We received our hive assignments this week, and we’ll be doing our first inspection as a team, discussing what our objectives are for the hive in question, and how we are going to set up the girls for success. These small hives do have time to build up to an overwintering size and with a winter-worthy pantry, but they won’t get there without help. We are going to feed them, monitor mite levels, ensure that HRH is fulfilling her royal duties (laying lots of eggs), and all while defending the hives from the increasingly aggressive robbers, both wasps and honey bees.
One advantage of stripping hives out to make nucs is that the main hive is then rendered queenless while it raises a new queen, and gets a brood break. A 30 day brood break…which has some effect on at least halting the mite expansion in the hive. There were very high hopes a couple of years ago that brood breaks would eliminate mite populations in the hive, as adult, fertile female mites only live 4-11 days in hives with brood. It seemed an elegant, organic treatment option…but it didn’t work out well. Why? Alas, researchers looking into the question found that the fertile mites radically alter their life plan in the absence of bee brood, and can live in a broodless hive for up to 6 months. Months. Sigh.
What to do? One promising idea, not yet confirmed by research, is to apply a mite control measure while the hive is broodless. By day 21 after removing the queen, all worker brood will have hatched out, ditto for drone brood by day 24. So if you apply a mite remedy on day 25, all the mites in the hive will be phoretic (on the bodies of bees, not inside capped cells) and will be vulnerable to a treatment. A sugar dusting at this point, perhaps boosted by thyme oil, would be one approach…keeping in mind that a virgin queen/newly mated queen is in there and vulnerable to harsher measures.
Part of our student beekeeping will be evaluating the new queens bought locally, and assessing the performance of all the queens we have raised ourselves in this season. It is time to start thinking about which queens we’ll breed from in 2016. The best honey-maker of 2015, hands down, was the hive “Miss Honey”. So I will make daughters from her and keep them in the apiary. But right now, we are searching for queens whose worker force can effectively forage in our late summer and drought conditions.
We are also adding a watering station to the apiary. I am not a fan of communal feeders or water stations as they can easily act as robber magnets and disease transfer stations. But the robbing screens are going on all hives shortly (a few have them already) and that precludes the use of Boardman feeders as water reservoirs. We water our bees to keep them out of the local ditches, which are filled with runoff from sprayed fields. The bees will do what they want to do, but at least we have done our best to give them clean, pesticide/herbicide/fungicide/fertilizer free water…a precious commodity in agricultural areas, alas.
Providing the bees their own water supply also (I hope) means they do not have to waste a lot of valuable foraging time to roam the countryside searching for possibly rare and distant water sources…and may save them drowning in troughs and buckets.
We began our class this week with a field trip to see Vivian’s nearby Warré hive. Vivian populated her Warré using a melding board (a board with a nuc shaped cutout) and a bottomless nuc box. The bees filled the nuc box with brood, then migrated down into the Warré to build comb and new brood space. After two rounds of brood had hatched in the nuc, they backfilled all the cells with nectar/honey, allowing Vivian a chance to take the nuc off and put her proper Warré quilt box and roof on the hive. She will process the frames and feed the uncured honey back to the bees: almost none was capped yet.
In choosing a non-standard hive, Vivian found herself having to figure out how to solve some basic problems. And this is at the heart of the beekeeping experience…every time you open a hive, you can never be sure what you will find. Very often, you do not find what you expect to. And that leads you into an instant problem-solving exercise. Unless the situation is dire, you can take a good look, take notes, and take time to think. Give yourself a day or two to decide on the best strategy possible…consult with beekeeping friends, post for advice on a bee forum, google the issue. Considering all your options increases the chance you will make a good decision, and gives you a great opportunity for learning.
We discussed the pros and cons of the various hive types.
Your beekeeping objectives will frame your equipment decision. There are many reasons to keep bees. You may want to produce honey, even sell the honey. Ditto the wax, or the bees themselves. You may want to make your bees available for pollination; as native bees are starved out by our disruption of the landscape, and until we do what we should (plant more for all pollinators) honey bees are becoming increasingly critical to successful agriculture.
You may just want to beekeep for pleasure…there is a zen quality to observing and caring for honey bees…and relaxation. Or you may just enjoy the natural science of social insects. Perhaps you just want to keep a colony healthy and thriving in an increasingly honey bee unfriendly world.
The various hive types each bring their own impact to those disparate goals.
Finally, we quickly discussed ethical beekeeping. As beekeepers, we have an ethical duty to the bees, who have not asked to be domesticated and managed. We have an ethical duty to our fellow beekeepers, particularly those in our flight range, who are impacted by our apiary and our management practices (or lack thereof!). We have a duty to our communities, where bees are feared but required for food production. And we have an ethical duty to the wild and native pollinators, who cannot forage as effectively as honey bees, and are therefore pushed to the edge in human-altered, forage-poor, degraded habitats.
It is increasingly fashionable to diss the honey bee in favour of the native pollinators. There has been a lot of media chatter that honey bees are responsible for the decline of native bees. While it is true honey bees can fly further than most native bees in pursuit of nectars and pollens, the real threat to native pollinators is habitat loss and degradation.
Even if we removed honey bees from the picture, forage areas are so disrupted the native bees would still starve.
But happily, what is good for one is good for the other, and we need them all. Planting pollinator corridors and keeping in mind the short flight ranges of native bees a la the stellar, successful work of the Bumblebee Conservancy, would remedy our landscapes.
And do good things for all bees and pollinators.
We did not have time to pull out our beekeeper note books: we will open our Week Three class with that exercise.