I have been keeping bees now for eight years. In spite of taking courses, reading every book I could, keeping my eyes and ears open, and earning my Master Beekeeper designation, I have made every mistake I could.
Sometimes I needed to make those mistakes more than once!
And I know more are out there waiting for me to make. Such is beekeeping.
We all have to do things in our own way and in our own time, but for what it is worth, here is what I wish I had known in my first year…
- What is your motivation? If you want to learn about bees and their way of bee-ing, and have honey to give away at Christmas, learn to keep bees healthy via a thoughtful program of feeding and mite control when necessary. If you want to troll through hive after hive of sick and dying bees, searching for that elusive Varroa-proof bee, check out the treatment-free approach. I have decided I do not like dealing with crashing colonies, so I deliberately left the treatment free camp early in my beekeeping career to just enjoy raising bees. There are talented researchers now systematically looking into whether bees can be bred to be Varroa-proof. I will be happy to buy their bees if and when they succeed!
- Beekeeping is expensive: it seems unfair that keeping honey bees, who used to keep themselves in hollow trees, is so expensive. But you will need to budget for nearly $700 for your first year if you aspire to one hive. More for two. In your first year you are acquiring bees ($220 per pop), equipment (full setup plus spare boxes and frames= $250), gear ($200+). You need to assemble and paint things. You will need to buy sugar for feed, pollen substitute to get your package going, medicines. It just costs a lot of money, so you need a healthy bee budget, and room to keep your spare equipment.
- It is easy to keep bees, but difficult to keep them well. For the first year or two, you will open that hive, probably with pounding heart and sweaty palms…and not have a clue what you are seeing. That is normal! Just ask a more experienced beekeeper to come look at your hive(s) with you and invite yourself to watch while others beekeep. The more you see, the faster you will learn. Read as much as you can: there is a lot of detail to successful beekeeping so be patient with yourself as you climb that learning curve!
- Beekeeping is hot, sticky, dirty work. You are out there in the sun, in your bee suit, lifting heavy frames and boxes. There are tricks to avoid lifting full boxes, but beekeeping demands some back, core and hand strength. You will get stung. Style goes out the window! It is worth it….but be aware, your car, your house, your garage will all be filled with sticky, mucky equipment.
- Listen to all the information, but to quote our Provincial Apiculturalist Dr. Paul van Westendorp: hew to standard practice for a few years before experimenting. I urge you to learn plain vanilla beekeeping in a standard Langstroth setup before you try out treatment free beekeeping, top bar or Warré hives, or any other innovative technique. By running a standard hive in standard ways you will observe the normal arc of development for a bee colony. By developing a sense of what is normal, you will be much better able to evaluate the effect of innovations.
- The biggest threat to your bees is unchecked Varroa mite infestation. Learn all about Varroa and treat in a timely fashion, at least with the organic acids. Here is another Varroa resource.
- Inspect every week or 10 days. This builds your sense of what is going on in a colony, and keeps you up to date on what is going on in there. You will spot problems (swarming prep, disease, pests) early…when you can still do something about them.
- Cultivate mentors. Mentors are often gained when you take a beekeeping course: you can email your teacher(s) questions (preferably with pictures if you have an issue in your hive). Most clubs have a mentor list, or you can ask to have one assigned. Chat boards might turn up an experienced local beekeeper who will give you a hand.
- Become a gardener! Bees are currently suffering from degradation and dwindling of nectar and pollen sources. The single best thing you can do for honey bees is plant for them. The Xerces Society has excellent information for planting for pollinators.
- Evaluate your eyesight. It is imperative to be able to reliably see teeny-tiny bee eggs in the cells: their presence or absence is THE critical piece of information you must have each time you inspect a hive. If you are finding you need reading glasses in daily life, you will surely need them to beekeep successfully. Buy some inexpensive magnifiers and keep them with your bee kit. I need to work in full sunlight when I have to find bee eggs, find queens (especially unmarked queens), and evaluate brood health.
And be sure to read the very funny but “tells it like it is” warnings on beginning beekeeping from Rusty Burlew. I chuckled at the section on Fashion and the Beekeeper. I too used to tidy up before hitting the grocery store. Now I just wander in after a hard afternoon in the beeyard, hot, sweaty, covered in propolis, my hair scraped unattractively back into a damp pony-tail. The pride…is all on the inside!
Note if you are about to hive your first package: make sure all the bees are swept from the package into your new hive…if the weather is too cold, the bees will not be able to fly in on their own, following the scent trail made by their sisters in the hive. When it is chilly, just leaning the emptied package against the hive in the hope the bees remaining inside will find home is not enough. Note, you may have to “deconstruct” the shipping hive to get at all the bees inside. Your bee brush will help in persuading the reluctant bees into their new home!
Below are some photos of what your colony should look like in summer.
Good fortune, little newbees! May your colonies live long and prosper.