Jane and Tom’s hives
May 17, 2019
Jane and Tom stopped backyard bee keeping with standard Langstroth’s 3 years ago. Not that they had disruptive beekeeping practices, they mainly left the bees in peace, and their property is a very large stretch of native prairie with woods in Hudsonville, but the mortality rate was too high to be any sustainable. Something had to change, but what?
There is not one unique solution and it usually stems from a set of issues:
1- the hive is not adapted: the walls are too thin and the bees spend a lot of energy controlling the temperature. The volume is too big (85 litters with two deeps of Langstroth) and the bees don’t swarm, the varroa mites thrive in an uninterrupted season of brood. The frames come with wax foundation of unknown quality and set printed cells, the comb is constrained, the gas and heat exchanges constrained, the organisation of the hive constrained. A thick walled hive in which the bees build freely (even if there are top bars), with an optimal volume of 45 liters (one deep) to 60 liters max, with one or two entrances correctly positioned will make a determining difference to the health of the colony and its capacity to resist to disease.
2- the environment is not adapted: This was not the case for Jane and Tom, to the contrary, the bees could enjoy a full season of diverse forage from early April till late September. It is a pretty exceptional place for bees as the diversity of plants ensures a continuous pollen and nectar production, beside a 2 to 3 weeks dearth period during August in some years. Furthermore agriculture is not really present in Hudsonville, so there is limited to no crop protection spraying going on.
3- the bee genome is not adapted: it is common practice in the US to receive bees in a cage through the mail to jumpstart a bee yard. The bee package is an assemblage of an inseminated queen with a retinue placed among workers collected in reserve hives. My experience has been that the mortality rate of these colonies is about 50 percent, the colonies that make it to the second year in general supersede the queen, and I would say 1 hive out of 6 makes it to the third year. As most of the backyard beekeepers set 1 or 2 to 3 hives, they have no bees the second or the third year latest. Stabilizing a bee yard from packages requires several seasons (5 to 6 seasons) and will have much defect. There are better ways to start a bee yard than importing the bees, either through nucs produced locally (even though not always so good) or capturing a swarm. I highly recommend swarms, it is not an obvious step for beginners. Beginners need a mentor to help them with the bee procurement. The swarm can be collected and placed in an adapted hive or a hive can be set empty and a swarm will move in it spontaneously.
4- the beekeeping common practices are not adapted: inspecting by cracking the hive open to see the queen or to check whether there are eggs or larvae or honey is not a good practice. Leaving the bees alone and deriving from their behavior at the entrance their health or state of development is good practice and establishing a diagnostic by observing a closed hive is sound beekeeping. Collecting honey and replacing it with sugar syrup end of autumn or in April is not a good practice. A non interventionist practice as long as the bees have access to forage and the hive is adapted to the bees needs prior to the beekeeper needs is good practice. The feeding of the bees is a very controversial topic, it can happen that the nectar season has been poor and the winter has been cold, not feeding in this case can have dire consequences as shows the picture below. This is a colony of Italian bees, early starters, in a Langstroth hive after a moderate winter in Mississippi. The honey stash was not sufficient, the bees starved and died in a matter of hours, a similar hive next to it was fed when the problem was discovered and this colony still thrives today for the 5th season with no further feeding since then. It is critical to check the weight of the hives if it is at all possible during the last leg of winter, most of the time a stabilized bee yard will not require any feeding. The picture was taken on one of my bee yards.
Tom showed up one day in autumn 2017 and handed me his hive components and other beekeeping gear, he was done with it. It was too painful to see bees dying and not being able to improve. Came the idea to build a freedom hive. As said, Jane and Tom large property covered with native prairie and woods is perfect for pollinators. A super insulated hive of 60 liters that one does not need to manage and in which no honey would be collected seemed to be making sense. Furthermore we would set the hive on a tripod so Jane could see the bees from her kitchen window.
1- Building Tom’s hive over December 2017.
2- The state of the hive on Christmas Eve. I wanted to have the hive ready as a Christmas present, but I could not build quick enough.
3- Finishing Tom’s hive early January 2018.
4- The hive is finished.
The hive was installed mid March 2018 and baited accordingly, a swarm may move in. I like the new owners to set the telescopic roof on as a form of appropriation.
I found a swarm on April 25, 2018 and called Tom to help and collect it for his hive. I have found every year at least one swarm at this exact spot coming from on of the Warre hives on bee yard II.
Tom sealed the telescopic cover as the bees had been poured in from the top.
On May 17th, I visited the hive for the first time after the installation.
On June 3rd, 2018, the bees are thriving and thrive since then.
The success of this first freedom hive on a tripod combined with the capture of a swarm in a baited hive installed in one of the oak trees on Jane and Tom property pushed us to install another freedom hive. It was built entirely in red cedar to get a lighter weight to lift up in the tree. We installed this hive on march 24 2019 and baited it with lemon grass and two pieces of comb waxed up to the ceiling of the chamber. The hive volume is again 60 liters with thick insulation and double top and roof.
we were pretty satisfied with the work.
On April 21st 2019, a swarm had moved into the hive.