Why Hobby Beekeeping Matters

Beekeeper working inside of top bar hive

In the Pacific NW, whether you are a seasoned beek or a novice, your bee season has already begun. Packages (of bees) and nucleus hives have arrived, swarms have started, but this isn't a normal season already.

The Portland Urban Beekeepers (PUB) estimate hive losses in the area last year at a troubling 45%. Researcher Dr. Dewey Caron estimates local losses at 70%. I tend to trust Dr. Caron's numbers more, as the ones gathered by PUB were not done so anonymously (leaving those that don't want it to be know that they are keeping bees without proper permitting more unlikely to respond) and the fact that Dewey has more access to large-scale beekeepers with a greater number of hives, giving a broader picture.

I also feel Dr. Caron's numbers are closer for two reasons: 1) There are so few swarms. By this time last year we had well over 50 swarm calls; this year we are lucky if we have had 10. Less colonies that thrived through the winter of course means less swarms in spring. And, 2) We experienced around 70% loss in our apiaries (of 35 hives total). We are also hearing from our local customers and friends that their own losses were closer to 55-70%, leaving us feeling, sadly, like the higher number might be reality for our area.

In no way did we ever think losses like that couldn't happen to us - we know beekeeping with regard to drastic seasonal variations too well at this point. But we were very happy that over the last 5 years we had our losses down to an extremely low 25% on average each winter. We populate our hives with feral colonies that we gather on local swarm catches for a number of reasons, one being that we find feral colonies tend to be heartiest. Often they come from cavities or tree hollows that have been left alone for a long time, allowing the bees to thrive naturally in our climate and without human intervention, treatments, or fussing. We are extremely hands off with our bees, wanting the strongest genetics not only for our own hives, but for mating with other queens and creating heartier overall stock of local bee populations. And also, we don't want to pay for bees. Our first year we used all purchased bees from a multitude of breeders and had 75% die off; that was the end of buying bees.

Swarm in a tail lightBeekeepers are an extremely passionate bunch. In fact, I haven't encountered any hobby or industry that is as vehement and impassioned about its subject matter. Everyone has a different philosophy, management style, set of beliefs regarding their bees. That in and of itself is good, as more discussion perpetuates more dialog and new opportunities for consideration. It is bad in as much as beekeepers can become pompous, judgmental, and condemning to ways that differ from their own, or so mired in what they believe to be right, that they take exception even when another beek is trying to be helpful. Nowhere is this more apparent than for new beekeepers.

I love new beekeepers. They love bees and they want to be good hive managers. They have the best intentions and they often, ideally, set forth learning everything they can before jumping in. But like any research, especially when it concerns something living, the information can be extremely overwhelming. One problem is that there isn't a lot of money for publishers in publishing beekeeping books, so they don't. Thus, beeks are left with out of date reference materials from the 1800's to the 1980's.

Some books have come to market in recent years about natural, backyard, and hobby beekeeping, but they are few and far between and many simply refresh the old information which was originally geared to and for large-scale commercial beekeepers (who make a living off of migratory beekeeping and pollinating mono-crops). Simply reframing this information for someone that has under 1 or 2 hives doesn't work at all. The traditional, commercial style of hive (the white ones you see in fields, called Langstroth hives) are ideal for commercial beekeepers (easy to stack and move with machinery and load onto trucks and extract honey from using centrifugal extractors), but make less sense when your retired neighbor wants two hives in their garden for pollination and a little honey. While Langstroths can be managed naturally without foundation or use of the chemicals and treatments (which commercial beekeepers have become habituated to using), and without requiring an expensive honey extractor, few reference materials or fellow beekeepers make novices aware of this fact and suddenly what looked like it was going to be a fascinating side hobby becomes a significant financial investment and overwhelming commitment.

