Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small Hive Beekeeping

It's no secret that I love, love, looooove Dr. Seeley's book Honey Bee Democracy. This man's work is phenomenal, and his passion for wild bees... I dig it. So when someone posted the following video clip on FB this morning, it seemed a good time for a break.

Hopefully, you watched the video, but if you didn't, the main points are as follows:

  • Dr. Seeley advocates keeping bees in a way that's normal for bees to live by "using nature as a guide to developing new beekeeping techniques." He calls his method "small hive beekeeping."
  • Current practices are all about maximizing honey production, which is great for beekeepers, but not necessarily good for bees. Traditional methods in certain areas may yield harvests of over 100 kg per hive, but this leaves the colony susceptible to parasites, especially varroa.
  • Instead, small hive beekeeping relies on 3 primary strategies: 
    • Keep bees in smaller hives. He recommends using a 10-frame deep Lang box for the brood nest as well as a super with a a queen excluder in between. He recommends a 10-frame brood nest since it is the modal size of wild nests (approx 40L according to his book).  The super, though, can be a shallow, medium, or deep. 
    • Let bees swarm. A small hive will swarm every year, and the resulting brood break helps cut down varroa. Additionally, the brood nest will start to shrink in July as the bees fill it with honey. Again, this diminishes the varroa mites' ability to breed.
    • Spread hives out. Dr. Seeley recommends a minimum of 30 m between hives. Ideally 100 m between hives. If a colony does succumb to parasites, leaving space between hives will help prevent parasites from traveling to the other bees.
  • Although small hive beekeeping yields smaller crop, the bees will be healthier, and beekeepers will not have to treat. 
Unfortunately, on my 1-acre plot, it's not practical for me to keep my hives 30 m apart, let alone 100 m. However, the other two recommendations... those are things that I'm doing already.

Curious about the volume of my own hives, I did some quick calculations this morning. My nucs are approximately 43 L, and my full-sized TBHs are about 88 L. So they are on target in terms of the dimensions he recommends for a small hive (if using a deep as a super). It's also true that my hives swarm every year, and consequently, varroa has not been an issue.

This video also explains why my colonies seem to act a bit differently than the ones kept by various Lang beeks that I know. Over the past few years, I've noticed that my colonies start to shrink around July until the autumn flow starts up again in mid-late August. At that time, they start to lay some more brood, but they don't get really big. I'd always chalked up this event to my lack of feeding. While not feeding syrup may certainly be contributing to this phenomenon, it never occurred to me that the size of my hives could be another contributing factor. Interesting.

So now, just when I was almost ready to experiment with Lazutin hives, I find out that the small size of my hives (which is the #1 reason I was going to try switching) is what's keeping my bees so healthy. Hmmm... Hive-blocked. Got some thinking to do. Buckle your seatbelts. This could get dangerous.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lessons Learned: Another Year in Review

I've not written much or even visited my bees at all since November. This year has been especially crazy since, in addition to the normal nuttiness of daily life and holidays, we've thrown two simultaneous bathroom renovations into the mix. In fact, I've started working on this post several times only to be sidetracked by other matters.

However, before 2016 slips out the door as we leave the old year behind and welcome the new, I wanted to perform my annual review of screw-ups and lessons learned.

Pull old comb
If I've learned anything this year, it's get rid of old comb! Les Crowder recommends moving it to the back of the hive so that the bees can fill it with honey before you remove it. In the past, I've always removed old empty comb both when winterizing and during the spring before the bees started filling it up again. This year, though, I tried it Les' way, and it caused me no end of misery. My bees largely ignored it, absconded from hives with lots of old comb, or did not build up well in those hives. I also found that in at least one nuc, the old comb attracted hive beetles and wax moths. From now on, I will be ruthless in pulling old comb. In any case, the bees always build new comb, and having extra space to build slows them down in spring, delaying swarming.

Freeze old combs before bringing them in the house
Sometimes I save combs in the house to show kids. I usually keep them in a nuc with lots of space between each bar and leave them exposed to sunlight. It's never been a problem before, but this year, I had a terrible wax moth infestation -- in my house. So from now on, they'll get frozen first.

Remove rings
Fortunately, I haven't had to learn this the hard way. In fact, I never really thought about it before Don at Buddha and the Bees mentioned this tip. However, it makes total sense. If you get stung in the hands and your fingers swell up, a ring could easily cut off your circulation. Definitely following Don's advice to remove any rings before checking the hives.

Wait as long as possible to harvest honey
Over the past four summers, I've had an opportunity to see what great, horrible, and average years look like in terms of honey production. This year, was an absolutely miserable year. The spring flow was late, and the autumn flow was just barely enough to keep the girls alive. This situation was not helped by at least two large construction projects in a 2-3 mile radius from my house. Huge fields of goldenrod were razed to make way for luxury apartments and a strip mall. I'm pissed.

