Which bees are the best?

Bees can develop rapidly in spring, or slowly, or in between. Carnica bees (Carniolans) are usually known to develop rapidly in spring, while black bees (A. m. mellifera, AMM) usually develops slowly. If the bees are developing quickly, they eat more food as they make more brood. It is brood that requires a lot of food, both for feeding the young and for keeping brood temperature in the hive.
Carnica bees usually start brooding early and strong. Mostly they react quickly to availability of fresh pollen, especially later in summer when chilly weather keep them inside the hive and brooding thus is greatly reduced. The AMM bees are often adapted to a late honey flow and weak early flows. The late heather flow in the Nordic countries has been involved in forming this bee. The yellow Italian bees come from a warmer climate where it may be smaller weaker honey flows during a long time of the season. They often tend to breed most of the time the whole year long. Therefore, there have been management methods of beekeepers in Sweden to handle this. For example, to hinder the bees brooding in winter by wintering them in one box only with ten frames of Swedish standard frames (366 x 222 mm). Then they let the bees fill the box with as much sugar solution that they can, thus leaving very little space left for brood. Such a small box full of Italian bees should not be well insulated. But if the colony is not very strong, a good insulation is necessary in our climate.
A cold spring like this in 2017 is a hard test for the bees and the beekeeper. It may not have been such a cold spring since temperatures began to be measured in Sweden, probably since the mid 18 hundreds.

Which bees are then the best?

For survival of the bees, they obviously should develop slowly in spring, and have no or very very little brood in winter. Thus they are more able to economize with the food so that it lasts until they can collect more fresh nectar from flowers in nature. They must also be resistant to diseases that can create difficulties when spring is cold and long, especially nosema.
But a beekeeper who wants a little better honeycrop than just 10-15 kg in average, and is trying to make a living from his bees must have a little different goal for his bees. This beekeeper needs a bee that can be wintered stronger than just on one box of smaller frames. It shouldn’t breed in winter. But it should develop strong in spring, if there is food enough.

I prefer the Langstroth length of the frame, to get strong colonies. The frame height can be anyone of the available options. The goal is as strong a colony as possible going into winter, with plenty of food. Preferably at least a box on top full of feed.
Large amounts of food are not needed for wintering, but for making brood coming spring. Where I live, with my bees, brooding begins in smaller amounts in late winter and increases at the beginning of March. Later in March the queen lays a lot, especially after the main cleansing flight that normally takes place later in March.
A year like this, the amount of brood will vary in line with the ability for the bees to fly out of the hive and get water for the brood. Bee types differ in ability of flying at lower temperatures. The beekeeper must ensure that there are always at least 2 frames with capped food so that the bees can make brood without risking running out of food. (Italian bees, unfortunately, often breed strongly with almost no food left, which is very risky for the bees, with starvation as the result.)

 A few days ago temperature was 8-10 °C. Many colonies was more or less packed in the first super above the queen excluder. They got two more supers if they were more packed, one more supers if they were less packed. Today 18 May it is summer. The picture shows colonies in an apiary before they were supered a few days ago.

In order to be able to get a crop from early honey flows, the bees must be strong enough to fill at least one super above the queen excluder (one box more than expected room for the broodnest of the queen) and a second for the development of the strength of the bees, when the first early flow begins, which usually is from winter rape.
A long cold spring like this means you have to check the bees frequently to ensure they have food enough. The best is to give the bees capped food combs. I get them from my stock of capped food combs which I established in November removing some outer food combs from heavy hives in which the bee strength was smaller. Those combs were replaced with insulation dummy combs. Food combs can also come from colonies that have died during winter. Combs that have been heavily defecated on and can not be cleaned are not used. A few spots of defecation a strong colony can handle. Another option when food combs are not available is sugar fondant. The last option is sugar solution. It will can cause the colonies to make too much brood.
Especially a spring like this you see a difference in the bee colonies. There are those who have bred too much and used up too much food. And there are those that responded too much to the cold periods and stopped brooding almost altogether. And then there are the perfect ones that did not need extra food but still developed continously and developed enough good strength, albeit not the very strongest. Then there are those which developed very well but needed some extra food combs. The two last types of bees are those that should be favored when selecting for breeders. First priority is though of course Varroa resistance.

Varroa project 2014 –>

This test is accomplished and funded by LP:s biodling bee equipement supplier, Arne Andersson sideline beekeeper and Erik Österlund sideline beekeeper.

 

GOAL FOR THE PROJECT

The goal for this test is to see if it is possible:

  • to improve mite resistance in apiaries with 5-10 colonies,
  • to understand the impact of ”isolation” of 3-5 km (3-4 miles) to other beekeepers
  • to understand the role of small cell size in the broodnest
  • to see the role of differentiated treatment of varroa mites, that is treatment of only those colonies that exceed a defined varroa level

 

PLANNED MANAGEMENT

Avoid silent robbery

The colonies should be managed as similar as possible to a beekeeper that want to increase the number of colonies with an extensive management method. It should interfere as little as possible with the bees activities and avoid disturbing parameters, which could happen when you open the colonies often, like for example starting robbing in nectar droughts. It could be enough with silent robbery, a robbery activity that you don’t notice. That could be enough to destroy a test, in that the varroa populations are evened out

3% strategy

Therefore we decided to maximize the number of hives for the two main groups in this test to 10 hives (5+5). We also decided to make two or three alcohol washes with 1 dl of bees to monitor the varroa level during the season. When the Varroa level was higher than 3% we planned to treat with thymol. If it appeared wingless bees in or in front of a hive treatment was also to be performed.

Use of thymol

We decided to use dish cloth pads drenched with fluid thymol mixed with a minimal amount of rubbing alcohol (to lower the melting point of the thymol crystals) as treatment against mites when decision was made to treat. You can see how they are done and used in this article: http://elgon.es/resistancebreeding.html

Crop and feeding

If possible a harvest should be taken and sugar solution (or honey) fed at the end of season after harvest to ensure enough food for winter. The goal should be to leave a fair amount of honey for winter, if possible as much as you think your bees have got genetics to make it through the length of your winters.

