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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.