Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 1

The Connecticut Beekeeper's Association invited Dr. Leo Sharashkin to speak about natural beekeeping methods using Layens hives this past weekend. Wow! What a speaker! If you ever get a chance to hear him talk, seize the opportunity. You will be so glad you did.

The constant themes running through the various lectures he gave were:
  • Beekeeping should be a low maintenance activity
  • Use bees and a hive design that are suited to your local conditions
  • Use smaller hives, but have more of them
  • Let bees be bees

Dr. Leo Sharashkin

I won't share all the notes that I took, but here are some of the takeaways that were really notable for me.

An extended Layens hive with 19 frames

Beekeeping does not have to be labor intensive in order for bees to thrive or for beekeepers to harvest honey. 
Dr. Sharashkin shared a quote from a 19th century Russian text (1835) called Practical Beekeeping by Vivitsky. Vivitsky wrote:
 Peasant families commonly have 1000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.

Nope. That was not a typo. People with no electricity or running water or any of our modern comforts were able to keep 1000 hives. Each year, beeks collected swarms that issued from these hives and populated new hives with them, accumulating them over time. These hives were passed down to their descendants who continued to accumulate their own hives. The actual harvest from each hive might be small (about 12 lbs), but with so many hives, the honey and wax added up. Other than catching swarms and harvesting, families did nothing with the hives -- so they had time to tend farms, cut trees, harvest crops, etc.

Follow Dr. Seeley's advice for having thriving healthy colonies.
Dr. Seeley, who has studied honeybees in the Arnot Forest outside Cornell for decades now, recommends the following for keeping healthy colonies.

  • Use local bees (either feral swarms or purchased from a local breeder) because they are adapted to survive in local conditions
  • Give colonies space 
  • Use smaller hives that allow for swarming each year
  • Don't use treatments

Local Bees. There was some argument at the club meeting regarding what constituted a local bee. For instance, caught swarms are not necessarily feral bees unless you can pinpoint the bee tree they issued from. And in order to develop a local strain, it takes bees about 10 years in isolation to fully adapt to local conditions. But isolation is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in a small state like CT, because you can't have any other beeks in a 10-mile radius. My personal feeling is that even though I was very careful about getting local bees developed from feral cutouts when I first started beekeeping, my bees have no doubt interbred with whatever feral bees and packages people have imported in the last 5 years so that a lot of different genetics have been introduced. Yet they continue to survive. So I figure that even if they may not be entirely local anymore, letting them be bees (not treating, allowing for swarms, minimizing the use of sugar, etc.) has giving them a fighting chance.

Space. If possible, give colonies space (about 100' between hives) because it helps reduce drift (and thereby disease transmission) between them. In an apiary with closely spaced hives, up to 30% of returning foragers may enter the wrong hive. Closely spaced hives has also been shown to contribute to the development of more virulent disease strains.  

If you don't have space in your beeyard, Sharashkin recommended reducing drift by:
  • Turning hives so that not all of the entrances face the same direction
  • Using distinct symbols at hive entrances. Many beeks paint their hives different colors, but honeybees can switch off their color vision in order to preserve energy. So when they return to the hive, they may be seeing in black & white. Instead, distinct symbols and patterns are more helpful to them.

Smaller hives. Smaller volumes are easier for bees to control the temp, and they encourage swarming, which creates a brood break and allows the colony to clean house. 

Not treating against disease. Treatments stress the bees out, and create their own problems. He said, "There is no such thing as being disease-free. Survival is about being disease-ok." In other words, we all have deadly bacteria all around us, but if we are healthy we can deal with it. It only becomes an issue when we are unhealthy and have compromised immunity. (Note: Dr. Sharashkin conceded that if you have bees that are not from the local area and are accustomed to being treated, they will probably die if you stop feeding and treating them, so you might have to prop them up to overwinter them. However, he cited several studies during his talks that even package bees that are kept without treatments, not fed sugar, and are allowed to swarm have a much higher chance of survival than bees from the same sources kept using conventional methods.)

Swarm Traps. Dr. Sharashkin spoke a bit about collecting swarms, and his website has a lot of info about catching them. However, there were a couple of points I thought noteworthy:
  • Scouts may start scouting 2 weeks prior to swarms emerging, so the bait hives should be set out early
  • If you don't have lemongrass and propolis to bait the hive, then you can use an old comb. However, if you DO have lemongrass and propolis to bait the swarm trap, then adding old comb as well is not shown to improve catch rates. Leo does not use old comb because he wants to encourage a brood break for the swarm.
  • When applying propolis to his traps, Leo sets a bag of propolis out in the sun to warm up. Once it is gooey, he just smears it onto the walls of his bait hive.
Wood taken from the wall of a feral bee tree.
Although it was a large chunk from a hardwood tree,

it was very light because of all the air pockets in it.

