Beekeeping is one of the most frustrating, confidence-crushing, physically and emotionally demanding things I’ve ever done. Fifteen years later, it’s still one of my most favorite things.
That first handful of beekeeping years was painful and expensive. If I had it to do over again, there are many things I wished I had done differently. Aware of the stingingly hard lessons I learned, I wondered if others had faced similar challenges, and surveyed thousands of beekeepers to see how they weathered the nearly vertical learning curve. A decade later, I continue to query folks to see what they wished they’d known that would’ve made those early years more productive, safe, and sustainable for bees.
The bulk of my surveying was done prior to the widespread use of social media, with most responses arriving via email. They ranged from long, tear-jerking emails, to hard-hitting, and / or hilarious two-sentence emails, and picture-packed and pride-soaked emails at what folks had overcome to finally keep bees alive longer than only one season, and heavy lamenting on what they wished they’d realized before starting in those early, failure-filled years.
I’ve summarized that incredible feedback into a top 15 list of the most frequently occurring concepts of what people had wished they’d known in the beginning. And here they are …
#15: Why didn’t anyone tell me my bees would die?
We all know that everything dies, right? Including and especially bees. Many folks entered beekeeping in hopes of helping with the alarming rate of pollinator die-off. But, many folks shared—that out of all the concepts they wished they’d understood—they didn’t understand how devastating and personal it would feel when their bees died. You don’t have to look too hard to find the annual statistics of U.S. colony loss close to 50%, yet many responders assumed they’d be in the successful half. Failure hit them hard.
Those responding were cut deeper than “just” the loss of their over $100+ worth of bees. They were astonished, stupefied, and well, bee-wildered at the emotional impact the loss of thousands of stinging insects had on them. They had no idea that they would become that fascinated and connected to bees, and that the loss would feel like letting down a very good friend.
My (hopefully) helpful insights and guidance: You will, at some point, lose a colony of bees. I suspect beginners lose colonies at a much higher rate than established, experienced beekeepers, but folks whose livelihood depends on high rates of survival lose bees.
Your success rate will be greatly improved with appropriate education, (unfortunately) with time, experience, and luck (rain when needed, winters with mild days so bees can move about inside the colony for food, no winds knocking over your hives, etc.)
If you’re wired such that failure doesn’t shake off easily, you may want to reconsider beekeeping. You will fail (lots, across many aspects), but will hopefully be motivated to figure out the essential pieces in the critical pursuit of sustainable beekeeping.
#14: A timeline!
Many folks wished for a timeline for when to do key tasks, like adding another brood chamber, providing more room for nectar, applying a mite treatment, etc.
Regionally some checklists do exist, but should only be used as guidelines, not as to-do checklists. That’s because what to do and when all depends … a phrase you’ll hear lots in beekeeping. Is beekeeping really that subjective or secretive?
Secretive no; we beekeepers love to tell you in insufferable detail our experiences. Subjective? Absolutely.
The geographic, forage and weather variables are just too, well, variable for a one-size-fits-most. A fixed timeline is challenging for even my same-location apiaries. Year after year, when I perform key tasks may vary by a few weeks, even up to a month in extreme situations (like that year spring and summer arrived (finally!) about the same time).
Some helpful insight and guidance: Experience will help! And until you get a few seasons under your veil, take copious notes about seasonal queues—such as what is blooming in your area by week, when bird species migrate, when wildflowers emerge. Note the weather. Join the local club and seek guidance from those who have been successfully keeping bees in a similar environment. Study the beekeeping books and attend seminars so you know the key tasks for beekeeping, then try to correlate those tasks to seasonal queues for your area. Over time, you’ll develop a timeline guide that serves you.
#13: Beekeeping takes so much time!
