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. I was glad to spend as much time as possible with my bees, maybe too much time.
I’m not talking about obsession, though beekeeping absolutely taps into obsessive behaviour and doesn’t exactly bring out the best in everyone. But that’s another story. I’m talking about the minimal foundational work that’s required to become a good beekeeper before bees of any kind ever come into the picture.
Someone recently asked me for some information on how to start beekeeping in Newfoundland. Among another things, I sent them a link to my Guide to Beekeeping page, essentially my personal guide to beekeeping in Newfoundland, and they said, “I don’t have time to read all that.” To which I say, “Then you probably don’t have time for beekeeping.”
The information, the videos, the photos, everything I wrote up in my causal beekeeping guide doesn’t even close to being a comprehensive introduction to beekeeping. It’s meant to get prospective beekeepers warmed up and to point them in the right direction. No time to read all that? That page is simply a place to start learning about beekeeping. There is so much more to learn, it’s not funny.
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 eventually develop an 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. (2021 Update: Make that 10 years. Three years? What was I thinking?) 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? (But I wasn’t.)
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.
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.
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 lousy 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 and attention to detail to do it right. Beekeeping can be immensely rewarding, but it takes more time (and money) than most people initially realise.