In beekeeping, as in life, everybody makes mistakes. Even bees occasionally make them. The hard part is owning up to them.
Douglas Adams said, “a common mistake that people make when trying to design something foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” I hate the fact that I stray into the realm of fools but cannot deny that it is so. I learn from reading, listening and watching, but nothing makes me a fool better than the experience. I hope that over time, the mistakes I make are lessons which turn me slowly, inexorably, into a good beekeeper.
Keeping bees is way more tricky than I thought when I started. I suppose that is why it becomes an obsession. Show me somebody who has tended to a few hives for a couple of years, and I will show you a bee obsessed crazy person.
At first friends and colleagues would ask me about bees, and I would delight in telling them all that I had learned. Now I know by their glazed expressions that they think, “surely this guy can talk about something that isn’t a bee?” It’s a bit like expectant parents; they never shut up about the grim business of pushing a small person out of a reluctant opening. Obsessed people who find each other can talk for endless hours about their interest, whether it is bees or babies or whatever. To ordinary folk, it quickly becomes tiresome.
You can take a horse to water but…
I love reading some of the old bee books which were written by the grandmasters of their time. R.O.B Manley is my favourite, but there are others. Something that gives hope to those of us feeling like fools is that they had their share of calamities too.
In his book, Honey Farming, Manley states:
“What is learned by personal experience is generally learned well, but that is often rather an expensive way of gathering knowledge.” I can’t disagree with that!
“Better…profit by the experience of successful contemporaries…who have left written records of their work. Beware of writers who have never had to rely on their bees for any part of their livelihood. These are often…good and well-meaning people, and their writings are frequently both interesting and glib, but they don’t…know what the business of honey production entails. Their point of view is that of the hobbyist.”
I took Manley’s advice. I met and interviewed some of the world’s most experienced bee farmers and turned it into my book, Interviews with Beekeepers. I learned a lot. I still make mistakes, and so do they, which is gratifying.
Manley and Miller
Manley wrote about how in the harsh winter of 1939-40 he left bees on high ground and suffered heavy losses. He said, “in one place…where I was stupid enough to leave the apiary unsheltered at the height of 700 feet above sea level, I lost about one-third dead, and more than another third were reduced to mere handfuls of bees.” He never did that again; he moved them to better wintering sites on lower ground.
The great CC Miller generously owned up to his mistakes in “Fifty Years Among the Bees.” He describes how he got carried away with expanding hive numbers from sixteen to fifty in one season. Many were too weak and were fed too late going into winter. He says, “by April 1st, I had only three colonies living, two of which I united, making a total of two left from the forty-five or fifty. After eleven years at beekeeping, and after having bought…quite a number of colonies, here I was with only two…to show for all my efforts! “
Here’s an extract from my interview with Michael Palmer:
Steve: Ok, so to give hope to those of us who aren’t as experienced as you, have you got any tales of woe where you did something stupid, or something that went wrong to prove you’re not perfect!?
Michael: I am far from it [laughs]. Yeah, I’ve gone back to an apiary after it rained overnight and found a colony where I forgot to put the crown board and lid back on.
Steve: So that happens
Michael: Yeah, that happens, really stupid stuff happens. Or I forget what day I’m on, so I forget to put a comb in the breeder hive, so when I go to graft, I haven’t got any grafting material. I don’t know, I’ve made every mistake. That’s why having a mentor, or a relative who got me into it, would have been helpful. I usually make every mistake at least once.
This one is from Peter Little:
Peter: I want to look at the queen and look at her brood, I want to know her temperament in all weather, how productive the bees are, how swarmy or not swarmy, and it’s my intuition. It’s one big guess then, but my intuition tells me that if I cross that queen with those drones, I think I’m going to get a damn good bee. So, I do it. Nine times out of ten, it works well; sometimes it doesn’t. Nothing’s guaranteed.
Steve: What happens when it doesn’t work out well?
Peter: Well, you get bees that are absolutely awful.
Peter: They might be too inbred, they might be unproductive, they might be stingy, but you soon delete it then; you don’t repeat it.
Peter: Even Brother Adam made lots of mistakes over the years. It wasn’t just all perfect.
Steve: I’m sure, yeah
Peter: There were lots and lots of lines he had to delete because they weren’t any good.
As for myself, I could probably fill a page with just the mistakes I made in the last month. The one that haunts me the most is when I couldn’t get to my incubator in time to catch virgin queens as they emerged. By the time I got to them, they were all dead. All that careful grafting and cell building to create beautiful queens, and I killed them. The other day I dropped a queen that I was marking and couldn’t find her. She was in the grass somewhere. Luckily I checked in the hive later, and she had managed to get back in. Phew. What a fool.