The following was rewritten and updated in 2018. Or just skip the whole thing and browse through Rusty Burlew’s bookshelf instead.
I was asked by someone in Newfoundland about what books they could read before they get into beekeeping as a hobby. I don’t think you need to read any books. Seriously. If you know how use the internet, you don’t need to buy any of the standard over-priced beekeeping books that are popular these days. Any of the websites maintained by David Burns, Michael Bush, Rusty Burlew, Randy Oliver, and Ron Miksha, should provide more than enough practical information on honey bees and beekeeping to help anyone get started. There’s a boatload of beekeeping videos on YouTube. Video presentations from the National Honey Show, for instance, are as good or better than anything I’ve had to pay to see locally. A simple search on Twitter for beekeeping reveals all kinds of fascinating information about beekeeping. The internet is an invaluable tool for new beekeepers, especially in a place like Newfoundland where there aren’t many beekeepers and where it’s not easy to meet up with other beekeepers. All of my beekeeping mentors are beekeepers I’ve gotten to know online. Most of what I’ve learned about beekeeping, outside of my direct experience with the bees, I’ve learned online. Beekeeping associations, beekeeping workshops, beekeeping books — none of them are necessary if you have a connection to the internet and you pay attention to your bees. But anyway…
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. 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 (new beekeepers with the least experience are usually the most confident), so you buy into it and 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 as much money as they do, or as much land, or as much time, 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.
It’s something to keep in mind while reading any beekeeping book or listening to advice from other beekeepers. My advice is don’t listen to advice. Listen to experience. People eager to give advice are more often than not know-it-all hotshots who love the sound of their own voice, especially when their voice sounds authoritative. I’m guilty of being one of those jerks.
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.
P.S.: Mud Songs isn’t a bad read for beginners, either. Start with Building a Bee Hive and go from there. My Guide to Beekeeping in Newfoundland 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 and the World Wide Beekeeping Forum, 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 a book I haven’t 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.
2018 UPDATE: Winter is a good time to learn about beekeeping before taking the plunge. The Beekeeper’s Handbook might be the best guide to beekeeping I’ve come across. I only recently picked it up because I kept hearing how if there’s one book new beekeepers should have, this is the one. I’m not getting paid to say this, but I second that recommendation.
The Beekeeper’s Handbook didn’t teach me much I didn’t already know, but at the very least, it’s a useful reference book. It doesn’t cover absolutely everything such as dealing with shrews and a few other things that might be more particular to beekeeping in Newfoundland, but I haven’t come across a book like this before that pays attention to so many of the small but vital details about bees and beekeeping that most books (and most beekeepers who teach beekeeping) tend to overlook.
There are many excellent books about honey bees by people like Tom Seeley, Jürgen Tautz and Mark Winston that are also well worth reading, but none of those guys have yet written a single book that is so comprehensively and practically useful to new beekeepers.
The Beekeeper’s Handbook is not the cheapest beekeeping book out there, but considering how much is packed into the book and how the information is so well presented and easy to understand, at the current price of $35, it’s the best bang for your buck of any beekeeping book that I’ve come across. If I was just getting into beekeeping, I’d spend the whole winter eating it up.