Big Bear’s Beekeeping Advice For New Beekeepers

Don’t listen to me.

That’s my advice, right there.

I don’t advise new beekeepers.  There’s no point in my adding to the confusion and overwhelm of someone just beginning beekeeping.

I teach beekeeping classes, do presentations and offer hands-on apprenticeship opportunities for people interested in apiculture.  Could be beginners, could be long timers.  Who knows.  I have information and experience that can be valuable and I make them available.

The advice I give here or in person is for each individual beekeeper I happen to be talking to at the moment.  It’s my experience that every beekeeper will have somewhat separate and distinct circumstances and goals that will generally need to have specific information for each one.

Yes, there are many common things to be known about bees and beekeeping.  Those commonalities are what make beekeeping such a shareable experience.

But for all this commonalities, apiculture becomes a unique and individualized experience as well.  One that merits well thought out advise if one is to advise others to being successful.

So, if you are a “Newbee” I hope you find this website useful and maybe even fun from time to time.  However, if you are looking for information and advice geared specifically to new beekeepers, this isn’t the place.  There are literally hundreds of websites and thousands of books and other resources targeted to new beekeepers that will do that job as well or better than I could here.

I do invite you to ask questions and share your experiences in beekeeping in the forums here.  I will do my best to continue to share what I intend to be useful posts and resources that beekeepers at any level or intent can find beneficial.

So in a nutshell, if you’re looking for good, specific new beekeeping advice, don’t ask me.  I’ll just mess with your head.


The Rules Of Beekeeping By Big Bear

Beecause I can, that’s why

I refer frequently to “Beekeeping Rule #1” when I teach classes and in various social media.  My rules are something I just came up with one day in a joking reference to the old joke based on an old commercial listing reasons or excuses for using a particular product.

Most recently, I actually compiled a very short list of “Beekeeping Rules”according to how important I see them.  These are “Big Bear’s Rules of Beekeeping”.   In addition to the few rules, I also have tossed in some axioms that are particularly relevant to apiculture as I see it.

On to the list…

Big Bear’s Rules of Beekeeping

Rule #1:  Bees are crazy.

One of the worst things we do when getting into playing with bees is to expect them to do things that make some sort of sense to us.  We expect them to think and behave in accordance to the way humans think.  They don’t.  They don’t “reason” or think the way we do.  compared to us, bees are truly and utterly crazy.  Don’t let yourself bee fooled.

Rule #2: Have a Plan

Originally, and on a recent podcast episode, I said that I put this rule as #3 but I was wrong.  It’s really second in line.  I can’t stress the importance of having a plan for at least the next 12 months if not longer depending on the beekeeping you are involved in.

Axiom to Rule #2: Proper planning prevents poor performance.

The more in-depth your plan is, the better prepared you can be.  It’s a horrible feeling walking up to a hive or multiple hives finding a die-out or major problem and knowing or finding out it was preventable or able to be corrected with basic early intervention.  Planning out ahead of time sets you up for success.  A proper plan includes;

Goals.  What is the purpose or the point, the reason you are doing this?

Objectives.  What specific things do you want to accomplish by the end of the season or time frame?  Set up things that are measurable and trackable so that you can monitor your progress along the way.

Strategies.  What methodologies and processes are you going to follow to achieve those goals an objectives?  For example, will you include an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in your operation?  How specifically will it be tailored to the way you are going to meet your goals and objectives?

Tactics.  What specific techniques and tools, specific equipment and materials will you need to obtain and have ready to use?  The tools and handling methods you use should be chosen to fit into your strategy and help you to meet your goals and objectives.  Too often people choose the tools, equipment and methods they use with very little thought beyond cost or ease of use and end up causing themselves more trouble in the long run.

Rule #3: Bee Prepared

Back to the example of walking into an apiary and finding that there is a particular issue or problem.  Maybe what you find is actually something you planned for.  That’s good.  Did you actually follow through and get all the tools, equipment and materials to do something about it?  If you didn’t, you are probably in trouble.  There are situations in the apiary when by the time you discover the issue, it’s too late.  You might fix it if you deal with it on the spot.  If you don’t have the things you need though, you will just be prolonging the inevitable.