Nucs and splits

Increase are made by making so called walk away splits that remain in the same apiary as the mother colony. These are allowed make there own queens, or supplied with mature queen cells made from a good colony in the apiary. This should also be the swarm prevention method.

Elgon and Carnica/Carniolan

We choose to use two different types of bees in the project. One type that has been selected for varroa resistance during many years, Elgon, that has been bred with this purpose since 1989. Another type that hasn’t been selected less, but in other traits are good, pure bred Carnica/Carniolan bees.

 

FITNESS

Increase of the number of colonies

The number of colonies wintered each autumn would be a way to measure the difference in success between the two parts (large and small cell size) of each main group, Elgons and Carniolans. To be counted in the increase would be the colonies that are brought out from the apiaries and the project, a kind of crop. What we measure will thus be the production of new colonies and survival of colonies to the next season, the difference of fitness. If colonies survive to the next season is not only dependent on the varroa and virus levels in the colonies, but also on other circumstances that influence the survival and how a colony thrive, for example other pathogens like nosema and quality of food like pollen throughout the season.

Start and number of years

Instead of starting the project with 5+5 colonies with each type of bees, we have choosen to start from a fewer number of hives and increase the numbers. And we plan to continue the project for at least 3-4 years. We have choosen areas for the test that are low in nectar and pollen sources. That’s also a reason why the number of hives are restricted to five in each part, which makes a total maximum for each type of bees 5+5 colonies, 5 small cell and 5 large cell.

 

CARNICA

Four Carniolan colonies, all of them being sister queens from a pure bred Carnica/Carniolan stock, were divided in two groups with 30 m between the groups. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area far enough from the Elgon bees. Here it was no farm in the neighborhood, like it is where the Elgon bees are placed. One group was established on Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame, 4.95 mm cell size. The other on Anel plastic frames with 5.5 mm cell size. Frame size medium (448 x 159 m). Hive type well insulated styren plastic boxes.

The Carnica bees 2014-2015

The Carniolan queens we received in 2013 were introduced into Elgon small cell (SC) colonies on 4.9 mm cell size shallow sized frames (448 x 137 mm). The Elgons are adapted to SC during many years and if nurse bees fed and born in SC should be of importance that criterium should then be met for this test. The Carniolans in their homeland could not draw and thus live well on ”SC”. Here they were adapted immediately through this process, but they could not draw wax foundation 4.9 well even though they lived well on 4.9. Probably because they were not genetically adapted to small cells. Mann Lakes 4.9 they could draw well. Probably because of the high plastic cell wall starters which they couldn’t remodel

In 2014 half of the Carniolans got only Mann Lake’s 4.9 (SC), half got Anels 5.5 (large cell, LC). During 2014 they were this way transferred to these two types of frames. Increasing cell size in the LC-group up to 5.5 was no problem either as they were adapted to 5.5 in their genetics before they came here.

All the Carnica/Carniolan colonies were treated with thymol in 2013, but not much, and in September 2014 after they were moved to their test destination. No DWV-bees were observed in 2014.

The LC part of the Carnica bees 2015

In 2015 in June the LC-group (both colonies) showed 6% varroa level and crippled winged bees, one colony quite badly. They both got one treatment with two homemade thymol pads with about 5 gr thymol each. The LC-bees gave no crop. The Varroa level had not increased again very much and was only about 1 %.

The SC part of the Carnica bees 2015

The SC colonies had 0.3% and 1% varroa level respectively. In beginning of June a so called walk away split was made from one of the SC-colonies. The new queen then of course mated to very closely related drones.

The strongest SC-colony gave a small crop.

In September the SC-colonies still had only around 1% Varroa level. None of the colonies got any treatment in the autumn due to the low varroa levels. The SC-colonies thus got no treatment at all in 2015.

The Carnica bees 2016

The LC part of the Carnica bees 2016

The weakest of thee LC colonies didn’t make it through winter. The second one looked fine in May.

The weather was then rainy and chilly for several weeks, and when the beekeeper returned in late May to monitor varroa levels, in the remaining LC-colony he only found some dead brood and a few dead bees on the bottom.

The SC part of the Carnica bees 2016

In spring 2016 the now three SC-colonies were doing fine, two of them though small in size.

In the three SC-colonies the varroa levels were 3-4% in late May and some crippled winged bees appeared. Thymol pads were applied in June. A walk away split was made from the strongest SC-colony. The weather was unfavorable and the other three robbed the split. It thus died.

In September the three SC-colonies looked fine and got no treatment. The bees superceded the three year old queen.

The Carnica bees 2016-2017

The three SC-colonies were moved to an apiary with better resources for nectar and pollen. Some more pure bred Carnica queens were received in 2016. They will be used to biuld up the test apiaries again. Daughters will be bred from these and mated in the apiary with drones from the survivor colonies of the SC bees.

The whole season of 2016 was bad in producing nectar and pollen. The colonies had a hard time growing in size. It was late in the season when complementary feeding in preparation for winter was done that they grew somewhat in strength. That was the reason these bees were moved to a better place for food.

All three colonies actually were weaker than wanted going into winter. Two colonies made it through winter. The third and weakest died. This colony had probably survived if it had been fed honey (or fondant) and pollen during the worst nectar- and pollen drought periods.

 

ELGON

Six Elgon colonies of two different mother lines divided in two groups with 3 colonies each were set up. These groups were placed in a deeply forested area with a small farm in the neighbourhood. The two groups were placed about 700 meters from each other. One group got Mann Lake’s standard plastic frame with small cells (SC), 4.95 mm cell size. The other got Anel plastic frames with Large cells (LC), 5.5 mm.

Two sister groups were used. One sister group consisted of 4 queens, 2 SC and 2 LC. The other sister group had two queens, 1 SC and 1 LC. Frame size is medium, (448 x 159 mm). Hive type with well insulated styren plastic boxes.

