Geez, Sam!

maine nucleus colonies_2018

It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.

hyl-tun apiary
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. Early August 2018.

Season Review

After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.

I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.

agriope at luke's apiary
Luke’s apiary in Madison, Maine.

For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.

Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.

Poor Honey Season

uncapped honey
Nectar of the Gods!

As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.

In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.

Keeping Colonies Small & Tight

runamuk's hive set up
Runamuk’s single deep and medium hive set-up.

It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.

During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.

Prioritizing Mite Treatments

I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.

I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.

I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.

Winter Preparations

wintering bees
Two of Runamuk’s hives back in December of 2012.

That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.

At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.

Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.

I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.

Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).

I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.

“Geez, Sam…”

It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!

And I can’t deny the truth in that.

Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.

As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”

maine nucleus colonies_2018
The nucleus colonies at Runamuk Acres, New Portland, Maine.

What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.

Thanks for following along with my farming journey!!! You can support bee-friendly farming simply by buying our products; check out our online farm-store to get yourself something nice today! Subscribe by email or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes peeks into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine farm! 

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

What are the Essential Tools Needed to Get Started in Beekeeping?

beekeeping smoker

Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.

choosing apiary location
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, where miles of pasutre offers superior forage for bees!

#1 Protective Gear

Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.

I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.

Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.

#2 Hive Tool

The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.

I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.

In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.

#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter

Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.

I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.

The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.

#4 Frame Grippers

I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.

There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.

#5 Bee Brush

You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.

I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.

#6 Books!

There’s a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping and I strongly advise anyone interested in getting started with bees to first do their homework. You’ll find many, many great books on the subject.

I really like Richard E. Bonney’s books: Beekeeping, A Practical Guide and Hive Management, A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers.

You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.

Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.

#7 Woodenware

assembling equipment for beehives
Buying unassembled pieces and assembling them yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.

If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:

  • Telescoping Cover
  • Inner Cover
  • Bottom Board
  • Boxes for Hive Bodies*
  • Boxes for Honey Supers*
  • Entrance Reducer
  • Mouseguard
  • Hive Stand

*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.

Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine.

I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.

I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.

Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.

#8 Feeders

feeding beehives syrup in the fall
Mason-jar sugar-syrup feeder.

Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.

Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.

Voila! A bee-feeder!

#9 Sugar

Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.

Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.

#10 Bees!

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.

I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.

Bee Proactive!

It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.

Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.

Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!

Thinking of getting bees? Wondering what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? Check out Runamuk Acres in Maine for the answer!

Feeding bees pollen-patties in early spring

feeding bees in early spring

Each winter, as we work to grow our apiary to the goal of 100 hives, I closely monitor the condition of our hives throughout the course of the long winter.  After each big snow, I make this trek out across pastures to ensure the entrances are clear for my girls.  I take advantage of the rare warm days to pop open the hives briefly, adding my sugar cakes if a colony is low on stores, and sometime in March, I reward my girls with a pollen patty.

feeding bees pollen patties in early springI won’t breathe a sigh of relief, however, until the dandelion bloom is underway.  February through May is the most difficult time of year for honeybees in our part of the world.  Even if a colony has sufficient stores going into the winter, there’s always the possibility that they may eat themselves into a corner and not be able to reach the other honey stores due to the freezing temperatures, and their own instinctual reluctance to break their winter cluster.

Typically colonies that die of starvation are those that are the most populous, but the nature of each individual winter can have an impact on the condition of the hive, too.  Warmer winter temperatures can cause more activity in the hive, resulting in quicker consumption of the colony’s stores.  Extreme cold, such as 2014’s “Polar Vortex” can cause a fatal chill among the bees.  Trusting in nature, I know that the strongest colonies will survive the long Maine winter, and as they begin to build up in population, growing into summer, I will again make my splits and Nucs to grow the Runamuk apiary just a little more.

And so, in anticipation of the spring season, I feed my bees pollen-patties.

What are pollen patties?

These are are a mixture of ingredients, including pollen, sugar, vitamins, lemon juice or citric acid, dried egg, oil, yeast, and honey, designed to stimulate brood production.  There are many different recipes out there, and so far there has not proven to be one that stands out above all others, and experiences among beekeepers will vary.

Pollen patties are stiff and thick and are designed to lay across the top of the frames inside the hive, directly above the brood nest, so that they are immediately accessible to the bees, even in frigid temperatures.

