Some Harsh Lessons of Beekeeping, by Keith K.

I would like to share my experience with beekeeping to help others decide if it might be for them. My initial interest in beekeeping began before I moved to the Redoubt. My wife and I attended a beekeeping night at a local library and later took a four-day (four Saturdays) beekeeping course. We learned a lot. We found that beekeeping hobbyists were very enthusiastic and touted the many benefits of beekeeping along with the fun of it. It was very easy to be influenced by all of the positive and energetic people. Ultimately, we decided that beekeeping would be part of our efforts when we found a homestead.

We eventually moved to a homestead in the Redoubt and began the work of transforming a rural plot of timber with an old, overgrown pasture into our version of a homestead. We began by planting a small garden (including both traditional and raised beds), berry bushes, and fruit trees and installing a deer fence to keep the larger critters away from our efforts. We also purchased a small 8 x 10 greenhouse for starting plants and storing tools.

I offered my services as free labor to a local commercial beekeeper in order to learn more about bees first hand. It was a great experience and very hard work. One day, the two of us collected over 400 pounds of honey from about fifty hives located in different locations around the county. I knew right then that I did not want to be a commercial beekeeper, but I was very thankful for the experience. I eventually purchased the equipment I would need to maintain two hives on my property at a cost of approximately $500, which included hive bodies, tools, smoker, bee suits, feeders, et cetera. The following spring, I purchased two nucs (nuclear hives) for about $125 each. A nuc is a starter colony with five frames already drawn and populated with larva (or filled with honey and pollen). Package bees are less costly but are only the bees with queen, so the colony must start from scratch.

We brought the nucs home in early April, so I had to feed the bees until flowers began to emerge in quantity toward the end of May. I tried various methods of feeding the bees with different types of feeders. There were pros and cons to each. Some were messy. Some drowned more bees than others, and some required daily refilling, while others allowed for a more hands off approach. One thing I learned during this period was that beekeeping is not always the “put ’em in place and leave ’em alone, there’s no effort to it” hobby that so many of the enthusiastic hobbyists had led me to believe.

All was going well into early August. Both hives were collecting pollen and making honey at a good rate. Then, one day, I noticed that one hive had more bees flying around it than the other. There seemed to be no diseases and there appeared to be brood on the frames. I asked my friend, the commercial beekeeper, to inspect the hives. The conclusion was that one of the nucs I had purchased had a queen that was only laying drones (male bees who only have one purpose– mating with queens. They do not labor to benefit the hive, like workers which are all female. This meant that workers were not being created to replace those that died from age or loss while out foraging. One solution would have been to re-queen the colony (a new queen can run about $30) and another was to kill the bad queen and let the colony raise a new one. The colony knew it was in trouble and had already begun to raise a new queen, so I decided to take that option to see what would happen. The eventual outcome was that the newly raised queens either died or did not mate, and that colony died out in late August. I chose this path without input from the commercial beekeeper, which was a bad decision. In hindsight, I have figured out that if the bad queen was only laying drones, the remaining workers’ efforts to raise a replacement queen were doomed from the start because the selected larva, even if fed royal jelly (a substance bees use to transform a worker larva into a queen larva), was likely missing the right bee DNA to produce a viable queen.

The other colony had been doing well. Bees were everywhere, and they seemed very strong, so I only checked on them every two weeks. During one inspection, in September, I noticed that there were considerably fewer bees in and around the hive. We determined that the hive had swarmed, meaning that the queen decided to move elsewhere and take half of the workers with her. Swarming is not uncommon. The remaining bees were attempting to create a replacement queen, but that late in the season it was unlikely that they would succeed in time for her to mate. I also was not able to locate a queen to purchase that late in the season either, so that hive also died out.

Throughout this experience, I also found that the first, weaker colony was under constant pressure from ants and yellow jackets. (A strong, healthy hive can deal with these attacks, but weaker colonies struggle from the pressure.) I learned about and employed a number of actions to discourage the ants and yellow jackets. These efforts were mostly but not completely successful.

The many, enthusiastic beekeepers I had met always said to begin with at least two hives in case one did not survive. Still, the “insurance” of a second hive did not work for me. Perhaps it was just bad luck, or perhaps I was a failure as a bee dad, but the end result was loss of the productive part of my investment. After much reflection, I decided that beekeeping was not for me, and I sold my equipment to another individual who wanted to give beekeeping a try.

Finally, the reason I am sharing this experience is to provide the following for consideration by anyone thinking about beekeeping:

  1. If all goes well, you will be able to harvest honey and add pollinators that will presumably help with your fruit and vegetable success.
  2. Beekeepers, particularly hobbyists, will simply gush with enthusiasm, because they love the hobby. They will also tell you bees are very little work. I found beekeeping interesting and approached it as something beneficial to the homestead but not as a hobby that I enjoyed. I actually found bees, like other livestock, to be a lot of work. To me, the bees were just another chore; maybe that is why I did not make it as a bee dad. Hobbyists, in contrast, love their chosen hobby and do not view any of the upkeep as work.
  3. I had a 100% loss rate. The commercial beekeeper that I worked with told me that his colony loss rate is in the 60% range, due to disease, predators, weather, environmental issues, et cetera. What other livestock has such a high mortality rate? My guess is that mortality rates may be less in warmer areas, but even a 30% loss rate would be huge in comparison to other livestock.
  4. I found that my area has strong populations of native pollinators (other bee species, bumble bees, certain types of flies, butterflies, and so forth). I discovered that I did not need honey bees to ensure good pollination for my garden. Although honey would be a nice benefit, the bees’ work is not necessary in my area. I suspect that honeybees, which are not native to North America, are viewed as necessary for pollination of crops because factory farming has destroyed environments suitable to maintain thriving populations for native pollinators. That is probably true in areas mostly devoid of natural habitat because of large-scale farming. This is just an informed observation; it’s not meant to be an attack on farming. No flames, please.
  5. There are alternatives to honeybees. As mentioned earlier, there are natural pollinators. Also, orchard bees can be purchased to add to the native pollinator population in your area. Orchard bees do not produce honey and do not require hives. They are purchased in tubes that serve as their home or as individual cocoons, if you want to populate tubes or other nest sites that you already have. I have not purchased orchard bees but understand that they are an alternative to honeybees without the upkeep.
  6. In making my decision not to put further effort into honeybees, I considered whether the benefits of honeybees were worth the effort and expense to maintain them. I also considered that with the high mortality rate, would honeybees be a reliable source of food (honey) and pollination in a TEOTWAWKI situation in which bee medicines, bee food (pollen patties, sugar for syrup, et cetera) would be hard to find or not available at all. I concluded that, for me, keeping honeybees was not worth the time, effort, and expense.

I did not write about my experiences to discourage anyone from becoming a beekeeper. I just decided that I would share my experiences so that others will be better informed in their decision to keep bees or not.