(For beginner beekeepers in Newfoundland.)
I was asked by someone in Newfoundland about what books they could read before they get into beekeeping. My response got into more detail than I anticipated, so I’ll reproduce it here for the general edification of my legions of fans. But before I get into it, let me lay down a couple of confessions for you. (It’s okay to skip this part.) Confession Number 1: I don’t read many beekeeping books these days because I’m tired of reading beekeeping books. I went nuts with beekeeping research when I got into it in 2009. Many beekeepers are obsessed and get drawn into beekeeping compulsively. It takes up all their free time. It’s always on their mind. That was me. But I eventually got over the obsessive-compulsive stage and now I only read beekeeping books at my leisure. I should change the name of this blog to The Leisurely Beekeeper. Confession Number 2: I don’t mind recommending reading material for beginners, but… I don’t like to give advice and I’ve become suspicious of many beekeepers who do. Unless their advice has been tempered by at least a decade of trial and error, chances are, if they’re eager to give advice, I kinda get the feeling they might be feeding their egos. It’s easy to do. (Check out Honey Bee Suite for more on this topic.) And just because I have a beekeeping blog doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about. I started this blog so others could learn from my experiences, especially my mistakes. So to summarize my confessions: I don’t read many beekeeping books and I don’t like to give advice. Okay then…
So you have only a rudimentary understanding of beekeeping, you live in Newfoundland, and you’re wondering if there are any good books for beginners that you can read before you start ordering hives and bees and all that jazz. Well, I can’t think of a single book that covers all the bases, but my top recommendation for beginners online is David Burns’s Basic Beekeeping lessons. The preambles to his lessons can go off on various tangents, but the actual beekeeping lessons are the best I’ve found anywhere — in any book or online. He could easily sell the lessons in book form and make a mint. I studied his lessons before I did anything and referred to them all throughout my first year of beekeeping.
Next up, in book form, is Hive Management by Richard E. Bonney. It’s more geared towards second year beekeepers, but it offers plenty of general information that’s good to know before you get into beekeeping and most of the advice he gives is sound for people who live in a cold climate like Newfoundland.
Mark L. Winston’s The Biology of the Honey Bee provides an excellent introduction to the evolution and behaviour of honey bees. It’s not about beekeeping, but if you want to understand honey bees, this isn’t a bad place to start. (It’s available at MUN’s QEII Library in St. John’s.) Jürgen Tautz’s The Buzz About Bees — packed with fantastic photographs — complements it well.
The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum is worth having for the photos because they’ll show you what you’ll want to identify during your first year of beekeeping — various brood comb, the difference between workers, queens and drones, capped honey, comb with pollen, etc. Knowing what you’re looking at is very helpful. Other than that, though, it is not a bad general guide for first year beekeepers, but I wouldn’t call it the most practical guide, not for Newfoundland beekeepers.
After that, for the most realistic take on beekeeping, I go to the Honey Bee Suite website. I think I’ve read the whole thing, including the comments. It’s the only beekeeping website I read pretty much every day.
Michael Bush has a no-nonsense approach that I appreciate. I recently bought his book, The Practical Beekeeper (which duplicates his website). I don’t buy into everything he has to say, but he’s good at offering up simple solutions to common problems. His approach is practical, and I like that, but his suggestions are only practical if they fit your specific situation.
That’s why it’s important to not strictly follow the advice or methods of any one beekeeper. You always have to modify the methods to fit your local climate and eventually your style — how much or how little you want to put into beekeeping. It’s easy to be convinced by beekeepers who seem to be sure of themselves, so you go off and do exactly what they do — until you realize what’s easy for them is a headache for you because you don’t have access to the same resources they do, or you just don’t have the time for it. Or their methods don’t apply to your climate. For instance, Newfoundland beekeepers shouldn’t try to emulate the methods of beekeepers in warm climates like California or Arizona who pretty much live on another planet that has little in common with Newfoundland. All beekeeping is local beekeeping (see Honey Bee Suite for more on this). That’s about the only piece of advice I feel confident giving.
Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind while reading any beekeeping book or listening to advice from other beekeepers.
I’m sure there are tonnes of other beekeeping books out there worth reading for beginners. I’ve barely skimmed the surface. The reading list is endless. David Burns’s Basic Beekeeping lessons are probably as good as it gets for absolute beginners. Then once you get the lay of the land, let your fascination be your guide. It’s pretty cool.
Other reading recommendations are welcomed in the comments.
P.S.: Mud Songs isn’t a bad read for beginners, either. Start with Building a Bee Hive and go from there. The How-To page collects the more practical articles I’ve written since 2009, all of them geared towards novices, and the Reading Material category offers up some other reading possibilities too. Good luck.
SEPTEMBER 30, 2013: I didn’t mentioned beekeeping forums such as Beesource, but they’re not bad places to visit from time to time. You just have to learn who to listen to and who to ignore.
JULY 07, 2016: Another confession: I’m easily bored by most beekeeping books I read these days, and I have been for a long time, probably because much of the material is a rehash of things I’ve already read about or have learned from experience being around my bees. I subsequently skim through many books that have been recommended to me, and that’s part of the reason I don’t write many book reviews. It’s difficult to give an honest review of book I have fully immersed myself in.
Even some of the most elegant prose about honey bees fails to move me. Like most people, I fell under the charm of beekeeping and beekeepers when I first started beekeeping. Like a sucker, I thought it was all wonder and bliss. But any romantic — and unrealistic — visions of beekeeping disappeared and died a slow and painful death after my neighbours called the cops on me during my third summer of beekeeping. I was living in a dream until then. Since then my beekeeping has taken on a pragmatic approach where there’s very little room for romantic dreamy language that tends to fool everyone into believing beekeeping is nothing but a Zen garden full of pretty flowers and gentle bees.
Even Mark Wilson’s latest book, Bee Time: Lessons From The Hive, left me feeling meh. I’m not sure I even got halfway through it. I haven’t finished Tom Seeley’s beloved Honeybee Democracy yet either — and it’s virtually sacrilege to admit that. I know that book is full of useful information, but I kept wishing he’d cut to the chase. I hate to say it, but I wish there was a Cole Notes version I could read instead. I’m interested in the practical results of his experiments and the useful details that would be good to know as a beekeeper. (For instance, a friend of mine who read the book told me that swarms generally fly south, so the best place to set up a swarm trap or to look for swarms hanging off a tree branch is due south.) I really should read that book, though.
I also have a copy of William Longgood’s The Queen Must Die. Again, a highly recommended book that I stopped reading after the first page because I don’t think I have the patience for anything that even remotely idealizes beekeeping. I also have Gene Kritsky’s The Quest for the Perfect Hive. I admit to being taken in by that one. I can’t remember why I didn’t finish it. Probably because I have a full time job that barely allows me the time to maintain this blog, let alone read every beekeeping book that comes my way. I barely have time to read regular novels anymore, and I used to love reading novels.
I want to learn more about beekeeping and would probably be a smarter beekeeper if I read more, especially considering that I do 99% of my beekeeping in isolation on a big island where there aren’t many beekeepers and where most beekeepers live hours and hundreds of kilometres away from each other. I would benefit from more reading.
Another confession, which isn’t much of a confession: I still get most of my practical beekeeping information online through beekeeping blogs, a few beekeeping forums, beekeeping videos and email correspondence with beekeepers I’ve “met” online. It may be foolish to admit it, but I’m not sure I need to read every popular beekeeping book that’s been published. I mean, yes, it wouldn’t hurt if I did, but I’m not doing so bad relying on the good ole Internet either. I know my way around these here parts. I know how to find the good stuff. It’s not so bad.
At any rate, for all these reasons, it’s probably better to look elsewhere for reviews of current beekeeping books. Not that I’m incapable of writing them (and I would gladly write them if I got paid for my time), but I really don’t keep my ear to the ground on that kind of thing anymore. Maybe someday.