The Apprentice level uses Storeys Guide to Keeping Honey Bees, another excellent beekeeping primer and reference.
An earlier version of Beekeeping in Western Canada is available to read online!
There is no question that having a basic text in your hand is a huge help in learning any subject. So go ahead and choose one or two and read up. They all differ slightly in orientation, and each has a slightly different suite of tips and tricks.
There is a very interesting article online, discussing bee immunology:
That article points up the critical importance of bee nutrition, which was one of our topics this week. Bees are, in every way, what they eat, and the colony shares resources wisely and well. So I will quote myself from our Week Three page:
“Bee quality is very much a function of nutrition”
Nowhere is this more significant than in our bee-dense location. Our 13 colony apiary is small compared to those nearby, and shrinks to insignificance in the face of the honey bee population within the Tsawwassen/Point Roberts flight range. As you have seen this week, the apiary is under considerable pressure from wasps. If we could colour-code all the bees from other apiaries, you would see steady pressure from nearby colonies as well.
The best defence is to keep our colonies fit, healthy and strong. That is a direct function of nutrition (although our robber screens are big help here too!), and so this week we began giving the colonies protein patties and syrup feeds. Not only are we trying to grow our student colonies out to overwintering size and weight, we are trying to support the production of optimally healthy and plump winter bees.
Bee health was our focus this week. We discussed the various ways in which you can acquire a new colony of bees, and how to support them in establishing health and vitality. Because most people want to garner a honey crop, most spring management techniques are focused on getting the colony to peak size, with a peak number of mature foragers (43 day old bees from the egg), in time for the dominant nectar flow. In our area, that flow is blackberry bloom, which typically begins in the middle of June, although in the last two years has begun in very early May.
In unseasonably warm, drought years like 2014 and 2015, that all important blackberry nectar flow was very early, very brief (typically blackberries flush out over a period of weeks), and thanks to the aridity, very low in nectar content. That has left beekeepers with low honey yields, and bees with low volumes of stores, and likely low volumes of brood. Colonies left to themselves will be desperate for food, and will approach winter with perilously low populations and stores.
That said, we typically focus on swarm control and nutritional support in our spring beekeeping.
But…it is entirely acceptable to keep bees for the simple pleasure of observing the life of a colony. In that case, you may elect to practice no swarm control, allow the colony to disport itself as it sees fit, track queen rearing, and accept low honey yields in return. This makes hive setups that limit colony growth particularly appealing: top bar hives, 8 frame Langstroths and Warré hives all, in my experience, both limit colony growth and set the stage for swarming (as a method to fit the population to the hive size). Top bar hives and horizontal Langstroths are attractive to anyone who finds lifing boxes of bees a challenge. In these hive types, both of which can be fitted with observation windows, one simply raises the lid, and extracts one frame of bees at a time.
Note that Slovenian hives offer a similar, lift-free, beekeeping experience, as the frames are hung on rails and can be slid out one at a time. No lifting of huge boxes full of bees or honey necessary.
Site considerations were discussed, principally the need for (particularly in our cool summer climate) good sun exposure, protection from winter winds (slatted racks are one aid in that regard), vehicle access, and rich local forage. And in the case of urban bees, remaining inconspicuous so as not to draw the alarmed attention of neighbours. Flight paths can be altered by placing shrubs or barriers in front of the hives, forcing the bees to quickly fly up and out of human range.
We covered off the major pests and diseases, and will be following the treatment of our own sick hive as a class. Tomorrow Mambo No. 5 gets their second dose of medication, and a couple of days later will be installed in bare, clean equipment. We will inspect them as a class once medication is ended, checking for signs of disease recurrence.
We briefly discussed forage dynamics. Bees can forage up to 8 km from the hive, but prefer to forage within 1 km…less for new foragers. In general, they will forage based on “best net return”…flying farther for richer sources, but preferring to return home with a full crop of nectar in as little time as possible.
Nectar in particular gets passed around the hive and the contents of crop exchange (nectar, pollen, vitellogenin) contain both information and essential nutrients (including immune boosters…and alas disease organisms as well). Based on what is being fed to them, foragers will alter their foraging strategies. Foragers also assess hive stores and alter strategies based on what they find.
One question that came up in class was: why do bees not plug up a slatted rack with comb?
The answer is “bee space”. If in the hive there is a space narrower than 3/8″, the bees will propolize it shut. This is how and why they seal boxes together, and stop up small cracks in the supers. If the space available is wider than 3/8″, they will fill it with comb…as some of us have seen in hives where I forgot to put the final frame back in, or where the extra space that seems a feature of most commercial hive bodies is found filled with free comb. The recognition that bees respect that 3/8″ bee space, and use it as a pathway, keeping it clear, was what allowed Rev. Langstroth to dream up his movable frame hive.
Finally, we began our inspections this week. I expect you to inspect weekly if you can, and you are welcome to do that alone, with a fellow student, with me…whatever you are most comfortable with. I will drop into the hives regularly and leave you or email you a note on what I find and what I do. You can email me your inspection notes so I can put them in the master notebook. It helps to watch videos on inspecting…interesting to see how other people manage inspections!
The LDS Prepper (who can resist that handle?!) video is quite good.
NOTE: some of the smokers get really hot on the sides and bottom!! This means you need to be sure when you put it down, it does not start a grass fire. I will leave some bricks around the beeyard to use as smoker rests. When you are done with the smoker, stuff the nose, lay it on its side, and make sure it is OUT before putting it away. I have left a tin bucket with stones in the bottom as both a safe place to put your hot smoker, and a receptacle into which you can dump your hot ashes. Douse ashes with some water from the carboy by the bench, and there are coffee bean sacks on the pallet. All these things will help prevent a fire and/or help you put one out.
Research topics for Week Three (read up to improve your beekeeperly skills):
~viral diseases of honey bees
~identifying the foulbroods