Many early-stage beekeepers wished they’d understood how much time successful beekeeping takes. Two not fully considered factors probably play into this:
- The early-stage learning curve is tall and steep: the beginner has to navigate myriad equipment choices, an entirely new vocabulary, and seemingly conflicting advice about what is essential—just to get started. The seasoned beekeeper cleared (stumbled over) those hurdles years earlier. They know what equipment they like and probably own it and they know what are good prices. They have preferences for where to obtain bees or have made their operation sustainable.
Getting started is only the first part of the initial learning curve. Once you have your bees in the backyard, there’s a different set of challenges and many responders cited spending extraordinary, unsuspected time relative to colony inspections. They thought they could visit their bees maybe monthly and it’d take about 15-20 minutes. Instead, their hive visits stretch to an unpleasant (and sometimes stinging) hour as they constantly misplace their hive tool while worrying about that bee buzzing about their head concurrent to wondering what that thing on the frame is, searching for the queen, and being mesmerized (and perhaps a bit freaked out) about everything happening. That doesn’t count the hour they spent before trying to get everything together and the frustration of keeping the smoker lit, not to mention the couple hours needed after to obtain and prep more equipment, figure out what they saw, and get questions answered.
Those initial challenges will diminish with experience. (Not to worry, there’ll be new challenges!) In time you will know what to evaluate on a hive visit. and how. You’ll recognize within seconds of opening a hive, the queues from scent, demeanor, and sound. Your hive tool won’t be this awkward thing you always are misplacing, but rather an extension of your hand. You’ll inspect what needs to be inspected, smoothly and often before the bees seemingly notice your presence. However, sometimes starting a smoker can still take too long.
Another frequent complaint regarding time was because of seasonal demands. Many references cite an annual 40-50 hours per colony for beekeeping. However, that time isn’t spread across 52 weeks. There will be periods of intense time requirements (initial apiary set-up and bee installation, first time varroa mite checking, pulling and extracting honey, etc.), as well as times when little is required (winter months, although worrying about them will be a full-time occupation). Complicating it further is that there’s not much leeway in doing these tasks when they need to be done. That’s another challenge cited – (appropriate) beekeeping doesn’t allow for long get-aways.
Some helpful insight and guidance: The never-ending learning curve can be discouraging, but the climb so very rewarding. Successful beekeeping means embracing that you’re a student for life. Seek educational opportunities through shadowing experienced beekeepers and working with other newbees; it’ll help you move along the curve more quickly. Take advantage of bee clubs, conferences, and the greatest classroom located inside the colony. Having a network of beekeeping buddies not only enhances safety, learning, efficiency and fun, but provides assistance for if you’re unexpectedly out-of-town when key tasks need to be performed.
- There’s a difference between the time required and the time you want to spend. When early-stage beekeepers (or their spouses!) complain about how much unexpected time beekeeping is taking, separate essentials versus options. Well-assembled woodenware: essential. Sports mascots painted on your boxes? Optional. Feeding a new package in the spring? Most experts say that’s essential. Perching next to the hive with a dopey grin on your face to watch bees bring in yellow, purple, forest green and neon red pollen while the bees seemingly don’t care, for hours on end? Optional, but a hard opportunity to pass up.
Some helpful insight and guidance: Embrace that honey bees are absolutely fascinating, and the line between time you want to spend and time required to spend will be blurred. If your schedule is already overwhelmed, this might not be the time in your life for beekeeping.
#12: Why wasn’t I warned there would be so many opinions? (And who do I listen to?)
Beginning beekeepers, eager for advice, seek information on everything … and receive a variety of answers, many of them seemingly conflicting. Beekeeping is frustrating enough without contradictory advice, often presented as fact.
Experienced beekeepers aren’t trying to, well, bee-fuddle. We just all have our opinions because we know what has worked for us, but remember—there are many variables that impact success. Assessing and working with the many variables can be so perplexing that when (eureka!) we think we have finally figured it out, we’ll share our hard-won success. But, that success was based on a particular set of conditions. Someone else’s success is a function of their unique conditions. Neither beekeeper is necessarily wrong for their scenario, but neither approach may work for you … or even for them when their conditions change.
