Rarely does a person’s expectation match reality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if one is willing to adjust their thinking once reality hits. I still love beekeeping, but over the last few weeks, I realized that I needed to start making some mental adjustments if I was going to become a successful beekeeper. The allure of a bountiful vegetable garden initially drew me to beekeeping. Beekeeping also seemed to be a noble hobby. The mainstream media regularly highlights the importance of bees, and routinely we hear dire warnings of a world without bees. “You will have no blueberries!” “Kiss your almonds goodbye!” “People will starve!” Who wouldn’t want a hobby that is simultaneously enjoyable and staves off world starvation? While preparing to start our new hobby, I fantasized about birds chirping and forest creatures greeting me as I happily walked to my hives to tend the bees that would eventually fly off and save the planet. Maybe a rainbow would form overhead symbolizing the hope of a world filled with healthy bees. Maybe I hoped for too much.
Here is what I have come to realize over the last few weeks…… Most of what I thought I knew about bees and beekeeping was wrong.
The first shocking realization was that honey bees are not native to North America. North America has lots of bees. Over 4000 species of bees exist on our continent, and these are the bees that have been responsible for pollinating our flowers, fruits, and vegetables for thousands of years. The honey bee was brought to North America by European settlers. You can now find feral honey bees in North America, but that was not always the case. This realization was a shock to me. My earliest memories as a child were of Winnie the Pooh, who ate honey from the forest. My 4-year-old brain assumed that wild honey was plentiful in the forests near me because those forests looked a lot like the forest where Pooh lived. I incorrectly assumed honey bees were plentiful and had always been in the forests around me. Nothing challenged my naïve assumptions until recently. You may wonder why the honey bee became so important to US agriculture if it is not native to North America. Honey bees, like thousands of other kids of bees, are good pollinators. The honey bee is unique in that it is one of the few types of bees that form very large colonies. These colonies can be trucked around the country in hives that can be positioned in large fields growing a single crop (e.g. pumpkins or almonds), and then moved as growing seasons change. You couldn’t do that sort of thing with bumble bees that live in much smaller colonies. Super sized agriculture needs super sized pollinators.
Keeping honey bees is more like being a farmer than being a naturalist. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course. I am sure there are farmers who are naturalists and vice versa. However, if you want strong colonies you need to think like a farmer. Beekeepers need to practice integrated pest management to keep their bees safe from large threats (wild turkeys, bears, skunks, and mice) as well as small threats (mites, beetles and moths). You need to consider when to apply mite treatments in relation to the honey flow and to the breeding of the “winter bees”. You need to consider genetics when mating queens. Last week I attended a seminar on how to prepare your bees for winter, and the speaker sounded more like a farmer talking about livestock than a naturalist talking about helping birds or butterflies through the winter.
Honey bees require a great deal of attention. Of course, everything is relative. Honey bees don’t require the same sort of attention as a dairy cow that has to be milked everyday. Honey bees do require more attention than most small, non-mammal pets (e.g. gold fish, reptiles) and native pollinators such as hummingbirds and butterflies. You need to be prepared to check your hives regularly and make the necessary adjustments to keep the colonies strong.
Honey is a crop just like corn or apples. If you want to sell your crop for cash, then you need to maximize your crop. Maximizing your crop means you do everything necessary to maintain the health and strength of your bees. You pay close attention to the weather and to the trees and flowers blooming nearby so you know if you need to feed your bees or add honey supers. Bees aren’t patient. If you don’t give them enough room at the right time, they will swarm and seek a better living situation. You will be left with a weaker colony and less honey to harvest.
Slowly I am making the mental shift to a farming mentality, but I am not yet ready to consider our honey bees on par with cattle. The two aren’t the same, but maybe they are complimentary. Everybody knows a good honey barbecue sauce compliments a nice smoked brisket.