Why feed bees pollen patties?

stimulating brood production through supplemental feeding of pollen patties
This is a nice frame of capped brood, soon the young bees will emerge and be ready to get to work.

Not every beekeeper needs to do this.  The larger commercial beekeeping outfits feed supplemental pollen in order to build up the populations in their hives prior to going to the almond groves.  Beekeepers who raise Nucs and Queens to sell to other beekeepers, may feed their colonies pollen patties to build up the population before they begin making nucleus colonies or breeding Queens.  The average hobbyist should not need to worry about their bees having sufficient pollen available for the spring build-up, since pollen is often available even when nectar is not.  Pollen from trees is some of the first food sources available to bees early in the spring, and bees can even be seen bringing pollen in well into October.

Bees need both pollen and honey in order to reproduce.  While adult bees eat honey, the bee larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein pollen.  Nurse-bees consume the pollen in bee-bread form, which then allows the nurses to secrete the Royal jelly that larvae need during their first three days of life.  Then, as the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee-bread and honey.

By offering the bees an enriched diet through supplemental feedings of pollen–the nurse bees are able to secrete lots of Royal jelly, so they prepare cells for eggs, and the Queen in turn deposits the eggs, and suddenly brood production is in full swing.  Having a larger population as we move into the spring is desirable not only if you intend to make the apiary increases that I do, but also to increase the rate of honey production,

When should you feed pollen patties?

If you’re going to supplement with pollen patties to encourage brood production in your hives, when you begin feeding them is of crucial importance–it’s hugely dependent on your location, region, and climate.  Since the bees will usually refuse the pollen supplements once the good stuff is available outside, you’ll want as many bees as possible to take advantage of that first major pollen flow, which will continue to spur brood production gearing up for the start of the up-coming nectar flow.

feeding bees in early spring
Trees offer the earliest forms of pollen and nectar for honeybees and native pollinators.

Knowing when that main honey flow will begin allows you to count back 8-9 weeks before it will begin, so that you will have 4 good flushes of brood before the first honey flow begins.  So get a calendar, and if you don’t know when the honey flows occur in your area, go ask the beekeepers at your local beekeepers’ association.

Here in my part of Maine our nectar flows begin with the dandelion bloom, which typically starts around Mother’s Day in May.  Counting back 9 weeks from Mother’s Day will find me beginning feeding my bees supplemental pollen in the second week of March.  I won’t pin it down to a specific day because opening the hives to place the patties on will be dependent on the weather and temperatures.  I’ll wait for a warmer, sunny day with little to no wind, and then I will make my rounds, popping open each hive just long enough to place a patty across the frames.

Waiting for spring

For now, there is still snow on the ground, and even as I write this it is snowing outside once again, but it won’t be long before the grass will be green again, the trees will be sporting their freshly unfurled leaves, flowers will be in bloom, and the bees will be buzzing about the fields once more.

Supplemental feedings of pollen and pollen substitutes may not be right for every beekeeper, but at Runamuk, as we continue to expand our apiary little by little, ensuring that our hives have plenty of strong bees available for making spring splits and Nucs–and even just for successful honey production–it is a key component of our management practices.

Bee-utiful northern Queens!

successful queen cells

I am pleased to say that I managed to produce a handful of bee-utiful northern Queens from my overwintered honeybee stock. What a rush to behold these long, elegant, dark beauties─not only for the marvel of nature that they are, but also for what they represent to my operation.

Note: If you missed my last apiary-update I invite you to go back and review that post: “Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed“.

When we left off I had recently installed a third round of Queen cells. The bees chose 8 of those started cells to raise as Queens, and once they were capped I was able to install them into mating nucs I set up in my divided deeps. Because I didn’t use the grafting method I did not have the handy-dandy Queen-cups that commercial beekeepers like to use, so rather than plucking the cup with the Queen-cell off the frame I used a piece of dental floss to carefully free the cell. Then, with a sewing pin I stuck the cell to a frame in the mating nuc, careful not to pierce the Queen within.

successful queen cells
Successfully produced Queen cells ready to be removed from the frame and installed into mating nucs.

Once the Queen-cells are installed the beekeeper must practice restraint and leave the mating nucs alone lest he disturb the process. 10 days is the guideline I’ve been adhering to, but it’s 10 days of anxious nail-biting for me hoping that things are going well inside the nucs.