Some helpful insight and guidance: It is largely the nature of a beginning beekeeper to want absolute answers. But, outside of bee biology, there are very few absolutes. When you’re offered (or seek) advice, remember what it really is. Advice is generally NOT an absolute “here’s what to do” but rather “here’s what has worked for me in this situation”. Your own growing logbook will help guide you as to what to do year after year.
What’s a true test of good advice? Has that beekeeper experienced repeated success with multiple colonies, across multiple seasons in an environment comparable to yours?
#11: How do I successfully overwinter?
I think this challenge almost made the top 10 because so many people lose their bees over the winter. Colony losses occur year-round, but most of them occur in the winter. Finding a dead colony in spring is disheartening and discouraging (see #15 previously), and largely preventable.
A common early-stage beekeeping mistake is to start thinking about overwintering in fall (or winter). Overwintering success requires preparation long before the first snowflake (or no forage season, or however “winter” occurs in your geographic area).
Regardless of what winter looks like in your area, one universal principle enhances overwintering success: healthy bees. Especially in late summer and fall, the workforce needs to be strong and vibrant to fill the cupboards and raise healthy young who can successfully overwinter.
Often losing their colonies the first few years, early-stage beekeepers search for magical insights. Hive color, wrapping or not wrapping, screened bottom boards or solid bottoms, upper entrances or quilt boxes or sugar blocks and candy boards – they all can play a role in supporting overwintering success … IF bees are healthy.
Some helpful insight and guidance: Healthy bees all season.
Also, join your local club and work with area beekeepers to know the typical overwintering practices in your area. This will include such considerations as how much honey to leave, the use of quilt boxes, and wrapping.
#10: How do I keep my bees from leaving?
There are two predominant reasons bees leave their hive. Bees can swarm when they are crowded (more common), or they can abscond when conditions aren’t tenable (more rare). A swarm is when about half the bees leave, generally in response to a variety of swarming triggers, and is the way bees naturally propagate. When absconding, almost all the bees leave the hive at the same time, likely in response to their determination that their living situation is unworkable. An absconding colony and a swarming colony appear the same outside the hive: your investment in a cluster often too far up a tree or flying across your yard.
Bees leaving their home is disheartening, but first understand whether they absconded, or swarmed. Chances are it is a swarming event, and yes, even first year bees swarm.
This paper is a robust but highly engaging read on the causes of swarming.
There’s so much to consider and understand that it’s required reading for me every spring.
Absconding generally occurs in the fall—in response to a high disease burden, an untenable living situation (perhaps a tree recently decimated their living quarters), etc. However, in the couple hundred installs I’ve worked with over a decade, I’ve seen a handful of times when bees absconded shortly after installation. To hopefully minimize the very small chance your new package will abscond, reduce the entrance to the smallest size (weather permitting), making heating / cooling / guarding more manageable. Having feed at the ready is also supportive of helping the bees more quickly set up house.
#9: Why didn’t anyone tell me this would cost so much?
Beekeeping can be surprisingly expensive, in dollars as well as time and space requirements. Too many beginning beekeepers lamented they were misled by manufacturer-supplier claims, like the big box store’s $150 “all you need to keep bees” kit … which is actually so far from it! The kit provides a single hive body, which will (hopefully!) be outgrown by a new colony in about two months, and doesn’t include the bees, necessary tools, or protective wear. The true “all you need” investment is generally three-to-four times higher.
Some helpful insight and guidance: Knowledge is power. There are many excellent social media offerings from bee clubs and other established organizations outlining comprehensively what you need, what’s nice to have, and potential costs.
Also keep in mind that, like golfing or boating, there’s a substantial upfront cost to starting this hobby, but significantly smaller annual costs.