The Elgon bees 2014-2015

The Elgon groups were established with new queens in 2014 and transfered successfully to Mann Lake’s 4.9 and with big difficulties to Anels 5.5.

The queens in the LC colonies were very hesitant to lay in their large cells. One queen totally refused.The broodnest of that queen consisted of only two shallow SC-frames. The resulting colony was of course small going into winter in 2014, but it wintered together with the other two LC colonies in their test apiary.

Most of the colonies, SC and LC, were treated in 2014 with thymol but mostly only in May. So this Elgon test groups of 3+3 were not managed in regard to the Varroa mites, similar to the Carnica groups. In the Carnica colonies the varroa populations were evened out between them, by treating them with home made thymol pads in September 2014.

The Elgon test colonies were taken from different apiaries and the varroa level in the colonies were not known when they were brought to the test site in late August. Earlier in 2014 the colonies who had wingless bees were treated with thymol, in May that was.

The LC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015

In spring 2015 the Elgon LC group continued to create problems as the bees protested against using LC combs for brood by supersedure their queens, probably in an adaption process.

In April before grafting time and any drones were flying one LC-colony was queenless. The new virgin queen had of course failed to mate and was gone. I combined the queenless colony with the mini colony (the one with the queen that had refused to lay but in the two shallows). This queen still refused to lay in any other comb than the two shallows, so I tried to fool them by giving them a couple of 5.3 mm cell sized plastic frames on each side of the SC combs. That worked. When the 5.3 were filled on each side of the 4.9 they started on the 5.5 next to the 5.3.

It seems it is the workers that prepare the cells for laying, not the queens that are deciding in which cells to lay. (This experience is also in line with what is written in old books from beginning of 1900, that when broodnest have 5.1 you could use 5.6 in honey supers without excluder as the queen didn’t lay in the 5.6.)

In late April 2015 the third (now the second as the other two were combined) LC-colony had a virgin. They were also trying to supersedure their queen. No drones available yet. So she failed. The colony got a queen cell in second half of May. That queen got laying. This colony had 5% varroa level in August and got thymol.

The first colony (former first and second combined) got a small piece of thymol (actually both parts that were combined got half a piece each) early in spring to help against eventual patoghen problems as they had different kind of problems (weak but queenright and queenless). This colony showed only 0.3% Varroa level in August and got no treatment.

The SC part of the Elgon bees 2014-2015

In 2015 the three Elgon SC colonies developed well. Splits were made from two of them. One failed, but finally got a laying queen very late in season. It ended up weak. It was lost during coming winter, the only loss of the Elgons. The smallest of the overwintered colonies had a queen that was laying badly. It was killed and replaced by a ripe queencell.

Four of the now five colonies showed crippled winged bees in July and had Varroa levels between 2-7%. Even the 2% colony showed a few DWV-bees telling me the virus levels in the colonies were quite high. One 3% had no DWV, the weak one mentioned above and it was the only one that didn’t get treatment.

Because the varroa populations in the colonies weren’t allowed to grow strongly (still there were enough viruses in 2015 after years of somewhat higher varroa and virus pressure in the Elgon apiaries of Erik Österlund), the virus amounts in the colonies decreased and also there was no silent robbery. And the varroa populations were evened out at a low level. Thus the situation now was much more comparable with the varroalevels in the Carnica colonies in autumn 2014

The Elgon bees had better nectar flows than the Carnica in 2015 and the Elgon colonies gave a good crop from the Heather in 2015. The average crop was about the same for both SC and LC colonies. In August none of the SC Elgons had above 3% varroa level. They had 0%-3%, and got no more thymol. No colony swarmed in any of the test apiaries.

The Elgon bees 2016

In spring 2016 one of the Elgons, the very weak one in the SC-group died (as mentioned above). Both LC colonies survived.

The LC part of the Elgon bees 2016

In the LC-group splits were made from both colonies. Weather was bad and one failed to produce a laying queen. It got a new ripe queen cell. The parts with the ”old” queens (from the year before) both superseded their queens, in line with experiences in 2015. This year they waited until beginning of summer when there were drones around. Maybe the bees had adapted somewhat to LC now.

The season of 2016 was very bad so no crop was secured from the LC-group. In spring the varroa levels were 0.3% in all four colonies (they became four after splitting in late May). In early September it was 0% – 8.6% – 0.9% – 4%. The two with highest levels were treated with thymol. The other two not. We can see that two colonies had very low levels of Varroa mites. This indicates a good genetic set up for Varroa resistance, also to be able to work with large cells apparently. The queens in the colonies with low Varroa level are sisters, mated in the test apiary. They are daughters to one of the colonies in the apiary, one in a split. The other as a result of supersedure in the mother colony producing this split.

The SC part of the Elgon bees 2016

The four remaining colonies in the SC-group gave a split each. Season was bad and two of the splits failed. A small crop was secured from the strongest of the colonies.

The two colonies with two year old queens supersedured these later in season. The 6 colonies all had 0.3% varroa levels in spring. In August the varroa levels were between 0-1.7%. As we had decided not to keep more than five colonies in each of the four parts of the test, colony no 6 of the SC-ones (the one with 1.7%) was removed from the test area. It wastreated with a small amount of formic acid to get an idea of the mite load and also test the shaker method. It fell 10 mites in a couple of days. The other 5 colonies remaining at the test site didn’t get any treatment.

The Elgon bees in the beginning of 2017

All four colonies in the LC group wintered well, in spite of that two of them were almost too weak, those that had had the highest Varroa levels and been treated.

One of the five SC colonies defecated a lot on the outside of the hive, though not much inside. They did not have a large amount of honey left for winter the previous autumn. And it was of good wintering quality. The winter before all colonies had had a large amount of difficult winter honey, from heather. The colony that died was the strongest and smallest Varroa level. It measured 0% on 400 bees. The was a good amount of food left in the hive after it had died. The colony had an old queen, and just a few meters there had been quite some traffic during late winter from a tree harvester. The other colonies looked fine, with almost no defecation.

