Why keep bees

Synopsis : What makes people want to start beekeeping? Is it to Save the bees, or because they just like honey? Is their persistence and long-term success influenced by their initial motivation to keep bees. Do they keep beekeeping for the same reasons they start beekeeping?

Introduction

Hundreds of potential new beekeepers, spread across the country, are now enrolled on ’Beekeeping for beginners’ or ’Start beekeeping’ events. In the next few weeks they will take weekly or weekend theory courses.

Life cycle, swarming, the hive, Varroa, foulbroods, candles, honey … the whole nine yards 1.

They will read and re-read every page in the Thorne’s catalogue until they can recite it verbatim.

If they’re sensible they will not ’splash the cash’ until they can discriminate between what they actually need, what they might want (but not need), and what will be a total waste of money  2.

With luck, and a responsible beekeeping association, they will be appointed a mentor to provide help, advice, reassurance, cups of tea, a starter nucleus of bees, cake, commiserations and/or antihistamines 3.

It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot to learn 4 and so every reason to be a little apprehensive.

And, if they’re not, perhaps they should be?

In April they should get to see inside a hive.

Will they experience the same heady combination of wonder and bewilderment that I still sometimes feel when lifting a crownboard?

For some it will be a truly life-changing experience 🙂

For others it will confirm that they should have never taken the course in the first place 🙁

But for most it will be something in between.

I’ve often wondered whether the reaction during these early apiary sessions, and the subsequent beekeeping progress, is related to their original motivation to keep bees.

In the beginning

I don’t remember why I was interested in beekeeping. Other than my grandmother, there was no history of beekeeping in my family, and I don’t think my gran kept bees for many years.

I have a faint memory of a couple of lovely WBC hives on a patch of grass overlooking the valley, but never discussed them with her or did anything other than watch the bees going in and out.

When I signed up for a ’Start beekeeping’ course I knew less than nothing about beekeeping or beehives. I didn’t know about removable frames, or supers, or anything about plants or nectar or forage 5.

In fact, I didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was actually inside a beehive, other than a heck of a lot of bees.

However, I was interested in bees.

With a background and education in biology and employment as a biologist 6 I was always fascinated by living things. I’d read Konrad Lorenz and some other books on animal behaviour, I knew a bit about communication in higher animals and I’d heard – and probably been taught the rudiments of – the waggle dance.

I also had a sweet tooth and a long history of starting things enthusiastically and then – over time – moving on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to life/hobbies/jobs 7 though it can get rather expensive if those interests are sports cars or yachts.

As it turns out … it can also get quite expensive if your interests are bees 🙁

Save the bees, save humanity

I started keeping bees well over a decade ago 8. This was a long time before the marketing departments and rent-a-hive greenwashers had realised that there was serious money in honey bees.

Not in beefarming per se but in using honey bees as a sort of environmental imprimatur. If a product states it is bee friendly, or has ’Save the bees’ stamped on it, sales will increase.

Or it will sell at a higher price … or both.

Assuming the (inevitable) illustration used to decorate the product is recognisable, it will probably be a honey bee.

Define ‘recognisable’

Equally inevitably, this constant reinforcement means that the public 9 start to believe that honey bees are threatened and that their numbers are declining.

The reality of course is that honey bee numbers are actually increasing (globally, though not necessarily in all countries), and have been for at least the last 50 years. That doesn’t mean they’re not threatened 10 … but they’re hardly in imminent danger of disappearing.

But at least some decide that the best way to Save the bees’ would be to start beekeeping.

That wasn’t what made me want to start, but I know it’s motivation for some.

Responsible beekeeping associations should stress the potential impact competition from honey bees may have on wild pollinators … those who take up beekeeping to ’Save the bees’ may be doing precisely the opposite.

And those who start and then abandon their bees, leaving hives containing Varroa-ridden colonies to re-infest the neighbourhood, are definitely not Saving the bees … or humanity.

Self sufficiency

Beekeeping often appeals to people who want to be at least vaguely self-sufficient … in much the same way as keeping chickens or growing carrots does. Subconsciously, this may well have been the driver that encouraged me to sign up for a winter course on keeping bees.

I’d always wanted to keep chickens and had already failed spectacularly at growing carrots 11.

My attempts at allotment self-sufficiency had been marred by copious amounts of ground elder, a prolonged drought and frequent overseas travel. Surely beekeeping would be less time-consuming?

