Anyone can put in the time researching and start keeping bees, but not everyone has what it takes to be a beekeeper. In my time spent teaching new beekeepers, I have noticed some qualities that make for really great beekeepers.
I don’t think you have to have all of these qualities to be a great beekeeper, but I do think you will have more success if you either naturally have these qualities or if you attempt to develop them early on in your beekeeping practice. So, here we go, 5 qualities that make for a great beekeeper!
As a new beekeeper you are going to lose hives. It’s going to happen and yes, it will probably be your fault. It feels terrible, but how you handle this failure when it happens makes all the difference. A good beekeeper knows that mistakes are part of learning and that every failure is an opportunity to learn something new. When you lose a colony, try your best to figure out what went wrong and try not to lose the next colony for the same reason. Beekeeping is difficult and you mostly learn through trial and error. So be prepared for error and don’t lose heart. Even experienced beekeepers make mistakes and lose colonies. This is one of the reasons I recommend new beekeepers start with a minimum of two colonies. If you lose one, but still have the other, it won’t be as devastating.
A Curious Mind
It always astounds me when I meet a beekeeper who has been keeping bees for 4 or 5 years, but still cannot distinguish a drone from a worker bee. On many occasions I have met beekeepers who have set their hives up, do inspections, but still have no real clue what they are looking at when they open the hive. People who are naturally curious will make the extra effort to look up things that they find in the hive that they do not understand. A good beekeeper knows that bees will always find a way to surprise you, no matter how long you’ve been beekeeping and for that reason, beekeepers should never stop learning. Here’s a tip, when you’re doing an inspection, if you see something you don’t understand, take a photo of it with your phone’s camera. This will make it easier to look up later. You can show it to a mentor or post it in a forum to find out what it is you are seeing. Want to exercise your understanding of what’s in a hive? Check out Brood Mapper, an interactive learning tool that helps you identify what you are seeing in your hives.
Beekeeping is not like baking. There is no formulaic recipe that you can follow that will result in a thriving, honey-rich hive. There’s also never just one way to do something. I encourage new beekeepers to seek out as many different perspectives and techniques as possible and then make their own decision about what they think is best. Everything you read should be taken with a grain of salt. Gain an understanding of how bees live naturally, without the beekeeper, and then use that to inform and temper the decisions you make. If you are given advice that doesn’t sound right to you, trust that instinct. You can and should question conventional beekeeping practices. It’s entirely possible that you could come up with a better method. People who are comfortable with independent thinking tend to make better beekeepers because they weigh their options and choose the best one. They make informed decisions instead of just doing something because a book told them to.
Grace under Pressure
One thing you should know is that bees can sense fear and they do react to it. I see this all the time in my tours and beekeeping classes. One person will be nervous, swatting at the bees that come nearby or visibly shrinking back. These sudden movements will only draw more bees and potentially make them angry with you. Personally, I think the bees are also picking up on your underlying fear, anxiety and emotion and then reacting to it. So, do your best to calm yourself down when you are working your bees. Beekeepers who can keep their zen tend to have much better experiences. I often tell new beekeepers that “worrying about getting stung is way worse than actually getting stung” as a way to alleviate their anxiety. Of course no one wants to be stung, but bee stings usually don’t hurt that much and it really isn’t a big deal if you get stung once or twice. It is important not to lose control and panic when things go wrong though. Over 10 stings can result in serious harm such as vomiting, nausea or even a trip to the hospital. If you lose your cool, you are more likely to make more mistakes which will likely result in more stings. You can end up harming your bees, your neighbors or yourself. Beekeepers who can stay calm even when things go wrong tend to make better beekeepers. If you have trouble with this particular skill, I recommend practicing yoga and/or meditation.
Beekeeping can be a humbling experience because it is impossible to understand everything about bees. There is so much we don’t know and there are a lot of things that are out of our control.
A wise beekeeper recognizes that bees often know better than the beekeeper and takes this into consideration when they make a decision. I once heard Kirk Anderson of the Los Angeles “Backwards Beekeepers” say that he when he first started keeping bees he looked around everywhere trying to find the best beekeeper to learn from and he finally realized the best beekeeper was the bees themselves. Before you interfere in your bees lives, before you try to force something on them, stop and think what the bees might do themselves. I often tell my students that if they are going to perform a manipulation, they should be aware of how it differs from what the bees would do naturally. Often, and especially with new beekeepers, human intrusions do more harm than good.
Beekeepers may also be humbled by their bees as a force of nature. For example, you are not in control of how much honey your bees make, that is entirely dependent on weather conditions, forage and your particular colony’s strength. You may find yourself helpless in many situations: swarming, robbing, colony collapse… Accepting your lack of power in the face of natural forces is as much a part of beekeeping as it is being human.