With those Queens installed I was feeling like I had finally figured out the process. The nectar flow wasn’t over and I wasn’t anywhere near my goal of 40 Queens, so I decided to try for a fourth─and final─round. I made up one last cell-starter and prepared the frame with eggs for the production of Queen-cells. I left the thing for 24 hours before installing a frame with a number of started cells of started Queen-cells to my designated finisher hive. I was really pleased with that fourth batch of started cells.

potential queen cells
Eggs in comb cut into strips and adhered to a Queen-cell frame, ready to go into the cell-starter.
queen cells
There are started Queen-cells under all those bees!

When I went back 8 days later to rotate brood as scheduled, I was dismayed when I pulled out that Queen-cell frame to find that the bees had apparently decided they were done raising Queens for the season. Instead of finishing the Queen-cells I’d given them, they tore them down, built honeycomb and had begun filling it with honey. Such is the nature of beekeeping that you can set everything up to the best of your ability and in the end the bees─as a collective─can decide to do something totally different.

wax not queens
The bees either tore down the existing Queen-cells or built comb right up around them, and then began filling the comb with honey.

While I wasn’t able to produce the number of Queens I’d hoped for, I did learn the process and worked out the kinks so that I can be better prepared for next year. That in itself is a success to celebrate.

Be sure to subscribe to our blog by email to ensure that you never miss an update from Runamuk! Feel free to share with friends, or leave us a comment below with your own beekeeping experiences─we’d love to hear your stories!

Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed…

queen cells

For the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping I am trying my hand at raising my own Queens. I’m excited for what this new skill means for my apiary and now wonder why I didn’t start sooner! We’re at the height of the growing season now and I am out there in the thick of it, loving every minute.

runamuk apiariesIn the field where the grasses are growing chest-high under the golden summer sunshine, elbow deep in a beehive amid a cloud of buzzing bees it is easy to forget that Runamuk is still homeless, that my vision for a pollinator conservation farm is still only a concept in my mind. Mostly I maintain a positive attitude about it: “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”; and “I’m so awesome I’m making an impact on my community even as a landless farmer.”

Raising my own Queens through propagation of hardy Maine honeybee stock means I will finally be able to stop buying in bees every year; it means I can move toward a more sustainable apiary. Such is the nature of beekeeping that the beekeeper must accept the fact that there will be annual losses of colonies; statistics site that the nationwide average of annual hive loss among American beekeepers is 38%. Beekeepers like Kirk Webster, Mike Palmer and Ross Conrad are mitigating those losses by producing their own bees to supply their apiaries. I figure if those guys can do it, so can I. I’ve read their books, listened to their talks, and this past winter I read Brother Adams’ book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey which lent more depth to the process of overwintering Queens as nucleus colonies.

Something about the Queen honeybee is a little intimidating though. I’ve always been super protective of her and the idea of being responsible for numerous Queens was─and still is─a little scary for me. However the rewards of learning to produce good Queens was too powerful a draw for this beekeeper to resist. Not only would producing my own Queens provide me with the means to grow my apiary, but also create opportunity to sell overwintered nucs and mated-Queens, which are in high demand. That’s money in the bank for Runamuk.

humble abodesI did my homework, had a plan mapped out, knew exactly what I needed for supplies, and we trucked down to Humble Abodes for equipment. Humble Abodes is my favorite place to purchase bee-equipment; made with pine and milled right there at their facility in Windsor, it’s local, reasonably priced and I can drive to pick it up to avoid shipping costs.

Forever bootstrapping Runamuk along, we sought the cheapest way to make this leap possible. I decided to just buy the deep boxes and turn them into double-nucs myself. We happened to have enough plywood on hand that we could create the divider, along with bottom boards and top-covers. Paul cut the pieces and I assembled it all and before we knew it we had 10 divided nuc-boxes ready to go.

divided deeps for queen rearing
Divided deep boxes for mating nucs.
ventilated nuc box
I simply took the bottom off a nuc box and stapled metal screening to the bottom.

I made my ventilated cell-starting boxes and loaded it with young nurse bees. Then I took a frame of eggs from one of the 2 colonies I have that survived this last winter: the one with the best brood pattern and the calmest temperament. Instead of grafting, which can have a lower success rate because you’re moving the larvae around, I opted to try another method where you simply cut the frame with the eggs into strips and adhere it to the Queen-cell frame with beeswax.

queen cells
Proof of concept: started Queen-cells!!!

