Looking in the beehive with Dr. Dewey Caron

Well it’s been 2 weeks today since I went to the annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers’. It’s taken me that long to get all of the different bits and pieces, lectures and presentations written about in full detail. For the last 3 years I’ve provided the written coverage of the day for the MSBA’s bi-monthly publication “The Bee-Line”, which goes out to all of the registered members of the organization, and so what you read below is essentially what will be published in that journal as well. I feel it’s important to share these informative lectures with beekeepers who are not able to attend the annual meeting. Often these kinds of conferences are host to big names in the industry, men and women who have played a key role in beekeeping–and Dr. Dewey Caron is definitely one of the greats in beekeeping.

Who is Dr. Dewey Caron?

dr. dewey caron at msba

Dr. Dewey Caron with the Maine State Beekeepers’ at the 2014 annual conference.

A graduate of Cornell University and an emeritus professor for the University of Delaware, Caron has some 43 years experience teaching about bees, has served in various capacities at the Eastern Apicultural Society, and is currently the Vice President of the Oregon State Beekeepers’ Association. Caron is also the author of numerous beekeeping-related books, including “Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping”. These are just a select few of Dr. Caron’s contributions to the world of beekeeping. His was a 2-part lecture on “Good Bee Stewardship” –a topic that I was eager to learn more about. This first presentation was entitled “Looking in the Beehive”.

Objectives in beekeeping

As you would expect of a man who has a lifetime of experience educating people about bees, Caron was an engaging speaker. He talked first about our individual reasons for keeping bees. Perhaps you are part of the growing numbers of new beekeepers who have heard of their plight, and wanted to do your part to “save the bees”. Maybe the bees found you—maybe a swarm congregated in your backyard, or it could be that your “Pappy” (as Caron called him) kept bees and it inspired you to follow in his footsteps. Or were you trying to supplement your income?

For me, personally, bees were almost an afterthought—I am an avid gardener, aspiring to live an increasingly self-sufficient lifestyle and reducing my impact on the Earth. I mentioned in passing to an old friend of the family—a 35 year beekeeping veteran—that I was considering incorporating bees into my homestead for the benefit of pollination. Less than 2 weeks later she showed up unexpectedly with the equipment for my first beehive and I was lost. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be here today—devoted beekeeper and zealous pollinator conservationist—I’d have thought you were joking. But the bees spoke to me (surprisingly enough), and so now I speak for them.

But I digress—Dr. Caron went on to say to the assemblage that the person sitting next to each of us probably has different objectives in his or her beekeeping. Your priority may be maximizing yields, where the next beekeeper may be all about minimizing in-puts. “There is no one-size fits all approach,” Caron said.

Communicating with the bees

Dr. Caron said: “Beekeeping is all about communication.”

He went on to say that “the bees may be try to say something to you, or you may be trying to say something to them. You may have added a super and you expect them to fill it up, but did you tell them? Or did they tell you?” We need very close beekeeper to bee communication, and different bees use different dialogues; and like any other relationship–communication requires constant work.

Approaches to hive management

According to Dr. Caron there are 3 basic approaches to hive management: exterior, intermediate, and interventive.

The exterior approach is a more hands-off method, perhaps this beekeeper has a non-Langstroth type hive such as a top-bar beehive. He or she may consider themselves something of a “bee-hoster”, allowing the bees to do as they will, maybe hefting the hive to gauge the amount of honey the bees have stored and observing the bees coming and going from the entrance to determine the health of the colony.

Comparatively the intermediate beekeeper is looking in the top box and between the boxes, inspecting the hive to decipher the bees’ messages, while the interventive beekeeper is actually removing and inspecting frames, manipulating them and managing the colony. The level of communication from one level to the next varies, as do the benefits and downsides—which include more disruption and interruption for the colony, and more stings for us.

Minimizing disruption to the hive

Next Dr. Caron talked about how to manipulate colonies, and how to find a balance between the benefits of hive inspections and the disruption they cause. Firstly he suggests using a smoker—siting that often it can take longer to get the smoker going properly than it takes to do what you need to with the hive, but that it’s worth the effort—both for the bees’ benefit, and yours. Consider the weather; is it cold or windy? Too early or late in the day?

Are you properly dressed for the occasion? Caron says that beekeepers should dress to a comfort level that allows them to be able to focus on good bee-to-beekeeper communication, rather than having to worry about being stung, which is a huge distraction. Begin with the second frame in and be sure to hold frames securely over the open hive—so that any of the younger workers who fall off will fall back into the hive and not be lost.

Beekeeping with intention

“Do you have a reason to inspect today?” Caron went on. The spring and fall are typically the times of year when basic inspections are performed; but at other times throughout the season beekeepers might go through a hive with the intention of controlling swarming. You might open the hive to add a honey super, or to harvest the honey. Perhaps you’re performing a mite test or installing some kind of treatment for varroa. Or maybe you’re gearing the colony up for winter.

What to look for:

Whenever you’re doing a hive inspection beekeepers should be looking at the frames for 4 things: brood, food, health, and equipment. Is the brood healthy looking? What about the sealed brood? It’s a bad sign if those cappings look sunken or greasy-looking. Also, keeping in mind that frame-reading will vary from season to season–is the brood pattern okay?

Interestingly enough, Dr. Caron showed the audience a slide of a frame with a questionable brood pattern—it wasn’t so spotty that you would say the colony had a bad Queen, but just enough to make you worry. We learned that that frame came from a hive with a hygienic Queen, and that the nurse bees had torn the cappings off brood where mites were breeding in an effort to interrupt the breeding cycle of the varroa.

Beekeepers should be looking for signs that the colony is Queen-right when reading frames. Looking for eggs less than 3 days old can save a lot of time and reduce the disruption to the colony. Caron said, “you don’t need to see the Queen unless you need to do something with her.”

But what if there are no eggs present? Then beekeepers should consider the possibilities—it could be that there is no Queen. There may be a new virgin Queen, or a newly mated Queen who is not laying eggs yet. Be sure to look at more than one frame before determining that your colony is Queenless, and also consider the season or the environmental conditions that may be affecting the hive—for example, at the end of the season or in drought conditions the pollen and nectar resources may no longer be available to stimulate brood-rearing in the hive.

Dr. Caron went on to say that you should be able to do a colony reading in 3 frames—the second, third, and fourth frames are usually enough to determine if you have a viable laying Queen, enough food, and that the bees are healthy. And being able to read the colony in just 3 frames minimizes the disruption to the hive.

Practicing good bee stewardship

I want to be a good bee steward. And I like the concept of “minimizing the disruption to the hive” –hive inspections are pretty invasive events for a colony; I mean, how would we feel if someone came along and ripped the roof off of our home and began pulling out the furniture and rearranging things? We’d probably want to sting them too!

When I first got into beekeeping I was obsessed (okay–truthfully, my first year I was just afraid–but after that….), I wanted to be in the beehive every week, poking them and playing with them–I wanted to make sure everything was going well with the colony. But there’s a certain amount of aftermath–bees get crushed or lost in the process… This year, with everything going on here at Runamuk with our farm expansion I was more hands-off with the bees, and as a result I missed that window of opportunity to treat for mites–which meant I had to sacrifice my honey crop or lose the colonies.

After listening to Dr. Caron I know that there’s a middle-ground there–you can be more involved with your hives and do so in a way that doesn’t cause such chaos and devastation to the bees. And that’s what we need to strive for as beekeepers.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Dr. Caron’s presentation, as well as the lectures from the other speakers at the 2014 meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!