I’d never heard of Kirk Webster until earlier this summer when I was talking shop with a friend, who is also a beekeeper. He happened to bring up the notion of ordering some of Kirk’s Queens for the purpose of installing hygienic genes into his colonies to help in the fight against varroa–which made perfect sense to me. Of course we should be breeding our bees to have traits that will help them battle the devastating effects of mites! And then, as fate would have it, Kirk was enlisted to present on the topic of sustainable beekeeping at the annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers Association.
Meet Kirk Webster
Kirk is the owner and operator of Champlain Valley Bees & Queens in Middlebury, Vermont. He produces Russian Queens and nucs, as well as honey, and his apiary has been treatment free since 2002. His first presentation of the day was entitled “How I Run my Chemical-Free Operation”.
He was a grizzled sort of aging, leather-skinned beekeeper, wearing dark-rimmed glasses reminiscent of the ’70s styles. Quiet-spoken, but knowledgeable, and clearly passionate about nature (an endearing quality in any individual–if you ask me).
The apiary is Kirk’s only source of income, and he makes his living as a farmer of bees in order to remain as much as possible in continuous association with nature (my hero!!!). He “feels completely fortunate to be able to somewhat succeed at that.”
What’s Missing From the Conversation
Kirk talked at length about what he feels is missing from the conversation in beekeeping.
He began by explaining that there are many similarities between his apiary and those of the 1800s and early 1900s. Kirk reads the old bee books and magazine to glean information about beekeeping methods used before modern technology and science complicated apiculture. He said, “Nature will never be completely modified by science.” and recommended that we set up our apiary systems so that the natural forces can operate in a natural and healthy way.
Interestingly enough, the concept behind biodynamic farming is to recognize the basic principles at work in nature and take those principles into account to bring balance and healing to the land.
The second thing missing from the beekeeping conversation is farmers. Across the broad-ranging scope of agriculture there is a lack of willing farmers to tend the land and feed our civilization. While the recent trend of young people like myself, to move back to the land and live more closely to nature, cultivating and providing food for their local communities–brings hope, the need for farmers still far out-weighs the supply.
Kirk stated that he believes horizontal breeding (versus vertical reproductive breeding) is a third thing that is missing from our conversations. Horizontal resistance breeding refers to the transfer of genes between organisms in a method other than traditional reproduction, and it is the primary reason for bacterial antibiotic resistance.
An “element of mind” was the forth and final concept that Kirk feels the beekeeping industry is lacking. That is–our perceptions. Science can be blinding, and as beekeepers we are, after all, working with natural processes.
Through his reading and study of early beekeeping and farming, Kirk learned of Sir Albert Howard, who was a British agriculturalist, a botanist, and an organic farming pioneer whose work would become the basis for our modern organic farming movement. Sir Howard’s concept was that these pests and diseases are not our enemies to be eradicated, but our allies, showing us how to balance nature and our methods of caring for nature.
With that in mind, Kirk uses the natural processes active in nature to maintain his hives without treatment for mites and other pests or pathogens. He installed in his hives Russian Queens with a natural resistance to varroa, and divided his apiary into 3 parts–nuc-making, Queen-rearing, and honey-making. He does loose a portion of his hives every year, however; but he accepts that as a form of natural selection–the weak are culled naturally from his apiary, leaving only strong, vigorous bees.
The Key to Kirk’s Success
Making summer nucs disrupts the brood cycle, and that in coordination with Kirk’s selective breeding program has given him a more hygienic and resistant stock of honeybees. This is the key to his success, Kirk said, and he talked about that technique in more detail during his second talk, which was entitled “Making Nucs in Mid-Summer”.
As part of his breeding program and pest-management methods, Kirk breaks up a third of his apiary into nucs to rear Queens, and then overwinters these nucs. Apparently he has an isolated mating yard high on a mountain above the Champlain Valley, which he uses for this purpose.
He winters 2 nucs over a full colony using a standard sized brood box divided in 2 by a special feeder he made, and a bottom board he developed that has 2 entrances.
Scheduling and Recordkeeping
Kirk maintains a strict schedule during the season, too. In the spring he’s focused on the evaluation of his overwintered nucs, determining which ones are strong enough to be sold to his customers, and which ones he will use to replace stock lost over the winter.
He also does just enough recordkeeping to be able to track the ancestry of his bees, using a hive number and a tack-system that helps him to identify the maternal heritage of the Queen in each colony.
During the summer months Kirk is making honey and rearing Queens, and in the late-summer he’s rearing Queens in tandem with making Nucs. Every 8 days for a month in the mid-summer, Kirk makes nucs. He sets them up with the smallest number of bees and brood possible, avoiding shaking any extra bees into the nucs–while still leaving enough workers for the nucleus colony to still be viable.
Finally, during the late summer and fall, Kirk is extracting and bottling his fall honey crop. He says he has a good market for his honey thanks to folks who want honey from untreated hives.
With the on-going fight against varroa, innovators like Kirk Webster are leading the way to a healthier and more sustainable beekeeping industry. This humble farmer of bees, with his chemical-free operation is inspiring a new generation of beekeepers to work with the natural processes of our planet’s environment rather than fight against it. I know for myself, I’ve gained new insight into methods that prove sustainable in our northern climate, and I hope to begin implementing some of the techniques laid out by Kirk as I move the Runamuk apiary forward.