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! 

No honey to sell….again

honeybee on royal hybrid

It’s difficult to be at market and have to tell customers that I’m not going to have any honey this year, but that’s the state of things at the Runamuk Apiary. Two years in a row and no honey to sell.

apiary update 2016The reason for this honey-shortage is largely related to the fact that we’re still building up the Runamuk Apiary and it just takes time. After losing all of my hives during the brutal 2014-2015 winter I had to start over last spring with 5 new colonies. 4 of them came through the winter looking great, but only one of those has been making any amount of honey.

This year with the drought Maine has been experiencing, the flowers are just not producing much in the way of nectar. Everything is dry as a bone and though the bees are actively searching, they are not bringing in what they need to be able to produce a honey crop. Not only does this affect honey production, but it also makes for slow building colonies.

Paul (my partner) and I brought 10 nucleus colonies to Runamuk this spring, and we were also able to make 3 of our own using swarm cells we found in our existing 4 hives. There was also a swarm we managed to catch and hive. But all those new hives need to build combs and fill them with bees and honey and pollen, and in order to do that the bees need plenty of nectar available. As a result of the drought the hives have been slow to build up and we’re feeding them a lot of sugar-syrup to stimulate production.

We’ve been right on top of it all though. Every week we go out to check that the production hives have enough space and that the new hives are building up the way they should. We used our screened bottom boards to gauge the level of mites in the hives, and though the numbers were not terrible we decided a half-strength treatment now was warranted to ensure as many hives as possible will come through the upcoming winter. Later in the fall we will do a final knock-down of mites with the oxalic acid.

honeybee on royal hybridTiming of mite-treatments is crucially important in the fight against varroa; in order to ensure a healthy population of bees that can withstand the long cold winter months, beekeepers need to treat early enough in the fall that the bees will be able to raise another round of bees before the temperatures drop and brood production ceases for the season. That time is now.

I took all of 8 frames of capped honey off the 1 hive that was making excess honey. That translates into maybe 20-25 pounds of honey if I were to extract it. However we’re going to divide those frames up between some of the slower-building hives and accept the fact that we’re just not going to have honey for sale this year.

It takes time and patience to build an apiary and Paul and I are focused first on building strong, healthy colonies─and lots of them. Honey will be a by-product of apiary production; I’m confident we will have some to sell eventually, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the health of our bees to make it happen. For now I will have to send those customers elsewhere─I do however have plenty of eggs and beeswax soap available at market. 😉

Bee days

swan's apiary & beekeeping supply

The last few days have been bee-days for me here at Runamuk. I’ve been more hands-off with the bees this year, which is odd for me, but good for the bees I think. However when I began to see bees crawling down the driveway with shriveled and deformed wings, I knew something was wrong in my hives.  Saturday I needed to pull at least one hive apart in order to put frames in the observation hive to take to the Madison Farmers’ Market’s second annual “Family Farm Day”, so that seemed like a good time to do mite tests on the hives.

I wrote an informative article about “How and why to do mite-tests in your apiary” last year, and I’m not going to rehash it here.  If you are a new beekeeper, or even a beekeeper with a couple of years under your belt, and you haven’t kept up with mite-testing, please click on the link above, and read the post for details about why mite-testing is so crucial, and to learn several methods you can choose from to do your own mite-testing.

Here at Runamuk, we want to be treatment free in the worst way–like Kirk Webster of Vermont, who spoke at last year’s Maine State Beekeepers’ annual conference (read about that here)–we’ve even ordered a number of Kirk’s hygienic Queens for next year.  But studies done by the University of Maine have proven that hives left untreated will die within 2-3 years, and after this last winter when I lost 7 hives to a combination of mites and bitter cold, when I see sickly bees parading down the driveway away from the hives, I know that I need to take action–else I might not have hives to put Kirk’s Queen’s into next year!

Saturday I spent a good 3 hours going through the hives, taking samples and performing alcohol washes on them (my preferred method for assessing the level of the mite populations in my hives).  I tested 3 of the 4 hives here at Runamuk, and came up with counts of 32, 11, and and whopping 90–ouch!

The tolerable level of mites in a hive is going to be different for every beekeeper, depending on his or her methodologies and principles.  My own threshold is 8 mites in a sample of 300 bees.  I had expected after the brutal winter the hives had endured, reducing the numbers of bees in the majority of the colonies, and after swarming–that the mite levels would have been more reasonable.  Hive number 4–the bearer of the 90-mite sample–I had fully anticipated would have a high mite count–as that hive was the only one to come out of the winter strong, and has been roaring all season.  And as predicted, when I looked over the frames of bees and brood–I saw a number of workers with shriveled wings–a virus known as the Deformed Wing Virus.  Not good.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t get into the hives a few weeks ago after I pulled the spring honey off.  That would have been an ideal time to treat, as we typically have a nectar derth (a lull in the season’s nectar flow between the spring and fall).  Now my bees are just beginning to bring in the fall honey and I need to do something about the mites.

