Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

Footnotes

  1. Or, perhaps more accurately, a shallow learning curveknowledge (on the vertical axis of the graph) is acquired slowly over time (on the horizontal axis.
  2. Of course, they’re much better equipped than those who haven’t taken any winter training course at all.
  3. There’s one thing I know is missing from this list … any guesses? I’ll mention it at the end of the post.
  4. I’m not going to raise the thorny problem of native vsimported (or other) bees here other than to say if there’s an active native/Buckfast/Carni selection programme locally it would be discourteous to bring something wildly different into the gene pool.
  5. Some chance the crooks who do this will be reading an article like this!
  6. Oxford English Dictionary, 2019.
  7. This isn’t the place to discuss whether they are livestock or not, from a legal perspective … the definition includes the terms ‘domestic’ and ‘farm’, neither of which necessarily apply – to bees or even livestock.
  8. Though there are provisions in the act to extend it to include invertebrates and there are well-established precedents for cuttlefish and octopi which – for experimental purposes – are legally protected molluscs.
  9. What’s missing from the list of responsibilities? It’s environmental responsibility … a hot-topic when you consider competition between honey bees and other pollinators, and the possibility of pathogen spillover between species.

29 thoughts on “Responsibilities

  1. Greg

    All so true…Excellent post as usual. When your notification hits my inbox, it’s the first thing I read. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. James Reid

    You are right of course about the need for pre-tutoring to prepare new beekeepers. However, where I think some associations could do better is to organise a system of mentors for new or under-confident beekeepers. I think a donation to the association funds by the newbee for say, a minimum of 5 on-site coaching sessions with the new beekeeper’s colony/ies, would work well. Everyone, including the public and the bees, would be a winner. It would of course depend on whether experienced beekeepers would be prepared to give a few hours up each season to support.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello James
      I’ve discussed mentoring at length previously. The responsibilities beekeepers have are related but different. Many people start beekeeping without being properly aware of the commitment that it takes. Part of this commitment reflects the responsibilities of looking after bees in an area with other beekeepers and the public. Mentoring is more about training the individual, though of course good mentoring will help reinforce these responsibilities.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Liz Bates

    In our Branch we run a mentoring system, and this proved really valuable to me when I first started…I never ever felt unsupported, and it made all the difference. I’ve now mentored others and love doing it. You can talk bees without becoming a bee-bore, and letting other people handle your bees makes you very focused on getting things just right. They can see how different colonies behave with maybe one that is a bit lively, another that is more defensive, yet another that is a bit dozy. By visiting their bees, you can compare yours with theirs – a win-win situation that I really enjoy, and allows them to keep bees perhaps a bit earlier than would otherwise be sensible – whilst enjoying the spring build-up.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Liz
      As I replied to James (above), mentoring and having an awareness of the responsibilities of beekeepers are two slightly different things. Good mentoring should help develop better beekeepers – and it’s something I both benefitted from and try and contribute to – however, an awareness of the responsibilities of keeping bees is really needed before mentoring starts. Ideally, before bees are acquired.
      However well-intentioned, mentoring can also break down – too far, out-of-sync diaries etc. – but even in its absence beekeepers still have responsibilities; to their bees, their fellow beekeepers and the public. If they’re unwilling to take these seriously, they should consider whether beekeeping is really the hobby for them.
      Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers (WLBK) have an excellent mentoring scheme and a really committed group of mentors. I certainly benefitted from it. However, WLBK have the luxury of a big membership and a relatively high density of beekeepers in the geographic area.Other associations are less fortunate. One I’m a member of has meetings over 50 miles (90 minutes) away and the geographic density of beekeepers is so low (Beebase lists 1 apiary within 10km of me … compare that to ~250 within 10km of the WLBK training apiary!). Under these circumstances mentoring is much harder to arrange. All the more reason that trainee (and more experienced) beekeepers are aware of their responsibilities …
      Happy New Year
      David

