Who hasn’t heard of the proverbial “busy” bee? But how busy is the beekeeper? With beekeeping becoming ever more popular as an amateur hobby, many initiates wonder just how much time beekeeping takes. For one, this will very much depend on how many hives make up the apiary. But what else does it depend on?
The reputation is a deserved one – bees are exceptionally busy creatures and there is usually a lot of them. There isn’t a beekeeper on the planet who could sincerely say they do more work than their colonies. Sure enough, with regards to their many wonders, bees are very often best left alone. Bees feed themselves, pollinate by themselves, breed with no human assistance, and manufacture honey by themselves. Of course, they don’t deliver that honey to your table, so harvesting is perhaps the most work a beekeeper will find him/herself doing at any single time. Yet this only needs to be done once or twice a season, so where does the hard work come in?
Rest assured, there will be some hard work. Some readers might be a little disappointed to learn that beekeeping has actually never been more time consuming than it is at the present time. This is because, unlike in times past, the United States is now host to many diseases and parasites – originating abroad – which necessitate a little bit of maintenance on the part of the beekeeper. Back in the day, a beekeeper would simply have to catch and house the swarm, harvest the honey and, well, not much else. This is not the case today.
Yet beekeeping is not the time-consuming activity many people would expect it to be. For one thing, it would not be so popular if setting up a few hives in the back yard came with a hefty amount of work and the necessity of daily attention. Bees still like, mostly, to be left alone to their hive, pollen-gathering excursions, and honey-making day job.
And yet, some of your time is needed. Not only to protect them from the aforementioned pests and diseases, but also for trapping the swarm, feeding in emergencies, and harvesting the honey. Besides this, however, beekeeping can amount to no more work than a couple of hours a week when putting in the bare minimum. Yet beekeeping rewards the industrious and the fastidious, and the old adage “you get what you put in” certainly applies in some sense here.
Perhaps the best way to answer the question “is beekeeping time consuming”, however, is to go over the jobs that take time – a clearer idea of whether or not it is for you will follow.
The Hive (and Trapping the Swarm)
There are widely acknowledged to be three main types of hive in modern beekeeping. The Langstroth, top-bar, and Warre hives. Whichever one you opt for, setting it out and doing what you can to capture a swarm is the beginning of many a beekeeping adventure. Of course, you can circumvent this stage by means of buying bees and queens but, with regards to the hive, you can expect to be removing frames of comb for honey harvesting, giving a thorough examination every so often, and doing what you can to protect it against pests. You might also be one of those courageous souls who decides to build a hive from scratch.
Trapping a swarm requires a bit of trial and error, as it depends on bait, positioning and a sufficient local nectar flow, but it is not backbreaking work. Most of it, indeed, will involve watching carefully for the first scout bees to start sniffing around the opening. You will know it’s occupied by the familiar “in and out” bee traffic at the entrance. For a clearer idea of how much time a beekeeper might spend on this, see this guide to attracting bees.
Pests and Diseases
As mentioned above, this is the major threat posed to beehives by the modern ecosystem. A professor of biology at Cornell University, Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, recently published a bestselling study of the endlessly complex matter of bee society. In Honeybee Democracy, Seeley, going on a rigorous analysis of honeybee preferences, managed to come up with some figures for a hive’s ideal cavity volume, opening width and height above the ground. Seeley, among much else, concluded that bees ultimately prefer a hive 21 feet off the ground, a height which, you might have noticed, beehives are rarely at.
One of the main reasons that beehives are found as high in the wild is undoubtedly for some form of protection from hive invaders. You could of course place your hive at this height but, given the obvious impracticalities of dealing with such a lofty hive, it is actually less time consuming to have it on the ground and take appropriate measures to deal with pests.
Mice and other rodents, in particular, can wreak havoc in a beehive. Beehives are warm, sheltered and literally dripping with sustenance. Why wouldn’t a chilly, hungry, and curious mouse take note?
Diseases, too, could potentially threaten your hive. Dealing with diseases requires a knowledge of them and a program of hive inspections regular enough to catch the first signs. Diseases that could threaten your hive include American foulbrood, a bacteria that can wipe out larvae within the brood comb; Nosema, which can destroy a bees stomach lining; or deformed wing virus, which is pretty self-explanatory. The treatments and means of guarding against these ailments are myriad and too much to cover here.
That said, the beekeeping rule of thumb where all diseases are concerned is to give your hives regular check-ups and simply to note down anything unusual. Any progression of these unusual elements between two check-ups indicates something is spreading in the hive. At that point it might be worth consulting a compendium of diseases and pests to identify what ails your hive and how to take appropriate measures. This overview from the University of Arkansas is particularly good. You can also identify a pest problem in this way.
The importance of checking up on your hive naturally engenders the importance of taking a note of what you find. This can all be integrated (along with more cheerful signs of progress) within a system of bee recordkeeping, which certainly constitutes one of the time-consuming activities of the modern beekeeper.
These records do not need to be complicated or overly formal (see a guide to beekeeping records here) but they do need to record a certain number of things. Common categories include queen status, brood patterns, general population, behaviour, honey stores, etc.
Beekeeping records might take a bit of time in and of themselves, but without them it’s near impossible to gauge the amount of time you might be spending on all the tasks that face the modern beekeeper. Perhaps the most succinct answer to the whole question “is beekeeping time consuming?” is “start keeping records and find out.”
To find or not to feed? That, believe it or not, really is the question. There are few more fraught topics in the world of beekeeping than feeding. For sure, bees should be left to be as self-sufficient as possible, but it is also for sure that there are circumstances where feeding might be preferable, even necessary.
Regarding the amount of time you can expect to devote to beekeeping, your bee feeding habits will be a major determiner of this. Reasons NOT to feed include the happy self-sufficiency of bees, the complete unnecessity when bees are healthy and feeding themselves, and the rather alarming fact and significant data seems to suggest that pollen and nectar contain much besides their main ingredient, massively beneficial to bee health and absent from artificial products.
But then again, when colonies find themselves in peril, when worker numbers are low, when pollen and nectar isn’t plentiful, when disease has afflicted the hive, the provision of pollen patties and sugar solution could very well mean the difference between life and death.
As you can probably tell, bee feeding will be as time consuming as it needs to be, but you can decrease your chances of overwork by starting from the assumption that our sturdy little pollinators can look after themselves pretty well. All the same, keep an eye on things.