Harvest and Varroa level 2015 and 2016 in SC and LC parts of the Carnica bees. The sites for Carnica and Elgon bees are not comparable as the Carnica site was didn’t have the same amount of food sources. Click on the picture to get it bigger and of better quality.

 

Harvest and Varroa level 2015 and 2016 in the SC and LC parts of the Elgon bees.

RESULTS

Losses

The losses in the Elgon groups have been quite normal, on the lower side. It has in percentage been higher in the Carnica groups, especially among the LC bees. The higher amount of losses can be explained by the low availability of pollen and nectar, especially during 2016. That’s why the test site for the Carnica bees has been moved. One conclusion is that during times with small amounts of available pollen and nectar a solution could be to feed the colonies fondant/honey and pollen to develop healthier and stronger colonies better adapted to survive winter.

The strategy of 3 %

The strategy to measure the Varroa level a couple of times during the season and use Varroa treatment (dish cloth pads, about 50 x 58 x 1.5 mm [2”x2”x1/16”], drenched in thymol) when/if the Varroa level is higher than 3 % (only treatmnent in these colonies, not in those below 3 %) has minimized reinfestation, maybe altogether. You thus get a true picture of the Varroa level in the colonies and thus a better selection of the most resistant colonies and the most susceptible ones. You could for example have expected that the different cell size groups had affected each other so that eventual difference in the varroa levels had evened out, especially among the Carnica bees as the two groups there were only 30 m apart.

Little need for Varroa treatment

Relatively little of Varroa treatment has been used, probably partly explained by the absence of reinfestation, no silent robbing. Most treatment has been used in the LC colonies of both the Elgon (2016 when reinfestation had been removed) and Carnica (2015, in 2016 there was no LC left) colonies.

The strategy of 3 % seems to have eliminated the need of Varroa treatment in the SC part of the Elgon bees due to elimination of reinfestation and enough good development of the varroa resistance with the Elgon bees.

This strategy has also lessened the need for varroa treatment to every second year with the SC part of the Carnica colonies and the need for treatment then has been small. Thymol in this context has been effective.

Cell size and fitness

In the LC part of the Carnica bees the need for treatment has been bigger probably because of a quicker development of the Varroa population. It seems fitness has been lower here probably partly due to the bad pollen and nectar availability. But fitness may also be lower because of other reasons. The Carnica LC colony that died in May did not die due to high varroa level. Lack of protein and/or other pathogens (like nosema) can be the cause. The Carnica test site is moved to a place with better food sources.

One can object to this conclusion of lower fitness for LC bees because the number of colonies are low.

On the other hand were all original queens in the Carnica group sisters and all colonies in SC and LC groups (Elgon and Carnica) are behaving consistent in this respect. And any difference in fitness between the two cell size groups among the Carnica bees should have been to the advantage of the LC colonies because the SC colonies had become inbred. Usually follows a lower immune system with inbreeding. Possible impact of this small distance would have been small(-er) difference in the varroa levels between the two groups due to evening out of the varroa populations. The 3% strategy, measuring varroa levels and treatment when it was above 3%, lowered the varroa populations enough to eliminate (totally or enough) the silent robbery.

In 2016 the only colonies that needed treatment were in the LC colonies of the Elgon bees. It should though be noted that with a stock of bees that have been selected for Varroa resistance it is possible to find colonies that are resistant also on large cells. Two colonies (with sisters queens) had very low levels of Varroa mites.

The honey crops, the bee strength of the colonies indicates, and the resulting number of colonies in the SC and LC parts of the stocks of bees indicates that it is no disadvantage to use small cells in the broodnest, rather the contrary.

 Summary of production of new bee colonies, increase in the number of wintered bee colonies. These figures could be seen as a measure of the vitality of the different cell size groups. There is a difference to the benefit of SC bees both in the E group (Elgon bees) and the C group (Carnica bees). Click on the pictures to get them bigger and of better quality.

 

Suggestion on a breeding program for increasing Varroa resistance in a bee population. The background for these suggestion is the results of this project, so far.

 

1500 Varroa Treatment Free

  South Dakota is Buffalo and Indian land in the northern part of the Midwest.

I talked to Chris Baldwin some time ago. He is a commercial beekeeper running about 1500 bee colonies. In summer his bees are closer to his home in South Dakota. In February they pollinate Almonds in California. After that they are going to east Texas for queen breeding and splitting. Focus in handling the mites is not eliminating the mites, says Chris. It’s eliminating susceptible bees.

 Beginning of November the bees go to Texas for winter. February 1 to California for Almond pollination. March to Texas for splitting and supering. May to South Dakota for honey. (Basic map illusttration: http-//d-maps.com_carte.php?num_car=5184&lang=en)

Chris hasn’t been treating his bees against mites for more than ten years. Last Coumaphos 2003, Only Oxalic 2004 and 2005. Nothing in 2006 and finally Thymol in 2007. After that nothing. He’s loosing bees yes, but not because of mites really. He’s keeping bees like bees were kept before the arrival of the Varroa mite. When he talked to another commercial beekeeper recently, his comment about Chris’ bees was that they probably could handle all farmers chemicals better as they didn’t had to deal with miticides as well in their hives.

Blacklisted

When he shares his experiences with others he is many times surprised of the response, or lack of response. Maybe some think he’s earning money on selling queens from his “pretended varroa resistant bee stock”. Maybe because almost all(?) scientists say you must treat against mites to get your bees to survive. But Chris don’t do that. He lives on his bees producing honey and pollinating crops.

There are so many examples now of treatment free operations for many years that we can write down a working plan to produce resistant stocks. It’s not telling the whole truth leaving out the growing number of treatment free beekeepers and their working plans for their success.

When he talks to scientists, many well known, about his bees, they look kind of strange in silence for a while and then walk away. They don’t show up at his yards wanting to investigate his bees and methods to find out more, as you would expect.

Chris has good references, the bee inspectors in his areas in South Dakota and Texas.