We were right down to the wire on this project. I had started the first round of Queens and then we ran for the equipment and rushed to get it put together. I even started a second round and put those cells in the finisher-hive too. By the time I got to the apiary to move the Queen-cells into mating nucs the first Queen had hatched out and killed the other 17 Queens before they even had a chance to emerge.

destroyed queen cellsTiming is everything in raising Queens. Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.

queen cell prep in the field
Cutting comb to assemble another frame of potential Queen-cells. Since my apiary is not where I live, I found it was easier to set up right in the field than to truck my cell-starter all the way home to do it.

Not to be deterred, I’ve started a 3rd round. It’s a new skill and it takes time to master anything worth doing. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the process. Setting up the cell-starter seems to be the biggest pain, though prepping the Queen-cell frame is tedious. I’ve realized how crucial it is to know how old the larvae is that you use for Queen-production and how important the timing is too. There’s not much lee-way so the beekeeper has to be prepared.

the finisher hive
Queen-cells are started in a “cell-starter” then transferred to a “finisher hive” like this one!

Otherwise in the apiary this are going well. We’ve been selling the honey from the hives we lost this past winter at market all season; it feels really good to have that product on the table at the Runamuk at the Madison Farmers’ Market. The packages we bought from Peter Cowin ramped up with surprising speed and are now making honey. We got fewer nucleus colonies from Bob Egan than we’d initially planned, allowing me to pursue the Queen-project that was so important to me; those nucs have just about filled the brood nest and will be ready to make honey in earnest by the time the fall nectar-flow hits.

Depending on how many Queens I manage to produce the two colonies that came through the winter will get broken down to provide mating-nucs with combs and resources. It may seem counter-intuitive to take apart perfectly good, well established colonies, but those well established colonies also have well-established colonies of Varroa mites. Breaking up a colony also breaks up that mite-infestation and reduces the pest-pressure on the bees. Besides, if I can go from 2 hives to 40, it’s well worth the sacrifice in the long run.

To me it makes sense to raise my own Queens. What do you think? Have any tips for me? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation

installing packaged beesThis past Saturday I installed packaged bees into the existing equipment of my recently deceased hives in the Runamuk apiary. In my 7 years of beekeeping, this was a first for me; I’ve always bought locally raised nucleus colonies with hardy overwintered Queens. With so much comb and honey and pollen stores available following winter losses, and the promise of a good deal from a trusted beekeeping acquaintance, I decided to give the packages a shot this year.

What are packaged bees?

For the most part, packaged bees come from the south and are not acclimated to Maine’s conditions; they tend not to survive our winters. However, former Maine State Beekeepers’ Association president Erin McGregor-Forbes of Overland Apiaries in Portland, Maine did a SARE project which ultimately showed that imported packages re-Queened with northern-bred Queens have a dramatically improved survivability rate. Since I plan to raise my own Queens anyway this year I will follow Erin’s example and re-Queen these packages later in the season.

real food challenge

Note: It’s pretty interesting work and worth the read; see more about Erin’s research and the results of that SARE project at: A Comparison of Strength and Survivability of Honeybee Colonies Started with Conventional vs Northern Re-Queened Packages.

Paul and I ordered 5 packages a couple of months ago from Peter Cowin, Maine’s renown “Bee Whisperer” over in Hampden. Peter had come to speak with the Somerset Beekeepers a few years back when I was still president of that group, and I also follow Peter’s beekeeping articles in the Bangor Daily News. Every spring Peter makes the pilgrimage to the south and brings back a truck-full of packages to sell to Maine beekeepers.

Packaged bees consist of 3 pounds of worker bees and a newly laying Queen in a cage. They have no combs or brood, no honey or pollen, only the sugar-syrup in a can to sustain them on their journey. For established beekeepers like me─with plenty of equipment and drawn combs already on hand─packaged bees can be easily inserted to make use of those materials and replace winter-losses.

Road-trip!

Saturday, April 29th was the day for pick up of Peter’s imported packages. Since I normally work weekends I had to leave Johnny’s early that day to drive an hour eastward to Hampden. It was a beautiful day for it and Paul met me at Johnny’s Selected Seeds Call Center so that we could take the road trip together.

When we arrived at his location in Hampden Peter was right out straight. There was one uncertain couple ahead of us, and another guy pulled in right behind us. I already know the spiel on installing packaged bees and how to care for them so we loaded the 5 packages into the back seat and departed in short order, leaving Peter to his other customers.

packaged bees in the car
It’s such an amazing feeling to drive down the road with thousands of bees buzzing in the seat behind you!