I’m beginning to realise it isn’t 😉

But the great thing about beekeeping is that – with a bit of effort – you can do better than achieve self-sufficiency.

I’ve been self-sufficient in honey since my first summer. Unless you eat vast amounts of the stuff it would be difficult not to be.

But the great thing about honey is that it’s a highly valued 12 product, with a long shelf-life.

Not unlike gold … liquid gold.

Honey

Honey

And, like gold, other people value it.

Gifts for dinner parties, thank-yous for the loan of a log splitter, even payment for odd jobs. I’ve used honey for all these things in the last couple of months.

A surplus of honey also opens up a wonderful world of barter and exchange. A jar of honey for some fresh eggs, or to help reduce the glut of runner beans or carrots, is both enriching and saves me the grief of digging and watering an allotment.

Not only is this a compelling reason to start beekeeping, it also means you get to meet like-minded people who are actually good at keeping chickens or growing carrots, and they are almost always interesting to chat with.

Profit

Are you mad?

I’m sure many amateur beekeepers think they make (at least some) money from their bees, and some probably do.

But they are beekeepers, not accountants 13.

Have they factored in the outgoings as well as the income? The cost of their time, the petrol for the van, the ongoing costs of frames and foundation and Apivar?

The losses, the bad years, the bad back?

Winter losses

Over my (relatively short) beekeeping career only about one year in four provides a real bonanza of honey. In the years you don’t run out of supers and honey buckets, you still have the same effort and outgoings. Or possibly more of both.

Even taking these things into account, I’m sure it’s possible to make some money … but would it be enough to live on?

I’ve discussed my back-of-an-envelope attempt at determining the economics of amateur beekeeping. I don’t claim it’s close to accurate, but it does give an idea of just how little ‘profit’ might be made per hive in a poor year, or conversely, how many hives you’d have to run to make more than the state pension.

I’m sure there are a few 14 individuals who take a ’Start beekeeping’ course with the dream of making a good living from bee farming.

I suspect rather few achieve their ambition 🙁

And one of the reasons it’s unlikely to be achieved is that beekeeping – at least beekeeping well – is difficult. It might seem easy in principle, or in a book (or from a website 😉 ), or during a Start beekeeping’ course, but in practice it can seem like an intractable combination of art, science and witchcraft.

Why I keep bees now

Which explains at least part of my ongoing fascination with bees and beekeeping.

There is always something more to learn.

I’ve written before that there is rarely, if ever, a trip to the apiary that does not result in me learning something new. Or learning that my current understanding of some aspect of beekeeping is inadequate, and that there is therefore more to know.

Which, of course, is half the trick about learning … if you realise what you don’t know, you’ll be alert for an opportunity to fill the gap(s) in your knowledge.

And part of the reason there’s so much to learn is that every season is different.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

The weather varies; cold springs, hard winters, wet summers … all change the times that nectars and pollens are available, so influencing colony development.

Or the farmers get less subsidy for cattle feed and more for biofuel, so they abandon growing field beans and start growing more oil seed rape.

Our colonies respond by swarming earlier, or later, or (typically) at the time we’re least expecting.

Keeping bees means I am more in tune with the rhythm of the seasons.

I’m more aware of the arrival and departure of migrant birds, the flowering of trees or when the mackerel shoals appear in the loch. Most of this is subconscious, assisted by a little bit of note taking in my hive records:

April 10 : Colony #21 Q #7 : Gorse and late willow pollen, 5+ frames BIAS 15, first cuckoo of the season

All of which is actually rather nice. You become acutely aware of the environment around you. This provides an invaluable ‘grounding’ if your weekly existence usually involves shuttling between an air conditioned office and an air conditioned car 16.

Zen and the science of honey bees

I’ve worked on the biology of honey bee viruses for over a decade. The ability to mix ‘work and (p)leisure’ has been great. I’m certain that being a beekeeper has enabled me to write more successful funding applications 17.

My beekeeping has certainly helped my scientific interactions with other beekeepers … the many individuals and associations I’ve scrounged samples from, or who have acted as ‘guinea pigs’ for my PhD student’s projects.

One of the good things about the science of honey bees is that there are some excellent communicators on the subject. Thomas Seeley and Mark Winston are well worth reading, and if you have a subscription to American Bee Journal you can also read Jamie Ellis, Randy Oliver and Wyatt Mangum.

And there are many others.

