There is a saying which goes something like “ask 10 beekeepers the same question and you’ll get 11 different answers!” This makes things very difficult for anybody starting out as a beekeeper, which is why I would recommend taking some classes run by your local beekeeping association, normally run in the Winter, before getting bees the following Summer. The chances are that the course tutor will be an experienced beekeeper who will be happy to answer questions, and I’ve always believed that it is better to ask somebody who has actually achieved what I want to achieve rather than somebody who read a lot of books but hasn’t been super successful themselves.
Books and forums
Don’t get me wrong, reading books is great too, but nothing is better than actually working alongside an experienced beekeeper to get a real world knowledge of what is going on inside a bee hive – so after doing the classes I would suggest finding a local beekeeping mentor. Online beekeeping forums can be great but the problem is trying to figure out who knows what they are talking about. You might get one post from a true expert followed by 10 posts from random well meaning beginners who haven’t got a clue – how do you know who to believe?
I have been lucky enough to meet some extremely successful and wise beekeepers and one thing that they have in common is an acceptance that they are still learning. They keep an open mind and are willing to try new things, they still make silly mistakes like the rest of us (but perhaps fewer) and they are always looking for ways to improve. One way to become very knowledgable about keeping honey bees is to keep doing it for years, and as time passes lessons are learned and skills refined. However, somebody with 1,000+ colonies will see far more in 5 years than most hobby beekeepers will see in a lifetime. A person with 10 colonies over 20 years has seen 200 colonies; a person with 1,000 colonies sees five times that in just one year.
For my book I have chosen to interview beekeepers who have both many years of experience behind them and many colonies as well, so to me these people are living legends that we must learn from. They are as fascinated and passionate about honey bees as any starry eyed newcomer. Being a commercial beekeeper does not turn them into money grabbing monsters who don’t care about bees, quite the reverse, in fact. I’m sure there are exceptions, there always are, but let’s not let the tail wag the dog.
Beekeeping is local
It is certainly true that one reason for the “11 answers from 10 beekeepers” situation is that there really is a wide variety of variables to consider, in particular the geographical location of the bees. There are differences between individual colonies of bees; some fly in cooler temperatures than others, some swarm sooner, some are feisty and so on. There are big differences in types of forage available to bees at different times of the year depending on location, and there are different climates to consider. There are even differences in the types of threat to the bees, for example in North America they have bears, in southern Italy they have small hive beetles and in France they have Asian hornets. This is why, when most beekeepers write about what they do, it is prefixed by “in my area…”
Some people use all of these differences as a reason to close their minds to what other beekeepers do in other areas to themselves. It is very easy to dismiss what another beekeeper says because he or she lives in a different part of the world. The same is true of the old books. I love some of the old books, especially by Manley, but they were written before the advent of the varroa mite, so some people dismiss them as irrelevant. In my opinion those who close their minds to the wisdom of the past or the experience of others in different parts of the world are missing out. The honey bee, Apis mellifera, is still the honey bee, wherever it is and how ever it is kept (assuming it is “kept” at all) and I believe that there are things we can all learn by sharing our experiences.
Let the bees teach you
The bottom line is that we must learn what works best for our bees in our apiaries, but if all we do is look at our own apiaries how can we possibly pick up new ideas? There is a quote from Colin Weightman in his book “Border Bees” which I like very much: “You can teach the bees nothing; they can teach you everything, so let them.” I like to think that I can learn from bees wherever they happen to live.
On a light hearted note, I was considering that one problem we beekeepers have is that our bees live in a box in the dark, so we never really know what’s going on in there. Sure, there are observation hives but maybe they behave differently because they are in the light whereas normal hives, without glass walls, are in the dark. The advent of thermal imaging is a real help here, but what if the act of observation by thermal imaging causes something to change? Time for a helpful video explaining the famous SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT thought experiment!
Could this explain the classic beginner’s dilemma: “is my hive queenless?”
The answer could depend on which universe you are in…