The Most Important Tool in Beekeeping

There is a lot of technology in beekeeping.  Most people probably have little idea just how much is invested in beekeeping technology by beekeepers and companies related to beekeeping.

Frame of newly drawn comb already in use by the bees.

All the time there are new types of hives, hive tools, hive “accessories” such as frames and scales and covers, etc… that are being modified and introduced.  Different materials to make hives and hive parts are being developed.

Information is perhaps one of the most rapidly developing areas of beekeeping technology.  Teaching beekeeping by books, DVD, online, remote satellite classrooms.  There are blogs and online magazines like this one.  Chat-rooms, social media groups and communities.

All of these things are in a continuous flux of development.  All of them aiming and claiming to help make better beekeeping.  While all of these things are great.  Well, most of them are.  Sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas.  There is one thing that simply cannot ever be replaced or removed by any of these technologies.  Experience.

I’m not just talking about experience as in how much time you accumulate doing beekeeping, although that’s right up there.  No, I’m talking about “the” experience.

You can read all the books you want, watch all the videos, talk to as many people as you can.  There is nothing that can replace actually getting your hands in there to feel the frame in your hands.  To feel the bees brush past your fingers.  The various scents of the hive.  The different sounds bees make.  Trying to identify the types of bees on the comb.

Those are all things beekeepers truly learn by doing it.  It’s kind of like me trying to describe the taste of honey to someone from a place who has never had honey.  There are no words to replace actually tasting it for oneself.

Any tool or hive that is designed to remove the beekeeper from that experience is a bad tool.  There are products out now that boast of how much they can minimize a beekeeper’s exposure to the bees.

It’s one thing to talk about minimal intrusion to the nest.  That’s simply a fact of bee biology.  The more the nest environment is disrupted, valuable hive resources are lost and cause confusion and stress to the colony.  I’m not talking about that here though.

I’m talking about someone pitching a new part of a hive and telling beekeepers how much “easier” it will make beekeeping for them.  I’m talking about invention of things to actually try to replace the bees themselves.  There is nothing out there that removes the beekeeper from the bees that is a good idea.

Bees can be very forgiving in many ways.  They don’t really care what type of hive you put them in, as long as it is dry and they can defend it.  Bees don’t really care where they are as long as there is forage available to them.  Bees don’t care what type of hive tools we use.  They don’t care if we use frame grips or not.  They don’t care if we give them wax foundation or no foundation, or even plastic foundation.  They will make their wax comb for their nests how they will.  If it doesn’t turn out the way beekeepers want it, that’s our problem.

One thing many people don’t “get” though is that beekeeping is a trade.  It takes experience, knowledge and a level of skill to be able to keep bees alive and produce the results we want at the same time.  Beekeepers go through various “levels” as they go through their beekeeping life.

Perhaps the hardest part of beekeeping is the beginning where new beekeepers arm themselves with books and information and begin working with bees.  There’s a lot to learn at the beginning.  After the first 2 or 3 years, they get the basics down and their familiarity with the bees has expanded.

After that, it’s all about refinement of skill, keeping up with new information, and accumulation of experience.  Accumulation of experience is arguably the most important aspect here.  Because bees are living creatures.  One of my favorite pieces of advice to give any beekeeper is to always remember Rule #1 of beekeeping:  Bees are crazy.

We have written thousands of books on beekeeping since beekeeping began.  The bees haven’t read any of them.  No matter what we think we know.  No matter how long we have been a beekeeper, the bees will always find ways to do something we are not expecting.

You won’t see that or learn those crazy things they do in a book or a video.   You can read the words here about it as I write it but it won’t really mean anything as long as you aren’t continuously working with bees.  It’s the experience that is ultimately the bottom line in beekeeping.

You know nothing about bees and beekeeping if you aren’t in the hives constantly (and no, I don’t mean opening a given hive up every day).  Should the day come when you sit back and think you have got it all figured out.  That you know pretty much all there is about bees and beekeeping, then you missed it.  You might as well get out now.

Because the bees don’t even have it all figured out.  Bees are constantly learning and adapting themselves.  Every colony has it’s own personality.  Every colony goes about things a little differently.  Every colony has the potential to show us something we haven’t seen before.  Why, basically because they are making it up as they go along.

We can have all the tools and toys for beekeeping possible.  We can have every book or video ever made.  Without those things, we can still be good beekeepers because if we are patient and wise enough to pay attention, the bees will teach us the basics themselves.

Without the experience of getting in where the bees are and working with them regularly it won’t work.  Getting to know the feel of the bees as you grab a frame and knowing not to squish one when you feel it brush your fingers.  Smelling a different odor as you approach the hive and knowing it means something isn’t right in the hive.  Seeing the crazy, daredevil flying stunts of bees that are orienting over the hive and knowing that it is different flight from bees getting ready to swarm.

Experience is the most valuable thing we have as beekeepers.  Everything else comes afterward.  Or we’re not really beekeepers, are we?

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