)Hosting a honey bee hive, as opposed to beekeeping, may be the best choice for at least 80% of the people who want to enjoy all of the benefits, beauty, and wonder of having honey bees on their property.
The beekeeping learning curve is long, steep, very confusing, and fraught with expensive mistakes. Hosting a hive, however, allows someone to care for the earth in a profoundly positive way, savor the beauty and wonder of living in harmony with honey bees, and enjoy a more flowering and fruitful property as a result of the fantastic pollination services that honey bees provide. And all this without the headache, heartache, and hard work that beekeeping entails.
But, perhaps more important than all of this is that my hive hosts are supporting a growing, global movement toward bee-centered beekeeping which puts the long-term health, welfare, and vitality of the bees first.
(For more info on bee-centered beekeeping, see this post: https://hostahoneybeehive.com/2017/03/06/why-honey-bees-need-bee-centered-beekeepers/)
There is a beekeeper in the state of Washington, named Rusty Burlew, whom I have been following for a few years now. Although we don’t share the same paradigm for our respective stewardship of honey bees (although, over time, I see her moving more and more toward bee-centered beekeeping), I find many of her articles to be well-researched, well-written, and scholarly. Here is an excerpt from a recent article she wrote about the costs and realities of beekeeping:
Are You One Of The 80% Who Will Quit?
Rumor has it that 80% of new beekeepers will quit within the first two years. I don’t know how accurate that estimate is. Like other statistics related to beekeeping, it seems to survive with no one keeping score.
Beekeeping has a romantic aspect that attracts a wide following, but the day-to-day life of a beekeeper is anything but romantic. Here are some of the things that can cause a new beekeeper to run.
Keeping Bees Is Not Like Having A Pet
We’ve all grown up around house pets and we understand the rules: “Dogs have masters, cats have servants.” With that understanding, a good diet, lots of exercise, and annual trips to the vet, most of us can do pretty well. But bees are different. A honey bee will not curl up on your lap, lick your face, or play fetch. To honey bees, we are neither masters nor servants. Instead, we are predators to be dealt with as necessary.
The Learning Curve Is Steep And Long
You don’t learn beekeeping in a season, or a year, or fifty years. A true beekeeper never stops learning and never stops being surprised. If you think you will know the ropes in a few months, you have a big disappointment ahead.
Beekeeping Is More Expensive Than You Imagined
First comes the “complete” beginner kit, something that is reasonably priced. But then it’s the bees, shipping cage, replacement queen and postage, hive stand, sugar, feeders, a better hive tool, books, magazines, all the woodenware that didn’t come with the “complete” kit, and a second bee suit that actually fits.
After your kit arrives you find you need a better screwdriver, hammer, carpenter’s square and some paint. A pneumatic nailer is nice, too, for all those frames. Or maybe you decide on a specialty hive so you don’t have to buy an extractor, but learn that it’s more expensive than a regular hive and extractor added together. And because you might be allergic, you throw in a few hundred dollars for an EpiPen. And that’s just the spring stuff.
Later you may want swarm traps, a nuc box, sieves, extractor, honey gate, jars, lids, and labels. Don’t forget the pollen supplement, either, or the robbing screens and mouse guards. Depending on how you decide to care for your bees you may also buy mite treatments, a vaporizer, a 12-volt battery, and a face mask. Or maybe you decide on treatments that don’t require so much equipment but cost eight times as much. It’s nice to have a scale too, and a temperature/humidity monitor, and an infrared camera. Insulation is good too, and maybe a hive wrap.
And finally, you might need a shed to keep it all in and a pick-up to haul it around. If you don’t believe me, it’s because you haven’t started yet.
Spring Build-Up Is The Easiest Part Of Beekeeping
Spring, the easy season, is when beginners begin. After a couple months of massive population increase and furious foraging, complacency sets in. Beekeeping is easy, or so it seems. But the new beekeeper hasn’t yet faced winter—a “horse of a different color” as they say. Your mettle as a beekeeper is not determined by spring but by winter.
It’s More Work Than You Imagined
You need to use tools, you need to lift, you need to actually do things inside the hive. You cannot set up a hive and forget it. Someone once wrote in a comment, “You mean now I have to build things?” It’s funny, unless you’re the type that doesn’t own tools and doesn’t want to.
Then too, the things that must be done, must be done on time. You cannot be late with feeding, late with splitting, or late with mite treatment. You can’t be late putting on your honey supers or taking them off. Late is too late. Once you become a beekeeper, you work on their schedule, not yours.
Expectations Of Honey Production Are Not Realistic
Before your first bees arrive, you promise honey to your mother, your wife, your kids, your boss, your neighbors, and your girlfriend on the side. Maybe you even rent a stall at the county fair so you can sell honey, candles, and “save the bee” posters. But when the times comes, not only are your honey supers empty, but you need to feed your bees just to keep them alive. How do you explain this to everyone who’s waiting?
Beekeeping Is About The Environment
Many of the problems honey bees face are outside of the hive and not within the beekeeper’s control. Environmental issues like the weather, bloom times, pesticide use by others, pollutants, land use, predators, and even other beekeepers in your area can all influence your success. So even if you study and make good decisions, outside influences can wreak havoc with your colony.
Remembering Times Gone By
Personally, I understand why people quit. In fact, not a year goes by when I don’t consider it. Even when I’m successful, I question the time, the expense, and the frustration of it all. I wonder about the opportunity costs, the things I could be doing if I wasn’t doing this. When I’m scraping frames, counting mite drop, or haggling with another fifty-pound bag of sugar, I long to do something different.
I grew up before tracheal mites, varroa mites, hive beetles, obscure viruses, and colony collapse. Back then small farms were ubiquitous and every farm had a few hives. No one paid much attention to the bees, except at harvest time, yet the colonies survived year after year. If a colony died for some reason, another moved in to fill the vacancy. You didn’t buy bees or queens, they just arrived. I often think of those days, but now they seem like an illusion, an enchanting fairy tale.