Why use Horizontal Hives?
Sharashkin second talk of the day was about using horizontal hives like the Layens hives that he uses. I confess that I didn't really take that many notes because I've read both Lazutin's book and more recently the one by George Layens. If you are interested in horizontal hives, I highly recommend reading both of these books. Layens wrote his book sometime during the 19th century and was one of Lazutin's inspirations when developing his own hive.

The real difference between these hives is that Lazutin's hive is much, much bigger (equivalent in volume to 5 10-frame Lang deeps). However, unless you have phenomenal forage in your area, Lazutin's hive may be much too large. It also doesn't encourage swarming. In his book, Lazutin indicated that he really had to force his hives to swarm every other year. By contrast, a 14-frame Layens hive is quite small -- equivalent in volume to about 18 deep Lang frames. The extended Layens hive that Leo uses has 19 frames (about 25 deep Lang frames).

He has the cutest kids.

Selling Honey for $20/LB.

Leo's last talk of the day was about selling honey for a premium price. However, since he recently wrote an article on that for Bee Culture (July 2017), I won't spend too much time on that. However, I did want to show how he packages his honey. Instead of using a regular label on glass, he uses a business card that is printed on both sides and folded in half. He says he pays about 2 cents per card and 5 cents for the string. However, the tag gives him extra space to market why his honey is special. It also allows buyers to focus on the beautiful honey instead of on the label.

A jar of Leo's honey

The inside of his packaging label

The back/front of his packaging label

Beekeepers are advised to feed colonies sugar syrup early in the spring so that they build up earlier and collect more honey when the spring flow hits. However, the danger in this is that if you get a late freeze, the cluster contracts and brood can be lost. If the brood is not cleaned out quickly enough, this can lead to putrefaction and disease. If the brood doesn't die, it may emerge but be sickly and weak.

However, there is another danger to feeding syrup. Dr. Sharashkin mentioned a study that was described in Robert Page's The Spirit of the Hive. Apparently, bees who are fed sugar syrup in early spring get spoiled, and their perception of nectar is altered. They become accustomed to the high-sugar content of the syrup and they will only seek out high-sugar nectars, ignoring nectars with a low-sugar content. They can even starve if a high-sugar nectar is unavailable despite plentiful availability of low-sugar nectars. Additionally,  brood that has been raised on syrup will share the same sweet tooth. This affects honey composition as well.

Layens bait hive and extended Layens hive

So there are my notes on Day 1. Hopefully, I'll get some time this week to share Day 2, which focused on managing a Layens hive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Special Visitor in the Beeyard

Top bar hives seem to be gaining more and more momentum every year, but when I started out, it felt like they were still few and far between. Most people at my bee club hadn't even heard of them, much less had any experience with them. As a result, I turned to books and online communities for mentoring and support.

One of the online resources I found was Buddha and the Bees, a blog about everyday experiences keeping bees, and it quickly became one of my favorites. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because Don, the blog's author, was in the same boat as me. We were both just starting out with our TBHs and quickly realizing that bees are not the experts that all the books claim they are. They insisted on doing unexpected wrong things. ;-) It was refreshing to find someone who was writing not about how bees are supposed to behave, but about all the nitty-gritty, wonky stuff that happens in real-life (mostly about bees, but sometimes writing bravely about other things as well). Don is also a smart guy with a terrific sense of humor, so I always looked forward to his new posts (and I still do!)

One of the bonuses of living in a digital age is that one gets the opportunity to connect with people all over the world. Over the past few years, Don and I formed a digital pen-pal relationship that started with our blogs, but it has moved on to email, packages of honey, and FaceBook. Our friendship has even extended to our spouses who now follow each other on FaceBook. That's the power of the interwebs being harnessed for good!

Although Don lives out in Colorado, he has roots back East in my neck of the woods. That's lucky for me because on his recent vacation for a family reunion, he and his lovely wife, Diana, carved time out of their busy schedule to bless my family with visit. As I told Don, after so many years of correspondence, it was delightfully surreal to finally meet in person.  He and Diana are just as I'd always imagined them to be -- warm, giving, funny, kind, clever, and passionate. They are just brilliant, and it was a blessing to have them in our home. The only bad part was that they had to leave because I would have liked them to stay and stay and stay. My DH and I lamented all the next day that they couldn't be our neighbors.

Diana in the center, and Don on the right.

I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate Don and his blog. His blog is well worth reading just for its own merits. But over the years, he has also been such a generous supporter of me and my own endeavors -- raising questions I hadn't considered, offering his own experience and insights, suggesting solutions to problems, or even just leaving comments to let me know that I haven't been shouting into the void. (BTW, Don is a fantastic problem-solver, and true to form, he gave me loads of ideas during his visit, so more on those in future posts. My daughter, though, was more impressed with his genius for finding four-leaf clovers.)