It’s always thrilling to drive down the road with bees in the car, but Saturday’s trip was probably the most intimate road-trip I’ve ever experienced with bees. Always before I’ve purchased nucleus colonies, which are entirely contained in a plywood nuc-box with a few entrances that are closed with screen for the trip. Packaged bees however, are fairly open, with the bees housed inside a wooden frame that is screened on 2 sides, so the buzzing sound coming from the 5 packages on the backseat was much louder than anything I’d experienced before.

This Saturday afternoon happened to be only the first or second nice weekend day that our region has experienced yet this season and Mainers were obviously taking advantage of the fair weather to get some outside work done. As we drove across the countryside we saw lots of folks out raking their lawns, mowing, or burning brush in the backyard. What was especially interesting was that every time we drove past a house where someone was burning something in the backyard─where there was the smell of smoke in the air or smoke billowed across the road─the bees became agitated and they would get notably louder. You could hear the difference, and we knew that their ancient instinctive reaction to fire and smoke was at work.

How to Install Packaged Bees

Installing packages later in the afternoon discourages your new bees from absconding, so by the time we arrived at the apiary with the packages it was around 4 and we were able to install them right away. It’s a pretty straight forward process.

packages waiting installation
2 of the 5 hives we installed our packaged bees into.

We had all of our equipment set up and ready to go ahead of time: the bottom board, a deep box filled with combs, the inner cover and the telescoping cover, as well as an extra medium box to house my mason-jar syrup-feeder─and don’t forget an entrance reducer. Since I have lots of combs available, I found 2-3 frames of honey to put in each box, along with 1-2 frames of pollen, and the remaining frames were open combs where the new Queens would be able to immediately begin laying eggs.

I set the inner cover and the telescoping covers aside and removed 1 or 2 of the empty combs from each box before placing a package on top of it in preparation for installation. Then I suited up and with my hive tool pried the square wooden plate off the box to reveal the feeder can.

After opening the first package I realized that packaged bees are angry bees! I suppose if you’d been abducted from your home, unceremoniously dumped into a cage with a Queen Mother you didn’t know and trucked across the country on an epic 2 or 3 day journey, you’d probably be grumpy too! Go figure. But after being dive bombed by angry bees and having one or two persistent girls crawl up under my veil I decided it was best to do the remaining installations as quickly and efficiently as possible!

It was better to remove the staples holding the plastic tab that was attached to the Queen-cage inside the package BEFORE removing the feeder-can. Then use your hive tool to pry the can up so that you can grab hold of and remove it. Be sure to hang onto that plastic tab so as not to lose your Queen down inside the package!

I took the Queen cage out and placed the wooden plate back over the hole to prevent my workers from escaping before I was ready for them and slid the package back a bit on the hive so that I had just enough room to reach down between the frames in the hive-box. Then I removed the cork from the Queen cage and smushed the cage (with the screen parts facing up and down so as not to suffocate the Queen inside!) into the comb of one of the frames in the hive-box. Push that frame with the cage smushed into it up against it’s neighbor to help support the Queen cage so that gravity doesn’t land the cage on the floor of the hive.

Next I took the package with the 3 pounds of worker bees, placed the wooden plate aside and dumped the bees down into the opening where the missing frames should be. Knock the package from side to side a couple of times to get the bees out of the corners of the package, then set the package aside. Replace the 1 or 2 frames you’d set aside earlier and close it up!

I tried to be fairly quick with the installation of the workers. Having everything ready to go allowed me to have them from the package to enclosed within the hive in just 2 or 3 minutes.

how to install packaged bees
Post-installation it took a while for the bees to settle down. You can kind of see the bees in the air around that second hive from the left.

At first it looked as though one of the hives might abscond; while the others seemed to settle right in, there were so many bees in the air around this particular hive that it looked alarmingly like a swarm to me. I waited patiently nearby to see what they would do and after 15 minutes or so they had quieted down enough that I was no longer concerned.

I went back through and added syrup feeders to each hive: a medium box above the inner cover and a mason-jar with a perforated lid filled with 1:1 sugar-syrup, and the telescoping cover on top of all that.