      Reply
  4. Roger Gill

    Fascinating, as always, but why is this post tagged “Parkfield Labour Club” and “Critchon Honey” ?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Ah ha! Someone reads the tags! Critchon Honey is a named cultivar of dahlia and the Parkfield Labour Club are the current Crown Green Bowl world champions. Just a bit of fun 🙂
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
        1. David Post author

          Aargh! Mea culpa! A beekeeping dahlia grower … who’d have thought? I barely have enough time to grow weeds and keep bees. I’d better also go and check my crown green bowls references … while I correct the dahlia link 😉
          With thanks
          David

          Reply
  5. Alan Jones

    Good Post, David, I am a firm believer in been mentored or ‘serving’ an apprenticeship with an experience beekeeper for at least 18 months before getting your first bees
    Alan

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alan
      I’ve previously suggested that a good way to organise mentoring would be for new beekeepers to ‘help’ a more experienced one for a season. If within that time the new beekeeper gets experience in splitting a nuc off a strong hive (which the mentor sells to the newbie if needed) and then monitors the colony as it builds up, is moved to a full hive and then prepares it for the winter they’ll have got a full season of experience AND have their own bees for the following season.

      Eighteen months would undoubtedly ensure lots of experience, but it might feel like a lifetime to the new beekeeper.

      Whatever the duration, high quality mentoring is probably the biggest help to the development of a new beekeeper.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Dave Stokes

    Thanks David for another well considered article.
    Our club has often commented that it’s the chat that goes with the tea and biscuits which then spills over into the shared car journey home that’s important.

    Reply
  7. Karl Kusta

    Great article and totally share your views. My wife and I are yet to open a hive, we are just about to start our beginners course………. love winter holidays not summer ones :-)………and naturally are eagerly awaiting our bees.
    Hopefully we will become responsible, courteous, knowledgeable and successful beekeepers.
    Thank you and keep the articles coming!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Karl
      Skiing or winter climbing are great holiday choices for beekeepers. However, it’s not impossible to have holidays during the (bee) season, as long as you’ve got a good feel for what the colonies are going to do in your absence (and make some preparations for them). Alternatively, do what some beekeepers do and fly to New Zealand for a busman’s holiday looking at bees and Manuka honey production during ‘our’ winter.
      Enjoy your beginners course and – in due course – your bees. Exciting times ahead 🙂
      Have a great season
      David

      Reply
  8. Jeremy Quinlan

    Excellent! I have been attempting teach beekeeping for 20 years. This is the best summary of the problems those new to the craft – and those who teach them – face that I have seen.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Jeremy
      I’m pleased you think it ‘hits the spot’. I’ve deliberately omitted environmental responsibilities as I think that area is both more contentious and more complicated. I’ll deal with it sometime in the future.
      Happy New Year
      David

      Reply
  9. Bob Smith

    David, a subject close to my heart – keeping bees does involve the responsibilities you outline and I like to use the term “stock-keeper” to encapsulate our animal welfare responsibilities. When I started out last century(!) it was not uncommon to hear the question of beekeepers “How many stocks do you have?”

    Under “responsibilities to our fellow beekeepers”, I often make more of the fact that most of the sometimes hugely inconvenient swarm collection that we do is because other beekeepers are not doing swarm control (or cast control). Responsible beekeepers have to clear up after irresponsible beekeepers.

    Useful post as we embark on this year’s beginners course, thanks.
    PS Nice dahlias, singles would be better!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Bob
      ‘Stock-keeper’ is a good term. It’s still not unusual to be asked how many stocks you have (but perhaps I mainly meet 20th Century beekeepers?!).

      You make a good point about swarms. I know I missed a couple this year. My fault entirely. However, I usually do much better and over the last half dozen years have caught/hived far, far more than I’ve lost.

      One of the things that really irritates me is the “natural” beekeeping-types who promote just letting the bees swarm. This strikes me as grossly irresponsible and totally ignores the inconvenience, irritation (and potentially expense) that these swarms cause. I’ll be discussing so-called “natural” beekeeping sometime later this year … possibly under the title of “Leave and let die”.

