On Becoming a Beekeeper

I am always pleasantly surprised when people tell me they are thinking of becoming a beekeeper.  First of all, it makes me feel a little less nerdy.  Secondly, and more importantly, the more people interested in bees, the better off all of us will be since that should translate into some level of enhanced environmental awareness.   But alas, there’s a big difference between beekeeping and being interested in bees.   What I find is that people are mostly interested in what’s happening to bees and to our environment and not as much in grabbing a hive tool and popping open a hive full of buzzing bees.  And that is just fine because beekeeping isn’t for everyone but everyone can help bees.

Truthfully, I still don’t look forward to popping open a hive full of bees like many of my fellow beekeepers do, but I do it because it’s part of it.  For those that really do want to go down the path to keeping bees, I have several recommendations.  First, read all you can on the subject from reputable sources.  Given how long people have been keeping bees, there are now a myriad of good books, many good blogs and websites devoted to beekeeping.  They can be highly readable as well.

My first bee read was Honeybee:  Lesson From an Accidental Beekeeper and it opened up a world to me I never before considered.   It wasn’t terribly technical and Marina Marchese made it all seem manageable, reasonable even.  Yes, I could be a beekeeper too!

On their own, children’s books on honey bees can really intrigue you into learning more about the role of the honey bee, their plight and what we can do to help them.  I love children’s literature and there are some great books to share with your kids or enjoy on your own.  From Beekeeping for Dummies, to the Backyard Beekeeper, to university texts, there are plenty of readable books on beekeeping and delving into some are a great starting point for gauging your actual interest level.

Second, tapping into your local beekeeping club is highly valuable.   Beekeeping clubs provide a wealth of information, direction and support.  Most counties have them and in my area, I have many within a comfortable driving distance.  While I belong to the one in my county and spend most of my time interacting there, I attend meetings with other counties too, particularly when they have interesting speakers or topics on their agenda.  Their meetings are generally open to the public and visitors are welcome and quite welcomed.  I also belong to my state level club and they host outstanding events that are amazing learning opportunities as well.  All of these clubs tend to have newsletters and Facebook pages you can subscribe to if you’d like to keep up on things.

Beekeeping clubs are a way to not just hear experienced beekeepers speak on interesting topics, but they also generally offer an opportunity to pose questions about your bees and to get feedback from experienced “beeks.”  I find that the monthly meetings keep me on task with my hives as we discuss appropriate timing for sometimes critical interventions that is relevant locally based on our conditions.  I have made many friends through various beekeeping clubs both on the county levels and through the state club.  These are people who I can call or email with questions and they would provide me with guidance in a heartbeat. I can even boast that if I’m so baffled, many of them would offer to come take a look.

Many beekeeping clubs provide introductory beekeeping courses, generally referred to as Short Courses.  I highly recommend taking one of these courses.  Short Courses on beginning beekeeping typically happen in the winter months, giving you an opportunity to learn all about beekeeping and to order bees and supplies in time for a spring start should you decide to actually keep bees.

Beginning Beekeeping Short Courses are relatively inexpensive and they are informative beyond what you’d read in a book.  Experienced beekeepers present on topics that you’re reading about putting things into better perspective.  They are hands-on, allowing you to see the equipment and gear, they provide ample guidance to what to procure and from where, and they afford you an opportunity to obtain a mentor.

frame with brood cy
Looking good:  First year bees drew out lovely comb, the queen laid eggs (they are in the lower left combs and look like tiny grains of rice), the eggs turned to larva on day 3 and various sizes of larva are seen in the middle and upper left portion of this frame.  Then the cells were capped on day 9 and new bees will emerge on day 21.  Nectar that will become honey is stored on the outer perimeter close to the brood nest.

 

“I’ve got this,” you say.  “I’ve read plenty,” you think.  Reality is that beekeeping is very different from many hobbies in that you really cannot find answers in a book or online about what specifically is going on in your hive(s) and there’s not always an easy fix to what you perceive to be wrong.  Having a mentor a phone call or email away to discuss your issue with is more valuable than anything else you do here because their experience may very well save your hive (and your sanity) at times.  Do not forego an opportunity to have a mentor.  It does not mean someone is looking over your shoulder (unless you’d like that kind of support) and it doesn’t mean you’re required to do anything with this mentor other than freely accept the help they are willing to offer.  Believe me, you will benefit from this and if someone is so gracious as to offer you their time and insights into this venture, then jump at it.  Besides, if it doesn’t mesh for whatever reason, you will know other people within the club that you’re attending and can make some changes.

frame of comb and cups cy
What’s going on here?  These are also first year bees but now there are queen cups on the frame.  Do they plan to swarm?  Do they plan to supersede the queen?   Why did the bees make them?  Having a mentor would help you understand what’s going on here.

 

capped queen cup cy
This queen cup is capped and it’s located on the bottom of the frame, different from where the cups were located on the image above.  The bees are planning to swarm.  Now what?  A mentor or bee friend would be helpful to talk to right about now.

 

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It’s 10:00 at night.  Why are these bees outside the hive?  They are not getting ready to swarm.  It’s a hot night and they are decongesting the brood nest to maintain the proper temperature around the brood.  But does this mean they are too crowded?  Should a box be added?  Having a bee friend or mentor available to talk this through with proved very helpful to me.

 

I have a great relationship with my bee mentor, she’s one of my best friends.  I would not have gotten to this point without her guidance.  Having lost bees and considered giving up, she encouraged me to learn from my mistakes and to continue; I’m grateful to her that I’ve stuck with it.