Once he had a columnist from a bee journal showing up asking and looking at his operation. I’m sure the readers would have loved to know more about how Chris is managing his bees. But he’s doing many things the opposite way to what many times is preached from the front.

No wonder he said to me he feels like he’s blacklisted. By whom and why, if that’s the case?

A bigger picture

After some additional communication with Chris about his operation the picture gets more clear and gives more food for thought. It’s really interesting and valuable to put his experiences and management system beside others’ to get a better understanding of our fascinating honey bee and what it means to us as an economic resource and understanding its role in nature.

California in February

Chris may well be the only big commercial beekeeper focused on pollination services that is treatment free when it comes too the Varroa mite. His bees are exposed to agricultural chemicals, drifting of other beekeepers’ bees into his colonies (which may well bring mites and pathogens of different kinds) and his bees visiting weakened hives to rob from (and pick up mites and pathogens).

It’s not difficult to understand that his bees might well have problems due to this. Pathogens like nosema, plus chemical residues from spraying of the almonds for example and extra mites and viruses picked up will make life hard for the bees when they go back east Texas in March after almond pollination in California.

  After pollination in California the bees go to Texas, here ready for supering.

Texas in March

The colonies return to Texas in late March. There they are supered for growth and maybe honey production. April flows in Texas are unpredictable.

Not all colonies went to California from Texas February 1 for pollination of the almonds. The remainder are scattered to out yards for buildup and also prepared for cellbuilding, which begins in early March in Texas. Nucs are made in March and April.

Africanization is not a problem in east Texas and his number of hives is big. So his drones dominate the air well. Also there are few fives from other beekeepers in his area.

 Preparing cellbuilders in early March with colonies that stayed in Texas when the main part went to California.

Securing cellbuilding

In a commercial operation every part in the system have to work good enough to make the system work and bring food on the table. One part that is maybe more critical than others is cellbuilding in the queen breeding part.

European Foulbrood has grown to a persistent problem in America. It may well bee due to increasing amounts of chemical residues in for example wax combs putting higher pressure on the immune system of the bees.

Chris will not have the chemical residues from miticides, which may well help his bees keep a better standard on their immune system than bees in other commercial outfits. Still he can during springtime at just the time of cellbuilding experience some problems from European Foulbrood. To be sure he will be able to produce the number of queen cells he needs, he gives the colonies involved some tetracycline in spring. That takes care of this problem efficiently. This is the only drug he uses.

 Colonies prepared for going from Texas to South Dakota for honey production during summer.

Summer in South Dakota

Colonies that have collected enough of honey for a food reserve are shipped to South Dakota for the clover flow, starting early May. Or they may stay in Texas longer for the Chinese Tallow tree bloom. It is often a difficult decision which will give the best flow.

 After harvest in October iSouth Dakota. Honey supers are removed.

Winter in Texas

Harvesting of honey may begin in July and go through October in South Dakota. The bees are fed if necessary, then shipped to Texas early November, hopefully before the first blizzard in South Dakota.

 544 colonies loaded for transport from South Dakota to Texas in November. Another 544 colonies are waiting to be loaded.

Annual losses

During summer about 20% of the colonies are lost due to queen problems. At least partly these queen problems may come from the rough circumstances in the pollination services environment. Pathogens and chemicals picked up there. In January the die offs are taken care off, as well as the bees alive. If necessary colonies are fed. Winterlosses and losses experienced after the almonds in California can together be 10-20%.

This makes a total annual loss of about 40%, which these days is the average in America, wheather you treat against mites or not. Quite some years ago now Chris had a “CCD-year” with 70% losses. But weather was favorable and he could recover colony numbers from remaining colonies in one season.

40% losses is a little too high, but up to 30% are okey for Chris in his management system. Actually some amount of losses are more or less needed to weed out the worst colonies and multiply the best to improve the stock continuously and keep the numbers stable. Also to minimize the swarming through making nucs. He is not into selling colonies or queens. He gets his income from pollination services and honey production.

Hive configuration

Beekeepers love to discuss different details in their management system. One is the hive configuration. And you can have quite animated discussions going on concerning how good or bad this or that part is, for example 8 or 10 frame boxes and medium or Langstroth boxes. What you many times forget is that each part of a management system, including the hive configurtaion’s different parts, is a result of this whole management system in which each part fits well enough for the beekeeper. If you change one part, you may have to change also other parts to make the system work well for you. And special circumstances for you may play a role why you have chosen the solutions you use.

Chris Baldwin uses a 10-frame system with a shallow box (5 & 11/16”; frame 448 x 137 mm) on the bottom. It is always there. It’s kind of an expansion space which the bees use as they want, more or less without control from the beekeeper. The bees remodel, tear down and build back, the combs in the frames there. Sometimes they are bad in shape, sometimes a lot of drone comb, sometimes good looking well used by the bees.

The next box is a Langstroth deep with 9 combs (frame 448 x 232 mm) and a plastic division feeder. It’s tight, but that keeps out burr comb. When moving combs the feeder is first taken out to make space for easier handling. This is the broodnest all the time. Then comes the queen excluder. The supers are normally 8 combs in 10 frame deep boxes and medium boxes (the latter frame 448 x 159 mm) with metal spacers. Almost no plastic combs are used, but wired wax foundation in wooden frames, since many years.

The bees

Colonies can grow very big on this set up. His bees uses the combs for brood efficiently. They are much more conservative, frugal with food reserves, than common Italians in America. He has always liked the darker kind of bees, Caucasian and Carniolan types. Today he has all colors. He started selecting among his bees creating his own stock many years ago. When the Russians came on the scene he started buying breeder queens of those and they changed the game concerning Varroa resistance. He refers to his friend Kirk Webster having the same experience using Russians.

Old combs

He uses no system for wax renewal. Well, he does in a way. After the queen breeding and nuc season is over, when a colony dwindle, for example looses its queen or having a failing queen, he doesn’t have any queen cells to save such colonies.