      I’m presuming a single dahlia doesn’t mean just one? 😉
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Dave Stokes

        While I fully appreciate your point about “natural” beekeeping types, I must mention one of our club (West Linton Be Keepers’ Association (WLBKA)) members who believes in letting his bees swarm. He is not the usual type of let-alone beekeeper but very passionate and experienced. His apiary has both a couple of “swarming posts” and a couple of bait hives; he knows when his bees are going to swarm and is there waiting for them when they do. After hiving the prime swarm he culls the queen cells in the mother colony to prevent casts.

        I’m quite sure that he loses less swarms than I do with my more conventional methods and
        I, personally, wouldn’t wouldn’t dream of working the way he does as I have neither the time nor the competence.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Dave
          I think your last sentence sums this situation up very well (and it applies to me as well) … insufficient time and competence.
          I don’t doubt that what you describe is a workable solution for an experienced beekeeper with ample time on his/her hands. There are few things in beekeeping more impressive than a large swarm emerging and assembling. However, I suspect that 90% of beekeepers lack the necessary time and competence … and that if they tried they’d consistently lose swarms due to their absence at the critical moment (and inability to identify the critical moment).
          I know some beekeepers cull unwanted queens on the same apiary fencepost in the hope/expectation that this is where new swarms will assemble. I don’t know how reliable a method this is. I always have a bait hive nearby and – contrary to popular opinion – most swarms preferentially travel short distances to set up a new home.
          Simply letting them swarm isn’t the problem, it’s letting them swarm and losing the swarm … I’ll have to try and add this caveat in when I come back to this topic in the future (particularly if I’m giving an evening talk on this in the Borders!).
          There are some great videos online of skep beekeeping practices which include capturing swarms in net bags as they issue from the skep.
          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  10. Neil Ford

    I’m a novice of 3 years and as well as being a member of a local association that have supported with lots of the points in your article, I use your website as much as any of my books for reference. Thanks for taking the time to help all of us newbies!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Happy to help Neil … it’s not only newbies that need to be aware of these responsibilities. There are some experienced beekeepers who arrogantly and wilfully ignore some of them completely.
      Good to know you have a supportive local association. It adds an extra dimension of camaraderie, help and insight to being a beekeeper.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  11. Emily

    Your blog is a great source of advice both for beginners and those trying to progress from beginning. I’m thinking about getting into selling a couple of nucs next year as a way to cover some of my beekeeping costs (not into selling honey!). Maybe then I could afford six weeks in the Maldives…

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily
      Overwintered nucs go for a premium price … but still not enough for 6 weeks in the Maldives 😉 It’s certainly an easier way to recoup costs than extracting, bottling, labelling and selling honey (the ‘exchange rate being very approximately 1 nuc = 30 jars).

      Selling small numbers of nucs is pretty straightforward but you’ll have to decide what to do about the box … sell it with the colony, returnable deposit or disposable? Not an insurmountable problem. Don’t rely on the boxes being returned promptly!

      My overwintering nucs look very good this winter, but there’s still a long time to go …

      Happy New Year
      David

      Reply
      1. Emily

        Ah well, given six weeks in the Maldives all my bees would have swarmed anyway! Was thinking about selling the bees in poly nucs so that the buyer keeps the box and then buying replacement poly nucs in the winter sales, less to-ing and fro-ing that way. Do you sell yours?

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Emily
          That’s a good way to do it except for the faff of painting the replacement poly nucs. You also have to include the cost of the box in the price, which might put some purchasers off (though it shouldn’t as a poly nuc box will always come in useful). A returnable deposit covering the price of the box is a slightly more flexible way of achieving the same thing.
          I’ve not sold bees for a couple of years but regularly did in the past. However, I’ve got a few overwintering this season with the expectation of selling them in the Spring after I know how my other stocks have done. When I last checked they looked great and the Varroa levels in them were vanishingly low, which was reassuring.
          Cheers
          David

          Reply

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