Honeybees are complex creatures. To keep them successfully you’re going to need to spend a fair amount of time learning about their biology as well as the equipment and techniques you’ll need to master in order to successfully be a beekeeper. The good news is that there is now an unprecedented number of resources available to beginning beekeepers. The bad news is, there are so many resources, the newbee might be a bit confused on where to start! To make things worse, some of the “resources” out there might hinder you and your bees more than they help you! The goal of this article is to provide you some straightforward advice on how to approach learning about bees and beekeeping. In what follows, I list out four simple recommendations on how to scale the beekeeping learning curve.
I had my first encounter with honeybees back in the spring of 1984 when I volunteered to help my uncle (a commercial beekeeper at the time) shake a couple of hundred packages of bees into his hives. It was a sort of baptism by fire, as I knew nothing about bees. My only motivation to help him was to escape an afternoon of pruning apple trees with my father! My uncle demonstrated the procedure to me, and then promptly pried the cover off a package and handed it to me. A few seconds later, I received my first bee sting. As the venom did its job on my nervous system I had a brief and delicious meditation on how much I actually enjoyed pruning apple trees after all! However, I quickly forgot about my pain as I got up close to thousands of insects running around their new home, eyeballing the caged queens, etc. As we worked, my uncle started to tell me about the ways of the bees and their keepers. At quitting time late that day he asked me if I wanted a couple of packages to start my own apiary. The next day he set me up with some hive equipment, a veil, smoker and two packages of bees. I was in business!
As I reflect on my own experience getting started, I would suggest that this approach is still the very best way to get up to speed in beekeeping. Recommendation #1: get yourself a local beekeeping mentor. In 1984 a mentor was practically the only way to learn beekeeping, as there was no world wide web, or bee clubs (at least where I lived). I had my beekeeping uncle who lived near by along with a borrowed copy of Walter T. Kelley’s “How to keep bees and sell honey” book.
Why is having an experienced local beekeeping mentor important? While a lot is known and written about honeybees, the bees themselves don’t read the bee books and journals. As a consequence, they sometimes tend to do things a little different! Some of this difference might be due to your particular locality, your strain of bees, current weather conditions, and/or a zillion other factors. Having a local experienced beekeeper who is more familiar with beekeeping is significantly more helpful than a book written by somebody who keeps bees on the other side of the continent, or a newbee masquerading as a master beekeeper on an Internet forum. A local mentor can actually visit your apiary, demonstrate techniques, and help you understand what your bees are up to.
So how do you know if a potential mentor knows what they are talking about? There are a number of considerations you should try to understand. For example, how long has the person kept bees? How many bees to they keep? Usually, the longer they’ve kept bees and the more bees they keep, the more experience they will have to share with you. Another good indicator of a mentor’s competence is whether or not they sell bees (nucs or queens) themselves. This is particular true in the northern states where consistently wintering bees year after year takes a fair amount of skill and experience. You may not find a mentor that meets all of these criteria, which is just fine. Just be prepared to temper any advice you get from a less experienced mentor with your own experience / intuition. That by the way is something you should be doing independent of how knowledgeable your mentor is!
At this point you might be wondering how you can find yourself a beekeeping mentor? That brings us to our next recommendation: Recommendation #2: Join your local bee club. Bee clubs are popping up everywhere these days, and if you live in an area amenable to honeybees, chances are there is already a bee club active in your neighborhood. You can locate it very quickly with a simple Google search, and if that doesn’t lead to success Google for your state level beekeeping association as they typically will have a directory of local bee clubs on their website. A local bee club is an excellent way to find a mentor and get up to speed with beekeeping practices that are suitable for your particular locality. Bee clubs will often pool their resources together to purchase honey processing equipment, and group purchase of supplies that can help members save money. In addition to your local bee club, research into whether or not the state or province you live in has a state level beekeeping association. These organizations will topically host larger conferences, bee schools, and other events that can be invaluable opportunities to learn about beekeeping and meet other beekeepers.
In addition to learning from a local mentor, and joining the local bee club you should also plan to spend some time learning on your own. Recommendation #3: Read some good beekeeping books! There are a lot of really excellent beekeeping books out there, and more being written every day. I would suggest your first book on beekeeping be a tutorial-style book that covers the basics of honeybee biology as well as how to keep bees, beekeeping equipment, honey processing, etc. I still think the first book I read on beekeeping (Walter T. Kelley’s “How to keep bees and sell honey.” is an excellent first book on beekeeping. Its only shortcoming is that it was written before the varroa mite appeared in the USA, so it doesn’t deal with that important topic at all. Another more up-to-date beginner’s book is Kim Flottum’s “The Backyard Beekeeper”. A more in-depth (and expensive) book is Dewey Caron’s recently revised academic textbook entitled “Honeybee Biology and Beekeeping”. There are other good books as well, but these are a few I have found useful. You should also subscribe to a beekeeping magazine. The American Bee Journal and Bee Culture are both inexpensive monthly magazines that will provide you plenty of up-to-date reading on beekeeping.
Once you’ve nailed the basics I’d encourage you to keep reading about beekeeping. I find it particularly useful to read some of the really old beekeeping books that are no longer under copyright. Not only are they available online for free, but they contain a wealth of information and insights. L. Langstroth’s “Hive and the honeybee” is a classic (written by the inventor of the modern removable frame beehive). C.C. Miller’s “50 Years Among the Bees” is another one of my favorites. If you live in a colder climate be sure to read E.R. Root’s “Wintering Bees”. All of these older books and many older bee journal’s are available online via the E.F. Phillips Beekeeping Collection maintained by Cornell University. You can also search for them on archive.org and download them in your favorite e-reader format.
Recommendation #4: Take advantage of the online beekeeping community. There are numerous beekeeping forums and blogs online that are great places to soak up beekeeping knowledge. For example, the largest online message board for beekeepers is beesource.com. There are literally thousands of beekeepers congregating (swarming?) on that website all day, everyday.
A number of of beekeeping suppliers provide free email newsletters that typically have good information. There are also many blogs/websites out there (including the one you’re reading right now!) that can provide helpful beekeeping up-to-date beekeeping information. Michael Bush’s blog is one that comes to mind. There is also good information on Mel Disselkoen’s MDASplitter website. Mel is an old timer and a very bright guy who shares a lot of great information for free. Finally, another site you’ll want to visit and add to your bookmarks is Randy Oliver’s scientificbeekeeping.com. This site is particular valuable when you’re trying to sort out the ins and outs of treating your bees.
Finally, for every good online source of beekeeping information, there are dozen’s more that will mislead you with all kinds of misinformation. Do your research carefully when getting your info online and make sure the info you’re acting on is coming from a reputable source.
So these are four simple recommendations to help you get started learning about beekeeping. In our next installment, we’ll look at the beekeeping equipment you’ll need to get started.