A Curious Beekeeper goes off the Dark End

Every so often, I feel like I’ve gone off beekeeping’s dark end

“What do you mean by that?” is what I imagine people saying. I think of the dark end as when I stray from tried and true beekeeping into areas of speculation. So…

Hobby beekeeping borrows an awful lot from commercial beekeeping.

Like the Langstroth hive.

I didn’t start keeping bees just so I could imagine transporting them to Almonds. (Those telescoping covers may make stacking on the truck interesting.)

Nor did I think about local commercial pollination. I did think about my apples and my garden. I thought about winters off and about honey. Honey for me and for the neighbors. That worked out, at least for the first few years.

The biggest thing appropriated from commercial beekeeping may be attitude. Bees are here to… make us money.

I like money as much as the next person. Though making money with the bees is not a priority for me. I used to collect stamps (until the US went entirely self-adhesive.) The stamps looked pretty in the album. Bees foraging look pretty too, and there are causes like pesticide bans to join. All because bees look pretty foraging on Bridal Wreath, and assembling wooden boxes for them to live in and learning about their biology is fun for me. And I like saying things like “Tarsal Claw” and “open circulatory system.”

Reading books like Tom Seeley’s The Lives of Bees reminds me that curiosity is good and that beekeeping in the last 150 years has been experiencing a golden age for tinkering. While I didn’t live through what I like to think of as the great box size debate of the late 1800s, we are living through a hive design/configuration experimentation period now. Certainly there are traditionalists who are adamant in their belief that anything other than a 10 frame Langstroth is wrong, yet I seem drawn to the hive designs (like the Warre’) that lend themselves to what I like to think of as a more holistic approach to beekeeping.

I’m trying to see the eco system as an evolving entity. Part of the space is taken by the non-native Honey bee. Part by the native pollinators. There should be room for both; my job is to discern the carrying capacity of my area for Honey bees, and what I can do to make the environment richer both for the Honey bees and all the other pollinators. Some judgements are gut level, some are scientifically arrived at. My gut tells me that if established Honey bee colonies routinely require feeding, the carrying capacity has been exceeded.

There is more emphasis today at asking why people want to keep bees. Some want to produce as much honey as they can and sell it for as much money as they can. No problems here. It is simply at odds with my own motivation, which I hope will be reckoned gentler. I’ll spend a lifetime learning about that, all the while George Imirie’s Bee Haver vs. Bee Keeper runs through my head.

I increasingly realize that all beekeeping is really local; that while some bee behaviors are universal, some are not. Lots of our actions have consequences. Learning what the consequences are and why is tough. Why is it, I ask myself, that a strong hive in a certain location, gets a queen excluder and honey super, only to swarm. Maybe if I think about it long enough, the why will become clear. Though I really just want a box full of honey and no brood. ("There was room in the brood box for egg laying.")

Don’t get me wrong: commercial beekeeping has done great things for all beekeepers. I’m just doing my best to tweak and make my beekeeping work for me.

Andrew Dewey