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!

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!

How To Set Up Your First Beehive

how to set up your first beehive

Imagine you’re sitting at a four-way intersection, a red stop light hanging above you, while the hum of buzzing comes from a pair of rectangular wooden boxes strapped into the passenger’s seat next to you. The Nuc boxes–or nucleus colonies–contain more than 10,000 bees each.  Bees cling to, and crawl across the wire mesh stapled over the openings that prevents the insects from flying in and out of the boxes.  You can tell by the sound of their buzzing that they are agitated, frustrated that they are contained, unable to come and go as they please.

pkg pick up of new bees
Here I am with my packaged bees─in the car!

You can’t help but wonder what the drivers of the cars and trucks surrounding you would think if they knew that 20,000 bees or more sat so close at hand.  You imagine what the scene might look like if the unthinkable happened and there was an accident.  These thoughts are immediately followed by wondering if the wire mesh covering the entrances on the Nuc boxes is secure.  The light changes to green, and you gently edge the car out into traffic.

Driving down the road with thousands of stinging insects is one of life’s greatest thrills, I can’t even begin to imagine why everyone wouldn’t want to try it!  But before you can bring your bees home, there are a number of things you need to do to prepare for their arrival.

Select Your Apiary Location

choosing apiary location
Site your apiary in a location that will keep hives dry, buffered from the wind, and with good sun exposure.

When you’re trying to decide where to locate your apiary, consider the following carefully:

Nectar and pollen sources:  While honeybees will travel up to 3 miles or more in search of food, they prefer to have it easily accessible, within 300-500 yards of the hive.  There should be forage available to them in one form or another throughout the entire season–from early spring, through the fall.

Bees need water:  Just like every other living creature on the planet, bees need water to survive.  Not only do they drink water, but they also use it to reconstitute crystallized honey, and to make bee-bread–the mixture of honey and pollen which they feed their developing larvae.  If you don’t have a natural source of water nearby, such as a pond, or stream, consider placing a bird bath, or a 2-gallon dog waterer near the hives.

Exposure to sunlight:  Ideally your hives should be facing south, with a fair amount of southern exposure.  Yet at the same time, partial shade, or dappled sunlight can be a benefit to the hive during the height of the summer sun and heat.

Protection from wind:  Nestle hives up against shrubs, or at the edge of a forest; place them alongside a shed, garage, or other outbuilding so that colonies are protected from strong prevailing winds–this is especially important if you live in a climate where winter can send frigid gusting winds barreling down on your hives.

Keep hives dry:  Bees are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases which are promoted in wet conditions, so choose a spot for your apiary that is dry and offers good drainage during the spring thaw and prolonged periods of rain.  Also consider tilting the hives forward slightly so that condensation that builds up inside the hives runs out of the hive, rather than dripping down on the bees and brood nest.

Protect colonies from harmful pesticides:  Industrial farmers use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides that all affect the health of honeybees in one way or another.  Even golf courses can pose a problem for your colonies.  If you live near such a threat, consider seeking an alternative location for your apiary, there are many landowners, homesteaders, or small farmers that would be more than happy to have you set up your apiary on their property.

Ease of access:  This is more for your benefit than that of your bees.  When you have your gear, tools, and equipment in tow, and you’re going to take honey off your hives in the heat of summer, you’ll appreciate being able to drive your truck to the apiary location.

Prepare your hives

assembling equipment for beehives
Assembling equipment yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

Before you bring home your bees, your hives should be completely assembled and set up at the location you have chosen for your apiary.  All the frames should be put together, foundation inserted (if you’re using it), the exterior of your boxes should be painted (or not–depending upon your principles), and you should have settled the hive components in place upon the foundation of your choice.

A note about hive foundations:  Beekeepers use hive foundations to raise hives up off the ground to keep them dry.  You can use just about anything to serve as your foundation–from the commercially prepared types available from suppliers like Brushy Mountain, to cement blocks, logs, wooden pallets, or tires.

Also note that you will begin your hive with only one deep brood box, since bees grow their hives from the bottom up, and you will not add the second box until the bees have drawn and filled at least three-quarters of the frames in that first box.  The same goes for the honey supers–you will not add a super until the second box has been almost completely filled.  This prevents the bees from creating misshapen combs.

Packaged Bees vs. Nucs

starting a beehive_packaged bees vs nucs
Consider the Pros and Cons of each before investing!

Typically packaged bees are imported from the south (unless, of course, you’re in the south-lol), and come in 2, 3, or 5 pound packages.  You can get them with or without a Queen–beekeepers sometimes invest in a Queenless package of bees to strengthen weak hives in the spring.  Basically, these are the bees and that’s it.  Packages are ideal for beekeepers who have lost bees during the winter, and have drawn combs leftover from previous hives.