An understanding of the biology or behaviour of bees can help you understand the science.

Lakes, for example … bees don’t like flying long distances over expanses of water. In fact, if they try to they often crash land in the water and perish. I’ve discussed optic flow and distance measurement by bees in a previous post. The mirror-like lake provides insufficient visual clues crossing their retinas, causing them to fly closer (and closer) to the surface to help estimate speed and distance … and take an early bath.

On a more practical level, the need for regular samples of larvae and pupae for research prompted me to investigate, and eventually build, a bee shed (or three).

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

These have been a revelation for many aspects of beekeeping, and are particularly useful in areas with unpredictable weather, or for beekeepers who only have limited time each week for their bees.

My most recently completed shed has still to accommodate any hives, but will be used for queen rearing in the, er, ’changeable’ climate I now enjoy on the west coast of Scotland.

I didn’t even know that queen rearing was a ‘thing’ when I started beekeeping, but it now brings me more enjoyment than many other aspects of the hobby.

Everyone is interested in bees

Finally, and this might be a byproduct of the Save the bees, save humanity’ marketing hype you see in the supermarket or read in the newspaper, lots of non-beekeepers are interested in bees.

When I used to live in a small village and sell honey ‘from the door’ it would sometimes involve a 45 minute conversation to sell a half pound jar.

My honey sales were earning me less than the national minimum wage 🙁

“Where are your hives? What sort of nectar do they collect? Do they fly far? Is it true that honey is antibacterial? Have you a recipe for thin syrup? 18 Why are honey bees threatened?

Which brings me almost full circle to the start of this rambling discourse …

And, of course, the other question beekeepers are regularly asked is Do you get stung a lot?”

You can play it cool and discuss the rigorous selection criteria you’ve used to produce the benign, laid back, mellow colonies of bees in your hives.

Or you can lay it on thick and make it sound akin to alligator wrestling … in a veil.

You think this croc is feisty? … You should see my Buckfasts

You’ll need to judge the customer to work out which is more likely to generate additional sales.

I now cannot imagine not keeping bees, even though I’m not entirely sure why I started in the first place. They are an integral part of my life, though they are by no means my only pastime/hobby/obsession.

The rhythm of the seasons means that my beekeeping is ever-changing; colony expansion in the spring, queen rearing, the honey harvest, talks, feeding them up for winter, DIY projects, more talks, jarring honey and then starting all over again.

If it was the same thing, week in, week out, I’d have probably given up years ago and kept chickens instead.


 

Footnotes

  1. An idiom that dates back to the mid-19th Century though its etymology is, at best, unclear.
  2. If it pleases the court m’lud … I present exhibit one, the combined hive tool, brush and sugar duster.
  3. And, quite possibly, all of those during the first season … or even one calamitous afternoon in the apiary.
  4. And it won’t be for another decade at least that they will realise they can never know it all.
  5. Even now I’m a bit sketchy on some of these things.
  6. Admittedly in a rather obscure corner of the discipline, at least until Covid arrived.
  7. Actually, other than spouses (where it tends to be frowned upon and/or financially ruinous), it actually makes for a pretty interesting existence.
  8. This sentence needs a comma, somewhere near ‘well’ … take your pick where to place it.
  9. Which is what beekeepers are before they become beekeepers.
  10. They are … by Varroa, viruses, agricultural chemicals, environmental degradation and lousy beekeepers.
  11. Though a combination of neglect and a hot summer produced a bumper crop of onions.
  12. At least by discerning, intelligent and good looking individuals.
  13. Can any beekeepers who are also accountants confirm my prediction that an actual profit is unlikely for many amateur apiarists?
  14. Delusional?
  15. Brood in all stages = eggs, larvae and pupae.
  16. Or Zoom meetings … and Zoom meetings.
  17. At least on bee viruses … I’m less certain it has benefited my applications on some of the more esoteric aspects of virus evolution.
  18. OK, the last one isn’t a typical question, but regular readers will recognise it.

31 thoughts on “Why keep bees

    1. David Post author

      Thanks Archie … you’re absolutely right, Winston. I’ve corrected it.
      I’ll blame my autocorrecting spellchecker, or some other junior ranking nobody round here, rather than actually taking the responsibility myself (though it might have been typing those paragraphs at stupid o’clock this morning!).
      Cheers
      David
      PS See you next week.