If you are installing your packages onto un-drawn foundation you absolutely must feed your bees to ensure they have the resources they need in order to make wax and build combs so that the Queen can begin to lay eggs. Even with drawn combs like mine, it’s best to feed those bees to stimulate egg-production and ensure the new colony has all the resources it needs to grow.

newly installed packages
I placed the packages in front of their hives when I was finished, so that any stragglers still inside could eventually crawl up into their hives.

And just like that we had new bees at work in the apiary! Yay! #beesrock!

There are many ways to install packaged bees; this was how I did it. Have questions? Sage words of advice? Feel free to leave a comment below!

3 Reasons To Go Foundationless In Your Langstroth Beehive

foundationless bee-frame

It’s going on 5 years now that I’ve been using foundationless frames in my Langstroth hives, and I’ve come to swear by the method. Mainstream beekeeping dictates the use of foundation in hive frames to provide a structure for the bees to build their combs upon. However, I’ve found 3 reasons to contradict that way of thinking.

foundationless langstroth hives
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. August 2017.

I admit that going foundation-less in the Langstroth hive is somewhat controversial.  Old-school beekeepers believe that using foundation speeds up the comb-building process, or that you won’t be able to extract if you’re not using foundation. You hear people say that you’ll end up with a hive full of drones or that the bees like the foundation better.  Yet beekeepers employing the Top-Bar Hives have been going foundation-less for years with nothing but success, and I myself have been using this method in the Runamuk apiary going on 5 years now.

With all of this in mind, I’ve compiled 3 solid reasons to skip the foundation in your Langstroth hives.

#1. Avoid Contaminated Foundation

foundationless bee-frame
I sometimes run wire through the honey frames to give the comb added support.

Recent studies indicate that high levels of chemical pesticides are stored in the comb and even in the beeswax foundation of honeybee hives.  Since bees are effectively nature’s dust-mops, they pick up any insecticide or herbicide within the foraging radius of their colony.  Even beekeeper applied chemicals will be retained in the wax.

A beekeeper may choose to fore-go treatments in his or her hive, however they cannot control what the bees bring back with them from their foraging.  It is that precise reason that organic certification is so difficult to obtain for honey–unlike other livestock that a farmer can contain within fences, bees will travel between 2 and 4 miles in search of food, and even further if need be.

What’s more, commercial foundations are typically made from recycled wax, which can contain high levels of pesticide contamination as well.

#2. Natural Cell-Size

foundationless comb
This is foundationless comb that my girls are currently building–when they are finished with it, they will have filled the frame completely.

Standard foundation forces the bees to build cells at 5.4mm, in order to produce larger bees.  However bees will naturally build their cells to a size between 4.6mm and 5.1mm depending on what they intend to use it for.

It was about a hundred years ago that beekeepers started installing the larger-celled foundation in order to combat mites. They thought that bigger bees would be beneficial for a variety of reasons─from theoretically stronger immune systems to supposed increased production.  Now beekeepers are experimenting with small-cell foundation─same story, different type of mite.

FYI─small cell does not equal “natural” cell.

There is some speculation about natural cell-sizes aiding beekeepers in the fight against the varroa mite, though to my knowledge that has not been scientifically verified.

There are some who believe that allowing the bees to make their own comb will result in healthier bees, which makes some sense to me, since natural comb naturally means fewer introduced chemical pesticides, which can only mean healthier bees─but again, there is no scientific proof that I am aware of.

What we do know is that bees have been making comb on their own for thousands of years.  They know how to do it, and they will do it however they see fit, so why not let them?

#3. Save Money

foundationless honeybee comb
Every frame is a work of art and a feat in architecture!

I fully admit that money was a driving factor in my switch to foundationless frames. Beekeeping is an expensive venture, and my mission to utilize this niche to build my income from farming required me to consider alternative methods. Reducing expenses by skipping the foundation has allowed me to continue to grow my business, even on a bootstrap budget.

What’s more, sustainable farming methods strive to lower costs by reducing inputs from off site. Buying in, or even using my own wax to make foundation takes a lot of resources, and by skipping the foundation and allowing the bees to build their own combs I am able to save both time and money.

Try It Yourself!

Over the last few years I’ve found that it doesn’t take the bees any longer to construct comb on the foundationless frames than it does for them to build it on the wax or plastic foundations. I also discovered that foundationless frames are not really any more fragile than those bearing foundation. It is still possible to extract honey from them, but you should be especially gentle when extracting from combs less than 1 year old.