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Nucleus colonies, or Nucs, are essentially a colony in miniature.  A box–either waxed cardboard or wooden–containing 3, 4, or 5 frames filled with brood (the bee larvae in all stages), worker bees and their egg-laying Queen, along with pollen and honey to sustain the tiny colony.  Often these are colonies that are started late in the previous summer, are overwintered, and are ready for a rapid population increase to build up into a new hive with the start of the spring nectar flow.

Nucs are relatively easy to establish. The downside is that it’s easier to transfer pests and diseases from one apiary to another this way–partly because there’s no way for you to inspect your Nuc when you go to pick it up (and often new beekeepers will not know what to be looking for anyway), but partly because the sale of Nucs is not regulated by officials.  Also, beekeepers who sell Nucs often use them as a way to unload their old combs, which should be swapped out every 5 years.  And finally, Nuc strength can vary from one to the next, and there’s no way for you to know what you’re getting when you take a Nuc home.

Installing Packaged Bees

packages waiting installation
Packaged bees awaiting installation.

When you pick up your packaged bees you should first inspect the package.  While some mortality is normal, half-an-inch of dead bees or more at the bottom of the package is not normal.  Protect the package from direct sunlight, and store them in a cool dry place until you’re ready to install them.  Be sure to feed your bees–a simple solution of sugar-syrup (a 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water), in a spray bottle works well–mist the sides of the package and allow the bees to clean it off.  Install your packaged bees later in the day to prevent them from flying away from an unfamiliar hive, and do so within 48 hours of bringing them home.

There are 2 methods for installing packaged bees:

Method A

Allow the bees to exit on their own:  Firstly, plug the entrance with grass to prevent bees from flying away, then open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, remove the cork on the cage and pierce the candy blocking her exit using a toothpick.  Affix the Queen cage to the face of your drawn comb if you have it; if you’re beginning your packaged bees on foundation, simply place the Queen cage next to a frame containing the wax foundation.  In either case you should shake a couple of handfuls of bees onto the Queen cage so that she has plenty of attendants to tend her, and free her from the cage, then settle the package inside the hive in the center and close up the hive.

Method B

Install by shaking:  Spray the bees in the package with sugar-syrup to prevent them from being able to fly away, then remove the feeder can to open the package.  Take out the Queen cage, and tend to her in the same manner as described in method A, then gently shake all of the bees into the hive.

In either case, you should feed your bees sugar-syrup–especially so if you are installing your bees on foundation.  Bees need a strong nectar flow underway, along with lots of new, young bees (since it is at this stage of their lives that bees are able to produce wax), to build their combs.  And because drawn comb is necessary both for the Queen to lay eggs in, and for the foragers to store nectar and pollen in, your new colony cannot sufficiently increase in numbers until they have combs to work with.

Installation of Nucs

When you get your nucleus colony home, place the Nuc box directly on top of your assembled hive and immediately remove the screens covering the entrances.  The bees will begin to emerge from the box and you will see them alight, circling the air above the hive in what is known as an “orientation flight”, which allows the bees to determine the location of the hive in accordance with the position of the sun.  This enables the bees to find the hive when they are returning from the field with nectar and pollen.

You can leave the Nuc for 24 to 48 hours, or longer if the weather does not cooperate, and they will be perfectly fine coming and going from their miniature colony.  Keep in mind though, that some nucleus colonies are going to be stronger than others, and if you should see the bees “bearding” or hanging off the front of the box, you should take action to move the bees into their new home to give them more space to expand.

To transfer the bees from the Nuc box to the hive you’ve prepared, remove 3-5 frames from the center of the hive, open the Nuc box (wearing appropriate gear, and using your smoker as you would in any beekeeping situation), and carefully transfer the frames from the Nuc to the new hive.

inspect your nucleus colonies
Examine each frame as you install your nucleus colonies.

Take this opportunity to inspect the condition of the Nuc you’ve received–does it contain larvae in all stages of development? (eggs, grubs, and capped pupa)  Do the bees have frames containing both pollen and honey?  If you see anything out of the ordinary, or suspect a problem, you should contact your bee-supplier immediately.

Otherwise, place the frames from the Nuc box into the hive in the same order in which you found them–directly in the center of the hive.  Depending on the number of frames of brood your Nuc contains (ie – 3 or more) you may be able to insert an empty frame–or a frame of foundation–in between the brood, or between a frame of honey/pollen and the brood nest, to encourage your bees to begin building comb there.  However if you have less than 3 frames of brood, it is best not to break them up, to allow the worker bees to maintain the temperatures needed for the baby bees to mature.