      Reply
  1. Iain Dewar

    Very good question David, why do we keep bees? Honey producer, beekeeper, or keeper of bees? I wonder about that a lot myself these days and think I must definitely be the latter. Making money from bees in my experience is just like keeping chickens – tuppence in the mouth for a penny out the **se!! So it’s not for the money. Over time it certainly gives you a great deal of satisfaction, and an infinitely wider and deeper understanding of all things natural and the impact human activity is currently having.
    The heightened interest in bees, or rather the making of money from honey, is concerning, as is the way would be beekeepers are learning the craft and operating. I fear our traditionally skilled and sensitive beekeeping is falling victim to market pressures and the insatiable desire of every TD&H to make money from anything and everything regardless of cost or consequence.
    Hope this year brings something better!
    Iain D

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Iain

      Just today I received an email about “Make huge profits by starting bee farming business: Here’s Step by Step guide”. I’m not going to provide the link as the article was as badly written as the title, and in equally poor English. Anyone who starts and thinks they’re going to make a mint is in for a very rude shock. It’s not something I ever intend to try. Firstly, I couldn’t cope with all the lifting (and I’m reasonably fit and healthy). The number of hives needed to ‘make huge profits’ (or in some years, any profits) would be, literally, back-breaking. Secondly, and much more importantly, I’d be concerned that the enjoyment would be torn out of the activity. I still regularly stand by the hives and watch the bees work … I’d not want anything to spoil that simple enjoyment.

      I also find the emphasis on ‘easy’ beekeeping, like the Flow hive, or automated systems that do all the hive monitoring for you (at a price) a rather depressing development. I’m old fashioned, but my pleasure comes from working with the bees to help the colonies be strong and healthy, by selecting my best bees for rearing new queens, and by doing my best to ensure they overwinter strongly and get a flying start to the season. This takes time and effort and experience … all of which I’m more than willing to make.

      If you’re not, it’s not really beekeeping in my view (or a keeper of bees).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Tom

    Evening David,

    I’ll stick my hive tool in: I started because it’s (proved to be) a fascinating, magical subject, although at the point of signing up to the course in Jan 2020 I knew only the absolute basics. Even after the course I hadn’t seen inside a hive until I’d built one from plans.

    Going forward, I’ll try to maintain four hives of native Irish black honeybees, continue to plant trees, observe and learn. If I make any money from honey, that’s good, but I’ve already blown the autumn profits on the Thorne sale!

    I can’t imagine a home without bees now, either, although I anticipate at least one more “f#£& bees, I’m selling everything” before the end of swarming season.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Tom

      I also cannot imagine a home (or shed) without bees now. Interesting you think you could ‘sell’ them … my feeling is I couldn’t give the bees away that I find the most frustrating!

      Delighted to know that I’m not the only novice who started with almost no knowledge of beekeeping whatsoever. Ignorance is bliss 🙂

      Cheer
      David

      Reply
  3. Ellen Roth

    Your comment about lakes struck me, as I raise bees on a small island in the Puget Sound (Washington state, USA) and assume that they’re foraging on other nearby islands. I assume it’s the water’s mirror-like reflection that’s different? What about waves?!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ellen

      If the water surface is ruffled or has waves they can probably determine how high they are from it and so maintain their altitude and optic flow. Most studies are done in very controlled conditions e.g. bees flying along tunnels, so I’m not sure if there is more science on flight over water.

      I know when I’m out canoeing I regularly see bumble bees flying (or getting blown) across the water, but far less frequently see honey bees.

      Something else to add to my “don’t know” list 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Calum Grigor

        Hi David!
        Fantastic article thank you.
        I think there is excellent money to be made in beekeeping as a side gig. Honey is OK, propolis is really good and selling colonies is the most fun.
        I am looking at setting up a stand in Switzerland as the colony prices are 350chf in the spring.
        A bottle of mead is also a great gift! Body butter is the next line I want to try out.
        I remember starting beekeeping was because I wanted a challenge after stopping sailing, I just wanted to do something quite different. Bought three colonies, found a good book and better mentor. I love mentoring myself, the best way to pay back my mentor.
        Looking forward to drinking a beer with you in Bavaria
        Br
        Calum

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Calum

          Good to hear from you. Certainly there is money to be made, but probably less than the headline figures suggest. Your quoted 350 CHF (presumably for a nucleus colony) is certainly more than the prices over here, but when you factor in the time to make the nuc, the losses for unmated queens, the losses for nucs that didn’t make it through the winter etc, the “profit” is significantly less. I sold quite a lot of bees last year and it was all trouble free. However, in previous years there have been issues with the return of nuc boxes, queens that mysteriously ‘disappeared’ and one or two other minor – but time consuming – problems.

