What we wished we'd known in the bee-gining

Ten statements from beekeepers about starting beekeeping and what they wish they knew sooner.

Row of hives in a bee yard.
Photo by Meghan Milbrath, MSU

The first few years of beekeeping were overwhelming for the now seasoned and successful beekeeper Charlotte Hubbard. Wondering if others felt the same at the start of their beekeeping journey, Charlotte surveyed a couple thousand (!) hobby beekeepers about what they wished they’d known in the beginning. She recorded what beekeepers thought would have made those early years more productive, safe, and sustainable for their bees and themselves. Below are the top ten statements from beekeepers about starting beekeeping.

1) Why didn’t anyone tell me my bees would die?

Many people start beekeeping because they hear about honey bee deaths and think that they can help by becoming a beekeeper. Even though they know that bees are dying at high rates (and that all animals die), beekeepers are still surprised when most or all of their colonies die in the first few years. In the survey, many people shared that out of all the concepts they wished they’d understood, they didn’t anticipate how many of their colonies would die and how devastating and personal it could feel when it happened. They were cut deeper than “just” the financial loss of their $100+ of bees per hive. They were bee-wildered at the emotional impact the loss of insects had on them.

Some helpful insight and guidance: Learn as much as you can about honey bee management before you get bees.

Even experienced beekeepers lose bees, but the highest death rates are by beginners who make management errors. You will lose fewer colonies if you wait to get bees until you have a plan for managing both your bees and the parasites that cause high losses. Before you purchase bees, consider if you are in a place where you want to take on a hobby that has high failure rates for beginners and is intellectually and emotionally challenging. If you get bees, account and prepare financially and emotionally for losses, especially in the first few years.

2) I wish I had a timeline for when to do key tasks!

Many respondents wished for a calendar of key management tasks like adding boxes, making splits, or applying mite treatments. At best, printed resources can only function as general guidelines, not as to-do checklists or calendars. The timing of key tasks depends on colony growth, which depends on incoming food resources, which depends on weather, which changes every year! The geographic and annual differences in forage and weather are just too variable for a one-size-fits-most timeline. 

Some helpful insight and guidance: Learn the seasonal cues and in-hive signs that indicate that a task is needed.

Successful beekeepers don’t follow calendars, they learn how to interpret what they see in the hive and to anticipate how their colonies will respond to upcoming weather. This knowledge comes with time and experience, and taking good notes will help you learn what works in your area. Write down what you see in the hive in relation to current blooms and the temperature (or better yet, degree days). Talk to beekeepers in your area and see what they use to time key tasks (a benefit of joining your local bee club). For many beekeepers, the requirement to learn local plants and understand colony cues is the greatest joy of beekeeping, but if this lack of calendar-based guidance sounds more of a frustration than a delightful lifelong learning adventure, beekeeping may not be a great fit for you.  

3) The learning curve is tall and steep

Many responders cited spending extraordinary, unsuspected time during hive inspections. They thought a visit to their bees would take 15-20 minutes. Instead, hive visits stretched to an unpleasant (and sometimes stinging) hour or two as they were struggling to remove a frame, worrying about squishing the queen, being bothered by a bee buzzing about their head, wondering what they were looking at, and being mesmerized (and perhaps freaked out) about everything happening around them. That time doesn’t count the hour spent trying to get all the equipment together before, driving to the yard and getting the smoker lit, or the couple hours needed after to prep more equipment, plan next steps, and get questions answered. 

Some helpful insight and guidance: Hive handling is a skill that has to be learned, so plan to spend time practicing.

Nobody is born with the ability to manipulate hive equipment; it is a learned skill that has to be gained over time with experience. Before you get your own bees, work with other beekeepers so you can learn how to handle the equipment. Watch how they work with the hive and ask if you can get experience handling boxes and frames. It is surprising how heavy boxes can be and how difficult they are to pry apart. In time you will know how to inspect quickly, and your hive tool will become like an extension of your hand. With time you will be able to quickly light a smoker, and you’ll know what equipment to have ready. 

