7 Lessons from Beekeepers

I have been lucky enough to meet, interview, hang out with and in some cases work with people who have kept bees for most of their lives, and who are at the top of their game. Surely even I, a humble walrus, can do nothing but benefit from such experience?

Recently I have been reflecting on how much I have learned since embarking on my travels. I was the speaker at my local beekeeping association last week, which was an interesting experience and helpful in focusing my mind on how to format the book, and how to improve my slide presentation for the next time, assuming there is one! One of the challenges of having so many interview transcripts, photographs and other information is deciding how to arrange it; which bits to highlight and what to discard. I’m learning all the time about writing about beekeepers and, of course, keeping bees.

Here are seven lessons I have learned in the last year:

Commercial Beekeepers are hard working farmers
Those I have met are lovely people, willing to help out when they have time, and bursting with stories and wisdom from years at the game, but they really do work insane hours. Keeping bees on a large scale is farming, pure and simple. The usual farming rules apply; long hours, particularly in the summer months, arduous work, all the stresses of managing staff and coping with the different challenges set by Mother Nature each year. Holidays? What are they? Having said that, they seem to love their lives and wouldn’t swap them for something more “9 to 5”.

Beekeeping is Beekeeping
Yep, I’m going for the “statement of the bleedin’ obvious” award, and I feel that I’m in with a good chance. Nevertheless, this is something that I have learned; whether you have one hive or a thousand, each colony of bees needs to be judged on its merits and dealt with accordingly. The same principles apply to every colony. The same questions need answering; is a healthy laying queen present, do they have enough stores, enough space, and so on. It’s the same thing repeated many times over.

Over Wintering Smith Hives (Denrosa)
Over Wintering Smith Hives (Denrosa)

Safety in numbers
When I started beekeeping, I had two colonies of bees and was a nervous wreck. If I lost one colony my entire operation would have been halved. I have now managed to get up to 16 colonies on two apiaries, and I sleep far better at night. If something goes wrong in one or two colonies I can cope; even if it’s not fixable, I have plenty more bees and can quickly recover. Also if something goes wrong in one apiary, I have another so that I won’t be wiped out. Safety and peace of mind comes from having more “units of production” and not all of our “eggs in one basket”. Commercial beekeepers have many colonies on many apiaries which spreads their risk. They need managing, but that’s OK. They also have several income streams, usually sales of queens, sales of nucleus colonies and sales of honey. Others carry out pollination services or make and sell equipment.

Raise your own Queens
Queen rearing seems like some black belt ninja level of beekeeping to many hobby beekeepers. A year ago I felt the same way; all that making up a cell builder colony and grafting tiny little larvae was something for others, not me. My first attempt was a disaster because the larvae that I chose to graft were far too large, but last Summer I made a batch of beautiful queens of my own and found the whole experience to be most fulfilling. Every beekeeper that I have interviewed for my book raises their own queens. They breed from their best stock, and sometimes from new breeder queens brought in from outside; the outcome being high-quality queens in their hives, which means good bees.

Control Varroa Mites
Commercial beekeepers can and do deal with varroa mites, as do most informed beekeepers everywhere. If a colony is allowed to become overloaded with varroa mites not only will it die, but the mites will spread to other colonies and potentially kill them too. It has become a way of life for beekeepers to monitor mite levels and take action as and when needed. Randy Oliver’s spreadsheet model is a useful tool to help model the population of varroa and their impact on the colony. If a colony tolerates varroa mites well, that queen may be a candidate to breed from, but even this colony can become infested if a neighbouring hive succumbs to mite overload.

You need a System
The more hives you have, the more critical systemisation becomes. The same tasks tend to be carried out each year but no year is the same, so flexibility is needed too. Beekeeping is performed according to the conditions that we find ourselves in, not the date on the calendar. You need to find a reliable way to keep records so that you know what is going on in each hive, and each apiary. This enables you to be better prepared at each visit, to identify problems early, spot your best queens for your breeding program, deal with swarming in good time, feed or treat or move hives at the right time; it’s all about timing. Winter is a perfect time to reflect on the season past and prepare for the one to come.

Cock-Ups Happen
Even the most experienced beekeepers occasionally do something stupid, and as for the rest of us, the less said about it, the better! In beekeeping, as in life, stuff happens. This is fine. The most successful people are the ones who failed the most; they are successful because they didn’t give up, they learned from their mistakes, and they toughed it out. No matter what happens, we can get through it if we have the right attitude. We should be enjoying this life, not beating ourselves up because things don’t always go perfectly. It’s a beautiful life, one to be cherished every day, and enhanced by a love of bees and nature, not tormented by it.

What do you think?

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