Many bee equipment suppliers have starter bundles, which include lots of components–not all of which you might need or use. Understanding various components and the pros and cons of each, as outlined in social media presentations, will help guide whether that bundle is a bargain or not. Also, please consider that the starter bundle is typical only for starting. It usually doesn’t include varroa mite testing equipment or really helpful later season components like a robbing screen or in-hive feeder.
Another sizable investment is honey processing equipment. The majority of first year colonies, consumed by building comb, will not yield sufficient honey for harvesting. This investment may not be needed until a later year. Other beekeepers, beekeeping suppliers and bee clubs may also offer honey processing equipment or facilities for rent.
Finally, this may be a hobby you love and there’s plenty of things that make it more enjoyable, like additional protective wear so you can share your enthusiasm, cute honey labels for when you finally have enough, pollinator trees for the backyard. As you fall in love with beekeeping, establish a realistic budget.
#8: Hive equipment is so confusing—what do I need?
Mediums, hive bodies, 8-frame deep boxes, 10-frame brood chambers —all names for essentially different sizes of the same thing (the boxes in which bees live). Toss in other terms unique to beekeeping (queen excluder, top bar hive, bottom board, entrance reducer, robbing screen, Warre, just to name a few) and yes, it is confusing!
Some helpful insight and guidance: Again, knowledge is power. Research plenty, and start with standard, popular equipment sizes based on the Langstroth hive configuration. You’ll find readily available equipment and more beekeepers who can advise how to manage bees in this configuration. Most equipment suppliers offer Langstroth starter kits at appropriate prices.
While hive bodies come in many different widths, the two most popular Langstroth widths are 8- and 10-frame. Commit to a width as everything for that hive will need to match that width. The pros and cons of the width and the various heights of the boxes vary by beekeeper needs and aren’t substantive. I personally committed initially to 10-frame, but evolved to 8-frame for easier lifting as I slowly replaced boxes through natural attrition over the years.
Again, take advantage of the many instructional offerings for insights on what you need to get started.
#7: How do I ever find the queen?
This is a common beginner challenge (and complaint!) When I learned the “secret”, my hive inspections became much more efficient and pleasant.
The secret? You rarely need to find the queen, you just need to find evidence that you have a queen doing what she’s supposed to be doing (and not accidentally kill her during your hive manipulations!)
What’s a queen supposed to be doing? During the active season, she should be laying one egg per cell, positioned in the bottom middle of the cell. No other bee can do that consistently. If you find that, the colony has had a properly mated queen within the last three days. Finding her majesty is not required, and it isn’t the full answer anyway, as you may find a queen but she isn’t yet mated (a fairly unusual example).
Thus, inspect for evidence of a queen. Eggs can be difficult to spot (especially for older or newer beekeepers). If you don’t find eggs, look for larvae. Larvae tell you you’ve had a queen within the last nine days. Also look for sealed (capped) worker brood (the brood that is flat and smooth, not bumpy like a pencil eraser and well-delineated). If you only find sealed worker brood (not also eggs or larvae), that defines that you’ve had a queen within the last 21-ish days. Note that in your hive log, and circle back in about a week to check. Chances are your colony is fine, you just couldn’t find the queen, eggs, or larvae that day.
#6: Why didn’t anyone tell me there was so much to learn?!
There’s a reason that most early-stage beekeepers lose lots of bees the first few years: there’s a lot to learn! Also because there are so many opinions out there on what to do, there can be a lot to unlearn if you go down an inappropriate path for your geographic area or colony conundrum.
Some helpful insight and guidance: Accept that the learning curve is long and steep (and rewarding as you climb it). If setbacks and failures are too frustrating, or if studying and digging for root causes isn’t your thing, beekeeping may not be for you.
#5: Small hive beetles, gross!
Blame it on that arduous learning curve, but while a beginning beekeeper is trying to learn about bee biology, their local nectar flows, and how to keep the smoker going, there’s an opportunistic insect trying to gain a foothold in their colony: the small hive beetle (SHB).