4) Time demands are highly seasonal.

 Another frequent time-related complaint in the survey regarded seasonal demands. Beekeeping references often cite 40-50 hours per colony annually. However, those hours aren’t evenly spread throughout the year. There are periods when many hours are needed in a single week (spring splits and honey removal), and other times when nothing is required (winter months and peak nectar flow). You can’t choose when the busy times will occur and there is not much leeway in when these tasks need to be done. If you wait until a convenient time, you may cause a problem that will last for months or prove deadly. For example, if a strong nectar flow is coming and your bees do not have enough space to put the incoming nectar, you have to add more boxes immediately. If you wait a week because you are on vacation, too tired from work, or don’t like the weather, you will be too late - the bees will run out of space and swarm. You will lose most of your workforce and the old queen, and you will be at risk for the bees not recovering or for missing a honey crop for the entire year (!).

Some helpful insight and guidance: Evaluate the flexibility of your work and life schedule and plan accordingly.

Talk to local beekeepers and see when their busy times are. For example, if most of the beekeepers in the area may make splits in May and pull honey in August, keep your calendar more flexible during those times. Keep in mind that those tasks are weather dependent – an early spring may mean splits need to happen in April, or a late nectar flow may push honey extraction into September. Having a network of beekeeping buddies can help. Not only does having a friend in the bee yard enhance safety, learning, efficiency, and fun, but it also provides assistance for if you’re unexpectedly out-of-town or unavailable when key tasks need to happen.

5) Why wasn’t I warned there would be so many opinions? (And who do I listen to?)

There is a common saying in beekeeping, “Ask 10 beekeepers a question, and you’ll get 15 different answers”. This can be incredibly frustrating for beginners who are just trying to make a decision on what to purchase or what to do. Experienced beekeepers aren’t trying to bee-fuddle, we just all have our opinions based on what has worked - we learned from different teachers, we keep bees in different sized operations, we have different nectar flows, and have different lives that we are navigating. 

Some helpful insight and guidance: Ask lots of follow-up questions to understand why a person or source has a particular recommendation.

Beekeeping is both a science and an art. Some things are fact-based and essential to honey bee survival (like nutrition or parasite control). Other parts of beekeeping are subjective –  based on personal preference (like using 8-frame boxes or 10-frame boxes). Some learners may love weighing all the options and making their own decisions, but this may be frustrating to others. If you know that you won’t have the time or patience to do the research needed to make a decision mid-season, it might be useful to take a year to work with a local beekeeper (who consistently keeps their bees alive) before you get bees. Learn their system completely, (ideally get your bees from them the next season) and try to copy that system from start to finish the next year. 

6) Why didn’t anyone tell me this would cost so much?

Beekeeping can be surprisingly expensive—in dollars as well as time and space requirements. Too many beginning beekeepers lamented in their survey responses that they felt misled by manufacturer-supplier claims, like the $150 “all you need to keep bees” kit … which is actually so far from it! These kits often provide a starter hive which will be outgrown by a new colony in about two months, and they don’t include the bees, the tools for working bees, or protective wear. Add to that the recommendation to start with 2-3 hives rather than one, and the true “all you need” investment is generally 5-10 times higher.

Some helpful insight and guidance: Make a plan and a budget even if beekeeping will only be a hobby.

There is a substantial upfront cost beekeeping and significantly smaller annual costs (unless you decide to get more hives and grow). Bee clubs and other established organizations have guides outlining what you need and costs for the various components. Many clubs or beekeepers will rent honey extraction equipment, labor share, or extract honey for a fee, and many clubs will organize bulk purchases to cut down on shipping costs. Make a list of all of the costs for your first few years, including consumables like feed, medications, and honey jars. Include everything, including the gas /vehicle cost to drive to bee yards, electricity to heat your bottling tank, conference registration fees, labels, etc., and make sure you are comfortable spending that amount of money on your hobby. 