Axiom to Rule #3; It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Your beekeeping is yours and yours alone.  It’s fine to get advice from mentors, coaches, instructors and other beekeepers but always think for your self and specifically to your own goals and objectives.  Those might not be the same as those other people and what those other people suggest may or may not work in your specific, particular situation.  Don’t let yourself be bluffed, bullied or otherwise put in a corner to do “what everyone else does”.  They’re your bees, your hives, your apiary and your goals.  You need to make decisions to meet those, not what someone else is doing.

An axiom without a rule

While all of the above are things I find to be very important, critical actually, to apicultural success, I have a saying that overrules all of them.

Beekeeping should be fun.

By extension, all things related to beekeeping should be fun, bee clubs and associations, running honey booths and information tables.  Whatever.  If beekeeping isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.

For those involved in professional apiculture, no, it won’t always be fun because it’s business and business means hard work and effort.  Even so, it should be satisfying and fulfill your passion.  If not, you’re in the wrong business.

Bee Accountable

As hobbyists and professionals in beekeeping, we have a great many options available to us in the decisions we need to make relating to the environment in which we keep our bees and the goals and objectives we have established for determining our success in beekeeping.

There are a great many things we can blame failure on when it comes to bees…  Lack of forage, weather, pests and predators, disease and injury.  The list can seem endless at times as we struggle in our efforts to keep bees healthy and alive, let alone thriving.

It is perhaps our biggest blind spot and our greatest failure when we are inattentive and lazy in our beekeeping.  There are many things that happen that can be pinned on ignorance.  We just didn’t know or realize.  This is always going to happen in beekeeping.  There is still so much we don’t know about bees despite the growing amount of research that has been done and continues to be done.

However, there are things we do know.  Things we choose to ignore for who knows what reason or excuse.  Choosing to be ignorant when we know the information is available but requires effort is one example.  Allowing ourselves to be distracted from our tasks and duties in beekeeping when we know they should be done is another.

Failure to anticipate potential problems because we didn’t plan properly ahead of time or at all.  This might be the one that gets us the most.  There are problems that arise in beekeeping that are preventable.  Lack of available food and water, inadequate hive ventilation, an excessive amount of space for too small a population.  Many times, perhaps most of the time we see these thing, they are preventable.  Had we been diligent and informed and making an active effort in our beekeeping duties they likey can have been prevented.

Accountability to our bees is important.  We owe it to ourselves and those colonies to put forth our best effort in trying to prevent all that we can prevent.  There are enough things beyond our control that we have to simply be responsive to in order to avoid disaster in beekeeping.  Poor planning, laziness, and unnecessary ignorance shouldn’t add to that already too large pile of trouble.

Bee honest with ourselves.  Bee accountable to our bees.

Bee Smart.

I hate the word treatment in beekeeping

People are getting all in a kerfuffle again about “treatment” or “no-treatment” beekeeping.

By “treatment” the general reference is to applying some type of chemical control inside a bee hive.  However, that word is also used synonamously with “manipulation” or introducing changes in a variety of ways to a bee hive.

First off, do I beelieve in implementing chemical controls into a bee hive?  The short answer is that yes, I do see a possible case scenario for introducing a chemical control into a bee hive.

The long answer is that I see a spectrum of a myriad of possibilities that don’t easily fit into a dichotomy.  It’s more like following an “if-then” flow chart the way I approach it.

In regard to use of toxic chemical pesticides being used as a control tactic….  It’s not likely for me.  I see those as a last ditch, worst case scenario that “might” be usable on a case by case approach.

I am just as likely to terminate a colony in such a situation as try to implement a toxic chemical control.  It depends on a variety of things that affect that particular hive and the apiary and environment that it’s in.

I have total and utter disregard for those who insist on making “treatment” or “no-treatment” a simple and absolute false dichotomy.

I prefer, as I think most do, to have colonies that do not need to have certain types of control tactics introduced such as toxic chemical pesticides.  I implement IPM in my overall beekeeping and apiary planning from the beginning.

I try to have the best understanding of natural bee biology and behavior so as to let the colonies tell me when they need help and then only give the help they need, nothing more, nothing less.

Playing political games of unnecessary absolutes is a waste of thinking people’s time, efforts and resources.

That’s just how this apiarist sees it.

The “Libeetarian” Beekeeping Approach

(This article represents an opinion of the author and does not necessarily advocate or reject this or any other opinion of approach to beekeeping by the Bee Smart beekeeping Project.)

Now right off the bat, you may bee thinking this is a political discussion as I used a playful version of the word “Libertarian”.  No, it is not.  It’s a principled approach to beekeeping that reflects the general aspects of libertarian philosophy.  In that we use education, rationale, reason and objectivity to determine our beekeeping goals, objectives and methods of management.

