It is hard to believe that just one year ago, Lauchie and I set out on this crazy beekeeping adventure. We have gone from knowing very little about bees to…well…thinking we know a lot. The best part of beekeeping is that we are ALWAYS learning—never a dull moment in bee-ville.
Lessons from year 1
So as we enter our second year, we thought it would be a good time to sit back and reflect on some of the lessons learned during our first year as “beeks”. And in no particular order, here is what surprised us the most as new beekeepers.
Beekeepers are awesome.
Without a doubt, the beekeeping community in Ottawa is the city’s BEST kept secret. We’ve met many friendly, helpful, passionate people. It seems like every weekend, there is another local meeting or training event to go to and you can attend as many or as few events as you want. By attending these events, we learned that hobby beekeepers are a diverse crowd—you’re as likely to meet a farmer as you are to meet a computer programmer. Who would have known that this great community exists? After all the help we have received over the last year, we are eager to help out others, whenever and wherever we can on. It’s honey bee karma. Keep it going.
Hive life is fascinating.
Honey bees are pretty freaking fascinating. When we started researching this process, we knew little about bees—we knew they live in colonies; they have a queen; they sting; they make honey and wax and other by‑products—you know, basic stuff. But if you REALLY stop and consider how colonies operate, how they work together, how they make decisions as a group—you come to realize that they are really clever little creatures.
And they are so darn busy. All. The. Time. Each and every honey bee has an important job to do. There are bees that make honey; bees that tend brood; bees that help the queen; bees that bring in pollen and nectar. They waggle their butts, build bridges, make comb, and carry out their dead. There is always SOMETHING to watch and wonder over when you open a hive. Nature’s Netflix.
It is easy to fall in love with bees.
When we started this process, we did not fully appreciate how much affection we would develop for our hives. During the first year, we celebrated and boasted when our hives did well and we worried and obsessed when our hives had a run of bad luck. God help the poor, unsuspecting soul who dared ask about our hives, because, man, did they get an earful! Our bees started to feel like family and we became emotionally invested in their welfare.
Bees are our happy place.
Handling bees is stress-relieving and strangely cathartic. On warm, sunny days, thousands of curious little honey bees greeted us as we visited the hive. We got much joy watching our busy little buzzies fly in and out, loaded with sacks full of pollen and nectar. The process of tending to our hives made us feel like we were part of something greater.
Bees are gentle.
Before, we started beekeeping, I had never been stung, but that changed pretty quick. Between the two of us, we got stung 28 times—enough to suck, but not nearly as much as we expected.
Bees in general get a bad rap. When people think of bees, they think of wasps who attack just for fun. For the most part, this isn’t bees how bees roll. Sure there is the odd asshole honey bee having a bad day, but generally, honey bees only attack if you do something stupid, like squash one of their buddies. Then they get annoyed.
No two hives are alike.
Each hive has its own unique personality and temperament. You learn pretty quickly to adjust your behavior to their needs. We started with two hives and they couldn’t be more different. Blue skies is a quiet, gentle, industrious little hive. They just do what they need to do—no muss, no fuss. In contrast, sunshine hive—total opposite. Sunshine hive is a rock star. Energetic, noisy and occasionally prone to fits of rebelliousness. We are never quite sure what they are up too, but they are always entertaining.
Trust your bees.
It is hard to accept at first, but bees know what they need. Just trust them. They’ll show you what they need in many big and small ways. This is a hard lesson if you are a control freak, since bees will do whatever the heck they want in spite of your best efforts. Your job then is to enable them and get them through the rough times.
Bee life is a cycle.
Everything in beekeeping revolves around cycles—life and death cycles, seasonal cycles, treatment cycles. To help your bees, you need to understand how these cycles affect each other so you can stay one step ahead. Tracking the weather, knowing what types of plants will sprout at different times of the year, knowing how long it will take for new bees to emerge and old bees to die—all of these details are important, because they change life in the hive.
Hives are not money in the bank.
Okay, so here’s the deal: beekeeping can be an expensive and addictive hobby. When we started, we only wanted one hive. But shortly after buying the first hive, we bought a second. Then we bought 2 nucs of bees. Then we wanted some special hive parts and tools. Then we wanted to take some beekeeping classes. Then we needed new queens ($40 for an insect?!?). Then we started a website. Things spiraled during our first year. As we gave away honey to our families this fall, the running joke was, “Here’s your $128.00 jar of honey! Enjoy!” Moral of the story: the expenses can quickly add up—especially in the first year.
Plans for the second year
Our first year was full of great learning experiences, but we feel this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. There are always new techniques to learn, new situations to encounter, new experiences to have.
Winter is lingering this year and it feels like all of our beekeeping plans are temporarily on hold. We are excited to see how our bees will adjust to life after winter. So far, both hives are alive and on warm days, we can see them flying around, pooping up a storm (affectionately known as “cleansing flights”). We gave each hive a pollen patty last week and we will start feeding them as soon as this silly April ice storm passes. If all goes well, we plan to split at least one of our hives into the OCB community hive in June.
One of our goals for our second beekeeping year is to learn more about integrated pest management. We have already signed up for the Tech Transfer program’s IPM course in Ottawa in June (If anyone is interested in a beekeeping class, check out the Tech Transfer program page on the Ontario Beekeeper’s association website). We will write more about this experience in June.
We’ll keep you updated as things progress!