I wish that the first book I had ever read on beekeeping was The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden. Kim Flottum’s expert advice is a comprehensive introduction to getting started with your own backyard hives. Although I am not an absolute beginner, I still gleaned useful information that will affect how I manage my own bees. More importantly, I recognize from my experience as a beekeeper how valuable this book would have been for me as a beginner.
The Backyard Beekeeper orients the reader to beekeeping through a brief history of beekeeping and its innovations. From there, Flottum delves into the nuts and bolts of starting out as a hobbyist. He strongly encourages beginners to use 8-frame medium hive bodies instead of the traditional 10-frame deep. After a few years of beekeeping, I must confess that I am also making the switch to 8-frame hives. Nor does Flottum restrict his equipment discussion to setting up the traditional Langstroth hives; he also explains in detail how to manage top bar hives. Beyond the equipment, he also describes the different breeds of bees and their comparative merits.
The meat of the book is, of course, about the bees themselves and how to manage them as a beekeeper. He explains the biology and function of queens, drones, and workers. Although I know research into the function of drones in the hive is newer, I did find the discussion of the importance of drones to a colony’s vitality a touch lacking. It is, however, a small quibble in an otherwise excellent introductory resource to the life cycle and roles of the bees in the hive. In fact, I still learned beekeeping tips that I hadn’t picked up elsewhere. For example, the alarm pheromone, which a dying bee releases, stays on your clothes and can agitate bees on subsequent visits to the hive.
As many books on beekeeping do, Flottum’s chapter on managing a hive follows a colony’s first year. He explains how to install packages (or nucs), how often to check your colonies, what to look for, and even what pitfalls to try to avoid in hive management. His section on integrated pest management and the need for constant varroa monitoring is useful and instructive. However, I wish he had also included a description of the sugar roll test. He describes in detail the alcohol wash for obtaining a varroa count for the hive. The alcohol wash, unlike the sugar roll test, kills about 300 of your bees. If the alcohol wash is superior in some way to the sugar roll test, I would have liked to know that too. Again, this is a fairly minor quibble. Flottum provides excellent and vital information on how to inspect your hives for diseases and keep them healthy in the first place by providing excellent nutrition and good hive management practices.
The fourth edition of the Backyard Beekeeper includes new material on urban beekeepers, providing food for your hive, and updated pest management information, the Achilles heel of beekeeping. The book itself is also visually appealing: large photographs, illustrations, and callouts appear on nearly every page. Some of these photographs include step-by-step instructions, such as how to light a smoker (and keep it lit). Flottum also includes a glossary, resources, and suppliers for beekeepers, and an index to allow for easily locating needed information.
To reiterate, I am not an absolute beginner beekeeper. In fact, I’ve read several books on beekeeping and attended beekeeping classes and daylong workshops. While I’m no novice, I’m certainly not reading specialized books on entomology either. The book is a valuable addition to my own bookshelf and beekeeping management practices. Unless your reading list includes technical works on queen raising or eusocial organisms, the Backyard Beekeeper has something to offer you and your bees. You can purchase a copy of the Backyard Beekeeper for $24.99.
Flottum, Kim. The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden. 4th ed., Quarry Books, 2018.