Katelyn is a homesteader in a northern climate. She's passionate about nature and sustainable self-sufficiency.
When we started with bees, we were interested in just a small number of hives, mainly for the benefits to the garden, and for very small scale honey and wax production. We were mostly interested in those products for our own use, but liked the idea that we could occasionally sell the excess without worrying about things like shelf life and refrigeration as we would with fresh produce from the garden.
We had the idea that it was a fairly hands-off operation. This was reinforced by every beekeeper we spoke with, who told us that managing the hives only takes a few hours a week at most, even with a large apiary. We had the impression that two hives would be an easy start that would comfortably fit in with our existing work and home responsibilities. As it turns out, we completely underestimated what we were getting into, and ultimately we decided it was not for us. After about a year and a half we sold all the equipment and found a new home for the bees. We don't regret anything and we're happy we had the experience, but I'm not sure I'd want to go through it all again.
If you're considering beekeeping, or maybe you're on the fence about whether beekeeping is right for you, hopefully some of these insights will help.
Honey Bees Are Farm Animals
Like many people, I've always thought of beekeeping as a kind of middle ground between farming and foraging. I've never placed honey bees in the same category as cows, pigs, or chickens. Bees are kind of a poster child for nature. When we see them out in the wild, doing their own thing, finding their own food and building their own homes, it's easy to imagine that domestic bees need little attention from their keepers. As it turns out, this couldn't be further from the truth.
What I learned after starting as a beekeeper is that commercial honey bees are just as domesticated as any other livestock. Just like cows, pigs, and chickens, honeybees are selectively bred for traits that make them more useful to humans. Their health and productivity depends heavily on proper care and management by their keepers. Wild bees can be more aggressive or prone to swarming, and neglected or poorly managed hives are vulnerable to disease outbreaks and other issues.
It's easy to underestimate what's involved in caring for bees when starting out. It's important to realize that domestic honey bees require the same level of knowledge, attention and care as any other livestock. At the same time, caring for them is completely different from caring for any other livestock, so none of the experience you may have gained with other animals will be useful here. Before even thinking about keeping bees, I would definitely recommend reading a book like The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism first, to introduce yourself to the bees themselves and gain at least a basic understanding of how they live.
Micromanagement and Decision Making
As a beekeeper, you'll constantly be faced with difficult decisions.
For me, it was decisions about timing that were the most troublesome. When to start and stop feeding with sugar for winter, when to start adding supers, when to add or remove frames, when to watch for signs of swarming (and when to act on them), and so on.
But How Exactly...
The "how" questions were also much more complicated than I expected. There is just so much to learn at once, and almost none of it is intuitive or can be carried over from previous life experience. Imagine you're suddenly in charge of running an alien city. You can't communicate with the citizens and their way of living is dramatically different from yours, but somehow you have to make decisions that will affect nearly every aspect of their lives.
There are questions about colony status that will come up during every inspection. It's usually something along the lines of "Is this normal?" or "Do I need to do something about this, and if so, what?" This is where Google searches and books will usually make things worse, with people sharing their experiences from different locations, with different techniques and strange anecdotes to complicate things further. Forums, books, and articles will have conflicting advice on almost any aspect of beekeeping you can think of.
I felt stuck in countless other situations too, such as wondering what to do with partially capped frames at the end of the season, and endless questions about equipment, cleaning and storage.
Making any of these decisions with confidence requires a great deal of experience and the learning curve can be quite stressful. You usually won't know if you made a wrong move until it's too late, and with bees the stakes can be rather high. It's easy to make small mistakes that can cost you the season's harvest or even the colonies themselves. A mismanaged hive could result in disease which can not only destroy your own colonies, but because bees travel so much and often share the same resources it can spread to other local hives or even trigger a regional outbreak. There was never a single moment that the bees weren't on my mind for one reason or another. If you're prone to worrying like I am, beekeeping might not be a good fit for you.
Swarming is a less dramatic but very annoying management problem. Swarming is how bee colonies reproduce, so from the colony's perspective it's a very good thing and it usually means the bees are thriving. The problem for you is that swarming also means a massive loss of bees and honey, especially if you don't manage to catch the swarm and put it in a new hive. Basically, they make a new queen and a large portion of the colony fills up on honey and they take off as a huge cloud of bees in search of a new home, leaving just enough behind to recover the original population. Swarms can be prevented with careful management, but it's very stressful for a beginner and can be rather upsetting when you've done everything you can and lose half your bees anyway.
