A note to a New-Bee: How I stopped worrying and learned to keep bees

There is no “silver bullet” to successful beekeeping. Please stop looking for one.

I know you want perfect hives. I do too. I know you started beekeeping with all of the best intentions. Ditto.

Maybe you followed the advice of the most sagely gurus on the internet or at your local bee club and have read and amassed your own “how-to” beekeeping library. Good steps!

You got a package or a nuc hive from the best apiary supply company and have done everything by the book — placed your hives in just the right mixture of sun and shade, fed the bees regularly with an exact mixture of sugar and water and maybe even made your own pollen patties.

You test for mites and treat as prescribed by the Honey Bee Health Coalition. You’ve got Swiffer sheets and oil traps to defend against small hive beetle. You fight ants with cinnamon on box rims, or with diatomaceous earth and custom-built hive stands with cupped feet.

You vent your lids, checkerboard your frames, add boxes at just the right time, work your custom frame grabber and hive brush like an artist on inspections and even have that oversized comb thing for spacing frames to prevent imperfect comb.

Heck, I bet you’ve even invented something already, like your own secret smoker fuel or a custom top-hive feeder.

You’re doing everything right, you think, and exhaust yourself with worry over every decision, lying awake nights pondering solutions. And still hives fail, or abscond, or swarm, or haven’t helped you pay one dang mortgage payment yet.

Please go easy on yourself, beekeeper.

Raising honeybees is one of the hardest forms of animal husbandry. To learn beekeeping, you are going to fail and fail often before you find out what works.

There is not one product, philosophy, or regimen that spells success or failure to your bees, and no amount of late-night worry, internet rabbit holes, and gnashing of teeth will make your hives do exactly what you want.

Now that you know this, please just go play in your bees and make lots of imperfect decisions unencumbered by the burdensome question looming over many-a-beekeeper: “Am I doing this right?” You are not, and neither is anyone else.

I track a handful of beekeeping Facebook groups and find myself cringing at the obsessive, repetitive minutia in the questions and comments sections. It’s not that I feel superior — in fact I often share the same questions or have experienced the same puzzles and frustrations in my own bee yard. The difference for me today is that I work out my beekeeping ideas, hypotheses, and anxieties by just getting out into the bees and really screwing things up (AKA learning).

And the most important lesson I’ve learned from beekeeping is patience. There are really only a few interventions I can make with my bees: I can feed, treat for mites, rob honey, pinch a queen, add or remove a box, and divide a hive. And I can do all of these things in conjunction with the time of year and availability of forage. The rest is up to the bees, time, and Mother Nature.

Wherever you are in your beekeeping journey, I encourage you to “fail forward.” Be bold in the bee yard. Go shake out that failing hive, squish a queen, perform a paper marriage of two underperforming colonies, or maybe — and perhaps this is the boldest decision of all — just do nothing and see what the bees do.

There is no room for orthodoxy in my bee yard. Every trip to the apiary is a chance to test a hypothesis and measure the results of some recent decision. And as my wise mentor Al Friedle says: “The bees always teach me something.”