Book Review: “The Backyard Beekeeper”

I discovered beekeeping through the internet and it’s from the internet that I still get most of my practical information on beekeeping. The online beekeeping lessons from David Burns, for instance, are a staple for me. I devoured those lessons when I first discovered the Long Lane Honey Bee Farms website in 2009. Mr. Burns could use an editor from time to time, but his lessons are so generous, it seems unfair to find any kind of fault with them. He adds new and relevant lessons on a regular basis and I do my best to keep up with them.

I also recently benefited from reading the Honey Bee Suite blog. I’ve read every post on the site. Illustrative photos are somewhat scarce at this point in time, but the information is either based on solid science or practical experience or both. And that’s a hard combo to beat.

Next up is Michael Bush’s website, Beekeeping Naturally. Although the website isn’t well designed — and I don’t read it anymore because I don’t think he adds new content to it — the information and advice he provides is a great starting point for new beekeepers who aren’t attracted to conventional beekeeping methods and are aiming for something more sustainable, natural, organic — whatever you want to call foundationless beekeeping. He regularly chimes in on the Beesource Forums too. While I don’t think everything he says is applicable to beekeeping in Newfoundland, I like his down to earth attitude.

I can think of a few more excellent websites that are helpful to novice beekeepers (some are listed in the side bar), but I think I managed to glean more practical advice from these three in the past 12 months than any others. They’ve been good to me.

But what about books?

I haven’t read many beekeeping books yet, and I’m not sure I have a good excuse. Admittedly, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer when I’m not working, so it’s easier for me to get most of my info online. And I barely have a chance to sit down and read a book the rest of the time. I’ve had a few beekeeping books on my shelf for a while, but I’ve only read one of them all the way through — and all at once: The Biology of The Honey Bee, by Mark L. Winston. It’s more about honey bees than beekeeping, but I loved just about every minute of it. I plan to read it again before I say anything else about it. That will be a much longer review than this one.

This one is for The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. The book is subtitled: “An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden” (revised and updated 2010 edition). I think the “absolute” is meant to make the book seem like The One for beginners. But it’s not. It’s a guide for beginners, one that, judging from my limited experience, wouldn’t work for everyone. The book is packed with detailed illustrative photos that are worth the price of admission, but it falls short by not providing an overview of alternative approaches to beekeeping.

The photos, though — they are something else. Looking at all the photos and reading the captions before I really got into the book was an education in itself. I have no other books to compare it to yet, but the photos and diagrams in The Backyard Beekeeper seem exemplary to me. I often have a hard time visualising beekeepers’ descriptions, even the simplest ones, because I have little or no experience with what they’re talking about — which is the case for most first-time beekeepers, especially those like me who live in areas where there are no beekeeping groups and virtually no other beekeepers. Anything with detailed illustrative photos goes a long way.

The photos in The Backyard Beekeeper are a great reference for novice beekeepers who don’t know what to look for. Some examples: The book contains detailed photos of the most common diseases and pests that affect honey bee and provides instructions on how to deal with them; other photos show the differences between the various breeds of honey bees; queens and queen cells; workers and drones and the differences between their brood comb; eggs, larvae and pupae; pollen comb and honey comb. All that comes in handy for a new beekeeper. So do the illustrations and photos that show how all the pieces of the hive go together; how to assemble and inspect a hive; how to prepare a hive for winter; how to spot swarm cells and what to do about them; step-by-step photos illustrating how to use a smoker, hive tools and various feeders. The photos also demonstrate how to combine hives; how to catch a swarm and prevent swarming; how to install a package of bees, or a new queen or a nuc box. The book is written to guide beginners through their first year of beekeeping. It also does a half decent job of explaining the biology and behaviour of honey bees (judging from what I read in The Biology of the Honey Bee). I spent a great deal of time during my first summer of beekeeping in a state of bafflement, wondering and worrying what the bees were up to. I would have been more relaxed if I’d read The Backyard Beekeeper first.

On the other hand, the author’s recommendation to order pre-assembled Langstroth hives with only medium supers may not be practical for many people in Newfoundland. Pre-assembled hives are too expensive in general, but in Newfoundland, where everything has to be shipped in, unless you’re rich, it’s not even an option. The all-medium supers I do like, but again it’s not a practical way to get started in places like Newfoundland where, as far as I know, the only way to get honey bees is to buy them in nuc boxes with deep frames. The book seems to be written as if the reader has all-medium Langstroth hives with plastic foundation. Attainable alternatives such as foundationless beekeeping or top bar hives or crush-and-strain methods of harvesting honey are mostly ignored. The instructions in general are a bit too restrictive. More helpful instructions would go something like: “I recommend beginners do this. But if you don’t have the necessary tools or you’re not comfortable with it, you can always try this method, or even this…” (kind of an Urban Peasant approach to beekeeping). Even as a novice, I know there are many methods for accomplishing pretty much everything in beekeeping, and it helps to know at least some of those alternatives.

I’m not sure I’d want anyone to abandon books in favour of the internet, but an alternative beginner’s guide to The Backyard Beekeeper — make that a complementary beginner’s guide — might be to simply read through the websites I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The solid science behind the Honey Bee Suite doesn’t always agree with the advice from Long Lane Honey Bee Farms, which doesn’t jive with everything on the Beekeeping Naturally website. But they’re all good because they present a wide range of approaches to beekeeping. That’s been the most important part of my beekeeping education so far, knowing that there are more ways than one to do just about everything in beekeeping. A beginner needs to consider all the options so they can make an informed choice about what’s most likely to succeed in their local climate, and what’s best for them personally.

The Backyard Beekeeper isn’t comprehensive and could use a little help from some friends on the internet, but the information is does present is detailed and practical, and at the very least, it’s a good reference book to have around.

P.S.: The last quarter of The Backyard Beekeeper provides instructions on processing beeswax for making candles and lotions, along with several recipes for cooking with honey. They all look good. I’ll probably try them out eventually, but at this point in time, my focus is entirely on beekeeping.

June 25th, 2011: My great experiment in foundationless beekeeping is over, at least for now. As much as I love ’em, the Backwards Beekeeping methods may not be the best option in areas with extremely short summers where month-long stretches of cold, drizzle and fog are not unheard of (like in St. John’s, Newfoundland).

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Backyard Beekeeper”

  1. A very well-written review! I interpreted the title as meaning “this book is for the super-newbie beekeeper.” I agree w/you that this book is not The One, yet I still value it very much as a reference. Kim Flottum visited Denver, CO last summer and I asked him what he thought of top bar hives and if he had any in his apiary. He said he’d “failed miserably with one.” When pressed to define “miserably” he said he hadn’t done any research beforehand and the package he installed absconded. Perhaps a future edition of his book will cover alternative hives, once he has some personal experience with them. He eruditely writes what he knows about. He’s a smart marketer, too. His position as editor at Bee Culture makes him keenly aware that the US is seeing a tremendous rise in female beekeepers, which explains increased sales of 8-frame mediums. I haven’t tried any of the recipes other than the one for hand cream. It did NOT produce a white lotion, as pictured. is still lovely to use nonetheless.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. I have no bees right now and am keeping bees vicariously through Honeybee Suite and bloggers like you. Keep up the good work!

  2. Phillip,

    Thank you for your kind and generous remarks. I really appreciate the attention you’ve given my site, and the seemingly endless stream of good questions and prescient remarks you’ve left there. All the best in your beekeeping endeavors!

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