As a beginner, hive management often feels like pure gambling because the colonies are so complex and mysterious, and asking Google or even other beekeepers in your area tends to create more confusion. When sitting in a course, working with a mentor, or reading a book, everything seems very straightforward. It's only when you start working with your own hives that these critical nuances start to reveal themselves and having an experienced, trusted mentor to consult becomes extremely important.
There was one book that I went to again and again, which did provide some simple and clear answers, and that was Homegrown Honey Bees: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Beekeeping Your First Year, from Hiving to Honey Harvest. Because this book is aimed at a total beginner starting in their backyard, the author doesn't assume you have access to all the best tools and equipment, and they provide instructions for how to do things on a very basic level. It couldn't answer all of my questions (no book could have done that), but this little book did help a lot, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone wanting to get started with bees on a small scale.
Beekeeping is Physically Demanding
While I fully expected to do some heavy lifting, I wasn't prepared for just how much of it there would be, and how much of it had to be done during the hottest parts of the day, at the hottest times of year, while dressed like an astronaut.
Storage and Mess
One thing that really caught me off guard was the amount of physical space we needed for beekeeping equipment and supplies. We thought we were starting small with just two hives, but we quickly discovered that aside from the bees themselves, there is nothing small about this activity. It can also be expensive, but that likely varies so much from one location to another I won't get into it here.
A typical beehive is basically just a stack of boxes filled with wooden frames. At the bottom of the stack is usually a box called the "brood chamber" or something similar, and this is where the queen lives and lays her eggs. Above that, you have stacks of "supers", where the bees deposit nectar and turn it into honey.
When winter comes, the supers are removed and the hive is compacted to help the winter bees conserve heat and survive until spring. All those empty boxes and frames need to be somewhere over winter, along with all the tools, extra frames, and so on. If you have plenty of space, this seems simple enough, until you realize that all these things are covered in bits of honey, propolis, and beeswax. It's not quite as simple as just stacking it all in your basement, shed, or garage. Everything needs to be cleaned and stored properly to prevent infestations, mold, and the risk of spreading diseases. Honey is sticky and it gets everywhere, but it's not so hard to clean up. Wax and propolis are another story. All of this was a lot more complicated and time consuming than we first anticipated, and something I definitely wished I had been better prepared for when we got our bees.
Beekeeping or Gardening (Choose One)
It seems like beekeeping and gardening would be ideal complementary hobbies, but aside from watching the weather they are actually quite different in terms of skills, equipment, and knowledge. Almost none of the experience and intuition you've gained from gardening will help with managing bees. Bees also follow almost exactly the same cycles of activity and rest as the garden, which is a problem for you as an individual with limited time and energy, if you want to be a beekeeper and a gardener at the same time.
In our northern climate, the bees start coming out and the hives need attention just as spring garden tasks are piling up. After a long quiet winter this is a sudden and intense change of pace. It's exciting for the first weeks, but by mid-spring you may start to feel burned out. Things calm down for a little while as you wait for the bees and plants to do what they do, weeding the garden and checking in on the hives from time to time. Later in summer the rush starts again as honey stores fill up and fruits and veggies are ripening all at once, and everything needs to be harvested and stored properly and at the right time. This rush continues until the frost comes, and then it's time to prepare both the garden and the bees for winter. When the snow comes, suddenly everything is quiet again, and these things that kept you so busy all year are now completely closed off.
Personally, I enjoy the seasonal cycle of activity and rest with the garden. However, when beekeeping was added to this, following exactly the same cycles, the contrast between frantic summer and desolate winter became too extreme. With just one or the other, the spring rush is exciting and brings energy and motivation. With both, it's overwhelming.
Bees as Garden Boosters
You might be thinking, "Well, I don't care about the honey, I just want them for the garden". We thought the same thing, and while it is possible to manage hives without focusing on honey production, unfortunately it isn't quite that simple. I'm not sure how it works in other regions, but if you're in a place like ours where bee colonies have a very long winter dormancy period, you might have to remove honey and feed with sugar. This is because honey has other substances besides pure sugar in it, which the bees would normally excrete as waste. Since they can't leave the hive for many months, feeding on honey during this time can actually make them sick.
It's tempting to think that getting beehives would be great for your garden, since bees will improve the quality and quantity of fruiting crops. It is true that they will boost your garden, but increased harvests aren't worth much if you're so preoccupied with the bees that you can't keep up with the garden. In our first summer with bees we had phenomenal fruit crops, but most of it was left untouched because I just didn't have enough time or energy.
A Better Solution for the Garden
If you're purely interested in bees for the benefits to the garden, a much better approach is to simply "rewild" parts of your yard to support local wild pollinators and other beneficial insects and insect predators. This completely frees you of the pressures and responsibilities of managing bees, and brings a wide range of other benefits to your garden along with it.
