Beginner Beekeeper Series: 3 Lessons That “Bee School” Won’t Teach You

Be prepared for loss, stings and surprises, but don't let any of them diminish your commitment to beekeeping. Rather, let them fuel your passion and help you spread the word to others.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Mirjam van den Berg/Flickr

Spring is upon us and it’s finally time to put the winter of learning, reading and studying into practice. If you’ve ordered nucleus colonies (“nucs”) or packages of bees to start your apiary, you’ll hear from you bee suppliers soon. It’s an exciting time to be a beekeeper. If you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve read a few books, brushed up on bee behavior and even attended a course on keeping bees—whether it lasted a day or several weeks. But do you have all the tools you need?

Here are a few things the books don’t tell you:

1. Your Bees Will Die

Kicking it off on a good note, right? This was a hard truth for me to learn. I thought if I worked hard enough, tried my best and knew everything there was to know about bees that they were never perish. I’d find a loophole and keep every hive alive as long as I was a beekeeper. That extended to every hive inspection, down to the careful way I manipulated frames so as to not hurt the bees.

The reality of keeping any livestock animal (or insect): Death is a part of life. Period. This is doubly true when working with a critically threatened species, such as the honeybee. But I’m here to tell you: Don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. Make every loss your fuel for doing better next time. Let it spark your passion to extend your beekeeping practice outside of the apiary and into your greater community. Become an advocate for honey as well as native bees. Fight against pesticide use in your area. Educate others about the dangers of pesticides and chemicals to our pollinators.

2. You Will Get Stung

Are you ready for this? It hurts! But getting stung is like falling off a horse: It’s a right of passage, and it’s inevitable if you stick with the hobby long enough. This is the best learning opportunity for young beekeepers. When the shock of the sting wears off, look back at the situation and see what happened: What were you doing right before you were stung? Were you listening to the bees and paying attention to their warning signs? We love research-based evidence, but what was your gut telling you at the time you were stung? Are you listening to the bees with your instinct and energy, as much as your ears? Because bees communicate through pheromones and energy; they respond to you in kind whether you’re calm or upset, slow or hurried. Be aware of your actions and you’ll be a better beekeeper for it.

3. Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Your bees will throw surprises at you every day. Local beekeepers in my county’s club talk about new things they learn every year, even if they’ve been at it for more than three decades. Conventional bee wisdom tells us that only one queen can ever occupy and live in a hive—and then a colleague of mine had a thriving hive with two actively laying queens. Be prepared to learn something new every year; keep your mind open and your expectations flexible.

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