When you’ve transferred the frames into the hive, check the inside of the Nuc box to make sure the Queen has not been left behind.  If you do not see her hanging out in the box, go ahead and close up the hive, but leave the Nuc box either on top of the hive, or on the ground in front it for another 24 hours so that any stragglers can join the rest of their colony.

Installation Follow Up

Once you’ve moved your bees into their new home, you can leave them alone for 5-9 days, with the exception of feeding.  At that point go examine them briefly.  Mainly you’re looking to see that the Queen is alive and well, and doing what she’s supposed to be doing–laying lots of new eggs.

If you installed packaged bees, with a Queen in a cage, make sure that she has been released from that cage, and if she has not, go ahead and remove the screen at this time, and let her crawl out of the cage onto a frame so that she can get to work.

In the case of nucleus colonies, simply look for new eggs, and you will know that your Queen is alive and thriving, offer the colony more space and frames as needed to fill up their first and second brood boxes.

Feeding Hives

feeding bees_top view
Feeding bees through the inner cover allows them easy-access even on cool days or in increment weather.

This can be a controversial topic at the meeting of your local beekeepers’ group (I know it is at ours!).  Some beekeepers have sugar available to their colonies throughout the year in one form or another, while other beekeepers refuse to put sugar on their hives at all, even if it means starvation for the colony.

Personally, I try to avoid using sugar if I can, even if it means that I will get less honey.  However, if my bees are at risk of starving to death, I will feed them organic cane sugar to see them through til the nectar begins to flow again.

And at the same time, feeding is especially critical for packaged bees on foundation who cannot begin to even build up their population until combs are established.

If you should decide to feed your bees there are a variety of methods available.  I suggest that beekeepers do their homework, and make the choice that best suits them, their principles, and the needs of their bees.

Go get your bees!

You’ll suddenly be filled with excited anticipation–and probably no small amount of trepidation–when you finally get the call from your bee-supplier that your bees are ready for you to pick up.  Take a deep breath!  Go over all your preparations one last time to ensure that everything is in order, and then go get your bees.

how to set up your first beehive
Fully established bee colony.

I truly believe that the growing numbers of backyard and homesteading beekeepers is vital to the survival of pollinators.  The relationship between plant and pollinator has made our planet what it is today, and that relationship is at risk.  By taking up the art of beekeeping, more and more people are coming to realize that these are more than mere stinging insects.  There is a world of marvel that most of us never notice because they are small and we are big, because society has deemed insects “icky” and many of us shudder at the thought of getting close to a “bug”.  But beekeeping opens our eyes to the beauty of pollination, we begin to see insects in a new light–suddenly we see the magnificent color, shape, and characteristics of the beneficial insects all around us.  We realize that we are part of this intimate relationship that plants have with their pollinators.

Good luck on your beekeeping journey!  The world is a beautiful place!

how to set up your first beehive

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. 😉

The sustainable apiary─brood factories & bee bombs

For years now Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans, Vermont, has been working to convince beekeepers that they can raise their own bees. He proposes beekeepers use the brood and bee-resources in non-productive hives to make mid-summer nuclei, to overwinter for replacement bees. According to the statistics beekeepers are losing 42% over the course of the winter. At the recent annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers Association where Mike spoke, he asked the assembly:  “Are you satisfied with your bees in the spring? Are they alive or are they dead?”the sustainable apiary

 

Why are they dead?

In some cases its merely the result of starvation; perhaps the beekeeper did not leave enough honey on the hive, or possibly it was a warm fall season that caused the bees to be more active and they ate through all of their stores. Other times dead-outs are the product of the Nosema fungal disease, but these days the majority of winter dead-outs are largely due to varroa and the varroa viral complex associated with severe infestations.

How do you replace the bees?

Swarms, packages, and nucs are the usual methods of restocking dead-out colonies. However swarms are becoming far and few between, package bees are not sustainable─and Mike pointed out that four different studies all found the same result: that 80% of all package bees are dead within a year. He attributes this largely to the fact that the bulk of package bees and their Queens are coming from the south and those bees are not bred for the long harsh winters that northern bees face.

Nucleus colonies are expensive to buy in for bee-replacements, but when Queens are raised locally and overwintered, the results are hives that possess longevity, as well as a more sustainable apiary.

Whose idea was it?

Mike explained how he began keeping bees in 1974 with just 2 packages of bees, took all the honey off and both hives promptly starved to death. He then took a job managing 500 hives for a local orchard. Mike fully admits that he BSed his way into the position and that he got a lot of “on the job training”. In 1986 he bought the orchards’ hives, began renting them for pollination services and then he began loosing colonies to tracheal and varroa mites. He talked about how he began buying packaged bees and nucs to replace his dead-outs, but found it unsustainable for the long-term viability of his apiary.

