Being a novice beekeeper is challenging. The constant feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing is compounded by your sudden responsibility to these small creatures swarming in your backyard. As Zen-like and comforting as beekeeping is, there’s always that hint of stress induced by your wanting to do right by these little insects that give you loads of sweetness and joy.
Before I even considered buying a hive I read books about beekeeping. Lots and lots of books. The first one was “A Book of Bees” by Sue Hubbell. My husband bought it for me. Then it was “Sweetness & Light” and “Robbing the Bees.” These were by no means “how-to” books, but they did give amazing detail and insight into what it meant to be a beekeeper. I also found a mentor — Ken Hays of Hays Honey & Apple Farm — who’d been keeping bees for 25+ years. We talked often and he allowed me to shadow him on his daily yard inspections. He was patient, joyful, inspiring, and encouraging. He said I would be the best type of beekeeper: loving, nurturing, and serious. It was only after a couple of months of this research that I finally bought my first hive. I continued to read. I called Ken and another mentor, Jerry Anderson, regularly to ask questions. They were always eager to help.
At this point, Albuquerque had a decent community of hobbyist beekeepers — beekeepers with 1 or 2 hives in their backyard. Now, seven years later, there are an estimated 400 backyard hobbyist beekeepers in the city. A group of energetic and well-meaning volunteers have gotten the Albuquerque Beekeepers group to a functional organization that provides workshops, mentors, forums, and other resources for beekeepers of all levels.
Still, it’s disheartening and somewhat alarming when you hear one of these newbie beekeepers ask basic questions like, “What do eggs look like?” “What does the queen look like?” “What’s a wax moth?” “My bees are all dead. What happened?” In my opinion, this is essentially the equivalent of giving birth to a child and then asking someone how you identify whether its a boy or a girl.
There’s basic knowledge that fledgling beekeepers should have before even starting a backyard apiary. Knowing how to spot the queen, workers, drones, larva, eggs, swarm cells, disease, pests, etc., are all included in that essential information. To start keeping bees before you can answer and identify these issues is irresponsible at best and egregious at worst. I have seen some hack beekeepers around these parts. One person had their hive in the 3-foot wide easement between his house and his neighbors, in full slight of the street. When we visited, the bees were pouring out the front for lack of space in the hive, and they flowed out onto the gas meter, which was right next to the hive bodies. He seemed not to be alarmed by this at all. Once when a swarm landed in our neighbors yard, a man showed up, walked right into her backyard without asking or introducing himself, hacked away at her bushes only to get about 1/3 of the cluster, and left without saying a word. More recently, the threat of Africanized Honeybees has encroached on our peaceful existence, and still we have beekeepers who know not the warning signs or causes for AHB or how to deal with them. The beekeeping community should not have to encourage them to send their unusually aggressive bees to the extension office to be examined for the AHB gene. They should know to do this.
Beekeeping is an amazing experience. Even now after seven years I’m still educating myself. I’m still learning every day. I’m working toward my master beekeeping certification, and love to share my knowledge and time with anyone who is interested in this mission that is so essential to our own survival as human beings. As urban beekeepers, we cannot take this lightly. Read, read, read, and read some more before you go out and snag a swarm or mail order a box of bees. Yes, the bees are operating on millennia of instinct, but that doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility as partners in this endeavor. Lack of knowledge and a willful refusal to educate yourself BEFORE you get your bees only makes it more difficult for the other beekeepers in your community.