Losing sleep about bees
Beekeepers, especially those new to the noble art, get anxious about a multitude of factors surrounding the keeping of their bees. I know this by looking at posts on beekeeping forums and letters in the bee press. Also, I remember how I used to worry endlessly about so many things in my first few years. I found it hard to sleep because I might have done something wrong in my hive, or not done some critical manipulation or activity, which would inevitably lead to the demise of my bees.
Keeping bees properly is not as easy as some might think, and even before you get your first bees, there are decisions to be made. I would argue, however, that much of the angst experienced by so many keen to take up this “hobby that may become a way of life and almost certainly an obsession” is overdone.
So many opinions!
People endlessly argue about the type of bee to keep, the kind of box to keep them in, where to put them, how to care for them and so on. There are debates about black bees vs yellow bees, solid hive floors vs open mesh floors, insulated hive rooves vs ventilated, wooden hives vs polystyrene and so on. Then we get into whether to treat bees or not (this should be a no-brainer), whether to let them swarm or try to stop them, how much honey to take and the merits of feeding sugar syrup or pollen substitute at various times. We could further vex ourselves by considering whether to buy a queen or raise our own, whether to clip the queen’s wing or not, or mark her with a coloured dot on her thorax…should that be done straight away or the following Spring? The list of issues to ponder is endless.
But what REALLY matters?
You gotta love ’em
Firstly, nobody knows for sure that they even like honey bees until they have worked with them for a season. The idea may be one thing, but the reality may be something else entirely. Some people love bees until they find themselves going through a colony, immersed in the sounds and smells of the hive. For me, it’s a beautiful thing, and even if they are grumpy I don’t hate them; I try to understand why they are unhappy and what, if anything, needs to be done.
It is essential to understand the biology of the honeybee; it’s life cycle, the different roles of the different castes at different times, nutrition, disease and so on. The science and nature of bees is discovered in books and magazines and from fellow beekeepers who know what they are talking about, which probably means somebody who has kept bees for a few years and has managed at least ten colonies at once. I just arbitrarily picked ten colonies; the idea is that somebody with several hives will encounter and deal with more issues than somebody with only two hives.
Once we understand the biology of Apis Mellifera (the honey bee), then we are in an excellent position to look after it properly. Some people argue that honey bees are wild creatures that have existed for millions of years and don’t need to be messed about with by humans, or walruses. To those people, I say “Don’t keep bees, but please provide pollinator friendly spaces on your land.”t
Keep It Simple
With admirable focus and simplicity, Randy Oliver once told me, “The more you work with bees, the more you can understand their cues, and when you understand them, it can look like magic. What I’ve seen generally is that the two most important things for bees are varroa management and nutrition. If you focus on varroa management and nutrition, then 90% of your problems disappear. Most beekeeper complaints are because they haven’t paid attention to those two things.”
Ensuring proper nutrition involves the choice of apiary location as well as keeping an eye on the available forage, the weather and the conditions inside the hive. Varroa management is critical for both the prosperity of our bees and those of our neighbours.
Here’s a formula for less anxiety: focus on nutrition and varroa management and not on all of the other things that make up the other 10%.