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Top 4 Lessons from a Newbie Beekeeper

Updated on March 11, 2016

I recently interviewed a newbie beekeeper who had always been interested in beekeeping, but did not begin to keep bees until the onset of colony collapse disorder (CCD). For no apparent reason, active, healthy hives are being abandoned by bees. When this happens in the fall, the rogue bees do not have enough time to set up a new hive before winter. Leaving the hive at this time is like mass suicide, a Jim Jones type of self-annihilation that has scientists and beekeepers scratching their heads in confusion.

Oddly enough, the newbie beekeeper saw this as the perfect opportunity to venture into this new field and make a contribution to rectify the declining bee population, if only in a small way in his corner of the world.

Busy Bees in the Summer
Busy Bees in the Summer

Tips from a Newbie Beekeeper

Following are the main lessons this successful newbie beekeeper wanted to pass on:

1. Have a mentor – No one told the newbie how important this was. It was just serendipitous that the wannabe-beekeeper stumbled upon a seasoned beekeeper that was willing to assist in setting up the new hives and later manage the first split. A local farmer’s market is a great place to find someone close to you who sells homegrown honey. Most beekeepers are friendly and willing to help those interested in beekeeping as a hobby.

2. Plan ahead – Before beginning, know how big you want to be. Decide this from the start and be realistic about how much time you have to devote to this new hobby. On average, 1 hive requires 2 hours of work per month, so if you have 10 hives x 2 hours per hive, this is 20 hours per month. Do you have that kind of time to devote to the bees? (Note: This is an average. You will spend less time in the winter, more time in late spring and early fall, the typical busy seasons for beekeepers.)

Keep in mind that this only includes time for hive maintenance and honey harvesting. It does not include time in the shop making your own hives (if you choose to do so rather than purchasing them) or drive time to your hive site(s). If your schedule is not flexible enough to devote more time to the bees in late fall and early spring, beekeeping is probably not for you. Or you can recruit someone to help during the busy times. Buy an extra suit to have on hand not only for helpers, but for adventurous friends and family who want to take a closer look.

Never a Dull Moment at the Entrance to the Hive
Never a Dull Moment at the Entrance to the Hive

3. Splits are a necessity – This is a critical part of beekeeping. If your hives don’t make it through the winter (or unexpectedly collapse/leave any time of the year), splits are not a problem because there is no hive left to split. However, if you plan to be successful, you must also plan for what to do with the spring population explosion, when the birth rate exceeds the death rate.

My newbie beekeeper was surprised that first spring. In the spring, the queen bee is laying approximately 2,000 eggs per day. It takes 21 days for the eggs to hatch, and the bees live for 60 days, so in March and April she is laying 2,000 eggs EVERY DAY and these eggs are hatching EVERY DAY beginning in April through about July. Because of this, on average, a healthy hive will need to be split every year. You will need to have new boxes, queens, and land for the new hives (if your current location cannot accommodate more hives).

If you don’t properly manage splits, they will happen on their own and you may not like the results. My newbie beekeeper learned this the hard way when one of his hives was so successful that the box got overcrowded and the bees swarmed (Note: Swarming is when the queen bee leaves the hive, taking the majority of the bees with her.)

4. Expect the unexpected (and roll with it) – No matter how well you prepare to become a beekeeper, stuff happens. Bee colonies are living, breathing, complex ecosystems that operate as a single organism with its own ways, hierarchy, and communication. Always remember that you are only a caretaker, a manager who strives to make conditions ideal for the hives to thrive. You can never completely control what they do and how they do it, only facilitate the amazing process. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a hive will leave or die off for no apparent reason. This is just part of the process. If you don’t like surprises, this may not be the hobby for you.

A Swarm of Bees
A Swarm of Bees

Tips from Seasoned Beekeepers

That first season the beekeeper stumbled on important lessons through trial and error, but his success would not have been possible without advice from seasoned beekeepers, too. These two key principles are well-known in the field of beekeeping:

1. When in doubt, do nothing – When in doubt, it is best to consult your mentor. Second to that, the best option is to do nothing. This well-known principle in beekeeping has served the newbie beekeeper well. Always remember you are only a caretaker, a facilitator, so less is more when it comes to beekeeping.

For example, my newbie beekeeper had a hive that swarmed. In the now decimated hive, the new queen raised to replace the old queen was very small, had a broken leg, and was not laying many eggs. Following this principle, the beekeeper left her as is and the bees later replaced her themselves with a new, healthier queen that they raised, with no intervention by the beekeeper. The beekeeper had been tempted to remove the weak queen and replace her with a new, purchased queen, but following this principle paid off well in the long run. Bees know more about their ecosystem than we do.

Bee Hives in the Wintertime
Bee Hives in the Wintertime

2. If bees die over the winter, they probably starved – This can occur when there is a long winter season and the bees die off in March. When harvesting honey in the spring, if you don’t leave enough honey for the bees to eat over the winter, they will starve. The sure sign of starvation is finding dead bees headfirst in the cells (pockets or holes in the honeycomb), meaning they tried to get the last drops of honey out of each cell in the comb. To be safe, be conservative and only harvest 2/3 of the honey in the hive at the end of the fall season, leaving plenty for the bees to eat over the winter.

Bees at the Box
Bees at the Box

Get Started in Beekeeping

So how does one become a beekeeper? The basic elements of beekeeping are well documented and easily available. In today’s information age, it is easy to self-educate yourself in the basics of beekeeping. There are numerous blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and books available. The beekeeper highly recommended this one: “The Hive and the Honeybee” by Lorenzo Langstroth. He also recommended taking ample time to read and research (he researched several months before purchasing his first hive) and that you seek out and talk with seasoned beekeepers in your area, keeping an eye out for a mentor.

Even seasoned beekeepers are losing some or all of their hives in one season due to CCD. Newbie beekeepers are getting into the field with fresh eyes, a new perspective, and a heart to contribute something positive to this intriguing, at risk enterprise. Once you are successful at beekeeping, the next question is, “What are you going to do with all that honey!?”

Each hive can yield 100-150 lbs. of honey and this does not include the 60+ lbs. of honey you have to leave in each hive for the bees to eat over the winter. So, what does one do with all that honey? When my beekeeper asked an old-timer this question, he said put a sign at the end of your driveway and you won’t have any problem getting rid of it. That advice, too, has proved to be wise and true.


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