While the blackberries hit the height of bloom and we move into high bee season in the Willamette Valley, this is the time of year I start to find myself in many of the same, very valuable, conversations with curious, researching, potential beekeepers who missed the window for this year and are planning to join the ranks come next spring.
Here are a few pieces of advice I always share:
Research, thoroughly, before starting.
Read as much material and watch loads of YouTube beekeeping videos. After a dearth of beekeeping resources through the 1990s until recently, so many insightful new books have recently been published targeting backyard and hobby beekeepers. Read as many as you can.
Join online beekeeping forums and just read through the topic and comment threads for months before even developing your own questions. In doing so, you will soon discern how your own management philosophy is shaping by how it agrees with and differs from other, more established beekeepers, and how to identify what you want out of beekeeping by considering the different benefits and drawbacks of each available hive type.
Take classes, too. There are classes available through local beekeeping groups, retail stores such as our own, and state beekeeper associations. You will want to have a hive in place and line on bees by winter so that once spring arrives, all you need to do is pick up your bees and install.
Let the bees teach you.
You don’t know better than they do. You don’t know what they need more than they do; they’ve been doing this for millions of years. Sit back, watch your hive entrances, and listen to the sounds coming from the hive. By doing so, you will learn more than you do almost every time you open a hive to manage it.
Bees need less management than you think they do.
Way less than chickens, way less than cats. Most beekeeping management is done in order to make sure the colony has enough space to keep building and filling comb, and to be certain a queen is laying eggs. If you have a foundationless hive, depending on the type, you will also be keeping an eye out for any comb not being drawn straight so you can fix it right away.
Propping up a weak colony with treatments and feed every year is just delaying the inevitable.
I might raise some eyebrows for grouping feed into that statement, but I generally find it to be true. Of course, if you buy a package of bees and they arrive while it’s still raining or snowing in your area, you’ll absolutely need to feed. If, however, you catch a swarm of bees, rarely do you need to feed. If the blackberries are blooming in the Willamette Valley, you should still be feeding. To treat or not can be a hard decision. As beekeepers, we of course want to set our bees up for success. It can be difficult to navigate when we are helping our bees with our efforts and when we are hindering them and their long-term colony health or survival.
To this end, if you can afford to do so, start two colonies versus one. Bees are (sadly) good at dying. They face a host of problematic issues ranging from chemical pesticides applied to forage to varroa mites and other honeybee pests and diseases. There is no worse feeling as a new beekeeper than losing your one and only hive in the first year of beekeeping. Having two colonies housed in the same hive type allows a beekeeper to have interchangeable parts and to be able to take brood or honey from one and share it with the other if need be.
Being a good beekeeper means being a responsible beekeeper.
By that I mean being responsible to your community with regard to keeping your apiary tidy so that it doesn’t attract pests and managing for space regularly so that you deter excessive swarms. One primary swarm per year we find to be ideal; it propagates more bees into the environment, and coming from a strong colony that overwintered, those are generally strong genetics. It also means being responsible to your bees, managing them regularly, but not excessively. Every time you open their hive, they cease production. Let them do what they naturally do.
You will make mistakes.
Beekeepers don’t like to talk about their mistakes because it’s upsetting and is admittance that despite our best intentions, we are all going to lose bees and mess up from time to time.
Mistakes and large-scale losses, like the high colony losses from two winters ago in the Willamette Valley, generally make beekeepers want to work harder and more for their bees. Colony losses are generally not decreasing or getting better, and it’s possible that maybe, just maybe, the methods and bees we are working with as backyard and hobby beekeepers will aid researchers and local bee populations in bouncing back and increasing survival rates over the seasons to come. And that is a worthy enterprise, well worth the learning curve.
It’s always important to remember that beekeeping is agriculture, subject to the whims and moods of nature, as well as environmental factors. There can be a lot of loss in beekeeping, and a lot of humbling. It’s equally important to remember that honeybees are a superorganism; individual bees cannot survive without the colony. As pet lovers and members of a culture that generally values mammals, new beekeepers often bring an attitude that honeybees are companions versus a single-minded colony that requires good stewardship.
You will get stung.
Most budding beekeepers realize this, but it’s sometimes surprising how often I still hear this questions. It’s important to remember that stinging is generally a last resort for a honeybee that feels threatened or perceives a threat. Honeybees don’t want to sting, as their barbed stingers mean that they perish, unlike many more common types of wasps that can sting repeatedly.
What potential beekeepers often don’t realize is that each colony has a different character, and all colonies go through cycles based on the season. Sometimes an aggressive hive, often called a hot hive, can be made more docile by splitting the hive or replacing the queen, but by and large a hot hive will be found next to a docile hive, which is next to an even calmer one. As a beekeeper you will come to know your hives and which you feel most comfortable wearing full gear to work with and which might require simply a veil and gloves.
Similarly, seasons will affect your colonies. The focused bees of spring are often disinterested in the beekeeper, intent only to forage and produce honey. Thus, it can be a surprise in autumn when a usually calm colony will fiercely defend all of their hard work and guard vigilantly against robbers.
Beekeeping can be addictive, therapeutic, and rewarding. Thankfully there are many resources for backyard, rooftop, hobby, and sideline beekeepers; far more than there were even five years ago. If you are considering becoming a beekeeper, find a buddy who has bees and spend time in and around the hive with them. It is great to have support and encouragement, especially in the first years of beekeeping when the learning curve is largest.