7) Why didn’t anyone tell me there was so much to learn?!

There’s a reason that most early-stage beekeepers lose lots of bees the first few years: there is a lot to learn! And because there are so many opinions out there on what to do, there can also be a lot to unlearn if you go down a path with information inappropriate for your geographic area or colony conundrum.

Some helpful insight and guidance: Accept that the learning curve is long and steep (and rewarding as you climb it).

If setbacks and failures are too frustrating or if studying and digging for root causes isn’t your thing, beekeeping may not be for you. Beekeeping isn’t something that you can quickly be good at - it is a lovely learning journey that will last a lifetime!

8) A mentor would have made this so much easier.

Sigh, absolutely. But finding a good mentor is a challenge, because there are so many beginner beekeepers right now. There just aren’t enough mentors to go around. 

Some helpful insight and guidance: Look to your local bee club and other beekeeping associations for programming to cover key topics.

There is a lot of quality information online, like from University Extension and experienced beekeepers. Be careful online, though! Unfortunately, there is also a lot of information from people who are not successful and sustainable beekeepers and a lot of information that may not be appropriate for your climate. If you are lucky enough to find a local beekeeper who is successful in their beekeeping, ask them if they can help you, but remember that there are a lot of new beekeepers, and they may be getting swamped with requests, so be kind and thankful for their time and help. 

9) I didn’t realize how much I needed to care about varroa.

 Many respondents shared how they felt misled about how much work they would have to do to manage the varroa mite. For example, when told their packages or nucs had been treated for varroa, they didn’t realize the treatment only gained them about a month, and not the whole season. Others noted how they’d opted for mite-remediation approaches that seemed easier or more natural, only to find that these approaches didn’t work and their bees died. They wished they’d taken the time to truly understand varroa, instead of relying on anecdotal tales. Unfortunately, because most beginners do not take this parasite seriously enough and learn to manage it, most hobby beekeepers’ bees die from parasitic varroa mites every year the first few years.  After a few years of depressing losses, people either quit beekeeping or start to take varroa management seriously. 

Some helpful insight and guidance: Take varroa management critically.

Right now, there is no beekeeping without varroa mite management, because this parasite is so efficient at killing colonies. The only beekeepers who are sustainable and whose bees remain alive are those who make varroa mite management a top priority. Varroa management is not fun. It is expensive and difficult, and there is no silver bullet that you can just apply and be done. It is a season-long effort of monitoring and interventions – usually chemical treatments or advanced techniques. Someday we hope our bees will be more resistant to this pest, but at the moment, there is no beekeeping without varroa management. If your vision of beekeeping does not involve active parasite management, now is not the time for you to start keeping bees. 

10) What is the most often cited thing people wished they’d known in the beginning?

Over one in every ten responses to the survey used the same somewhat uncommon word to describe what they wished they’d known in the beginning—addiction, addictive, addicting. In summary: why didn’t anyone warn me how addictive this would be? They described (happily) losing all their garage space to equipment or how their backyard has expanded from two colonies to six with copious, time-demanding gardens, the pride of passing out honey to friends and family, their neighborhood campaigns to eliminate pesticide use, how stings became a rite of passage, the joy of a successful split, or how they’d never tasted honey as wonderful as what their bees make… as examples of an unrelenting addiction that they’re glad they have. This tongue-in-cheek lament is typical: “had I realized how hard, frustrating, sweaty, expensive, weekend-consuming this hobby is, I would have started beekeeping years ago. I’m totally addicted.”

Charlotte Hubbard, a beekeeper since 2008, manages about a dozen colonies in southwest Michigan. Michigan’s 2018 Beekeeper of the Year, Charlotte is the lead instructor for Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s beekeeping program, a board member for the Kalamazoo Bee Club, and author of numerous articles and books on beekeeping. All profits from her writing, speaking and honey sales go to charities that feed the homeless in southwest Michigan.

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