So, You Think You Want to be a Beekeeper…

So you want to be a beekeeper! You’ll do your part to save the bees, and you’ll have honey on your toast every morning, right?

My name is Ed Colby. I’m the president of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association (2016-2020) and a longtime columnist for Bee Culture magazine. Now take a deep breath, please, because before you get started. I have some good news, and I have some bad news.

First, the bad news: There is nothing on Earth easier than failing at beekeeping.  By “failing” I mean allowing your bees to die.

Beekeeping requires some fundamental knowledge about honey bees and how to care for them. Short of working for a commercial beekeeper, the best first step for a beginner is to take a course taught by a competent teacher. In Colorado, lots of regional bee clubs, plus universities like Montana State and Penn State, teach such courses, either in-person or online. But a little education still isn’t going to be enough to get your bees through their first year. Beekeeping requires time-consuming dedication.  Getting bees is not like getting a kitten. If your bees are to live and thrive, you’re going to have to do some work.  In the summer this means checking on your bees every 10-14 days. You might like to take vacations, but your bees do not. If you place a hive in your backyard and don’t take care of it, you’re not “saving the bees.” You’re killing them, because parasitic Varroa mites will eat them alive, creating wounds that vector the transmission of deadly viruses.

Varroa mites are an invasive species relatively new to the United States. All bee hives in the U.S. harbor them. These reddish, pinhead-sized critters normally attach themselves to the undersides of adult bees, so they’re pretty hard to spot. There are ways to determine if mite populations have reached levels that threaten the health of the hive, but they are time-consuming and require not only education but a can-do determination on the part of the beekeeper. None of this is easy.

Left unchecked, Varroa mite infestations normally peak in the fall, when mite numbers continue to grow, just as a honey bee colony reduces its bee population in preparation for winter. In other words, the ratio of mites to bees increases. The colony now likely succumbs to one or more viruses. As its mite-ridden bee population dwindles, opportunistic bees from neighboring hives raid the collapsing colony, feasting on honey and picking up hitchhiking mites that they bring back to their own hive.

You as a fledgling beekeeper will be forced to make a conscious or unconscious choice. Do nothing to reduce the mite population in your hives, and your bees will likely not make it through their first winter.   Even if your colony is headed by an extraordinary queen who imparts above-average mite resistance to her workers, its being “Varroa bombed” by collapsing mite-ridden hives in your neighborhood can and likely will, seal its doom.

Your other option is to use formic and oxalic acids, thymol, hops derivatives, synthetic chemicals, or even mechanical means to kill mites. It can be a messy business. Some treatments are more effective than others. Some work only at certain times of the year. You need to be careful not to contaminate the honey. All of this costs time and money.

You can search for queens that impart a level of mite resistance to their offspring, but I recommend you get a little experience before you tackle this. The thing to remember is that sooner, not later,  you will surely face serious challenges from mites, and a failure on your part to act on behalf of your bees can spell curtains for the innocent creatures in your charge. Some people consider this animal abuse.

You don’t like the sound of this, do you? I don’t like it either. If your passion to keep bees is anything short of red-hot, and you still want to help pollinators, maybe there’s a better path for you. You could plant a bee-friendly garden, or advocate for stronger pesticide restrictions, or join an environmental organization devoted to pollinators, like the Xerces Society. You can help bees without owning any.

For those of you still determined to keep bees there is, however, some good news. If you’re willing to commit yourself, you can thread the needle and learn to keep your bees alive. It will be more work than you ever imagined. But if — and only if —  you have the fire in your belly, you can do it, and CSBA can help.

If you’re easily discouraged, you’ll never make it, because failure is part of the learning curve. But if you’re willing to learn, if you’re willing to fall flat on your face and get up and have another go, if bees haunt your daydreams, if you put your heart and soul into this noble craft, you might find you have the right stuff.

The world doesn’t need more beekeepers. It needs more good ones.