So, You Wanna Be A Beekeeper?

It’s easier than even to get started, buy harder than ever to survive…

By: Eugene Makovec

“The bee population is declining,” begins the description on the package, which contains a complete, pre-assembled beehive and sits on the shelf of my local Orscheln Farm & Home store.

Then comes the obligatory statement that a third of our food supply depends on their survival. But finally, the good news: Keeping bees is “simpler than you think!” Just add bees, and “only minimal management is required. The bees know what to do!”

Let’s begin with the fact that the bee population is not, in fact, declining – a little detail that I seem to reiterate to someone about once a week on average. While feral colonies in this country were mostly wiped out in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s by tracheal and varroa mites and have yet to recover substantially, managed colonies have been rising in the United States for a decade or more, and for a half century worldwide – as reflected in ongoing surveys by the USDA and FAO. As for the food supply, the largest demand for pollination by far in this country is almonds, and this year’s crop is expected to rise by about six percent.

2That said, it is clear to anyone who has done this for awhile that it has gotten increasingly difficult to keep bee colonies alive from year to year. It’s also clear that the primary culprit is the parasitic Varroa mite, with its voracious appetite and attendant viruses. (Again, something I spend entirely too much time explaining to both the general public and – sadly- even some beekeepers.)

It’s not cell phones. It’s not GMOs. It’s not neonics. It’s not even global warming, as was lately suggested by one or another of the myriad interest groups who have in recent years glommed onto the phenomenon of “colony collapse” as a means of promoting their own varied agendas.

Another population that is expanding, and quite rapidly, is that of grant-writers. One species seeks tax money for “research” to “save the bees”. This endowment is typically used to feed enormous quantities of some substance or other to captive pollinators, watch them die, and then trumpet dubious findings to the media – always prefaced with dire warnings of the danger that disappearing bees present to our food supply, and ending with the caveat, “More research is needed.”

1A different variant seeks money for beekeeper “training”, and I put that word within quotes for a reason. From what I’ve seen offered, this education can encompass as little as four hours, often without benefit of a nearby association for meetings or mentoring – and even in some cases without an actual beekeeper in the role of instructor! Can the graduate of this course,  who subsequently spends his time on Facebook inquiring about the difference between a queen and a drone, really be considered a beekeeper? Or is he one of those people whom George Imirie famously termed “bee havers”?

As the folks at the Bee Informed Partnership report, small-time beekeepers with no plan in place for varroa control may well be skewing the annual colony loss numbers by doing harm not only to their own colonies but to those of others nearby.

And then you have this new breed of equipment vendors who market their wares at farm and hardware stores, which I’ll admit is rather refreshing on the surface – beekeeping is becoming mainstream! After all, beekeeping is not a secret society, and about 40 years ago one could purchase this stuff through the Sears Roebuck catalog.

But this is not your grandfather’s beekeeping. Our problems for the most part are much more challenging than before. It’s nice that bees are now a bit more accessible, but let’s face it: Putting bees in a box in the yard does not make one a beekeeper. And unless you live on an island, when your neglected bees swarm, they end up in the neighbor’s tree, and possibly her attic. When they crash in the fall, your problems become the problems of every other beekeeper in a couple-mile radius. You are your neighbor’s beekeeper.

I’m certainly not here to discourage anyone from keeping bees. I’ve done my share of teaching and mentoring over the past few years, and will continue to do so.

But if you’re one of those who think you can “help save the bees” just by giving them a place to live and then leaving them alone, I say go for it.

Just please, don’t do it in my neighborhood.


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