony’s mood. I also emailed the publisher of the form, but didn’t hear back.

We’ve had single-digit nights here, and as I pass the hives (under moisture quilts, wind-wraps, sugar cake and all) en route to the barn, what comes to mind is Robert Frost’s “Good-bye and Keep Cold” –
“…but something has to be left to God.”

Happy New Year and heartfelt thanks!
Nan
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

Thank you. And I agree with your comments on the checklist: not everything is the queen’s fault. I think we jump to re-queening way too fast, without thinking or evaluating.

Cathy Wilde
Reply

I’m thinking of printing this out and hanging it on my wall. Thank you for a year of truly helpful advice and insight, Rusty!

Katie
Reply

Rusty, you hit the nail on the head! Well done on another fantastic post, absolutely one of your best.

Ann Baker
Reply

Your post made me smile and nod in agreement multiple times. May the nectar and honey flow to all in 2018 😊

Jack Grimshaw
Reply

Rusty,
Best post yet!
Remove any reference to beekeeping and this can apply to any passion in life.

Bob
Reply

Rusty, Love your writing style, your passion and all the knowledge you share. This article is the best one I’ve read to date.

Thank you,
Happy new Year

Ray
Reply

Thanks Rusty, great advice as always. I’m a ‘novice’ and I took advice from a ‘master’ this year and everything went terribly wrong! I’ve realized through this, my second year, that your 5 resolutions are spot on!

Happy New Year!

WesternWilson
Reply

Awesome post Rusty! I like to think there is always a BEST answer, given a careful think through the situation as you and your posters point out. Happy New Year all! Rusty…we are not that far apart must come visit thee and thy bees in 2018!

Rusty
Reply

Yes, we should!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, thank you! To those of you who sent me lists of corrections (literally), I am extremely grateful. It is especially interesting that no two of you had the same lists!

I apologize for the errors. I was racing to get the post done before my ESP (email service provider) picked up the RSS feed. Big mistake. Writing/editing should never be rushed.

Dave Noble
Reply

Another wonderful article!

I especially love #1 and #4.

Trust No One… I teach a variant of this principle to my students. I tell them it is okay to take any and all advice, but don’t just take a beekeepers word for it. Find out what your BEES think about the advice. Try it out, if it makes sense, but observe the reaction of the bees and the results.

How often have we heard about a beekeeper trying out something the heard or read to fix a problem and the problem was not fixed yet they still believe that the advice was sound and there must be something wrong with their bees instead of thinking that there is something wrong with the ADVICE.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

That is so funny but so true!

sharon
Reply

I’m committed to ‘evidence-based practice’ in my professional life as well as in my role as a beekeeper, so my first step is to be absolutely sure that there IS a problem, which may mean stepping back and just observing. If I can see that there is something not quite right, or something is clearly wrong, I can jot down some observations, then begin a process of elimination….what is or isn’t there, what should I see (or not). This often leads to an ‘aha’ moment and a solution begins to appear. But the solution needs to be a sound one, supported by science, not because ‘that’s just the way it is.’ Many problems arise because someone, with all good intentions, becomes caught up in the ‘romance’ of beekeeping, buys a nuc and a hive and launches into ‘beekeeping’ with little education. Many of the issues you raise, Rusty, would be eliminated if there was education before purchase. Especially if there could be some form of standardized ‘first-step’ program.

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

I find that beekeeping answers often don’t come to me immediately. When I see something unusual, I have to mull over it. Sometimes, like you say, I might decide there is no problem, but other times I can eventually see my way through to solving it. I often just close up a hive and walk away until the solution develops in my mind. Sometimes I write down a plan, two or three items that need to be completed over a few days or weeks.

I agree that a first-step program before everything goes awry would be better than the twelve-step program after it all hits the fan!

Julie
Reply

Thanks Rusty, I am a first year learner on beekeeping and I have used your website for help many times. The end of year resolutions are excellent for people like me still at the novice stage 🙂

Jerry Garle
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Once again a wonderful article, its so nice to sit down & read so many aspects of bee keeping, so please keep it up.

From a warm sunny Melbourne, I would like to wish both you & you followers a very HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Cheers & may we never get mites.

Joy Graham
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for a informative post, I am a first year beekeeper, I have learned so much already, and have come to the conclusion that I will never learn it all, which is perfect for me, I love my girls and realized what you stated is so true the girls do not really needs us but I love to watch them and I learn something everyday, I have also realized that some people are very helpful and other just think they know it all, those i tend to listen to but usually forget what they said to do, I have a club and they are so helpful but in the end I watch the girls and they tell you what is going on, have a Happy New Year!

Charles Carlson
Reply

What a great blog to end the year. Every year is different and the natural cycles all vary. The thing I find most spectacular about beekeeping is the bees themselves. Broadly speaking they have a solution for everything, and they’re very patient teachers (generally).
Best in the New Year,
Charles

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thanks, Rusty-

Way way back I worked for an English nurseryman (in Seattle) who’d include the following as part of his advice: “An expert is someone who teaches you how to do it wrong, but do it wrong WITH CONFIDENCE.”

That still works for me. With just a few substitutions your bee advice matches mine about pruning fruit trees. Fruit trees is really how I got into Osmia mason bees et cetera a couple of decades ago — also a spouse with a curiosity for that sort of trouble. It depends — yep, it depends.

Rusty, Happy New Year. We’ll see where this year goes. I could list several uncomfortable distractions, but there are native bees still to chase.

Glen B

Sal D
Reply

Hi Rusty, I could use some advice and you mentioned I should ask in the blog so maybe others can learn too. My bees just about filled their first 10 frame deep box with comb. But the comb has crossed the frames at an angle, spanning probably 4 frames for each row of comb. So the whole box is solid and I cannot even remove one frame. I live in south Florida and its still warm here and wondering how I can fix this box going forward? When I add my next box I will be sure to watch the hive closer and adjust to ensure its straight in the next box but I’m wondering how to fix this first box?

Rusty
Reply

Sal,

The only way I know of to fix it is to cut the combs off the frames and then tie them back into the frames with strings or rubber bands. It’s a lot of work and hard to do when the combs are full of bees. Next time use starter strips or quarter sheets of foundation to get them started.

Sal D
Reply

Thanks Rusty. I will cut the comb but have some questions.

1) should I wait until I add the second deep and the bees fill it?
2) should I just leave the cross comb alone and continue as normal?
3) what time of the year (im in south florida) would be best to attempt the fix?

Thank you

Rusty
Reply

Sal,

I think that if you add the second box before fixing the first, it may give the bees bad ideas. I think you should fix it as soon as possible because this time of year has the lowest population. I recognize it isn’t all that cold where you are, but the population will still be lower than say April and May. Better do it fairly soon than risk everything getting worse.

Sal D

Thank you for the advice Rusty. I will do my best.

Debbie
Reply

Well, Rusty, it looks like you were the writer for our bee club newsletter this month. They used this article and a few of your feeding articles. I was pleasantly surprised they did that, but I had already read the postings. Seems like you are making the rounds ! Gaining that ‘celebrity’ status.

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

Lots of bee clubs ask permission to reprint, so many that I lose track.

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