A Year in the Life of a Beginning Beekeeper

Step One: Tackle Your Fear by Experiencing the Wonder of the Honey Bee

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I wasn’t a fan of bees. Like most other people, I have a horror story or two about being stung by just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My dad got stung on the top of his head, sending him into anaphylactic shock, which didn’t improve my opinion. In fact, it only made me fear these tiny creatures.

Curiosity, and a desire to overcome what I saw as an irrational fear, lead me to my current position as the Marketing Manager at Betterbee. Now that I have spent a few months working in the beekeeping industry, I’m singing a different tune: Bees are some of the most misunderstood insects out there.

Did you know that there are over 20,000 bee species in the world? Sure, we all know about bumblebees, sweat bees, and honey bees, but I believe we never truly wrap our heads around the fact that these species are all different. Not all are yellow and black. Not all collect honey (some, known as vulture bees, feed on rotting flesh – yuck!). Not all sting (interestingly, only female bees can sting, because the stinger is a modified version of their egg-laying organ). We also don’t realize that some stinging insects, such as wasps, are technically not even bees! Stereotyping and lumping all bees into a stinging pile of danger is doing the world, and yourself, a serious disservice.

For the curious: Basic facts about honey bee colonies

What helped me get over the initial hump of fear was opening a book and reading. The honey bee, or Apis mellifera, colony is incredibly complex and disciplined. It consists of one queen, 20,000 to 60,000 worker bees, and hundreds of drone bees. This brings me to a first, little-known point: Honey bee colonies are predominantly female. All except the drones are female. I affectionately refer to the honey bee society as “feminist,” since the females run the show and the males sit around feasting on honey.

For all: Fun facts about honey bees

Honey bees don’t just provide humans with delicious honey, they also pollinate and help produce many of the foods we enjoy, such as apples, cherries, pears, avocados, almonds, and more. In fact, honey bees pollinate nearly 80% of the foods we eat. Thus, without these hard-workers, we would not have access to many of our favorite foods.

Here are some fun facts about honey bee lifespan and honey production:

  • Worker bees live an average of six to eight weeks, drones live an average of eight weeks (but the select few who get the opportunity to mate will die immediately afterward), and queen bees have a lifespan of 2-3 years.
  • Each worker bee produces around 1/12 teaspoon of honey and an entire colony can produce 60 to 100 pounds of honey per year.
  • Honey bees fly at a rate of 12 miles per hour and, on average, visit 50 to 100 flowers during one collection flight.
  • A colony’s bees must fly an average of 55,000 miles to produce a single pound of honey.
  • Honey is food for bees, and small colonies require around 35 pounds of honey to survive a winter (larger colonies require more).
  • Honey bees do not hibernate: they cluster together and shiver in the hive to try to keep the queen and the temperature at the center of the cluster at around 95°F. The average cluster temperature is 81°F.
  • Healthy bees do not poop in the hive (ever!), even in the winter. They can hold it for weeks! Once the air temperature goes above 44°F, they will take short cleansing flights to relieve themselves, then quickly return to the hive. If their body temperature falls too low, they can become paralyzed and die.

Threats to the honey bee population and how you can help

“Save the bees!” I’ve seen and heard this war cry many times, in addition to hearing that the bee population has been dwindling for years, but it never quite clicked with me before now.

The bee population is suffering great losses as a result of Varroa destructor mites, Nosema gut parasites, pesticide poisoning, poor nutrition, and deforestation as well as other habitat changes. Beekeepers across the nation have faced this issue head-on by improving hive conditions. Testing and treating for mites and parasites, as well as feeding nutritional supplements, can give a colony a better chance at survival. Changes like these led to a 3% increase in honey bee colonies from 2016 to 2017. This shows that we can tip the scales and help the honey bee population in our own, individual ways. Are you convinced yet that honey bees are not just small stinging machines, but valuable hard-working producers? Are you curious enough to learn more about how you can help by becoming a beekeeper?

There is a lot more to learn, but, personally, I’m ready to take on the challenge.

I hope you’ll join me each month as I recap the ups and downs along my journey as a beginner beekeeper.

Your Betterbee-ginner Beekeeper,

A Year in the Life of a Beginner Beekeeper Series

Part Two: Plan and Prepare for Your Bees
Part Three: First Hive Inspection
Part Four: Ask Experienced Beekeepers Questions, Get Helpful Answers 
Part Five: The Beekeeping Journey has Many Twists and Turns, Surprises and Regrets
Part Six: Newspaper Combining, Drone Culling, and Honey Harvesting, Oh My!
Part Seven: Preparing for Winter 
Part Eight: Lessons in Mites and Moisture
Part Nine: The End of a Decade, The Beginning of Something New
Part Ten: Winter Feeding & a Heart-Wrenching Loss
Part Eleven: Eagerly Awaiting Spring
Part Twelve: Exiting Winter Isolation & Kicking Off Mite Management