I console myself to some degree, knowing that I’ve been out straight with everything happening here at the farm this year, but it does not do much to ease my wounded pride.  Now I’ve lost 7 of my hives, and the remaining few are over-loaded with mites.  Sigh.

On Sunday, with the observation hive at market, I passed out small cups of vanilla ice cream with a teaspoon of honey drizzled over it, and contemplated my options, and the fact that hive #2 had supercedure cells on their frames.

Doing nothing was not an option–because, I knew, with mite-levels such as these, I would be likely have no hives left next spring.  By the end of the day, I had resigned myself to making the trip to Swan’s in Albion to purchase some kind of treatment.

If I must treat, I prefer to use the softer, organic treatments–which are derived from substances found in nature.  HOP-guard is new in the last couple of years, which offers a couple of benefits: 1) the mites have not yet built up a resistance to the substance, and 2) it’s less expensive than some of the better established treatments.  And just as the name implies–HOP-guard is made from our favorite beer-brewing herb: hops.

swan's apiary & beekeeping supply
Swan’s apiary and beekeeping supply store is located practically in the middle of no where–surrounded by fields and forests, which suits their bees just fine!

Yesterday morning I left early to make the hour-drive to Albion–two-hours round trip.  Once you get out of Fairfield, heading through Benton and towards Albion, there’s a lot of beautiful farmlands, so it’s a nice drive–tunes cranking, kids at home with Keith, I fully enjoyed myself.

For $36, I retrieved the silver foil package that contained 50 cardboard strips soaked in the rank hop-ooze, and came home to get to work.

Once I had the hives apart, I found not only supercedure cells in hive number 2, but also several swarm cells.  I hesitated only a moment, considering the possibilities and their consequences, and then sprang into action–collecting more equipment: bottom boards, inner and top covers, and brood boxes.

Hive #4 is so big, has so many resources, and has such a high infestation of mites, that it seemed to me that breaking up the colony in addition to treating the hive would give the bees a better chance of survival.  So that is exactly what I did–I broke the massive colony up into 3 different hives.  One retained the original Queen, and the other two each received a frame from hive number 2 bearing capped Queen cells.  I was able to fill 3 deep brood boxes, and half of the second with the frames of brood, honey, and pollen from hive #4–which makes my risky maneuver plausible.

Note: When you transfer frames from one hive to another, you need to be careful not to unintentionally transfer the Queen with it.

Since hive #2 has been building supercedure cells, that tells me the bees in that colony are not satisfied with their existing Queen; it could be that she is getting old, causing her pheromone levels and egg production to drop.  So I made sure to leave a few supercedure cells in that hive.

That’s the beauty of honeybee hives.  When they decide to re-Queen themselves, or that they want to swarm–they’ll raise a number of new Queens, and you can take those Queen-cells and build new colonies with them.  As long as you provide the right ingredients, they’re generally a successful start to new hives.  You can learn more about making splits and nucs here.

Beekeepers would generally make their hive splits in the spring and early summer; making them as I have, at the end of August is a risky maneuver.  These new colonies need to build up their population to an acceptable level, and store enough food for them to subsist throughout our long Maine winter.  In each of these 3 splits I was able to fill the bottom boxes with brood in all stages, and in 2 of the splits I was also able to add a second box, with another frames of brood, pollen and honey, and a couple of empty frames for them to fill, and I’ll add more empty comb from my stash in the up-coming week.

While beekeepers in the southern part of the state, and even beekeepers down in the valley, are well underway with their fall nectar-flow–at our altitude, ours is just beginning.  Even so, I will be feeding these 3 colonies sugar-syrup to spur on brood production in a major way.

In farming, timing is crucial.  If you procrastinate you can miss those opportunities to plant, or to harvest at the peak of readiness.  And the same applies to beekeeping.  If you procrastinate, or don’t make time to perform those necessary tasks such as mite-testing, there are consequences.

For me–because I missed that window of opportunity to test and treat my hives for mites–I am risking my fall honey crop.  I will probably be able to save the bees, and the bees may make honey while they are being treated–but I won’t harvest that honey for human consumption.  There’s a chance that I may get some honey once the treatments are finished, but it’s a slim chance.  That is the price I pay for missing that window of opportunity–but it is a price I will gladly pay if it means I can keep my bees alive through the winter.

On the other hand–my timing in making these splits may be just right.  Everything may line up perfectly, and instead of 5 sickly hives, I may go into winter with 7 healthy hives with an extra honey super each, which can’t hurt either.

Time will tell.