We do this in a way that promotes the liberty or ability of each beekeeper to go about their beekeeping as they have determined is in their and their bees best interests with as little to no interference by any government, social or other group that seeks to mandate or forcefully influence any individual’s beekeeping.

Beekeepers are an interesting representation of American society in general. At one extreme are the authoritarians who think that it’s in the best interests of everyone if there were specific rules and regulations to make all beekeepers do some of the same things, especially in relation to treatment or more specifically, use of toxic pesticides.

If you disagree with them and resist their brand of authoritarianism, you are an evil, wicked mean spirited person who just wants all the bees to die. Because if it just saves one little bee…

To the other extreme are the other types of authoritarians who want rules and regulations in place to prevent those “mean and cruel corporate loving miticide pushers” from keeping bees as akin to slaves and farm stock. Bees should be free and management kept to a bare minimum, if not at all in their view.

If you disagree with them and resist their brand of authoritarianism, you are an evil, wicked mean spirited person who just wants all the bees to die. Because if it just saves one little bee…

Then you have the, what I like to call, “Libeetarians”. the anti-authoritarians.  We might use a variety of treatments, we may use few or none. We prefer to let each situation be determined based on actual need and capability to be handled to the best benefit of both the bees and the beekeeper.

In the past I have used terms like “organic” to describe myself as a beekeeper. I find though that even though using the more scientific definition as a basis for that, it still doesn’t adequately describe my approach.

I look at things one colony at a time.  I look at each colony as a unique creature in and of itself.  Each colony has it’s own “personality” if you will.  It’s own distinct characteristics.  I interact with each colony as an individual based on what it indicates its needs are and how my objectives as a beekeeper fit with that.

I beelieve in using the methods and controls that will allow the bees to successfully live and thrive of their own volition. If the bees exhibit genetic traits that allow them to tolerate minimal active presence of certain pests and tolerate other environmental conditions, etc.. then they should be able to mange the nest without my direct intervention.

Then my job is not to tell the bees how to live but instead to facilitate a successful and beneficial hive and apiary environment.

In other words, The bees take care of the inside and I take care of the outside.

Beecause I do live removals from structures, the bees I take out of walls and ceilings, roofs and anywhere else may be in highly distressed conditions. they are getting their butts handed to them by a higher-than-manageable pest or disease presence.  Perhaps area predators have been attacking them regularly, etc… These are distressed bees who need someone to get the monkey off their back then help them recuperate to the point of self sufficiency if they are capable of such.

If the bees respond to a variety of management controls and treatments that I will use in extreme cases of distress, then I continually reduce the treatment and “assisted living” management until they either indicate to me they no longer need my assistance for that or they indicate that they are subject to Natural Selection and all I am doing is prolonging the inevitable.

I am educated, skilled, experienced and ever improving in my knowledge of all things bees. I most certainly do not need nor desire other people to dictate to me what and how to manage my bee hives.

Henceforth, I do beelieve that I will indeed use the term “libeetarian” to describe my general approach to beekeeping. I let the bees do what they do best, I work to facilitate their success and meet my goals and objectives along the way without causing them unnecessary distress. I apply treatments and specific management controls based on evidence and only as needed.

So there you have it, the “libeetarian” approach to beekeeping.   That’s just how I roll.

HuffPo Calls Honey Vomit, Wrong As Usual

Loathe as I am to ever willingly refer reasonable people to a source that is so low that they don’t pay the contributing writers for their work except in “exposure”  (while they rake in millions from advertising) when it comes to spreading misinformation about bees, I am compelled to correct it.

A European honey bee (Apis mellifera) extracts nectar from an Aster flower using its proboscis.

In this recent article, the author tries to make an educated seeming run at referring to honey legitimately as “bee vomit”.   Their argument is founded on the generality of definition of the word “vomit”.    If you use a “real” dictionary she says, then vomit is merely ejecting contents of the stomach through the mouth.  If you use any other definition, you must be relying on Wikipedia and are subject to scorn and ridicule.

However, even though she goes to lengths to describe that bees have two stomachs and that honey transported by bees is carried in the non digestive “crop” or proventriculus of the honey bee, but still counts as “vomit” to her.