When I started beekeeping, mental stimulation was one of my new hobby's most immediate benefits. Watching bees do their thing was endlessly fascinating. Later on, collecting wax and honey became other tangible benefits. However, what I didn't predict was that beekeeping would bring so many amazing people into my life -- people I never would have met any other way because we come from such disparate walks of life or different parts of the world. Don and his wife Diana are two of those extra special people that I feel so blessed to call friends.

Don makes the best comb honey ever. I shared some with my daughter's friend Emma who agrees.
She says it tastes like rainbows, cupcakes, and unicorns.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I'm a big proponent of learning through reading and listening to experts. On the other hand, I also believe that you have to trust what you see with your own eyes. To quote Syrio Forel, the fencing teacher from The Game of Thrones, "My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth, but you were not seeing."

That's why my #1 lesson learned from 2016 was pull old comb. Be ruthless. Forget what you've heard about reusing for three years and stop worry about the energy spent on drawing wax. After watching my bees for a couple of years, I could see the ones who'd been given a "jumpstart" with old comb constantly struggling. (BTW, by "old comb" I mean comb that was built during the previous season and contained brood at some point.) The ones that drew fresh comb outperformed "the cheaters" every time.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to keep old comb around because even during a horrible flow, my bees could still fill up their hives and start swarming. It made more sense to let them build fresh, clean comb. By doing so, I could kill two birds with one stone. 1) The bees would have a more healthful environment. 2) Swarming could be delayed (hopefully), or at least better managed.

Well, that was my personal conclusion, but now I've been vindicated! I read an article by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane on the effects of comb age on honey bee colony growth and brood survivorship. Their research, conducted at the University of Georgia, compared colony growth and brood survivorship in hives with old comb vs. hives with new comb over a three-year period. It's a fascinating article, so I highly recommend reading it. However, if you decide not to, here's a summary. Colonies with fresh comb produced a greater area of brood, a greater area of sealed brood, and heavier individual bees. Interestingly, colonies on old comb had a higher survivorship of brood, but as the study pointed out, that really is not a reason to keep old comb around. To quote the authors, "it is possible that the economic savings of using long-lasting comb may be offset by deleterious effects of old comb acting as a biological sink for toxins and pathogens or as a physical constraint on larval development."

Well, that's it in a nutshell, but here are a few more tidbits from the article that I found especially interesting.

On Age of Comb

The article indicated that the combs used in the experiment were of unknown age, but they "were dark and heavy as typical of combs one or more years old." [Bold face is mine.] OK, so maybe some  or most of the comb involved in the experiment was really old, but some could have been only a year-old. So I feel like my decision to cull 1-year-old comb isn't so crazy (or wasteful) after all.

On Brood Production

  • Old comb harbors numerous toxins and disease-causing contaminants such as nosema and foulbrood, which are spread from colony to colony by infectious wax. The queen may avoid laying in these cells.
  • Old comb may also be permeated with brood pheromones that can inhibit egg-laying because the queen perceives the cells to be occupied.
  • "Bees prefer to store honey and pollen in cells that have been previously used for brood rear-ing. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into this new comb and the honey is stored in the old brood comb." Actually, I thought this was interesting because all the books say that you should add empty bars between the brood and honey areas to keep the bees by the entrance and honey in the back. I've never found this to work for me. My bees just keep moving the brood further and further toward the back and storing honey in the emptied nest. Now I know why!
On Brood Weight
  • The cells in old comb are smaller than in new comb. As a result, the bees that are produced in old comb don't grow as much as bees in new comb. In fact, "Diminishing space may force larvae to moult to the non-feeding prepupal phase prematurely, causing nurse bees to cap the cells before larvae have developed maximally."
  • In this study, bees raised in old comb averaged 8.3% lighter than bees raised on new comb. However, other studies have shown that bees raised on new comb can be up to 19% heavier than those raised on old comb. It may not sound like much, but put it into human terms. Let's say an average woman weighs 140 lbs. A difference of 8.3% - 19% is 11.6 - 26.6 lbs. If a normal, healthy 140-lb woman lost 20 lbs, she'd be pretty unhealthy.
On Brood Survivorship

  • This is the one area in which old comb sort of outperformed new comb. Because comb absorbs and retains pheromones, the authors hypothesized that nurse bees may have been more stimulated to care for brood in old comb.
  • However, this performance was qualified because although brood in old comb was more likely to survive, colonies with new comb produced far more adult bees. This is probably due to the sheer volume of brood produced in colonies with new comb. More eggs are laid and more brood is sealed in colonies with new comb. (See table before.)
  • Although more brood survives in colonies with old comb, the number of adults in colonies with old comb was still lower. At least 35 different contaminants in wax have been documented. These contaminants may cause a high mortality rate in adult bees. Additionally, it's possible that returning foragers have a more difficult time locating their colony as contaminants may mask the hive's signature scent.

What do you think? How long do you wait to cull comb? Have you observed any differences in colonies with a preponderance of old or new comb?