I’ve friended many beekeepers through our club and I quickly learned that as many beekeepers as you ask about something could result in just as many opinions on the matter so I find having lots of beekeeping friends to be helpful for gathering information and opinions when formulating my own course of action.

Spending time with your mentor or a beekeeping friend is really important early on.  Seeing what you’re reading and observing how a beekeeper handles their bees is really helpful.  When you first read to handle your bees slowly, you have to wonder what speed is that anyhow?  Yes, you need to move slowly and calmly, but you also need to make hay while the sun is up.  Keeping your hive open too long and unnecessarily will result in angry bees and a disheartened beekeeper.

When I attended my first beekeeping meeting, I noted that I was among a small set of younger beekeepers who were not yet retired.  In the few years I’ve kept bees, I’ve seen more people taking up this wondrous hobby who are also not retired and that’s reassuring because there are a lot of nuances to beekeeping that need to be shared for beekeeping to carry on successfully.  It’s that experienced set of beekeepers that hold the keys to the future as they  pass on their vast knowledge and experiences for future generations.

If after all of this, your interest is still strong, go for it.  Really, order the bees, assemble your hives, paint them, stain them, decorate them, whatever you want, just do it. When I attended the Short Course in my county, I was a bit overwhelmed with how much there was to know about this hobby and thought I’d do a little more reading and exploring before committing.  My mentor encouraged me to place that initial order because in order to really learn, you need to do it.  I encourage you to do the same, but do your homework first by reading, taking a Short Course, and finding some bee friends and/or a mentor so it’s a more pleasurable experience.

Over the years I have found that when people tell me that they are interested in beekeeping and I offer for them to join me when I inspect my hives, it rarely comes to fruition.  That’s when I find out that there’s an interest in bees but not so much in actual beekeeping.  Again, that’s fine.  Thanks for the interest and the support for that matter. There are plenty of things people can do to satiate their interest in bees if the actual keeping of and working with bees is really just not for you.

Begin by educating yourself and others about bees and their vital role in our world.  By now, most people have heard the statistics- we are losing honey bees in record numbers.  About 1/3 of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants and the amazing honey bee is responsible for about 80% of that pollination.  We’re talking about strawberries and apples, almonds and blueberries, even the cotton you wear.   When you consider that bees pollinate clovers and grasses later eaten by cows and sheep that provide us with further food, you can see how critical their role is in our food supply.

Many people have now heard of colony collapse disorder as well but what’s really causing the demise of honey bees isn’t completely understood.  It could well be a perfect storm of events from pesticides to poor nutrition to loss of habitat.  We can have a positive impact on some of these things by making more informed and conscientious choices.

Eliminating our reliance on chemicals to solve every inconvenience tops my list.  Embracing dandelions and clovers in our lawns can have a huge impact on bees’ nutrition since both of these weeds are critical food sources for bees.  Dandelions are one of the earliest blooming flowers that provide much needed nectar after a long winter and little food stores from which to raise new bees.  Clovers continue to flourish long after the bees’ honey nectar flow ends, again providing food when it’s really needed.

Consider that when you spray an insecticide, pesticide, fungicide or herbicide, it affects the ecosystem around you.  Pollinating insects don’t know when you spray a chemical on a plant that is in bloom.  They just see the blooming flower, visit it to collect nectar and pollen, then return to their hives with these harmful chemicals.  Given how small bees are, it doesn’t take much to have a negative impact on the health of a bee hive.  If you must spray, always choose to do so after dark when pollinators aren’t flying and when the plant is not in bloom.

Planting bee friendly plants is extremely helpful because you are directly contributing to the nutrition of bees, a factor in honey bee losses.  A simple internet search will yield many resources to help you identify which plants are bee friendly.  You can take it a step further and make an effort to incorporate some native bee friendly plants into your landscape.  Natives are generally easier to care for since they’re adapted to our local conditions and they help to balance our ecosystems.  Many native plants are hosts to native bees and other wildlife.

bee on cosmos
Bee friendly plants don’t just make your yard beautiful, but they also contribute to bee nutrition

Honey bees are not native to the United States but they have enabled us to enjoy an amazing array of foods from their diligent pollination efforts.  They are not alone in pollination though.  There are approximately 4,000 native bees in the United States, 400 or so identified species in Maryland.  In addition to native bees, butterflies, bats and birds help with pollination efforts and all are being negatively impacted by our reliance on chemicals, destruction of habitats, and lack of forage.

Supporting your local beekeeping community is as easy as buying local honey.  Local honey is raw and contains pollen from local flora, not so with honey purchased in the grocery store that doesn’t even contain pollen.  In fact, there’s no way of knowing where the honey you buy in the store comes from leaving a lot of questions about what’s in it.  Local, raw honey is much better than anything you buy in the grocery store and it supports a hobby with increasing costs due to failing honey bees.

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This is a frame of honey ready for harvest.

 

So many  ways to help!  Pick one thing and once you do that one thing, it will be easy to incorporate more things.  Share what you discover along the way, educating someone who may not know how their choices are impacting the ecosystem around them.  And who knows, maybe beekeeping will be on your list at some point.  Even small changes can be helpful because as Sam Droege, head of bee inventory and monitoring for the USGS, says, “Bees are not optional.”  For some amazing imagery of bees visit National Geographic Intimate Portrait of Bees and on flickr USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

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2 thoughts on “On Becoming a Beekeeper

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