The “crop” (proventriculus) is the first organic in the abdomen (colored green) before going to the “midgut” (ventriculus)

While she focuses on the definition of vomit as her ace-in-the-hole, she completely overlooks, or perhaps ignores, that in her own description she has already shown that she is incorrect.

Vomit is material ejected from “the” stomach.  In a mammal having one stomach in which digestion occurs.  In an insect such as the honey bee and having two stomachs (as fellow Beehooligan Dean Stiglitz points out, the proventriculus or “crop” is actually a gland and not a true stomach, further making the point that it is not vomit), the proventriculus NOT engaging in digestion, it would be more accurate to refer to it as a process of regurgitation.

A nationally viewed media source (not being worthy of the more credible term “news” since news sources actually pay their sources)  to toss around words blithely is disappointing.  Words have not just meaning my friends, but specific meaning.  In casual discussions, words are often loosely bandied about.  In a technical discussion, such as one actually involving science, medical, and other fields where specificity is necessary, words meanings take on greater importance.

So, technically speaking (as it seemed the article author was hoping people would see her point), honey is regurgitated nectar from “a” stomach called the “crop” not used for digestive functions by an insect.

It is not vomit from “the” stomach of a creature having only one in which to conduct primarily digestive functions.

Maybe if HuffPo would actually pay their sources, they could be taken more credibly on important topics like bees.



Opportunities Abound

The beekeeping community is a great and open community.  As a Linux “nut” and a DIY guy, I am able to make many comparisons between beekeepers, Do-It-Yourselfers and open source software people.  There is a great general approach to sharing information and making resources available among members of the communities.

At the same time, There are people within the communities who spend vast amounts of time, energy, resources to create and provide materials and support for others who earn any and every penny they can from those they support.

In order to make a living in the beekeeping field, much as in the other areas, there are a couple of ways that it can be done reasonably.

Firstly, A resource/support provider can charge a rate for “direct” support and service.  This falls into the “let me do that for you” category.  While many beekeepers seeking assistance and resources from the beekeeping community in general love to connect with each other to teach and learn, it’s something else entirely to expect someone to take time out to come and do something for someone else.

In the DIY, open-source and beekeeping communities, there are some people who voluntarily become a mentor to others without charging a fee.  Just out of the kindness of their heart and their willingness to help others. A great character trait to be sure and wonderful to find when a person could use a hand.  However, volunteer mentors are exactly that, volunteers.  They usually have a “day job” to pay their bills and they have family and friends they do things with so their time and opportunity to mentor others is limited to what opportunity and time they have left-over from the job and family.  I think everyone can appreciate and respect that.

Someone making a living from their beekeeping efforts is doing so almost always as a self employed person.  The way they pay their bills, take care of their families, etc.. is by making valuable services and resources available at the convenience of the client.  They work on the client’s schedule, coming out to do a particular service for that client at the client’s convenience instead of making the person wait until and if some free time comes up for a volunteer mentor to become available.

In other situations, people live in areas where there are few or no volunteer resources, no mentors available but they still need help to come to them when on their schedule.  the professional apiarist (beekeeper for hire) is able to accommodate those remote clients, providing them the services and resources they need, when they need it.

The second way someone can work as a professional apiarist and make a living (or try to) in their beekeeping is to offer and make available various types of resources and opportunities on an ongoing basis then asking for either donations, small fees to access or in some cases, pull together a group of supporters or patrons who appreciate all the work and effort the pro apiarist is doing and make regular contributions to support that work and help keep it going.

Some pro apiarists do one way, some the other other, some blend the two together.  No matter how they arrange it, it’s no “easy” career path.  It’s a case of following a passion and taking what you can make of it.  No one gets “rich” in terms of money from this though their levels of personal satisfaction and self fulfillment are through the roof.

There those folks in all of those communities, DIY, Open Source and beekeeping, who seem to think they are “owed” help and support for free all the time.  But by and large, most people “get it” and when they really need that experienced caching or just need to step away and let someone with the knowledge and experience to do it right get it done, they go with the paid pro apiarist without hesitation.

No matter what, the beekeeping community just like the DIY and Open Source/Linux communities are filled with endless opportunities to grow one’s knowledge and skills at their activity of choice.  Take what you can, give back when you can and for some, take the next step and become the next creator who makes whole new resources and opportunities available.  There is plenty of room in all those communities for the hobbyist and the pro alike.  The point is, whether you approach it as a hobbyist or a Pro, you are in the game loving every minute of it.

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