For the first couple of years going foundationless, I wired all my frames to give them additional support, but then I stopped wiring the deep frames used in the brood nest since those do not typically go through the extractor anyway. Now I don’t even wire my honey frames and I’ve found that once the bees have filled the entire frame with comb, it’s generally sturdy enough to withstand the extracting process without the extra support.

So much of what honeybees are exposed to is unavoidable that I feel really good about reducing pesticide levels in my hives and creating a healthier environment for my girls, even if it is only on a small level. But you don’t have to take my word for it; try it yourself and see what you think of foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive.

Thanks for stopping by! Remember to subscribe by email using the widget on the left to get updates and new articles from Runamuk directly in your inbox! Follow Runamuk on Facebook, Instagram, or Instagram for a glimpse of real-world farm-life in rural Maine.

Runamuk Apiaries in Maine has 3 solid reasons to consider going foundationless in your Langstroth hives; check it out!

How To Make Pollen Patties

pollen-patties-for-beehives

Not every beekeeper needs to use pollen patties on their hives. Here in Maine there is an abundant supply of pollen in the fall and our bees are able to store enough for the colony’s purposes through the winter, until fresh pollen is again available in the spring. Unless you’re planning to make early season splits or raise your own Queens, or if you’re building up in preparation for commercial pollination─you probably don’t need to use pollen patties at all.

how to make pollen pattiesOn the other hand, if you’re seeking to grow your apiary and make hive increases─then you might be looking to boost bee populations to be able to do that. Feeding bees pollen stimulates brood production: an enriched diet causes nurse bees to secrete lots of royal jelly, which spurs them to prepare cells for eggs and the Queen deposits them. If you time it right you can have a gang-buster colony that you can use to optimize your operation.

Note: For more info on what pollen patties are and why you might want to use them check out this article on the Maine Beekeepers’ website. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the reader is familiar with the pollen-patty and has performed his/her due diligence to learn why and how to use them. Also, take a look at this article by Randy Oliver over at Scientific Beekeeping; he did a comparative test of various pollen supplements compared to real pollen which is pretty informative reading.

Introducing Bee-Pro!

Bee Pro Pollen Substitute
Bee-Pro pollen substitute via Mann Lake.

The Bee-Pro pollen supplement offered by Mann Lake was recommended to me by beekeeping veteran Bob Egan of Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, who was the Maine State Apiarist until he retired some years ago. Bob is a no-nonsense kind of guy─with a stern gaze, long white hair pulled back into a pony-tail that’s always under a ball-cap and a fabulously bushy gray mustache. He swears by the Bee-Pro pollen-sub and made a point to send me home with a sample of it last summer, saying the bees just crave it, they want it, they’re all over it as soon as you put it on the hive.

That’s high praise from one hardened beekeeper and good enough for me! We ordered a 50-pound bag of the stuff and are using it to make our pollen-patties this spring. Beekeepers who are seeking to significantly grow their apiaries can buy pollen-substitute in bulk to make their own patties and save money, since commercially prepared pollen-patties can be expensive. Making your own also means you’ll know exactly what went into the pollen patties that you’re feeding your bees.

Making the pollen patties

Step 1: Make sugar-syrup using a 1:1 ratio. I used a quart of water and a quart of sugar to make 2 quarts of liquid, but you can make smaller or larger batches using the same method. Allow the syrup to cool some before use. Just before using the syrup I added 2 teaspoons of Honey-B Healthy vitamin supplement to it and stirred it well to combine.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl or a 5 gallon bucket (depending on the size of the batch you’re making) combine your pollen-supplement with the syrup to make a dough-like substance. The mixture should be similar to peanut butter cookie dough, or play-dough. Dry, but doughy.

Make Your Own Pollen Patties
I weighed out my dollops to .5lb each so that I could track each hive’s consumption.

Step 3: Place a large dollop of the dough in the center of a square of freezer paper. Sometimes the moisture from the pollen patties can soak through the waxed paper, causing it to tear easily. It’s a little more expensive than waxed paper, but the freezer paper holds up much better for storage and transport purposes. Place another piece of freezer paper over the dollop and flatten it some with your hand before taking a rolling pin to smooth and roll the patty out between the paper.

diy pollen pattties
For each patty I cut a 6 inch swatch off the roll of freezer paper, then cut that in half to make 2 pieces of paper.

Storage: Pollen patties don’t need to be kept refrigerated, but a cool, dry location is recommended. You can even freeze them for later use.

pollen patties for beehives
Ready for the bees!