So anyway, I'd harvested some honey at the end of the spring flow, expecting the bees to store some in autumn. Well, they didn't, and I ended up feeding honey and sugar back to them. I'm going to wait as long as possible from now on before harvesting honey. So when is that?

  • Whenever the hives are bursting with honey so that they need room
  • In late October/early November, when I'm winterizing. Harvesting honey is sooooo much easier this time of year because the bees are clustered, and I prefer fall honey anyway.

Reduce entrances in the fall -- even if not ready to winterize
I didn't get around to winterizing until quite late, and I'd forgotten to close Hippolyte's top entrance during the fall. As a result, she suffered from opportunistic wasps, and I feel terrible about that. I didn't see a mouse when I closed her up, but that was pure luck on my part. (Update: Wrote this in mid-December. Dec 27, Hippolyte was a literal hive of activity, so I didn't kill her -- not quite yet anyway.)

Stop procrastinating, and just get things done already
Originally, I'd made a roof for Celestia, but it didn't fit, so I ended up putting some temporary Coroplast board on top. Well, temporary turned into 6-months. Toward the end of that time, the roof shifted during a period of rain, and the girls got a soaking. Not cool on my part.

If you're having a crappy spring/summer,  feed
Feeding is a pain, so I usually just don't do it. But this summer was so dry the flowers didn't provide nectar. I kept hoping that the bees could make it up in autumn. They didn't. They'd either lost too many bees or didn't make enough bees during summer that they had trouble building up in the fall. So instead of storing nectar from the autumn flow, they used it to make bees, and I ended up fall feeding. It would have been better to feed earlier so they could keep their population up and take advantage of the fall flow.

So for the future, I still maintain that if the bees are still bringing in some nectar all summer and their numbers aren't plummeting, it's better to avoid feeding them sugar. (I expect and rely on some dwindling over the summer to keep varroa in check. I just don't want them to get to a point where they'll have trouble overwintering.) My lesson learned is really about feeding during a severe summer dearth that's forcing the bees to eat up their spring honey and dwindle too much.

Top bars may not be the best hive design for me
Given some of my beekeeping parameters, I'm seriously starting to rethink whether I want to continue making TBHs. While there are many things that I love about them, I'm considering going to a Lazutin-style horizontal hive or an extra-long Layens. Basically, as I mentioned before, my spring flow is incredible. Even during a horrible year, it provides enough honey that a colony could go through winter on it. However, TBHs are so small that they just don't allow my bees to store an entire season of honey before harvesting. A volumetrically larger hive like a Lazutin or Layens hive would allow the bees to store all the nectar they gather and let me harvest in the fall.

Last Tuesday (Dec 27), we had a 50 deg F. day, so I seized the opportunity to visit the girls. Despite my screw-ups over the past year, all 8 colonies are alive and well. Peach had a bit less activity going on than the others, but she wasn't doing as well to begin with. Also, she has a top entrance under the roof which also makes it harder to see what's happening. The others were bustling, though. Even Persephone, who didn't get much in terms of winter prep (just stuffed the back with straw and added mouse guard), was bustling. Of course, the coldest days are still ahead of us, but their condition has me hopeful. Fingers crossed, they'll all still be thriving in spring.

Wishing you all the best in the upcoming year. Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, November 25, 2016

All I want for Christmas is...

Hope you all had a fantastic Thanksgiving! But now that it's over, it's time to think about Christmas, and I'm putting in my wish list early.  So what would I like?

Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives by George de Layens

Dr. Sharashkin, editor/translator of Lazutin's Keeping Bees with a Smile, has finished translating George de Layens work, Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. de Layens was the inspiration and source for much of Lazutin's approach to beekeeping.

According to the HorizontalHive's website, this book covers:

  • Time-tested methods boasting over 100 years of successful use
  • Horizontal hives: advantages and use
  • An honest overview of all hive systems
  • Keys to success, based on decades of experience
  • Extra-deep frames: advantages, design, and use
  • Detailed practical advice with 200+ illustrations 

Although this translation will not be released until January 2017, it can be pre-ordered for $29.95, which is a $20 discount off the post-publication price.

Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping by Christy Hemenway

Christy has a new book that is written for beekeepers who have survived their first winter.

The description on her website reads:
"The sequel to the original "The Thinking Beekeeper" book - this volume will take you into Year 2 and beyond. Splits, Swarm prevention, moving hives - all the things you're ready to learn in Year 2."
This book is priced at $29.00 and is expected to ship around Dec 22.

So that's it for me. My gotta-have list this year is pretty modest. However, if you're shopping for your favorite beekeeper, there is no end of things you can give to support his/her habit -- books, a Flir, new jackets or gloves, kits for making lip balms, lotions, mead, candles...

If you're a beekeeper, what would you like to see in your stocking this year?