Throughout recorded human history there were very few special men and women that understood the honey bee and how to keep them well enough to be called a Master Beekeeper. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh’s apiaries were cared for by a select few Master Beekeepers and they were held in similar regards as temple priests. I would argue that it might have been a bit easier to keep bees in those days and still those select few were looked upon as mystical. As I work towards my Master Beekeeper Certification, it has become vividly clear to me why only a very few special men and women ever reach that level. They are able to “think” differently or as I say, “Break the code” of beekeeping. The ability to understand the concept and philosophy of working with honey bees. Most of all, to realize that the art of keeping bees is unlike any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we do as humans with animals, plants or anything else- that is remotely similar to keeping bees. As beekeepers we must disregard everything we know about any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we know in that area that will apply to bees. Believe me, I have tried for years to compare beekeeping to some other form of keeping livestock or pets. I wanted to say, “It’s just like keeping chickens” and give some examples. It just doesn’t apply-there is a reason we never hear the phase “Master Chicken Keeper”.
I feel we have to think differently about keeping bees. A different mind set, understanding that honey bees are unlike anything else we keep. How do honey bees and keeping them differ so much from the other creatures we keep?
First of all they are insects and their life cycles and the life cycle of the colony as a whole is different. There are individual bees being born and dying constantly in a colony. Workers only live weeks during the Summer, Drones don’t fair much better. Good queens are old in 2 or 3 years. Even wild colonies established for years, naturally die out from time to time. A colony can be considered a single living organism made up of 1,000 of individuals but it is not like a pet cat. The cat, as a single living organism, will live for years and our focus of managing and keeping a cat is focused on that expectation. With a colony of bees the natural order of life is not the focus of the life span of any individual in the colony. The only purpose of each individual is to give their life for the colony and the colony’s only purpose is to give it’s life for the species. The workers work as hard as they can then die, the queen lays a many eggs as she can then dies, the colony produces as many other colonies as it can then dies. They all die relatively quickly and all of this is obsoletely the completely natural flow of life for this species of creature. We as keepers must understand, work with, and manage that natural flow of life and death.
When you buy a package, and hold the queen cage in your hand. Look at her and understand this particular queen will most likely be dead within a year. Realizing that this is a natural order of events, we as keepers use management methods to prevent it from ending the life of the colony as a whole. One of the skills of a keeper is the ability to “tweak” the natural order of a colony. There are no management methods that will keep an old queen alive and viable past her natural life span. The method is to replace her with a new queen before she gets to the end of her life. Doing so allows the colony as a whole a chance to continue living on with a new queen. There are other managements we use as keepers to enhance colony survival such as feeding during droughts and winters, reducing entrances during hornets and robbing, treating for mites, etc. Most of all remember, our bees are unlike any other kind of animal husbandry. So think differently.
At this point hopefully we have all pretty much put our bees to bed for the winter. There isn’t much we can do for our hives now that we should have done last Fall. Gently lifting a side of a hive to check weight or maybe a quick peek on a warmer sunny day to check for winter stores.
This is the beginning of our new year and is a time to reflect on our personal past year in beekeeping and do some introspecting on our future plans for this Spring. What are we going to do in relation to our apiaries- more bees, replacing bees, increasing or replacing equipment and woodware. Maybe this year growing some plants just for bee forage.
It is actually the time to start thinking about ordering bees. Remember beekeeping is a business that is always thinking one or two seasons ahead. Our club has always been good at obtaining a supplier for our packages. Because of genetic issues there is never a shame in shopping around for possible sources of stronger bee stock. In the market for packages and nucs- suppliers are now already advertising for keepers to order early because they expect to not have enough bees to meet demand. Usually it is first come, first served for packages and nucs, but now some suppliers are asking for deposits on packages and nucs. Even if you aren’t sure if you are going to need packages, nucs or queens this year. Make a guess and reserve what you think you might need. If you find out you don’t need something you reserved let our club know and/or the local beekeeping Facebook communities. I guarantee there is always keepers that missed the deadline for ordering or just realized they needed bees that will buy your reserved packages or nucs.