Just remember that not every beekeeper needs to feed their colonies pollen supplements, and also that stimulating brood production early may mean you need to also feed more sugar-syrup to a bounding population. However, if you’re planning to make increases or Queens, or if you’re renting hives for pollination services and need strong colonies─then pollen patties might be a good option for you.

Have you ever made your own pollen-patties? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below for others to learn from!

Recommended Reading:

How to Make Pollen Patties – via Mudsongs.org

Feeding Bees Pollen-Patties in Early Spring – on the Maine State Beekeepers’ website.

A Comparative Test of Pollen Subs – from the Scientific Beekeeper, Randy Oliver.

 

April apiary update

March is always a dirty month. As the snow melts all of winters dirty secrets are revealed. The snow banks along the roadside created by the municipal plows are coated with dirt while frost heaves and pot-holes in secondary roads can make for treacherous driving. Trash that had been buried under a blanket of snow now litters the landscape, and everywhere you go the ground is wet and muddy. This is mud-season in Maine─laughingly referred to as the fifth season of the year. The winter was rough for me, but I’m still here and determined to make the most of it.

Thankfully it’s April now, and while the snow has lingered a little later this year, Spring is in the air─literally. I can smell it when step out to tend the critters early in the morning. Spring has a very distinctive fragrance: like wet earth pungent in the atmosphere. For farmers, gardeners and outdoorsy-folk it’s an intoxicating smell and like a cheap beer─so easy to get drunk on.

Together Paul and I put 15 hives to bed going into the winter. His 3 hives succumbed to the season, and only 2 of mine survived to see spring. 2 out of 12. Damn. I admit I let that get me down for a couple of days. I’ve taken so many hits along my farming journey, I can’t help but wonder sometimes when l’m going to start seeing some successes. I was so low I even considered giving up beekeeping.

Note: I wasn’t the only one who lost hives this winter; beekeeping is hard! Check out this recent article by Peter Cowin, The Bee Whisperer, who writes for the Bangor Daily News. 

One bottle of wine and one night later─as a new day dawned I realized how ludicrous that idea was lol. I live and breathe for the bees; I truly believe my calling in life is to serve as caretaker and advocate. This dream that is Runamuk─with my grand schemes for a pollinator sanctuary to teach conservation of bees and wildlife through agriculture─that is what drives me. Every day I am working toward that vision that I have for Runamuk. Runamuk and I are one and the same and to deny Runamuk is to deny myself, and I refuse to do that. I’m going to live my life and tell my story even if it isn’t always easy. Even if it’s never easy.

apiary-update-at-runamuk
The hive in the middle didn’t make it, but the hives on either side look fabulous!

So I picked myself up and reveled in my remaining 2 hives. Both are strong-looking colonies with lots of bees. I had already decided that I was going to begin raising my own Queens this season in order to produce my own nucs and eliminate the need to buy replacement bees when my apiary experiences the inevitable winter losses. With these last 2 hives I can still do that. The goal is to produce 30 Queens from my survivor stock and overwinter them as nucleus colonies, setting the Runamuk apiary up for a big expansion next year.

In the meanwhile I ordered nucs from Bob Egan at Abnaki Apiaries for the last time: 6 for me and 4 for Paul’s budding apiary. I’ve avoided buying packages thus far in my beekeeping career because most packages are shipped into Maine from the south and studies indicate southern bees are ill-adapted to Maine winters. However, Erin McGregor-Forbes (former MSBA president) did a SARE study that revealed packages that are re-Queened with Maine-raised Queens actually do quite well. With that in mind I ordered packages for the first time ever from Peter Cowin over in Hampden. This year I really want to generate a honey-crop so that I don’t have to look at that big fat zero in the “Honey” column of my business’ financial records. Not to mention I have customers who have been waiting 2 years for Runamuk’s local raw honey. The intention is to put those packages in 3 of the dead-outs which are already full of comb and honey and pollen, set them up at the Hyl-Tun apiary in Starks where fields and forage spread out for miles, and use them for honey production this summer. Then come August I’ll requeen them with one of my own Queens and overwinter them as nucs.

I see raising my own Queens as a big step for Runamuk. I’m really excited to learn this new skill and as you can imagine, I’ve been doing my homework so that I can be prepared later this spring and summer. Yes it was a long and difficult winter, but spring is in the air and I’m ready to make the most of the opportunities life has presented me with. Thanks for following along!

The growing season is almost upon us! Stay tuned folks!