My husband and I have been keeping bees for a full year now, and I have to admit that we both have become obsessed with this hobby. We started with two nucs last spring. Beekeeping was an adventure from the very first day. On our way home from the bee supplier, bees kept flying out of the nuc box and filling our truck cab. Driving with bees flying around your head can be a challenge! We split our strongest colony last summer, and we came out of winter this year with three healthy bee colonies. Since we just reached our one year anniversary, I thought now was an appropriate time to reflect on some of the key lessons from year one.
- Beekeeping is physically demanding. – People don’t talk about this much maybe because people don’t want to acknowledge that it is hard for them to lift things. A full deep (aka hive box or hive body) weighs about 70 lbs. The weight is awkward to lift because it is in front of you, so you have to lift with your arms and back and not your legs. My husband is strong and does all the lifting. If I was beekeeping alone, I would definitely use much smaller hardware and keep smaller colonies. I am not strong enough to safely lift full 10 frame hive boxes.
- There are many ways for bees to die. – Non beekeepers usually think most bees die from pesticide exposure. The ways that a honey bee can die are many and varied. While improper use and over use of pesticides is a problem, so are pests and diseases. The Varroa mite is the most common deliverer of death, but American Foulbrood is also terrifying because it can destroy your bees and all your hardware. Bees can die from starvation at various points in the year. They are frequently eaten by a variety of other animals including wild turkeys, bears, and my German Shepherd Forte. One of my friends at the local bee club wisely said, “You shouldn’t be a beekeeper if you can’t handle death.” We work so hard to keep our bees alive that I am amazed that bees survive by themselves in hollowed out trees.
- You need to be constantly learning if you want to be successful. – The amount of information you need to know to be a successful beekeeper is staggering. Beekeeping is a great hobby if you are someone who likes to always be learning and studying. If you prefer to learn as you go and just want to dump a package of bees in a hive box, you may be opening yourself up for disappointment.
- Propolis gets on everything, and you can’t get it off. – Propolis is sometimes referred to as bee glue. Propolis is a resinous mixture that bees make by mixing wax and saliva with tree resin. It is very sticky, and the bees use it to seal cracks and seems in their hive. We now have propolis on all of our beekeeping equipment, our gloves, and bee suits, and on the handles of my husband’s truck doors. You can’t get the stuff off.
- Beekeeping is expensive the first year. -Hobby beekeepers can eventually make enough money from their bees to make the hobby self sustaining. (See my earlier post on Can a Hobby Beekeeper Make a Profit.) However, in year 1 you have to buy all of the equipment, the hives, the bees, and the mite treatments. You also don’t get honey in year one, so you will have little or no income from your bees in the first year. Other hobbies are far more expensive. If you like to rebuild classic cars or golf every weekend, you will probably spend much more. However, if you compare beekeeping to hobbies such as knitting or gardening, it is expensive.
- The bees change your perspective on life. – I never used to pay attention to the weather. Every day was a surprise to me. Now my husband and I study forecasts so we can anticipate what our bees need. We study flowers to see if we can see bees. Plants I used to consider to be weeds such as dandelions and nettles are now viewed as food sources for the bees. Beekeeping really makes you see how interconnected everything is in nature.
- If you don’t have a plan to fight varroa mites, you will lose all your bees. – You can’t ignore varroa mites. Hope is not a pest management strategy. Most of the beekeepers I talk to who lost all their bees over the winter did not treat for mites. Varroa mites infect the bees weakening them and introducing viruses such as the deformed wing virus. Multiple treatment options exist that include harsh miticides as well as softer approaches like oxalic acid treatments. You can treat for mites in many different ways, but you can’t ignore mites and hope to have healthy bees that live through winter.
- New bee colonies need to be fed lots of sugar. – In Kentucky in mid summer, our bees have to endure a dearth. The dearth is the period between the spring blooming season and the appearance of the golden rods and wild astors in late summer. For a month or two, there isn’t much food to be found. Established colonies will have stored honey to eat so long as the beekeeper didn’t get greedy and take it all. You have to feed new colonies because they won’t have much stored honey. A 1:1 mixture is made of water and cane sugar. In just a few days, each of our colonies would consume a quart of syrup. Our bees ate about 50 lbs of sugar in year one.
I would love to hear from other beekeepers. What did you learn in your first year?