Save Yourself, not the Bees

honey bee s

Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart–or faint or mind either. A beekeeper who is “keeping bees to help save the bees” is a beekeeper who has yet to wrestle with the harsh reality that most beginning beekeepers will kill more bees than they will ever help save. The beekeepers who reload and return to the beeyard, despite the despair of dead outs, may eventually tilt their cosmic scales back toward bee savior, but, on average, I wonder how many hives die before a beginning beekeeper actually becomes proficient enough to save bees–that is to keep bees from drowning under the virus load of varroa. It probably took me thirty dead outs over five years before something finally clicked and I started overwintering hives successfully and my hive numbers started multiplying

Now I’m in my tenth year of beekeeping, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. Sure, I could say it was varroa that killed them or pesticides or small hive beetles or poor nutrition or extraterrestrial bee snatchers or whatever the excuse de vogue at the time was (at the time, I, like many others, just lumped all these excuses into a singular catch-all excuse called Colony Collapse Disorder). But the truth is my hives died because, first and foremost, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen to the advice of seasoned beekeepers because I thought I knew more than they did. I didn’t listen until, finally, enough cognitive dissonance erupted between my bee savior desire and my bee killer despair that I finally asked the great existential beekeeping question–“To beekeep, or not to beekeep?”

I chose to continue to beekeep–that is, to get serious about beekeeping, which is really the only way to keep bees now.

I hate to say this, but the term hobby beekeeping is now an oxymoron. Think about it this way: suppose you took up some other hobby for pleasure and relaxation. Let’s say fishing. You could just dig a few worms, buy a cheap Zebco and basic tackle, and then go catch bream or sunfish to your heart’s delight. And if by chance you don’t catch any, well, a bad day’s fishing is still better than a good day’s work. 

To fish, you don’t have to buy high-priced fishing gear, subscribe to Field and Stream, and join BassResource, the most popular bass fishing forum on the web. Of course, you could and many fishermen do. But even if you did–and this is the point–you still wouldn’t have to build your own farm pond and become an expert in farm pond management and ichthyological parasites to keep your bass from going belly up every winter. 

Or, put it another way: a fisherman just needs a hook, line, and sinker. A beekeeper needs a hive, veil, and standing appointment with a shrink.

8 thoughts on “Save Yourself, not the Bees

  1. As we come into our sixth year of beekeeping, I see the truth in that old saying about beekeeping “The more I studied beekeeping, the less I knew, until, finally, I knew nothing. But, even though I knew nothing, I still had plenty to unlearn.”Charles Martin Simon

    We did manage to overwinter all three of our hives this year, but I’m not assuming that is an indication of any kind of trend.

    We do try to do the best job for our girls – treat them for varroa on a regular basis, keep beetle traps in the hives baited, leave them plenty of honey for winter and provide food for them too. We attend meetings of three different beekeeping groups and go to conferences and learn something new almost every time

    And still, it often comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils when making decisions about them.

    I will say it got a bit easier once we had a few hives rather than just one or two because it provides more options to sort of pool their resources.

    You’re definitely right though – beekeeping is not for the faint of heart or anyone who thinks it will be easy. And yet, they are such interesting creatures, one cannot help but find them endlessly fascinating. 🐝 🐝 🐝

    1. Just wait, before you know it, you’ll have 30. Once you can get the learning curve down, and figure out the overwintering part (which really boils down to varroa control and feeding during dearths during the summer) then bees multiple fast. They are certainly fascinating creatures and even though they can be frustrating at times, I find the actually process of working and inspecting hives very good stress relief.

  2. It’s actually when I stopped listening to advice, stopped reading the forums, stopped trying to use industrial methods for hobby beekeeping that my colonies got really strong, self-sustaining, with no inputs at all. I don’t keep my 7 hives in a single bee yard, but scattered around, that was the trick that did it. No treatments, no feeding, at all, just bees being bees. 🙂

    1. yes, I do believe density plays apart, especially with varroa bombs due to robbing, and I think if a hobbiest is not wanting to maximize honey production, then letting them swarm is an easy way to help varroa levels down due to the brood break. Glad they are doing good and hope you get some good honey this spring

      1. Thanks, y’all too! My favorite part of the bees in their company in the garden with me, I’d keep them just for that! Far less stress when you’re not trying to feed the world. Or even your neighbor. 🙂

  3. Our bees this spring have had a curious mean streak. Maybe they just think it’s funny to see me running across the backyard swatting at my face during one of their surprise attacks.

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