Then in 1997 Kirk Webster invited Mike to his apiary. When he saw all of Kirk’s nucs sitting there with beards of bees hanging off the front of them Mike said that was all he needed to see, he told Kirk to “Show me more!”

Then Mike wanted to know more about the concept of overwintering nucs and who had first come up with the idea. He began researching the topic and realized that Kirk was copying the work of Brother Adam, the world renown monk and beekeeper. Kirk had read Brother Adams’ books and had modeled his beekeeping methods after the monk’s work, which included wintering Queens.

But Mike was still curious to learn more. In 2012 at the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society, Mike bought a collection of books in the silent auction, and in that collection was a book called “For the Love of Bees”, which was written by a British woman named Leslie Phil who accompanied Brother Adam to Africa on an expedition to find the Monticola honeybee. According to Mike, in her book Leslie Phil gives a little history of Buckfast Abbey, she explained how in the 1530s Henry the 8th had devastated the monastic communities, killing abbots, knocking down all the abbeys and confiscating lands and monies. So in the late 1800s Britain was in the process of rebuilding the abbeys using child labor and Brother Adam was one of those children. Brother Columbin was the head mason at Buckfast Abbey, and also the beekeeper; Columbin to a shine to Brother Adam and taught him to tend the bees.

Through their expedition and talks with the monk, Leslie Phil learned how Brother Columbin had invented a beehive where he could overwinter nucleus colonies and in the spring he could use the excess brood from those overwintered nucleus colonies to boost his production hives.

Setting up your Nucs

Nucleus Colonies
Many beekeepers buy in nucs every spring to replace dead colonies.

This is not a spring split, Mike clarifies. These nucleus colonies are put together in the middle of the main honey flow, between mid-June and mid-July. They’re tiny colonies with a little bit of brood, a little bit of honey and a small amount of pollen, a few nurse bees and workers, and of course the all important Queen.

Mike says the strategy is to sacrifice non-productive hives to makes your nucs for overwintering. These are not sick or diseased hives─they’re healthy bees that have stagnated for whatever reason.

According to Mike, the brood in that hive is the most valuable resource you have in your apiary, and you can make 4 nucs out of just 1 non-productive hive. He recommends dividing the resources up into your 4 nuc boxes and then introducing a laying Queen. He cautions against simply providing a Queen-cell because it is less successful.

Using this method, the production colonies support the nucleus colonies, and the nucleus colonies will in turn support the production colonies.

Managing your Nucs

To establish your own nucleus colonies set them up with 1 to 1.5 frames of brood, a frame of honey, a frame of pollen, and a frame of empty comb. The introduced Queen should begin laying within 10-12 days and will start building up a population. These nuc boxes are small and require a lot of management and dedication, and Mike says the beekeeper needs to watch for swarming and always be ahead of the bees.

Once the nucleus colony has expanded to fill the box, Mike stacks another nuc-box on top of it, building a 2-story double nuc-box. He says you can even super your nucs and let them make honey.

Brood Factories & Bee-Bombs

You can use these full nucs to supply your production hives with fresh comb, a boost in brood, to make Queens, or even to make more nucs. Mike explained how Brother Columbin would harvest brood from his nucs to put into productions hives.

He says if you have a “slow” hive, but you also have 10 nucs, you can take 1-frame of brood from each of your nucleus colonies and put the 10 frames into a box, and then place that box of brood under the brood nest (so it would go on the bottom) of your slow production hive. Then when the brood emerges it will provide a huge boost in population and spur greater honey production.

Mike laughingly calls these “bee-bombs” because the explosion of population that happens is something akin to a bomb going off within the hive.

Cell-builders

What’s more, Mike says you should look at nucleus colonies not just as a means to make increases, but as a Queen with a support-staff. He urges beekeepers to grow their own Queens from stock that’s been overwintered here in the northeast.

By maximizing the number of nurse bees in a hive, beekeepers can maximize the amount of royal jelly each larvae is fed, and you can then graft an egg into a Queen-cup to raise your very own Queens.

You can do it too!

“We all lose bees in the winter, and replacing those dead colonies can be expensive. Expensive in dollars, if we have to go to the package bee and nuc dealers for our new bees, or expensive in bee resources and/or lost honey production if we have to divide our best colonies in the spring.”

Using the available brood and bee resources in our own apiaries, Mike is confident that any beekeeper can raise their own replacement bees and have a more productive and sustainable apiary.