I just discovered this local nuc supplier; This is Kevin and Amanda Mills in Rochester. I have talked with Kevin and he is now taking deposits for nucs. He works with local queens in his nucs. If you are like me, I like to stretch my spending money for my bee stuff, out as far as possible. Now would be a great time to buy and assemble any woodware that we may be thinking we’ll need. One extra hive set in reserve is a good idea. With all the work and speding going on in the Spring- scrambling to buy and set up an empty hive for that surprise swarm capture is never that much fun. As far as woodware and supplies we have 2 local sources I know of which are the Lacey Tractor Supply Store and Beeline Apiaries in Rochester. This year I am going to put a bit more effort in planning, ordering, and planting bee forage. I feel the greatest time of need in the Pacific Northwest for bee forage is August and September. Now understand, I like the result of any work project I do to be as easy as possible to achieve and maintain. It’s not really being lazy, it is just working smarter. If I can plan a job with an objective that at a certain point becomes as maintenance free as possible, I’m there! As far as bee forage, I’m betting this year on The Chinese Tallow Tree, also know as the Ben Franklin Tree. They produce blossoms from August until the first heavy frost and do well in our climate. In an article published in the 1979 American Bee Journal, Hayes states “The Chinese tallow tree has become the most successful tree nectar source ever introduced into the United States.” I have not done business with this companies yet, so I can’t give them a personal recommendation. I just link them for everyone to check the tree out.
“It’s all about the bees” Ernie
I believe there is not a keeper that hasn’t experienced the emotion of discovering one of their hives has died. The sadness, the feeling of some how we failed those bees. “Did I do something wrong, could I have done more?” For me, there was a period of time, in my bee keeping career, that felt I wasn’t smart enough, that I didn’t know how to keep bees alive. I felt I was failing miserably at something I wanted so badly to succeed at. I took any colony loss personally but it wasn’t about my ego. I realize there is always some colony die outs in beekeeping, it is actually normal and should be expected at a reasonable level. Still, I felt that the colony depended on me to do my part and be smart enough to keep them alive and I had failed. Then it struck me- It’s not about a single colony survival. Don’t get me wrong I would save every colony if I could but it is about our “apiary” surviving, our personal population of bees living on.
A small group of members from the Olympia Beekeeper Association are embarking upon a big mission. A way of keeping our apiaries alive. This new movement is so exciting for me the I have taken the liberty of naming the group the South Sound Sustainable Apiaries group. The name may change pending the group’s decision. For me it is an endeavor I had already started myself and for years is something very personal to me- keeping bees alive. The concept of the group is to create sustainable apiaries. Viewing your whole apiary as a self-sustaining unit. Be it a single hive apiary or a 100 hives. How do we get off the treadmill of keeping bees by buying packages every Spring? I will say just a few words about packages then move on. “The least successful source of bees is packages, the most successful source of bees is locally grow bees. Bees grown right in your own apiary with queens that at least born, raised and bred in your region of the country.” There I said it in exactly 40 words :-). In the Spring it hurts to see your package colony has died. However, seeing a nuc you made from that colony last Summer with a strong local queen survive the Winter and bursting with bees is a joy. You may have lost one colony but you have not failed your bees, you have sustained your apiary.
There are several ways to make winter nucs and during the November 14th 2016 club meeting Thomas Mani introduced the Over Wintering Double Nuc hive method. It is a way to make our club members self sustaining beekeepers. The Alterative Conventional Hive is a prototype double nuc system that enhances the "one hive" mentality of two nuc colonies. I researched Thomas’s theory and built a prototype double nuc system that sits on a 10 frame Langstroth foot print. Basically it is two nucs side by side with a thin wall between the two colonies. When I build equipment, I try really hard to keep as much of my tweaking and refining compatible to our existing bee equipment. Trying to keep everything as standard as possible. Inside a double nuc the two separate colonies will tend to cluster against the inner wall during the winter. If they don’t at least sense each other, they will feel the thin center walls to be slightly warmer because of the colony on the other side. A good way to think of the benefits of making a winter nuc is that it is an insurance/investment for your apiary. It is an insurance policy if your main hive doesn’t make it through the Winter. If your main hive does make it through the winter strong, that insurance policy nuc just became an investment that you can sell. There is a huge market for over wintered nucs.
It’s all about the bees,
Does incorporating Alternative style Top Bar and Warre hives into a Langstroth hive apiary make one a better beekeeper? It does make for a lot more work! 3 different hardware styles, none of the parts are interchangeable. The reason and purpose why the 3 hives were developed are different with 3 different management styles. But- keeping a multi-style hive apiary can’t help but hone a keeper’s skills. Working with the bees under different conditions, using different methods of management in different hives does make one a more aware, skilled, and tired keeper. Keeping bees in 3 different style hives at the same time can be used as a measurement of skill but may also be used as a measurement of sanity :-). One important fact I learned is that each hive style was developed with different reasons, purposes and expectations in mind. Each requires a different management style. Learning the technical side of managing 3 different styles will expand a keeper’s knowledge and patience. The bees in Alternative hives are given more “free rein” to do what they want. Managing bees under those conditions does require a bit of patience. My often used description of this “free rein” management style is- “Bees don’t read the instructions” Briefly, here are descriptions of the 3 hives of a multi-hive style apiary.
Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth developed the Langstroth hive in 1852. He saw honey as a resource and the honey bee colonies as little natural industrialized societies that, with the proper habitat or “factory”, could produce a large amount of products for humans. He saw the bee colony as an industrial factory and the apiary as an industrial complex. His hive and management focused on a maximum production concept. This hive has different size boxes and frames and can be managed by the frame and box.
Abbe’ Emile Warre developed his hive and management in the early 1900's attempting to incorporate a happy medium of the bee’s natural world and mankind’s desire for products from the hive. Emile called his hive The People’s Hive and it is managed vertically and although it can be managed by a bar at a time it is easier to work the hive by the box. Of these 3 hives it requires the least management and hive products are less then the Langstroth.
The Top Bar hive has the “deepest” past with versions of it being mentioned as far back as ancient Egypt. During an era of skeps, clay tubes, and hollow logs, versions of top bar styles began to appear as methods of managing hives without struggling with fixed combs. Credit for the present day Kenyan Top Bar hive seems to go to Dr. Maurice Smith of Canada who developed today’s sloped sided version of the hive in the early 1970's. This hive is managed horizontally, in a single box, and by a single bar at a time. As with the Warre, produces less hive products then the Langstroth.
The most important thing I learned that is the most valuable for me to realize and the greatest benefit to the bees. “One can not assume that the health of a colony can be guaranteed based solely on the style of hive they are kept in.” Choosing any particular style of hive didn’t grant me a freedom from management as in “hands free”. Each hive style presents a different style of management. Alternative hives may require less management but it is less management in relation to maximizing hive production. For many reasons in today’s beekeeping, all hive styles require a vigilant management for colony health.
It’s all about the bees
In the American dictionary the definition of health is “ the state of being free from illness or injury”. For the sake of discussion in this column I want to establish that managing health and treating for illness as two different aspects of management. There is a difference between treating illness and optimizing health. When a treatment of some kind is required it indicates an unhealthy condition. Treating is a reactionary management after an illness or pest has been detected. In managing health there are specific things we can do to maintain health and prevent illness, which is the proactive management of health. Reactive or proactive is not a right or wrong thing. In today’s beekeeping it is imperative to understand about and always be on alert for aliments that are or might affect our colonies and manage our hives appropriately. We can be proactive, applying a concept of working on creating conditions to enhance health before there is an indication sickness. That being said, let me confuse the issue. There is also a gray area called ”preventive maintenance treatment”. An example of that is a treatment for Varroa mites before the mites reach a critical level. I equate this management to humans receiving flu vaccine shots. Technically it’s a treatment, but a proactive treatment of a healthy organism to maintain health. In Alternative beekeeping there is a management concept that- if given the chance, the bees themselves can be both proactive and reactive in their own colony’s health. Michael Bush puts it very well in his book- “The Practical Beekeeper” when he says, “Give them the resources to resolve the problem and let them. If you can’t give them the resources, then limit the need for the resources”. An example he gives for giving resources and letting them resolve the problem is a queen-less hive. Give the colony a frame of brood once a week for 3 weeks and they will resolve the problem by making their own new queen. An example of limiting resources is one we all know- how we help the bees resolve the problem of hive robbing for themselves. We reduce or limit the size of one of their resources, the entrance.
In my opinion;
The strongest proactive form of maintaining Alternative healthy bees is starting with the strongest, healthiest bees we can. There is a growing realization that much of what we try to do as keepers to keep bees healthy and alive is exacerbated by poor or weak genetics, commercially narrowed gene pool, relocated genetics, (southern queens born and bred in the south and shipped to northern states). Starting with the strongest stock we can obtain helps immensely in keeping bees using Alternative methods of management.
In colonies started with a package- replace the package queen as soon as possible with a regional queen. There are some methods of breeding your own queen on a small scale. I find it far more convenient to purchase my regional queens from local breeders. We have some good queen breeders here in Western Washington state.
Catch swarms. There is no guarantee that the swarm you are catching isn’t someone else’s commercial genetics hive that swarmed. However the odds are far better that a swarm has stronger genetics than a package.
I do catch some grief from beekeepers when I talk about this last subject. Don’t worry if your colony swarms. I’m not saying “try” to get them to swarm, just don’t think it is a bad thing. Realize that it’s the colony’s proactive method of a healthy hive. Many of the aliments of the hive are brood related. The temporary reduction and lack of brood during the swarming period helps control these issues. Also the new virgin queen in your hive will breed with local drones and become your first generation regionally bred queen.
“It’s all about the bees” Ernie