The good news is, natural beekeeping and treatment-free beekeeping are well on the rise and becoming established in every community. Beekeeping groups for small-scale hobbyists and urban beekeepers are many, and good information is shared among these groups so that new and old beekeepers alike can get support and access to resources. That said, new beekeepers often bring a mindset to beekeeping that can prove detrimental to their first years, and that can frustrate their early efforts.

New beekeepers tend to want to over tend their bees. This is when we gently remind new beeks that bees are not mammals; we generally do not know better for them regarding their needs than they do. We do see beekeepers in British Columbia and Alaska sometimes create wind breaks or insulation out of hay bales around their hives for extreme winter weather, but if you are in Illinois or Kentucky, you likely aren't going to need that. The height of bee season, when bees are gathering resources for their colony, is spring through summer and a touch of autumn. If you have feed in your hives yet everything is in bloom around them, remove the feed. Let the bees do what they are made to do and have been doing for millions of years.

Bees are a super organism with exactly one purpose: to make enough honey for their colony to survive through winter. Pollination is only a benefit of that instinct. If a bee colony is weak and cannot build up enough honey stores to survive, it has no other purpose or job it can fulfill - bees can't jump into a second career and be just as effective to the world or to their own colony in another regard. We see this truth in the hive itself, when a bee becomes too weak to work effectively, or its wings are torn from toil, it is thrown out of the hive. Bees have a singular purpose; as beekeepers it's our job let them achieve it.

This is the time of year I find myself in many of the same (very valuable) conversations with new, concerned beekeepers that are carefully watching their new colonies. So, here is my best advice for budding and new beekeepers:

1) Research, thoroughly, before starting.

Read all of the things, and watch loads of youtube beekeeping videos, join forums and just sit and read the threads for months before even asking questions. You will soon discern how your own management philosophy is developing by how it agrees with and differs from other, more established beekeepers, and how to identify what you want out of beekeeping, considering the different benefits and drawbacks of each hive type.

Looking inside a top bar hive2) Let the bees teach you.

You don't know better than they do. You don't know what they need more than they do. Sit back, watch the hive entrance, listen to the sounds coming from the hive and you will learn more than you do almost every time you open a hive to manage it.

Or for instance, if there are a lot of drones, likely its because they know that their local population needs a great many for genetic diversity and mating or, if they are creating supersedure queen cells, likely it is because their queen is starting to decline and they are ready to replace her.

3) Bees need less management than you think they do...

way less than chickens, way less than cats. When you are managing, you are mostly managing to make sure they have enough space to keep building and filling comb, and to make sure a queen is laying eggs. If you have a foundationless hive, depending on your type you will also be keeping and eye out for straight combs.

4) Propping up a weak colony with treatments and feed every year is just delaying the inevitable.

I'll get a lot of flack for grouping feed into that statement, but I generally find it to be true. Sure, 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 capture a swarm of bees, rarely do you need to feed. Our established colonies we almost never feed, as we don't want to perpetuate the genetics of bees that depend on our feed or treatments each year to survive.

5) 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, 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), and 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.

6) You will make mistakes.

Beekeepers don't like to talk about their mistakes because it's upsetting and is an admittance that despite our best intentions, we are all going to lose bees and screw up from time to time. We have had a few doozies, but one of the worst was when we moved a strong colony back from an event where it had been being used for demonstration. We moved it at night along with a few others and after a very long weekend at the conference giving presentations and hauling bee hives to and fro. We had the hive entrances screened off for transport and pulled off the screen from all of the hives before retiring for the night. Or so we thought. The next day, we went to check the hives and realized we had left the screen over one of the hive entrances; every bee inside had over heated and suffocated; an entire colony gone and two of the sorriest beekeepers speechless with tears in their eyes in front of it. Like anyone that gets involved in something out of passion for the subject, when a mistake occurs that is 100% counter to the entire driving principle, it is that much more painful.

Mistakes and losses, like the colony losses from this last winter, generally make beekeepers want to work harder, and more for the bees. Colony losses are 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 their survival rates over the seasons to come. And that is a worthy enterprise, well worth the learning curve.

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