This is my cautionary tale for people who probably shouldn’t bother with beekeeping. If “it doesn’t take much time” is the final selling point for you, maybe you should just walk away right now and save yourself the sinking feeling of realising that beekeeping isn’t the wonderful world of golden flowing honey that simply falls from a tap on the side of your beehive while bees gently hover around you in a state of joy and bliss. That may be the idealistic vision of beekeeping that draws most people in, and at the very beginning if absolutely nothing goes wrong, that dream may at times seem like a reality, an experience so wonderful that you barely believe you’re living it. But those are fleeting moments. They don’t tell the whole story. There’s more to having chickens than collecting the eggs. There’s more to owning a dog than playing fetch. Sometimes it gets kind of dirty. Often it gets kind of dirty. And if you think you can care for a dog and raise chickens in your spare time, I’d like to know what world you’re living in. Because beekeeping isn’t that much different.
It’s a myth that beekeeping doesn’t take much time. If you work from home or you’re retired, then beekeeping may not seem to take up much time. But for everyone else with day jobs that have them driving to the office every morning, not getting home until five or six in the evening or later, then walking the dog and putting supper on the table (and maybe dealing with children), beekeeping takes up a lot of time. And that’s just doing the beekeeping. Learning about it is a whole other ball game.
For the first two years of my beekeeping, for every hour I spent working with my bees, I spent at least five hours reading and taking notes or watching instructional beekeeping videos of some kind. I was also happy to do it. For anyone who doesn’t want to read up on everything they can about honey bees and beekeeping, and for anyone who isn’t glad to spend as much time as possible with their bees, I say don’t waste your time with it, because you probably won’t enjoy it.
I know that makes me sound like a conceited jerk, and we’ve already got enough of those guys floating around in our beekeeping associations, but I’m feeling a little annoyed at the moment.
Someone recently asked me for some information on how to start beekeeping in Newfoundland. Among another things, I sent them a link to my How-To page, essentially my personal guide to beekeeping in Newfoundland, and they said, “I don’t have time to read all that.” To which I responded: “Then you probably don’t have time for beekeeping.”
I’m not kidding. The information, the videos, the photos, everything on my How-To page is just the beginning of a beekeeping journey. For me, I felt such an immediate connection to beekeeping when I started in 2010 that I regretted all the years of my life that I’d never kept bees. It isn’t necessary to have that kind of reaction to beekeeping to be a good beekeeper, but come on, really? No time to read my little How-To page? Seriously?
It takes time to learn about the bees and it takes time to learn from them. Even now I don’t just casually walk past my beehives once in awhile so I can admire them from a distance. I don’t treat them like ornamental objects for people to look at and say, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful.” Those hives are full of bees. I pay attention to them and I’m glad to do it. I’m constantly learning from them. I’ve met too many new beekeepers or wannabe beekeepers in the past few years who don’t seem to get this. Beekeeping takes time. Good beekeeping takes even more time.
It may not take up as much time for people who actually have some experiential grasp of what they’re doing, but my guess is it takes about three years before anyone even begins to know what they’re doing, especially in a place like Newfoundland where most beekeepers will have to go it alone most the time. By the end of my second year, I felt like I knew everything about beekeeping. But by the end of my third year, I realised I didn’t know squat. After my third year of beekeeping — after dealing with a colony of mean bees (which instantly takes the shine off beekeeping); after catching two swarms; after losing a colony to starvation; after getting stung in the face more than once; after dealing with mice inside a hive; after having to move my hives because my neighbours called the cops on me; after manipulating my colonies to prevent swarming — that’s when I began to learn about beekeeping. Everything up to that point was like kindergarten.
When I first got into beekeeping, I was just some guy who happened to buy some bees and put them in his backyard. Having the money and the resources to have a bunch of bees, whether four hives or forty, wouldn’t have made me a beekeeper, just like buying a camera doesn’t make me a photographer, or owning a stethoscope doesn’t make me a doctor. But after two years of dedicating most of my time to learning about honey bees and beekeeping, and then surviving my third year of hell, I began to feel like, yeah, okay, maybe I can do this. Maybe I am a beekeeper. Not by any means the wise and wizened beekeeper that everybody idealises like Santa Claus, but I’m in the club. Maybe.
When I look back on that experience and how much time I put in to getting to where I got, and then I see people who think they can just check on their bees whenever they feel like it, who are attracted to beekeeping because they think it doesn’t take much time — good luck to them. Because without all the luck in the world, they haven’t got a chance.
Again, I apologise if I’ve come off like a know-it-all jerk. I don’t know it all and I know I’m a middle-of-the-road beekeeper at best. But I know enough to realise that beekeeping takes time, more time than most people think.
July 2019 Postscript: This post edges a bit too close to things I’ve heard from certain people with too much time on their hands who want to feel important. I know dozens of beekeepers who have been turned off by people like that, and I don’t want to be one of those people. I would like to burst the bubble of the totally unrealistic ideal of beekeeping that attracts most people to beekeeping, just to save them the disappointment of a crappy beekeeping experience that ends with all their bees dying on them. But that totally unrealistic vision of beekeeping is what got me into beekeeping. So I don’t really want to burst anyone’s bubble. All I can say is use that bubble wisely if you can, keeping in mind that there is a different reality beyond the Zen-filled dreamland where honey bees never sting. Beekeeping is sweaty and dirty work most of the time and requires a lot of thought and effort to do it right. Beekeeping can be immensely rewarding, but it takes more time (and money) than most people initially realise.