Realistic Expectations

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"Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed"--Alexander Pope

I think it’s important in every aspect of beekeeping to have realistic expectations. Not to say that those may not be exceeded at times, but also at times they will not be met as both failure and success are dependent on many related variables.

As examples, let's consider some of the variable outcomes.

Honey Crop

Typically people tell beginner beekeepers not to expect a honey crop the first year. This is an attempt to set realistic expectations. However a good package with a good queen in a good year (appropriate amounts of well timed rainfall and flying weather) may far exceed this or may not even get well established. But generally it’s a realistic expectation for the beekeeper that they should get established enough to get through the winter and maybe make a little honey.

Plastic Foundation

People buy plastic foundation (and other plastic beekeeping equipment such as Honey Super Cell fully drawn comb) and sometimes are very disappointed. The bees typically will hesitate to draw the plastic (or use the Honey Super Cell) and this sets them back a bit. Sometimes the bees will draw a comb between two plastic foundations in order to avoid using it. Sometimes they will build “fins” out from the face of the foundation. None of these are unusual, but they also often draw it pretty well. How well they do depends on a combination of genetics and nectar flow. Many people seeing the hesitation decide never to use plastic again. But actually once the bees use it, comb on plastic foundation or even fully drawn plastic comb is used just like any other comb. The delay at first seems like a big setback, and for a package, perhaps it is, but once you get past it there is no problem getting it used after that.

Wax Foundation

People use wax foundation and often it gets hot and buckles, or the bees chew it all up or the bees don’t want to draw it and they drawn fins or combs between. They do this less with than with plastic, but still sometimes they do. The buckled foundation often gets comb build on it and the comb is a mess. Many people after an experience like this say they will never use wax foundation again. But really that’s just how the circumstances went. If you put it in on a good flow the bees would not have chewed it and it would have been drawn before it buckled. My point is that people often have unrealistic expectations and when those are not realized, they are disappointed in the method when it was other circumstances that led to the problems.


Some people use foundationless frames. Many have perfect luck with it but some will have bees that just don’t get the concept and build some crossways comb. Since this happens just as often in plastic foundation, and wax foundation that has collapsed or fallen out etc. it would not seem that significant, but if the only experience you have is with the foundationless, you may assume that other methods don’t have these problems. But they do. Again, genetics and timing of the flow have a lot to do with success or failure.


New beekeepers often assume that every hive should live forever and every hive should make it through the winter. Some winters, they do. But most winters kill off at least a few of the hives. Obviously the more hives you have the more this happens. I went years without losing a hive, but I only had a few and I always combined any that were borderline on strength and those were the days before Tracheal mites, Varroa mites, Nosema cerana, small hive beetles, and a host of viruses we now have. Now I have around a hundred hives and try to overwinter a lot of nucs, of marginal strength and there are those many new diseases and pests to stress them out. No winter losses is an unrealistic expectation. But high winter losses are a sign that you must be doing something wrong or the weather did something quirky.

I always try to figure out the cause of winter losses. Often it is starvation from getting stuck on brood. Sometimes with nucs or small clusters it’s a hard cold snap (-10 to -30 F) and the cluster just wasn’t big enough to keep warm. I always look for dead Varroa. Finding thousands of dead Varroa in the dead bees is usually a good indication that the Varroa were the primary cause of their death. A lack of such evidence is probably good evidence that it was something else.

Again, the point is that sometimes wintering exceeds or falls below even realistic expectations. But it’s helpful to start with realistic expectations and work from there. Realistic expectations from healthy hives as far as losses are probably in the 10% range with some years worse and some years better.


One of the common questions I hear from new beekeepers is “how many splits can I make?” Of course the answer to this is probably the most variable of any except, perhaps, “how much honey will my hive make?” The difference between a good year and a bad year in beekeeping varies far more than 10 fold. I’ve had years where I got 200 pounds of honey from every hive and years where I harvested nothing and fed 60 pounds of sugar (between spring and fall) to every hive. Splits are similar. Some hives can’t be split at all. Some can be split five times in a year. Most can only take one split and still make a decent crop of honey and be well stocked for winter.

How many hives in one place?

Another common question about beekeeping is “how many hives can I put in one place?” With awesome forage (like in the middle of 8000 acres of sweet clover), and good weather, it may be close to impossible to put too many in one place. With poor forage and drought, it may be that only a few hives is too many. A typical number that is thrown about is 20. This is a nice round number that is applicable as a generality, but to be realistic it will depend on many things and many of those things vary from year to year.

The point of all of this is that results in beekeeping vary dramatically based on what is happening around the bees as well as things like the time of year, the way they are cared for and so on. It's very difficult to predict what the outcomes will actually be, so there is no point in having too high or low of expectations. Take things as they come and adjust. Be prepared for both exceptional success or failure and adjust as you go.

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Copyright 2008 by Michael Bush

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