Broodnest boxes, deeps and shallows from these failing colonies go on top on other colonies as honey supers. After harvesting these boxes are extracted separately. The uncapper has adjustable cutting depths. When extracting brood combs he sets the uncapper on the deepest cut settings. It really cleans up the oldest nastiest comb.

Many of his brood nest boxes stay out in the field for years, but a certain number do get extracted and thus cleaned up quite a bit. He only cull combs that look horrible or have broken frames. Most of his combs are more than forty years old.

Nucs

He in first place uses the extracted brood combs when making nucs. He starts the nucs with three good deep brood frames and fills up the box with extracted deep combs and maybe a food comb. This box is put on a shallow extracted box. The nuc gets a ripe queen cell and maybe a good feed.

Broodnest

This hive setup, which has a smaller brood nest than many others use (many use two deeps), works fine in his management system. As annual losses are somewhat high (which is the “normal” average in America) many nucs are made. Still the colonies have time to grow to be strong enough for both pollination and honey production. And this is done just perfect with this 1 and ½ box broodnest setup. When he moves hives, he can take a bigger number, 4 stories with 4 hives on a pallet, 544 on a truckload.

Cellsize

Chris doesn’t really care about cellsize. If he did he maybe would have to change management system when it comes to wax renewal. He hasn’t found any reason for using more labor in this part of his beekeeping.

So what is the cellsize in his combs? Today when he buys wooden frames with plasic foundation (these are cheapest and quickest to get at work into the system), most common is 5.4 mm, to begin with. Forty years ago who knows, maybe 5.2 mm was what was bought, (sizes 5.1-5.6 was available). But during the years cell volume has shrinked of course due cocoon residues. When old combs have been cut down, the cell bottoms have been left untouched. The parts of the combs closest to the midribs are “smaller cell” still, by the added cocoon residues. But the compactness of a real small cell comb is not there (more cells per area unit).

Living life

Beekeeping makes you nature focused and Chris often observes wildlife while working the bees. Deer, antelope, hawks, eagles, owls, praire dogs, coyotes, pheasants, grouse, badgers and so on. He once saw six bull elk out on the praire. At another time a golden eagle carried off a coyote. The land in South Dakota isn’t as flat as it appears many times, but it’s so treeless that you often can see horizon to horizon.

What about next season then? Weather comes up differing with cold and heat, drought and rain. And we need rain too besides sun. Next season will always be better!

Chris Baldwin is doing his share in putting food on the table in US through his bees’ pollination services, and yes, somewhat also on many other tables around the world that import almonds.

High class container colony

I had some free bees this summer. Especially one of the swarms is special, the container colony. http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=722 and http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=740

A couple of weeks ago I harvested two supers from it. It will winter with plenty of honey in the three square shallow boxes (corresponding to three mediums).

Container colony harvest1Container colony harvest2 The two supers were put on an escape board. Late that day I came back with a bee blower and blew the few remaining bees. Most of my apiaries are not far away from the home yard.

Listen to your bees

Brother Adam often said that you should listen to our bees to be able to understand them and learn better how to manage them. Peter Donovan, who worked for him, expressed that when you went through a hive you read the bees like you read a book when going through the combs (pages). After all the bees don’t read our manuals so we have to read them instead.

The other day my I talked to my niece who has been a beekeeper for more than 20 years. She has 3 colonies and live on the countryside in the middle of the forest. This year her bees have had an unusual good flow on heather (Calluna vulgaris).

She told me she and some others stood and talked on the barnyard when a bee came and landed on her arm. It sat still and looked at her without a sign of flying away. Regina said that maybe it wanted to tell them something. So she went to the hives to take a look.

When she arrived there a football of bees hanged outside. So she gave that hive another box. The bees went inside and started flying more active. They needed more room. You need to listen to your bees!

Changes again

I ended the last blog-post saying that the season wasn’t completely over yet. That was very true. August has been our summer here in Sweden. And it’s not over yet, August and warm summer. Though the nights are chilly. But my wife and I are taking our daily morning swim in a near by lake, followed by breakfast at the shore, coffee and a sandwich.

Bigård23ljung Heather

Heather (Caluna vulgaris) yields honey this year in big parts of Sweden. In my area very good, even in areas quite far from places with lots of the plant. But in spite of this the total honey crop is the worst since I became a beekeeper 40 years ago.

But the colonies have changed appearance. Now they look very healthy and the winter room will be quite full of honey, not only from heather (a quite tough honey for wintering a long winter confined to the hive), but also from thistles, fireweed and golderod. And probably I will not use more Thymol than last year after all.

Why the VSH 80-daugter I mentioned in the former post had so much bald brood, I saw the other day, may well be due to a failing queen. She is not laying that much eggs any more. So there are fewer open brood for the mites to invade and thus not so many new healthy pupae that turns into new bees. And the strength of the colony declines. It’s a little late for the bees to shift the queen. They should have done that earlier. We’ll see if the colony will make it through winter.

Bigård23A Apiary where all supers above the queen excluder has been harvested. Most colonies are wintered on three square (12-frame) shallow langstroth boxes. Two colonies are wintered on two boxes Even with isolation dummy frames at the sides in both boxes). They are weaker than the others.

Bigård23B The strongest colony in this apiary

Bigård23C One colony in this colony needed Thymol against varroa now. The sign for me was wingless crawling bees on the hardboard outside the entrance. It got two pieces of dishcloth with 4-5 gram Thymol each (hopefully it will be enough, will check for this sign again in 10-14 days).

At the moment I’m harvesting all supers above the queen excluder. From some apiaries there is a quite good late harvest. From others not so good. But the winter room will contain a good amount of honey. Those colonies needing Thymol strips get it, not so many now. Most of the needy have got it earlier in the season.

Beekeeping is a serious matter

Beekeeping is a very important occupation – for commercials and hobbyists. When you’re a beekeeper you contribute to nature and society’s continued existence.