          Queen rearing is something I enjoy and for which there is near-constant demand. It’s not possible to meaningfully compete with the prices of imported queens, but I’m pretty certain it’s possible to produce queens of better quality overall, so justifying the price.

          Propolis is something I intend to try. I’ve bought the coarse mesh screens in preparation, but got distracted moving house last year. I know you’ve been successful with propolis so will pick your brains if and when I get stuck.

          Unlike you, I’m intending to start sailing this year (but I’m not intending to stop beekeeping to make time for the sailing). There is water 100 metres away … it would be rude not to.

          Bavarian bees sounds good 🙂

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
          1. Calum Grigor

            Hi David,
            In the German speaking countries, it is usual that only overwintered colonies are sold in the spring, so 350chf will get you a ten frame colony of bees and about 6 frames if brood. The lake constance price in Austria and Germany is about 170€, if you are good at buying wax and frames, a colony will cost you 35€ in materials, queen raising, about half are just from splits, the rest from raised queen’s, mating rate is about 80% and my overwintering losses are currently 0. 10% losses is a very bad year for me! Maybe the reason for your poor mating is the Scottish weather, great for sailing, poor for queen mating, here is the opposite, I wasted too many weekends sitting in doldrums in regattas…. I find if I raise 20 or 60 queen’s the work is about the same. Will be selling 26 colonies this spring, I have orders for 90. I have exported to Italy in the past, and often sell to Austria – I would think Brexit would slow imports to the UK?

            Edelweiss does flights to Zurich – as cheap as chips….
            BR
            Calum

          2. David Post author

            Hi Calum

            We can no longer import colonies or packages, but can import queens. At least, that was the situation when I last checked but, as with all things Brexit-related, things may have changed.

            My queen mating success rate on the east coast is about 75-80% which is perfectly acceptable. I’m going to work hard at improving it on the west coast – which I’m hoping has a lot to do with a shortage of drones – this year. Yes, the weather is worse (or at least more variable) but not that bad – we certainly had a good number of days suitable for queen mating last year, but didn’t have the virgins and drones present at the right time.

            When there’s no wind I go canoeing – a great way to see the wildlife as you can get surprisingly close to otters, seals and dolphins as it slips through the water silently.

            Big changes in my time availability later this year … I’ll check out Edelweiss flights 🙂

            Cheers
            David

  4. George Heighton

    Aha, what fond memories you evoke, David!

    I started keeping bees because I was ‘given’ a colony. I had been intrigued by the activities of the occupants of some hives on a mothballed factory just outside Glasgow. The beekeeper was a Polish WW2 veteran whose accent was almost unintelligible so I wasn’t sure whether he offered to give me a hive and bees when I next visited. Shortly after that I moved jobs and houses and forgot about the conversation. Imagine my confusion when a couple of months later I was phoned and told in a thick Polish/Glaswegian accent “Your bees are ready: come and get them!”.
    I felt duty bound to collect the bees even though I had moved a loooong way away. So that Friday afternoon, after a long day on an exhibition stand at Birmingham NEC (at about the time you might be thinking of a glass of wine if you worked in Westminster), I drove up to Glasgow, arriving at around midnight. The hive of bees was duly loaded into the back of the estate car, and I drove home … to Surrey.
    It took the bees somewhat longer than me to recover, but that 700 mile overnight trip was the start of my fascinating journey with apis mellifera… and I still haven’t done a “Introduction to Beekeeping” course ☹️

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello George

      What a good tale. For many, the Glaswegian accent is already tricky. To have learnt some of your beekeeping in a mix of Polish and Glaswegian is quite an achievement. Whether you took an “Introduction to Beekeeping” course or not, your continued success and fascination with bees speaks volumes for the tuition you did receive – whether formal or not and/or in Polish or Glaswegian – and your perseverance.

      Bees cope remarkably well with long-distance journeys. I’ve moved them several times the length of the country.

      Going by the current drip-drip-drip of information about Partygate it seems that “wine o’clock” in Westminster is pretty much anytime after 11 am.

