Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Expansion Model Beekeeping

Do you ever get that feeling when someone puts something you have been thinking about in to a nice neat concise terminology that makes sense and summarizes your thoughts into a cogent concept?

I do, all the time.  It’s okay though, I don’t have to put a name to everything I think about.  But I can innovate and modify it.

The same thing happened recently at NEOBA’s Big Bee Buzz.  I was enjoying a presentation by Sam Comfort, a beekeeper of some renown who keeps bees in a bit of an unconventional way.  His current push is for box hives.  He is also big into topbar hives and even calls himself a bartender. 

Hilarious, you had to be there. 

I have been suggesting for some time that to succeed in treatment-free beekeeping, one needs to understand how to increase, growing one’s own queens and though I don’t use the term “outbreed the mites,” it does work.  I have found that it takes several years of outbreeding the mites and then at some point, the bees quit dying in large part.  Don’t confuse outbreeding the mites with causing brood breaks, I don’t rely on brood breaks for mite control.

So my idea is to focus on perfecting rapid expansion methods rather than spending time studying about what treatments to use, how to use them, and burning money on them.   And I’m going to call it Expansion Model Beekeeping.  Sam thinks it’s a good idea too.  He said it first.  Full credit to that.

What are the tools?

A far better investment than any treatment is a queen castle.  I have been promoting queen castles since I found them.  They are hives where one essentially divides a full size box into two or three frame nucs and then uses those nucs, with full size normal frames, to raise queens, either as traditional mating nucs, or as a place where one can put a swarm or supersedure cell with its frame and bees to hatch out and mate and found a new hive.  Small hives like this are machines, excellent at rapid expansion, comb drawing, brooding, and growing.  They can quickly be moved into a larger nuc or used to requeen a lackluster hive whose main problem may be disease issues.

If caught in the right time, a hive preparing to swarm can yield as many as a dozen new queens and nucs, but only if you have the equipment to put them in.  If managed to produce queens, a hive can produce dozens at a time, every few weeks.  Queen castles can turn all these queens who successfully mate into new hives.  These new hives draw comb and expand at an amazing rate.  At the same time, you are placing firm selective pressure on these hives to deal with and survive mites and other maladies.  In just a couple generations, diseases are no longer a major problem in your day to day management of hives.  With more selection techniques applied to the resulting queens, you can do the same thing with gentleness and productivity.

But this isn’t a quick ‘take two and call me in the morning’ solution.  It’s not a treatment, something you can toss money at and expect miracle results.  Treatments don’t produce miracle results anyway, but that’s a topic for another day.  This is something that takes learning and as I’ve said often enough before, you gotta jump right in.  Timidity at the beginning often ends in failure.  We’re working with bees who’ve for the most part not been bred for survival, instead relying on treatments to keep them alive and focused almost solely on production.  Furthermore, mass numbers of bees, queens, and nucs, are shipped out of the south every year because people demand early queens and packages and nucs.  But these bees are not accustomed to your climate.  Their mothers just survived a winter that looks more like your Halloween than the proper winters you’re accustomed to.  And this is the case for just about everyone north of 35 degrees latitude which is a major portion of the population.

If you’re getting bees from the South, your bees are not accustomed to your conditions.  This leads to common problems like when bees starve to death inches from capped honey.  For some ridiculous reason, this common problem is pawned off on mites or some other disease.  I had it happen a fair number of times and always to bees originally raised in climates with milder winters like California or Georgia.  It’s an unacceptable condition and it can be avoided for the most part by maintaining bees well adapted to your conditions.

Catching local swarms is another excellent aspect of Expansion Model Beekeeping.  Sam Comfort mentions that he puts up 100 swarm traps every year.  Swarm traps are a good way to enhance your collection with new and varied genetics, whether they are from local feral swarms or from other local kept hives.  Concerned about watered down genetics?  Your winters and diseases and mites will take care of those issues for you.  Use selective pressure to your benefit.  Allow the natural selective pressure to weed out the weakest hives for you.  Remember, your focus is on out-breeding the problem and adapting to it, just like Nature does.  We have a strong and virulent organism in the honey bee.  It has an incredible ability to adapt and survive in all sorts of conditions and pressures.  But it needs some time and new generations

The idea behind this whole philosophy is operating, at least for now, like you want to be a commercial beekeeper in five years.  The focus is increase.  Pretty quickly as I’ve found out, the bees quit dying out so much.  Now I’m at the point where I have the number of hives I want to have.  I have the volume of equipment that I can sustain.  So what do I do with the extra bees?

The first thing you can do is continue to develop strong, gentle, and productive bees.  You can do that by continuing to breed or split from your best queens and requeening poor performers.  If you have extra at the end of the year and don’t want to overwinter a certain number, combining is easy by killing off the less favored queen and placing her hive on the better hive.  There are various ways to do that, newspaper combines and the like.  You can keep some hives as nucs and they can be used to draw comb without feeding, or keep queens in reserve.

Another thing you can do is use your bees to make a little more money or give gives or use them as trade.  You can do this by raising queens, selling nucs, or selling packages or shook swarms (packages with their original queen).  Maybe you don’t want to ship or sell out of town, but you can help your friends and neighbors get started.  Form small cooperatives where you can rely upon your neighbors to provide you a frame of brood to restart a hive with a missing queen, or market your honey together.

It would be fantastic if more beekeeping associations were able to provide the packages, queens, and nucs that their members need without needing to have them shipped in.  If a handful of members were able to provide even limited numbers, it would be enough to get their friends started or help associates sustain their hives and replace their dead outs.  The focus needs to be on local production and adaptation rather than buying bees seemingly ‘off the shelf.’

The ultimate goal is beekeepers whose bees don’t die in large numbers and who have a strong support group to help them grow and learn how to keep bees without resorting to medicating them or expending large amounts of energy trying to keep them alive.  They should stay alive on their own and leave you the beekeeper to do the things you started beekeeping to do.

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