There is a difference of attitude in general to beekeeping on the different sides of the Atlantic. In northern Europe it’s a very serious matter – not only to take part in beekeeping, but also to do it right – and not wrong. Hot discussions are often taking place what are the right and wrong ways of working the bees. Mind you if you are doing it the wrong way! You have to move down a step at the dinner table of the fellowship of beekeepers! You may be blamed for problems in beekeeping.

Remember – you are brave if you dare to think and do things your own way!

In America you often find a more relaxed attitude. Yes – it’s important to do it the right way, but most important is to keep bees at all. Yes, make an effort to do it the right way. But if you do it wrong, you’re my friend anyway. Let’s discuss how to make it better the next time. You keep your place at the dinner table.

Be encouraged to find new and maybe better ways in beekeeping wherever you live!

Let’s a have meal together when we meet.

Jante and The Involuntary Adviser

“It is better to listen to a string, which burst,
than never to span an arc.”
Verner von Heidenstam (Swedish poet), 1902, Invocation and Pledge

 

Jante verbalize the unwritten law that says that you can not stand up and think that you are better than others in some way. It’s a fictional law of a fictional Danish town in a novel by Aksel Sandemose in the book En flykting korsar sitt spår (A refugee crosses his tracks) (1933). The closest phenomenon in the English-speaking world is what is called The tall poppy syndrome.

 Jante
1  You shall not think you are something.
2  You shall not think you’re as good as we are.
3  You shall not think that you are wiser than we are.
4  You shall not fool yourself into thinking you’re better than us.
5  You shall not think that you know more than we do.
6  You shall not think that you are more important than we are.
7  You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8  You shall not laugh at us.
9  You shall not think that someone cares about you.
10 You shall not think that you can learn us anything.
Jante Criminal Code
11 Don’t you think we know something about you?

 

Commitment
Commitment can be dangerous as it can lead to knowledge that leads to the development leading to change. If those in charge do not control the course of events. They need control of change not to risk losing control of the situation – losing control over others, over money, over development. If you have influence and power you may want to keep it. That’s when you oppose those who get involved – rather than encourage, assist and perhaps cooperate.

 

Do nothing
If you don’t do anything you don’t risk standing out and you don’t risk falling into disfavor with those who want to have control. But you can never do anything good, increase knowledge and contribute to development.

 

Do something
If you do something you risk making mistakes. A mistake, may learn you important things. And you can get ideas about how to do instead. If you do something good and it’s new, you learn something new, and also others do that, perhaps leading development forward.

 

 

2008, varroa and viruses

In spring of 2008, I had been told not to give advice to beekeepers how to combat the varroa mite. This is because I allegedly gave dangerous advice that caused beekeepers to lose their bees. The one who told me this, I had been told treated against Varroa mites only once a year trickling with oxalic acid solution in November and calculated to have 30% winter losses.

Shortly afterwards a desperate beekeeper called me in late April. He actually sought someone else he could not get through to. He asked for advice on how he would do to save his eight colonies from dying as they all showed wingless bees in different amounts. It is considered by some that a bee colony showing wingless bees is doomed to die and can not be saved. So what should I do? I was told not to give advice. But should I tell the person seeking help to let the bees die, or should I give the best advice I could? Deny a needy help, I could not.

– The mildest treatment against the already by viruses weakened bees, are probably in this case Apistan, I said, but you may not want to use that. (The mites had just arrived there and built a population and Apistan had never been used before.)

– No, said the beekeeper from east central Sweden.

– To treat these highly viruses weakened bees with acid is to lead them into death, I said. Oxalic acid could possibly have been used in November, but only really if one earlier in July/August had checked the colonies concerning the amount of mites and treated with something then if needed, so they are not weakened when Oxalic treatment comes in November/December.

– Do you know what Apiguard is? I asked.

– No, he replied, and did not know what Thymol was either.

– The best advice I can give you is to get in touch with Joel Svensson’s Bee Equipements and ask them to help you get Apiguard. Read the packaging how to use it, and apply it as soon as you can. Thymol, I think is mildest for the bees in this case.

In September the same year the beekeeper called med and thanked me for I had helped him. All his bee colonies had survived, even the most affected and vulnerable. He had also made a few splits and wintered 13 colonies.

I asked him how long time Apiguard was in the hives.

– All summer, he replied.

– Huh, I cried, but did you harvest any honey then?

– Oh yeah, was the answer.

– But didn’t the honey taste thymol, I asked.

– No, he replied.

Hmm, could it be possible? Maybe yes, maybe no. Well, you should not and need not to use Apiguard as this beekeeper did. But the most positive thing with this beekeeper was that the colonies recovered and lived. And the honey was safe to eat whether it tasted thymol or not. It was probably mostly this beekeeper and his family who ate the honey that year I believe. He certainly hadn’t a bumper crop.

The bees pollinated and did what they should. And the beekeeper was happy.

Food control again, soon increase

A month ago I did the first food control after winter. Spring was then still cold then in the beginning of March. A number of dead colonies were brought home. I divided the combs in three groups, food combs, empty combs still usable and combs to recycle the wax from.

Some colonies needed food combs. Those I had taken in autumn from colonies with more than they needed and space that could be decreased by taking out a few outer combs in the top box and inserting insulation “dummy” combs.

Now a month later I did a second food check. Some colonies needed food. A few more were dead. Another few will probably die in a couple of weeks. The winter losses will arrive at about 10 %. Previous years the winter losses have been about 15 %. Those years about 30 % of the survivors barely survived and gave no crop. And they got their queens shifted later in the season. This year those 30 % will be 10 %, a better figure. Also the quality of the breeder queens have been better concerning the years they havn’t needed any treatment. And the VSH value is better, Varroa Sensitive Hygien.

Spring15-10 This looks like an ideal colony. Three boxes completely full of bees. It’s heavy, but not as heavy as last fall. There is some room left. I can estimate the weight when lifting the hive a little on both sides. Experience helps here. This colony did not get any super now, even though it had so many bees. They will manage well until it gets one in 1-2 weeks. The next round to the apiaries will be with the car filled with supers and also some food combs that probably will be needed.

