April 2019 Introduction: I’ve rewritten and updated this post since it was originally written in 2013. You can read it 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 overpriced beekeeping books that are popular these days. Save yourself some money and turn on your computer instead.
There’s a boatload of beekeeping videos on YouTube. Videos posted by the National Honey Show are world class beekeeping presentations from some of the biggest heavy hitters in the beekeeping world. They probably go a bit too deep for absolute beginners, but it probably doesn’t hurt to have them on the radar. The University of Guelph produces more beginner-friendly videos from its beeyards that are also well worth checking out. Ian Steppler’s beekeeping videos out of Manitoba are exactly the kind of videos I would post if I was a commercial beekeeper. I’m pretty sure I’ll never have the resources to keep bees on that level, but if I ever thought about hitting the big time, I’d be all over his videos. Even as a backyard beekeeper, I’ve learned quite a lot from him. A simple search on Twitter (and other social media apps) for beekeeping also 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 first got to know online (none from Newfoundland, sorry). 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 for anyone with a connection to the internet who pays attention to their bees. A whole bunch of people just got their backs up, but all I’m saying is I did fine without a beekeeping association or beekeeping workshops (because they didn’t exist) when I started beekeeping in 2010. Online resources and my connections to people I met online was my schooling — and it worked beautifully for me. But let’s get back to the question: What books are useful for new beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland (or for people keeping bees in a similar cold climate)?
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 some of the best I’ve found anywhere. I studied his lessons before I did anything and referred to them all throughout my first year of beekeeping.
The Beekeeper’s Handbook might be the best single-volume guide to beekeeping that I’ve come across. I 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. Reading it 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.
Next up 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 getting 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 it’s an excellent place to start for developing an understanding of honey bees. 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 or essential 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 I don’t strictly follow the advice or methods of any one beekeeper. I always have to modify their methods to fit my local climate and eventually my style — how much or how little I 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 realise 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. Newfoundland beekeepers, for instance, probably 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 having been one of those jerks, so I know what I’m talking about.
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.
Mud Songs isn’t a bad read for beginners, either. Maybe start with Building a Beehive and go from there. My Guide to Beekeeping in Newfoundland collects the more practical articles I’ve written since 2010, all of them geared towards novices, and the Reading Material category offers up some other reading possibilities too.
I should confess that I’m easily bored by most beekeeping books I read these days, 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 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.