      Delighted the post brought back some fond memories.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Duncan

    As an accountant beekeeper, the answer to the question of profit or loss really is the classic “What do you want it to be?”
    There is, in relative terms, a lot of capital equipment involved in beekeeping. You won’t make a profit in cash terms until you’ve paid for that. And I suspect from past posts that many if not most people don’t carry on until they’re reached that point. The second-hand market is probably not enough to top up the balance if/when you give up.
    For the more sophisticated who want to measure profit using a depreciation of their assets, it’s probably not much better. The longer the depreciation period the more likely a paper profit. But also the more likely you’ll spoil it by buying even more kit.
    Without getting out the back of an envelope, I’d even guess annual inputs (virus treatment, feeding, a few replaced frames, etc) aren’t covered by honey sales unless you’re lucky or really intent on pushing every last scrap.
    If anything tips the balance it would be higher skill things like selling queens and nucs.
    Just my two penny worth.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Duncan

      Excellent, many thanks. I’ve not even dared think about depreciation or any more advanced concepts when working out (or, more correctly, wildly speculating) on profits and losses. The one point you raise that I’d disagree with is the running costs of a colony – treatments, frames, foundation etc. – vs. the honey sales. I think you have to be either very unlucky or quite unsuccessful to not cover these costs from honey sales. Average honey yield is 25 – 30 lb a season (from memory, BBKA figures and probably out of date and likely rather untrustworthy due to the sampling/surveying). Even if it was half that with a profit per pound of, let’s say, £8 you should still cover costs of feed, foundation, frames and miticides.

      Of course, many small scale beekeepers don’t sell the honey but instead give it to friends and family … and if I factored in these ‘freebies’ when I do the calculations on my honey sales the numbers would look a lot less attractive.

      However, you can’t really put a value on the pleasure of giving/receiving a jar of honey, so I’m more than happy to ‘take the hit’.

      I’ve reached the stage when I’m not intending to invest in more boxes … at least, that’s my firm opinion until the end-of-season sales 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    2. Calum Grigor

      Hi Duncan,
      True, if you get your equipment new. As I am an old boy in the local club, old beekeepers that are reducing their stocks tend to get in touch, so I will pay 20€ for 2 or 3 magazines with a lid and a floor. I will either only by standard kit or sets of at least 6 so I don’t deal with compatibility, one bee site will have 1 standard. The real price driver here is wax, a kilo of foundation will cost up to 18€. I buy my wax 6-8kg and have it processed myself at 2.50€/kg. I picked up 18 magazines with frames and foundation for my two trainees for 280€ this year, those boxes have at least ten years in them! Lovely propolisation in them!
      Of course you will lose money hand over fist if you count your time. But it’s a hobby, selling in Switzerland would go a long way to paying my hours too though!
      BR
      Calum

      Reply
  6. David Jones

    I think beekeeping is contemporary witchery: Vestments; mysterious rituals; obscure potions; smouldering fire and swirling smoke; closed gatherings on dark winter nights; hooded circles in out-of-sight country backwaters; talk of ‘the craft’; heated dispute about the true way; holy writ (Hooper); canonical belief (BBKA), dissenters and non-conformists; charms; husbanders, mentors, masters, inspectors; faith in the old ways and pure-blood strains; sages and disciples; secret language, opaque to non-initiates; bags of wax and pins, soiled cloth and unspeakable implements of obscure purpose; talk of virgins, promiscuous matings and a sterile caste; the ‘knowledge’ to plunge hands into fifty thousand stinging insects and emerge unscathed; immunity to the pain of stings; a secret hoard of liquid gold; the Illuminati, abiding among humanity since pre-history…and much more

    Face it, we’re a cult 🙂

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Excellent … you’ve clearly given this a worrying amount of thought 😉

      Did you forgot the sacrifices? … the necessary acts of regicide to improve the blood line. And what about the selection and elevation of the very young (larvae) to receive a special diet and to be reared to ‘rule’ over thousands of others.

      It’s all rather disturbing isn’t it?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. David Webster

    Hello David and all keepers of bees.
    Your image showing the Tango oranges sales stand struck a cord as we have bought some today to try.

    They are delicious but on reading the box they are in, it states, and I quote “Why bee friendly ? Pollination by bees can cause seeds but in the Tango variety bee pollination does not form seeds so growers do not have to prevent pollination”.
    How perverse is that, hardly an endorsement.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello David

      It gets worse … the South African Advertising Regulatory Board have ruled that the claim that the fruit is ‘bee friendly’ is misleading. I’ve not read the small print, but it seems as though this has to do with pesticide usage during their growth, not to whether they are pollinated or not.