Spring15-13 This is also a very good colony, a split from last year wintered on two boxes. Full of bees, plenty of food, but space left for nectar and larvae. They will get their third box in a week or two.

Spring15-16 A colony that was more insulated with insulation combs in both boxes. It responded by making brood in late February and March almost using up their food. It’s interesting a smaller colony with a fresh queen can respond in such a way to develop their strength in off season like this. An insulation comb was removed from the light weight side and a comb empty of food had their bees shaken off. The colony was given two combs full of food. On the other more weighty side of the colony, the bees had one full comb of food. That’s the minimum I want for a colony, three combs of food (about 5 kg ≈11 pounds). This colony is the result of a queenless split last year, which failed to make themself a queen. It was united with a split, that had a new laying queen, that was too small to be able to survive winter on their own. This situation probably triggered the more heavily brooding in spite of the smaller size, maybe a survival instinct as the colony had many old bees to start with that probably wouldn’t make it through winter. They had to be replaced in some way.

Spring16-5 This colony is weakened, the bees sitting close to a insulation comb to keep themselves warm. The bees are covering two full shallows in the top box. They had enough food. Already in November they had started to go down in strength. That’s why several combs were removed and replaced with insulation combs. I could have removed the bottom box, but that will probably be done at the next visit. This colony is questionable if it will survive. Does it has it Nosema and/or virus problems? Next visit will tell.

Spring16-8a This colony is almost full of bees on three boxes and it is very heavy, as heavy as last fall. It has barely used any food or has collected a lot of willow nectar. The truth is probably a bit of both. The colony has built much new wax on inner cover plastic sheet. It’s too cold (8C=46F) to open up and replace a number of combs with empty drawn ones. The quickest and easiest way is to add a super above an excluder (or without an excluder), which was done.

Some colonies now in early April got an increase super. In a way it wasn’t needed as the weather still was to cold to really trigger the swarming instinct. But if the boxes of the colony are filled with bees and they either are empty of food or heavy as lead indicating no space left, then they got a box. Five colonies out of about 150 got it. The next round to the apiaries will be focused on increase and the car will be filled with supers with empty drawn 4.9 mm cell size combs. This will happen in 1-2 weeks after this visit.

I’m fascinated how small my bees actually are now!

Bedding down

Höststyrka1

I live on 59 degrees north and 15 degrees east in Sweden. It can be quite cold in winter and bees can’t usually leave the hive a single time from about November until about middle of March, sometimes late in April.

I use single walled wooden boxes for the hives (no insulation) with no wrapping for winter, so the colonies need to be strong to winter well and be able to get a crop from the winter rape in May. No top ventilation. But bottom ventilation, through the entrance and through netting in the back corners of the bottom board.

I use square shallow boxes for 12-13 frames (depending on center to center distance) (frames 448×137 mm) throughout the hive, no other frame size. It works surprisingly well one may think. One square shallow box has the same volume as one medium, 10 frame (Illinois–3/4-Langstroth, 448×159 mm frames). Two square shallows correspond to a 12-frame modified dadant or jumbo box (448×286 mm frames). I normally use three square shallow boxes for winter (and as brood nest in summer with excluder) with the top third box full of or with a lot of honey, complementing with sucrose solution in August/September adding up to about 30 kg of food (65 pounds[lb]).

Smaller colonies get dummy insulation as outer frames, after combs filled with food are removed in late autumn. They may get the entrance somewhat reduced. These colonies are mostly wintered on two square shallows (with somewhat less honey and total food). The smaller colonies the more insulation they get to winter well.

After feeding sugar in September, temperature is low enough in October or November to keep the bees inside all day and clustered together tightly. Now the old bees have died off and left the winter bees for taking the colony through winter. The cluster is reduced as a result of this and also as a result of temperature compressing the bees together to keep them from loosing heat. Egglaying has normally stopped a couple of months earlier with my bees.

This situation didn’t occur this year due to relatively mild weather, as last year, until late November, with then steady temperature just above freezing. I then checked all colonies concerning strength and removed some outer frames replacing them with insulation dummy frames of compact polystyrene. Some smaller colonies had already been reduced this way in August in both upper and lower boxes. At this point only the upper box get outer frames removed. I have a plastic sheet covering the top and lift up and folded somewhat at one side at a time to help the colony keep warmth when working. The bees are usually calm and don’t move much if I work fast.

Höststyrka

In August all three boxes are full of bees on all combs. When sitting in winter cluster in November in average this year they are sitting tight filling up about 7 frame gaps in about two boxes, in the middle box and somewhat in the lower and upper ones. Or lower down or higher up.  A colony with 8 filled gaps will not get any comb removed. 7 gaps 1-2 removed, 6 gaps 2-3 removed, 5 gaps 3-5 removed.

The smallest cluster now have 4 gaps with tightly clustered bees (with three insulation frames on each side of six combs in the upper box) and the strongest are filling 10 gaps. Watch out in early spring! Such colonies will hopefully need a super very early in spring!

Light colored bees don’t normally behave like this, they brood longer in autumn, wait longer clustering tightly, and start earlier brooding considerably in late winter.

My bees don’t use all this food for winter, they use maybe 5-8 kg (11-18 pounds). But with a good amount of honey they start heavily brooding in early March before even having made the cleansing flight after winter. Then they need the food! If they don’t have enough food you have to feed them. If feeding them sugar solution, which is common, the bees might react in easier develop swarming preparation.

The removed food combs are stored mouse tight and used for those colonies developing fast in spring and need more food. Some colonies have used too much food during winter and spring. They are not stronger than those that wait until March brooding, they might actually develop backwards due to nosema problems. Such colonies are requeened later. In second half of May I start making splits and nucs. These stored food combs are a gift.

With a good amount of food in late winter/early spring the bees “dare” to make a lot of brood. When May comes they already are filling (almost) a couple of supers above the excluder with bees and are ready to fill them with honey!