Some helpful insight and guidance: Keep your colonies strong, and extract your honey almost immediately. While SHB is generally more of a concern in southern regions, knowing to look for copious SHB, and then deploying the variety of traps and remediation measures if needed will help keep them off your list of things of which you were regretfully unaware.
#4: A mentor would have made this so much easier.
Sigh, absolutely. But finding a good mentor is yet another challenge. Look to your local bee club and other area beekeeping association programs for coverage of key topics. Due to Covid and the evolution of social media, there’s much more accessible and quality information on the internet. Just be sure who you’re following is experienced for successfully keeping bees, across several seasons in your area.
#3: I didn’t realize how much I needed to care about varroa.
Have I mentioned that the beekeeping learning curve is steep? ☺ New beekeepers typically feel they are challenged enough without needing to also learn the biology of a bee parasite. But, varroa are an international honey bee crisis. Understanding the explosive impact varroa have, their lifecycle and how to use it to help keep varroa under control is essential to bee health and thus, essential to beekeeping … yes, starting the first year.
Many responders shared how they were misled about varroa. For example, they were told their packages or nucs had been treated for varroa, not realizing it only gained them a month or so maybe before they’d need to test and possibly treat. Others noted how they’d opted for mite-remediation approaches they’d heard about that seemed easier, like painting boxes a certain color, planting rhubarb or sage nearby, or sprinkling powdered sugar on the bees. They wished they’d taken the time to truly understand this insidious pest, instead of relying on anecdotal tales.
Some helpful insight and guidance: Learn about varroa from a qualified source.
This links to other sources across the USA that are top-notch.
Start varroa testing in May or June. You want to become proficient at testing before your colony is so large that it becomes intimidating.
Remember the 15th most common thing that folks wished they’d known in the beginning? How hard it is when your bees die? Understanding and managing varroa will help you avoid that pain.
#2: How do you do this?
In a successful colony at seasonal peak, there are about 50,000 bees flying about. In beekeeping, there are about 50,000 distractions doing the same.
How “you do this” is a combination of a few things. First, know what this is: learning to sustainably keep bees. Other distractions, like properly labeling your honey, producing your own queens, wiring deep frames, making candles—there are plenty of fascinating aspects that aren’t true beekeeping. Focus on bee biology, varroa remediation, and efficient and appropriate hive inspections. Work through the rest in due time.
Second, know from the beginning that beekeeping often feels overwhelming. Part of it is the steep learning curve, part of it is that what there is to learn is ever-expanding. For example, once you understand your local nectar flows, you may want to enhance the forage about your apiary—which launches a study of best nectar plants across the season in your climate and for your social conditions.
Finally, lean on the hive mind. Lots of folks keep bees, only to flounder and fail. Become part of a “hive” and turn to trusted resources for insight, guidance, and assistance.
#1: What is the most often cited thing people wished they’d known in the beginning?
Successful beekeeping demands an unrushed and steady building of knowledge and patience. Following that model, I wasn’t going to just blurt out the top item that people wished they’d known! ☺
As I received and reviewed the swarm of responses to my query, just over one in every ten responses used the same somewhat uncommon root word—variations on “addict”, like addiction, addictive, addicting. Thus, the top thing that folks wished they’d known in the beginning?
Why didn’t anyone warn me how addictive this would be?
Responders described (happily) losing all their garage space to equipment, how their backyard has expanded from two colonies to six with copious, time-demanding gardens, the pride of passing out honey to friends and family, their neighborhood campaigns to eliminate lawn chemical use now that they understood the challenges their bee-loved bees (and all pollinators) face, how stings became a rite of passage, the joy of a successful split, or how they’d never tasted honey as wonderful as what their bees make … examples of an unrelenting addiction they’re glad they have. This tongue-in-cheek lament is typical: “had I realized how hard, frustrating, sweaty, expensive, weekend-consuming this hobby is, I would have started beekeeping years ago. I’m totally addicted.”