Respect Your Limits
If you're a hobby gardener and really do want to keep bees, I would only recommend it if you are well prepared to spend the extra time and energy on it, if you have access to an experienced beekeeper who can help you or who can be responsible for managing the hives, or if you have good help managing the garden so that you can spend less time there, at least for the first few years while you're learning.
Remember that things tend to take a lot more time when you're new. If you're a gardener, be prepared to downsize for a few years while you focus on climbing the beekeeping learning curve.
Ecological Issues and Sustainability
Beekeeping seems like an ideal hobby for people who like nature and want to live in a more sustainable way. We hear again and again about the insect apocalypse and how bees "need our help". However, as we got more into this, I started to feel disenchanted by some of the realities.
Equipment and Supplies
Right from the beginning, we were faced with ethical dilemmas and had to make compromises with the principles that normally guide our activities on the homestead. For example, we always prefer to avoid buying new things whenever possible, but beekeeping equipment is so specialized we had to buy everything we needed. Because of the risk of disease, we were strongly discouraged from buying anything second hand, so all of the equipment and tools we bought were brand new.
Going forward, reusable equipment such as frames were supposed to be disinfected using caustic soda, something we weren't comfortable with at all, but we struggled to find any alternatives.
There is also the question of how domestic honeybees actually fit into our local ecosystem. Do they compete with local wild pollinators? Can they spread disease to native bees? What don't we know about how they might be affecting the environment around us; is the effect beneficial or could it be causing problems?
Another big problem we encountered was with sugar feeding. At first, it seems like bees provide a local source of all-natural sugar in the form of honey. We were originally opposed to sugar feeding, thinking we would just take a little bit of honey for our own use, and leave the rest for the bees so they could live on their natural diet. Unfortunately, a long winter forces the bees to stay inside for months at a time; unable to relieve themselves. Pure sugar lets them stay alive without accumulating so much waste, so they can stay in longer without getting sick. This feels wrong on several levels already, and on top of that we had to buy sugar that was imported from very far away. Is our "local wildflower honey" still contributing to the destruction of rainforests for agriculture on the other side of the world? We made sure to buy sugar that was labeled organic, but it didn't feel like enough when looking at the big picture.
After keeping honeybees for about a year and a half, it was clear that this wasn't working for us, and we made the difficult decision to find a new home for our bees. We didn't have any serious problems with them, and we ended up with more honey than we know what to do with, so it wasn't that we had a bad experience. It was just so much more demanding than we had anticipated, and it didn't fit into our lives the way we had expected.
I want to share my experience because I didn't feel like I was well enough prepared for how much is really involved with beekeeping. Everything I read and everyone I spoke to had given me the impression that it was a pretty laid back and hands-off hobby; something easily done on the side. I thought the bees mostly took care of themselves, and the beekeeper just steps in here and there. Experienced beekeepers have a tendency to understate how involved it is. I wonder if this is because anyone who has reached the point of being an experienced beekeeper has been interested enough in the hobby to have given it their full attention, and perhaps they haven't really noticed the amount of effort they've actually put into learning it, or it was so long ago the skills are now second nature and the knowledge feels intuitive.
It could also be a personality thing, in which case I would advise anyone with a tendency to worry, and a need for clear instructions, not to take up beekeeping. If you want to keep bees, you need to be comfortable with uncertainty and taking risks. You need to be comfortable asking for help and having other people involved in your activities. Beekeeping is not ideal for people who prefer to do things totally solo or want to learn by trial and error.
If you have access to a beekeeping club and you're a fairly social person who enjoys learning from others, and you are prepared to spend a lot of time and energy (and money) on a steep learning curve, then beekeeping could be a good fit for you. If that doesn't sound appealing, or if you're not sure, consider supporting your local beekeepers by buying their honey instead. It's cheaper and a lot easier than producing your own. If you happen to get along well, you could probably ask to shadow them while they work on their hives and get some of the experience first hand. Helping someone else out for a few days or a season might be enough to satisfy your curiosity and scratch the itch to try it for yourself.
If your interest in keeping bees is more about sustainability, the best approach is to support both wild and local domestic bees by "rewilding" parts of your yard. What nature needs most right now is not more boxes filled with domestic animals. It needs wild spaces where natural ecosystems can thrive. Loosen up your garden maintenance, stop using pesticides and other garden chemicals, and mow paths instead of the entire lawn, allowing wildflowers to thrive. Let things be a little more chaotic than you're used to, embrace the wild and enjoy the incredible abundance and diversity of nature.
Books I Recommend for New Beekeepers
© 2021 Katelyn Weel