Beekeeping Basics

Goldilocks and Mid-winter Assessments

- January 1, 2021 - Grant F. C. Gillard - (excerpt)

Winter snow beehives

I started beekeeping in 1981 on the family farm in Glenville, Minnesota, following my graduation from Iowa State University in Ames. In the years that followed, my beekeeping aspirations morphed and materialized into various configurations as my circumstances and continuing education allowed.

In 1993, my wife and I relocated to Jackson, Missouri, to accept a call to pastor the First Presbyterian Church. The stability of a small town created amazing opportunities that allowed my hobby to expand and grow into a small-scale, income-producing enterprise. My greatest challenge in those days was finding the time to work my bees, on the days when the weather cooperated, amid my work commitments and family obligations.

By 2016, our children were grown up and living in Kansas City, Missouri, my wife’s hometown where her two brothers still reside with their families. Despite a lot of great things going on in our lives in southeast Missouri, the overwhelming desire to move closer to care for aging parents and to be active in our children’s lives mandated a difficult decision.

So in the summer of 2018, my wife and I pulled up the hive stands and moved the bees to the small community of Holden, Missouri. The move was incredibly stress-filled and to keep my sanity at a functional level, I discovered the wisdom of down-sizing by giving away many of my unfinished projects, which, if you know me, was also stressful in its own right.

At the present time, I keep around 80 to 100 colonies of honey bees, and that number varies through the summer with the queens I raise, the splits I make, and the nucs I sell. I still do a lot of speaking to local bee associations and wish there was more time to encourage new beekeepers.

We continue to raise honey bees for the purpose of selling honey, and this purpose shapes the ways I manage my colonies. In the summer months, on any given Saturday morning you can find me selling honey at the Downtown Lee’s Summit Farmers Market. I also enjoy answering questions and inquiries about the state of beekeeping, and how one might get a few hives started in their own backyard.

New beekeepers frequently stop by my table and ask, “I’m new to beekeeping. What should I be doing with my bees right now?” I give them my honestly simple, but disappointingly unsatisfactory answer: It depends.

As most of these new beekeepers stare blankly at my rather callous, dismissive response, I feel compelled to ask a few questions of my own. Is this your first year establishing a package of bees on foundation? Did you buy a nuc to replace a colony that died during the winter? What are your hopes and dreams and expectations for a honey harvest? If you successfully over-wintered a colony, has it swarmed? Do you care if it swarms?

Beekeeping questions defy a single, one-size-fits-all answer until the underlying circumstances that prompt the question can be clarified. Beekeepers of varying experiences keep honey bees for different purposes. Those purposes also color and contrast the most appropriate responses.

When I’m engaging a newer beekeeper, and I have the time to clarify the circumstances, I find myself saying, “Well, here’s how I do things and here’s what I found works for me.” I might also add why I do things a certain way and describe what outcome I’m hoping to achieve, but I make sure I mention that these ends are conditioned on an understanding of the biology that drives the colony’s behavior.

The slough of management

Beekeeping is systemically focused on human management, perhaps out of necessity because we keep bees in rather artificial accommodations with excessively large populations, directed with self-serving intentions to suit our conveniences. More and more, it appears the survival of traditionally managed colonies depends on our timely intervention of pharmaceutical treatments and synthetic nutritional assistance.

I have yet to teach a new beekeeper’s course without someone asking, “I just want to put a bee hive in the backyard and let them do their thing. I don’t want to mess with them and I don’t want to take any honey. How will this work out?”

Again, trying to navigate the thorny thicket of a hundred variables, I temper my answer with, “Given the state of beekeeping today, the odds are against their survival. But there are select beekeepers doing this very thing. I’d find one of them and ask them how they do it, but this practice has never worked for me.” I offer the same admission regarding my lack of success with top bar hives.

In my early days of beekeeping, I invested an inordinate amount of time and energy managing my bee hives, even to the point of my obsession with micromanaging every detail as if the bees had no clue. I lived in a disconnected world that operated with the ill-conceived notion that bees could be domesticated to best serve our human objectives. I felt negligent if I wasn’t inspecting my colonies every week to ensure the bees were doing what I felt they should be doing (never mind I really had no clue as to what they should be doing).

Over time, and a million mistakes later, I experienced several of those “light bulb” moments when I began to appreciate the basic foundations of honey bee biology and what drives the colony’s development. Instead of this obsession with what I should be doing, I began to observe what the bees were doing. I watched how the bees took their …