Beekeeping is Backbreaking Work

A frame of honey ready for harvest

A frame of honey ready for harvest

Anyone who’s harvested more than a few supers of honey knows how demanding beekeeping can be on your body. The most physically challenging days of each beekeeping year are those spent pulling supers from hives. I’m sure big commercial operations are pretty efficient, but for small beekeepers like me it involves inspecting each super—each frame really—for capped honey that’s ready to extract. Then you’ve got to get the bees out of those supers, which means either chemical repellents or my old fashioned method of using a bee brush. There are a bunch of other factors that increase the difficulty, such as keeping bees off the frames after you’ve removed them from the hives, but they all add up to lifting heavy objects (50 pound medium supers) for long days while wearing a veil (at a minimum) in the hot sun. Even after the supers have been pulled, there’s the problem of storing them safely until they can be extracted. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are real concerns during these harvest days. I’m in my mid-40s and in pretty good shape for my age, but I still feel like I’ve been hit by a truck after a day of pulling supers.

A batch of honey supers—each weighting about 50 pounds—in the freezer awaiting extraction

A batch of honey supers—each weighting about 50 pounds—in the freezer awaiting extraction

So when folks tell me they want to get into beekeeping, I can’t help but at least consider their physical condition as a factor. I’m not judging them as people, mind you, but just trying to gauge whether they are physically able to keep bees. (Of course, I would never mention this to anyone—instead I’ll say something like “You should come work with me for a day and see if it’s something you enjoy before you spend hundreds of dollars on equipment.”) I suppose there are ways to minimize the demands of beekeeping, such as keeping just one or two colonies, using Flow Hives or top bar hives, employing helpers, etc. These tactics may help, but they each have their own drawbacks I won’t get into now. Sadly, people who have certain medical issues or are in overall poor shape are likely to struggle with beekeeping—especially during harvest time.

Spinning out honey

Spinning out honey

And it doesn’t end with the harvest, because extraction days are also tough on the body. There’s more lifting, uncapping, extracting, bottling, and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. For all of these reasons, I suspect that a good percentage of new beekeepers end up failing because they weren’t prepared for the physical demands of the hobby. Add in the intellectual demands of maintaining a healthy colony and it’s no surprise that a vast majority of new beekeepers jump ship after a few years.

On the flip side, I’m always impressed when I go to a bee club meeting and see beekeepers in their 70s who are still working 30 hives. I don’t know how they do it, and I only hope I’ll be healthy enough to do the same at their age.