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!

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!

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!

Feeding Bees in the Fall

feeding beehives syrup in the fall

feeding bees in the fallIt’s that time of year when beekeepers are ramping up winter preparations for their beehives. We’re inspecting hives for colony strength, putting entrance reducers and mouse-guards on hives, applying mite treatments and feeding to ensure colonies have adequate stores to overwinter on.

I have 15 hives going into winter and some of them are incredibly heavy with bees and honey stores, but others are still alarmingly light. To prevent the bees from starving during the long Maine winter I’m feeding my colonies.

Read more about preparing your beehives for winter.

fall nectar sources
Japanese knotweed is a great fall nectar source.

Here in Maine we’ve been struggling with drought conditions all season long, which meant that the flowers were not producing much nectar if any at all. It wasn’t until the tail end of August and the beginning of September when the goldenrod and Japanese knotweed came into bloom that there seemed to be anything available for the bees to collect. I held off a bit on fall feedings to ensure the colonies were filling their combs with honey first, which is the ideal food for bees.

Last week though I opted to put the syrup on the hives in order to make certain there’s enough time for the bees to process the syrup and turn it into honey while the temperatures are still warm enough for them to do so. Excess water in the honey can cause dysentery and may lead to nosema in colonies, so ensuring proper processing of stores is vital. I asked Peter Cowin, Maine’s reknown Bee Whisperer, what the cut-off point for fall-feeding is and he said that he recommends hives be full by mid-October.

Generally the MSBA advises beekeepers to have 65-70lbs of honey stores on their hives going into winter; that’s with a 2-deep hive body configuration. Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries devotes 2-deeps and a medium to his hive bodies and says he prefers his hives to weigh in at at least 160 lbs (read more about Mike Palmer’s methods for overwintering hives in the north).

Mike has a scale that he uses to weigh his hives and he simply tips them over onto the scale to determine their weight, but if─like me─you do not own a scale you can gauge the weight by counting the frames of capped honey. Typically a deep frame will hold about 8lbs of honey, while a medium will hold about 6.

feeding beehives syrup in the fall

making bee syrupFall sugar-syrup for feeding honeybees is made at a 2:1 ratio. That’s two parts sugar to every 1 part water. We were able to avoid heating the syrup on the stove earlier in the year when we were making syrup at a 1:1 ratio, but with this much sugar it’s more easily dissolved if it’s heated on the stove. Once it cools we then pour it into gallon jugs to transport it out to the apiaries.

For more info about making syrup or candy for feeding bee colonies check out the MSBA’s online article.

Thmason jar feederere are numerous methods for feeding sugar-syrup, including the boardman-feeder, the plastic division feeders, pail feeders and baggie feeders. At this point I still prefer my mason jar feeders, which is a quart mason jar with a perforated lid that I’ve made. I simply place the filled jar upside-down on the opening of the inner cover and inside a medium or deep super (depending on what I have available). This method makes it easy to access and refill the jars when necessary without having to be too invasive.

The goal is to ensure the hives have enough food to sustain them during their long winter incarceration. At this point in the season time is running out, so if you haven’t performed fall inspections I strongly encourage you to make it happen because once the temperatures drop you won’t be able to get in your hives to correct any issues or deficiencies. All too often in beekeeping and farming timing is critically important, and this is definitely one of those times.