      The justification for being bee friendly on the producers pages is not wholly convincing (to me) either. The key phrasing is something like [Tango] “is sterile in cross pollination, produces hardly any seeds in its interior and in other varieties, so the use of meshes or other treatments against bees is not necessary to guarantee the best Tango seedless.” I wonder whether this is a poor translation of the original, or if it started off that garbled?

      Whatever, delighted they were tasty!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Alan Jones

    Hi David, Happy New year to you, the man who taught me beekeeping about 50 years ago (where did that time go ?) used to say that beekeeping is like religion, many are called but few are chosen! on reflection he was probably right.
    Cheers
    Alan

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alan

      That’s a nice way to express it “Many are called but few are chosen”. I’ve speculated before about the ‘churn’ in new beekeepers. Associations appear to train large numbers each year, but association membership doesn’t rise anything like as fast. One association I know has a membership of ~250 and train ~50 a year, but membership only increases ~20 a season. It would be interesting to know when and why people stop beekeeping … is it because it’s simply “not for them” (which is perfectly OK, they simply weren’t chosen 😉 ), or is it because they’ve become frustrated with colony losses, insufficient mentoring or other entirely surmountable problems.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Iain Dewar

        “Many are called but few are chosen” how very true! And what a nice way to put it in words, that’s going in the book of quotes!
        Putting my retired lecturers hat on – the thing about learning beekeeping is that it can not be learned quickly or without mentoring support. It is like learning any other vocation, it requires knowledge learned and understanding developed over time spent in practice overseen, quality controlled and assessed by an experienced practitioner until there is sufficient competentence to go it alone. This is how it was traditionally done, a lifetime of skill passed on from a seasoned sage to his apprentice. I would be surprised if any associations have the resources or incling to provide that level of training and mentoring provision so the level of attrition after or during the first year it is no surprise. It takes years, probably 3 or 4 or more full seasons, to become proficient, and it is definitely not for everyone!
        Cheers
        Iain 🙂

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Iain

          Only 3-4 seasons? I suspect I’m a slow learner. I remember one summer, many years ago now, when I had 6-7 colonies but knew that none of them had a mated laying queen, due to poor swarm control or a variety of other incompetencies. They were all eventually OK, but I don’t think I felt close to being proficient at the time.

          Of course, many do learn without mentoring – or useful mentoring! – and so your final statement “definitely not for everyone” emphasises the point that it also takes a level of engagement/interest/fascination/obsession and acute observation and interpretation. With these, even without mentoring, it’s possible. I think my view of mentoring is that it’s for the first year or two to avoid the typical beginner snafu’s … after that a ‘beginner’ (which I still feel sometimes) may actually learn better/faster on their own, rather than by picking the brains of someone (nominally) more experienced.

          Definitely a case of “use the force (Luke)” … which might end up being a post title in the future 😉

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  9. Penny

    Hello David,
    As I read your article I found myself trying really hard to decide exactly why I started keeping bees, and whether I fitted into any of the categories you suggested. It’s really hard to pin down! I think in my case it essentially stems from having swarms in the garden a couple of times over the years, and thinking at the time that if I had a hive/the knowledge I might have been able to capture them – it seemed like a challenge – and I love a challenge!

    Of course now that I’ve actually been keeping bees for a few years, it’s that wonderful and diverse range of skills I need from one day to the next that keeps me enthralled – I have to be a biologist, a psychologist, a vet, carpenter, gardener, breeder, food handler, salesperson, inventor… the list seems to be endless.

    Of course, at the beginning none of this featured into my decision to start keeping bees because I had no idea how much was involved. I’m just really grateful for that initial spark of interest and challenge that lead me to discover how much more was involved.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Penny

      It’s interesting isn’t it … before you (or I) started we had no idea of the range of things beekeeping involved, or just how much there was to understand. But now that we are beekeepers, it’s a lot to do with why we are still beekeeping.

      When I list the skills needed – like your choice of “biologist, a psychologist, a vet, carpenter, gardener, breeder, food handler, salesperson, inventor” – I always (at least in my mind) add the statement “jack of all trades, master of none” just to ensure any listeners don’t think that list implies any actual competence.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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