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How to Begin a Beginning: A Note to the Bee-Curious

When my friend told me she was a beekeeper, I said, "Wow! That's interesting. What do beekeepers do?" The conversation went something like this:

Her: "We keep bees."

Me: [thinking to myself, "No s#!&," but instead saying...] "Really. How do you do that?"

Her: "We check the hives and make sure they are healthy and strong."

Me: "How can you tell?"

Her: "We check the hives."

And the conversation went on like that.

I was genuinely perplexed by this thing called "beekeeping," and the quizzical look on my face must have made her feel as if she were explaining trigonometry to a cow. Eventually, after I got to peek into some actual hives, things started to make much more sense. But that initial moment of mystery is something I will never forget, and it's a scene I see playing out a couple dozen times a year when I meet new beekeepers and those deciding whether or not to take the plunge.

Bees inspire wonder and terror, sometimes simultaneously. Many people love dogs and cats because they are fuzzy and cuddlesome. But bees are bugs of a different feather whose generally uncuddly nature keeps observers at a distance. And yet...utopian fantasies of "saving the bees" and harvesting rivers of homemade honey lure many into the fold.

In the nuttiest of nutshells, beekeeping involves three primary tasks—Queen Management, Space Management, and Pest Management. Beekeepers need to ensure that hives have strong, productive young queens, that the bees have enough food and space to grow their colonies, and that they are not overwhelmed by parasites and the diseases they bring. All in all, it's not an insurmountable learning curve.

So, how, exactly, does one learn the tricks of the trade and avoid the hopeless confusion I felt when I first trod this peculiar path? Here are a few suggestions you may find helpful:

  • Join a local bee club.

Believe it or not, there are monthly gatherings of people who get together to talk about bees. Find a meeting and introduce yourself. With few exceptions, you will find that this is a warm and supportive community. Listen hard and ask lots of questions. Your local resources will be worth their weight in gold.

  • Read, read, read!

Find a good introduction to beekeeping book. (Here's one.) Read it. And then read it again. Check out the handy publications from the state extension experts and online resources. Choose your sources carefully. Ask an experienced beekeeper for recommendations. Remember: any nut can write a beekeeping blog (present company duly noted) or post a YouTube video. With even a modicum of experience, you'll come to realize that the internet is the Great Wild West of Information—truly the best of times and the worst of times. Don't spend your valuable time learning from the hapless and misguided.

  • Find a mentor

Books are great, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience. Find someone who has been keeping bees for a while, and follow him or her around. Learn how to do a hive inspection. Ask lots of questions. Be wary of beekeepers who never say "I don't know." Funnily enough, experts say "I don't know" all the time, but people who know very little almost never do. Go figure.

In south Mississippi, you should probably order nucleus colonies (nucs) in early January or February and expect to pick up your bees in April or May. Starting your colonies at this time of year will give you the greatest chance of success. If you live in this area, don't order package bees from national bee supply companies. They are unreasonably expensive, and packages do not come with drawn comb. You'll spend a lot more money to get bees that are at a decided disadvantage over locally produced nucs.

  • Take a beginning beekeeping course

Local bee clubs around the state offer courses for brand new beekeepers. Check social media for updates. Our local Pine Belt Beekeepers Association will offer a course in late February and March 2022. Details are forthcoming. Send me a note if you are interested. Here is a link to the recorded Zoom classes we did last year when Covid wiped out our "live" sessions.

  • Prepare your equipment

Don't wait until you have bees in the truck before you decide to construct your hives. Use the winter months to purchase, assemble, and paint your equipment. Send me a note, and I can send you a list of things that you'll need to get started.

Bottom line...

When you first start dabbling in bees, you will probably be just as confused as I was. It's inevitable, but not permanent. You'll soon realize that beekeeping is not as scary or as bewildering as you once imagined. Before you know it, you might find yourself completely enchanted by the little bugs. You might not single-handedly save the bees or float down that river of honey, but you will meet some interesting characters, observe the magic of nature in spectacular new ways, and find a fulfilling hobby that will challenge you and change you (in the words of Mary Poppins) "in the most delightful way."

If you have any questions about beekeeping, email me, or drop a line in the comments below!

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Noah Detar
Noah Detar
Jan 25, 2022

Great article. A few years ago, our local Community College had a beekeeper course. It was taught by a coworker who was a hobby beekeeper for many years.

Ed's Backyard Bees
Ed's Backyard Bees
Jan 25, 2022
Replying to

This sounds like a good retirement project for you. 😮🐝

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