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A Bee in my Bonnet – Honeybees and Decision Making

February 14, 2022 | Letters

Author: Dr. Courtney Bir, Department of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University

Honeybees

Although most of us have enjoyed a mild winter thus far, I cannot help but think about spring. For me, spring means grilling, gardening, and my newly acquired pandemic hobby — beekeeping. It all started when extension educators began reaching out to me with questions regarding beekeeping. With my farm management/ag finance focus, I wasn’t sure why I was the lucky go-to until I realized the USDA classifies honeybees as a livestock species. Honeybees are not native to the U.S. (there are native bees, but we aren’t talking about them). Considering bees are “domesticated” and produce edible and useful products, the livestock designation begins to make sense. I started looking into collaborating with entomologists on fact sheets related to the financial aspect and management of bees. I soon began to think, “Why just read a book when first-hand experience is possible?” Maybe it was the pandemic isolation but quickly thereafter, I found myself with a package of bees delivered by the USPS. Did I forget to mention I live in town?

As a data-driven decision maker, I bought several books on beekeeping. You see, when you calculate a ration wrong for cattle, there are consequences, but your entire herd doesn’t disappear. On the other hand, if honeybees do not like your production decisions, the whole hive can leave suddenly. This is common enough to have its own name — absconding. If you do too good of a job, the population increases too much, and half the hive leaves with your queen. Hopefully they leave behind a successful young queen to carry on, but for a myriad of reasons, that doesn’t always happen. I naïvely thought I could just follow best practices and do fine. The problem was, the answers I found in books varied greatly and often were not backed by data. I joined beekeeping groups and soon found out there was very little agreement and a lot of old wives’ tales amongst beekeepers.

My collaborators and I were able to get our beekeeping extension website up and running and will continue updating it with more resources. I quickly learned the uncertainty of beekeeping was a challenge for me. Clinging to any solid measurements, I started the fact-sheet series with a budget for beginning beekeepers. Although there are some less expensive options to get started with beekeeping, people were really surprised at the 500-700 estimated startup costs. In true over-achiever fashion, the small package of bees I started with boomed. Boomed to the point of an unprecedented first-year hive swarming in the middle of July. Many of my neighbors did not know I had bees until I was standing in my front yard trying to catch my swarm out of my own tree. Imagine my poor suburban neighbors seeing three beekeepers in full white suits trying to catch a swarm of bees larger than a basketball. We tried three methods before we finally got them. Then, the real adventure began … the tree had been marked by the bees’ pheromones. We caught three additional swarms out of the tree over the summer. Every swarm in town seemed to show up in my front yard. Practice makes perfect!

Even though I couldn’t take a fully data-driven approach, I was able to combine the data, personal experience and the expertise of others to avoid complete disaster. I entertained my neighbors all summer with the honeybee antics resulting in gifts of beeswax candles and bee décor for the crazy bee neighbor. My garden even did better than before with the additional pollinators. The whole experience changed the way I think about data-driven decision making, especially given the topic had limited information and conflicting information at times, too. Standing in 105-degree heat in a bee suit after being stung multiple times staring at a ball of bees, I realized that sometimes making any decision at all is a success. However, carefully planned, data-driven decisions are still my personal gold standard. Hopefully this next year I will actually get some honey!

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