BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How Non-Acclimatized Bee Purchases Endanger Colonies In A Northern New England Apiary

This is long, but may save a hive or two if you have the time to read.

Trying to introduce new strains of bees into my apiary has been fun and successful but this winter it proved catastrophic. Minnesota Hygienic Bees are basically Italian. It has been a long time since I've had Italian bees. It makes since for an urban beekeeper, like respected scientist Marla Spivak, to breed for hygienic behaviors in a bee everyone already has; but they are not a wise choice for a northern climate despite Minnesota's reputation as a cold climate state. Here's why:

Race Behavior Differences: Honey bees that over-winter in the upper half of Maine, New Hampshire, & Vermont, as well as races of Apis Mellifera bees from Northern Europe or subarctic climates, namely Carniolan, Buckfast, & Russian, share many traits suitable for surviving Northern New England’s long winters & short nectar flows. Indeed, some climate pockets in my neck of the woods of New Hampshire are considered subarctic. The required behaviors of honey bees up here differ with honey bees used in the commercial beekeeping industry that has faithfully supplied U.S.A. farmers with bees for many decades. 

Commercial Sources: Those commercial bees are a U.S. hybrid of Southern European bee, also known as “Italian”. Italians were originally chosen for gentleness and their tendency to grow large populations to assist in pollinating mono-crop farms & orchards across the nation. Currently an American Carniolan-Italian hybrid has become a more common breed in use. Unfortunately, either selectively or circumstantially during normal commercial beekeeping migratory practices, these bees have had bred out of them many of the wild survival traits gifted by millions of years of evolution. When brought up north they behave like they are still on the migratory path, absconding when the bloom is done or just not having a clue they need to plan for long months of confinement in winter.

Available Education: Most books about honey bees published prior to about 2010 and most online educators today talk about management techniques that have traditionally benefited the Italian Hybrid American Honey Bee in the commercial industry because that is the bee everyone has affordable access to. 

At the end of the pollination season they are shipped off to small farms and hobbyist beekeepers around the country regardless of climate or geographical location. Unlike today's northern bee populations beginning to flourish in stationary apiaries across Northern New England, those hybrid bees are not winter savvy, having Southern European roots; nor are they disease resistant. This is primarily because these commercial colonies have been heavily managed for the sake of annual pollination expeditions that include exposure to agricultural chemicals and contaminant accumulations in the hive which break down overall colony health. 

As a matter of routine commercial bees are also treated with antibiotics & miticides and fed a diet of supplemental feed to compensate for nutritional deficiencies on the road. These colonies most often overwinter in large holding yards in a mild climate. The average beekeeper has been taught through older books and old school teachers similar management practices in order to keep these incredibly stressed honey bee colonies alive on their small farms and in their backyards. As a result the American hybrid honey bee continues to prove less resilient & productive than in times past. Farmers who grew up with bees and raised their own children with bees come into my shop on a regular basis with sad tales of wonderment at what might possibly have gone wrong.

April 20th - Live maples in Wonalancet
Over-wintered IN NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND or Northern Acclimatized Honey Bees:

I struggled for years to respect and implement these traditional management methods up north as do most beekeepers with limited access to educational opportunities aimed specifically at our northern climate and northern acclimatized honey bee sources. In New Hampshire alone I continue to appreciate the need for beekeeping practices to vary considerably depending on the race of bee acquired and how it is managed from the southern part of the state to the north, mountain to ocean, farm to forest.

Northern bees raised locally are certainly proving to be healthier, but also more conservative and winter savvy than bees from the commercial industry. These hardy bees with most all their evolutionary gifts intact make smaller clusters in winter, breed more brood or less brood depending on the nectar flows, & do best in smaller hives. They can tolerate confinement for as much as six months of too-cold-to-fly weather. Commercially sourced bees can no longer do this reliably without a great deal of nutritional and medicinal support from the beekeeper and then you have to ask "How pure really is my wax and honey?"

Eight frame hives have been recommended by myself and others for these smaller colonies. Last year at the annual EAS Convention in New Jersey I felt validated in this recommendation when hearing the results of a nationwide Bee Informed survey that revealed a 10% increase of over-wintering success with eight frame hives over ten. In my own experience making the journey from ten to eight, this seems primarily due to the colony being unable to break cluster in a ten frame to move horizontally to reach outward honey stores.

If you are beginning to acquire northern bred, northern race honey bees and continue to nurse along the more affordable but vulnerable bees acquired from the commercial industry, precautions must be taken. Strive to keep all hives of your Northern race protected from the robbing behaviors, diseases, & parasites of the hybrid Italian bees, packaged bees, or generally unacclimatized bees. I'm not saying treat your northern bees with miticides; but if you treat the Italians, space your hives considerably apart from each other with some brush obstructions, as Cornell University Professor Tom Seeley recommends, or relocate those commercially sourced bees with high mite counts to another apiary for treatment.

Robbing is the worst threat of all. My new Minnesota Hygienic bees were out flying one sunny day in March when all my old established bees were still in cluster. I could see my hardy north country bees with my thermal camera and knew they had 30 lbs of honey to go before the 1st nectar flow; what hadn't occurred to me was that this weak Italian colony had it in them to rob out those 30 lbs with virtually no resistance. They were starving - of course they were - they had eaten through all their stores and the queen was laying. It was "spring" after all; so instead, the old northern colony, well prepared to make it through a fourth winter in my apiary, fully aware March doesn't really come until May around here, was the colony to starve. I relied too much on my unobtrusive thermal camera and notes on what was stored where instead of taking the usual peek under the hood. Deadly, costly mistake.

So I sent them packing... to my sister-in-law who just finished Bee School in Massachusetts & only wanted one hive. I'm sure they are loving it down there... no hard feelings... well, a few. Honey bees will certainly prove to be the great survivors of our time.

Some insights:

~ Research has shown for some decades now that northern bees "bottle cap" their honey and will teach this, & other things northern, to the young of a southern queen. In the same way, southern nurse bees will teach the young of a northern queen to do things the southern way. This could prove problematic when seeking to utilize an inexpensive or available package of bees by requeening with a northern queen. "Bottle capping" leaves space under the honey cell cap & is just one talent performed & taught by northern bees in anticipation of cold weather and temperature fluctuations.

~ Always double check that your YouTube video watching and internet info is coming from our geographical area and pertains to Russian or Northern New England acclimatized honey bees.

~ Basically, a beekeeper can trust northern bees to be climate savvy, and anything the beekeeper may question they are doing when reading or hearing about Italians may be perfectly fine for northern bees to be doing. Think "Darwinian". 

Minnesota Gang sent packing
off to Waltham
~ Often old timey beekeepers and books tell the beekeeper to replace the queen if they aren’t performing well. Don’t replace the northern queen; usually slowing down the population is a valuable trait for survival. A win-win management approach is to add brood from another hive. If the queen is failing this gives the bees the tools to work it out  for themselves.
Let them do their thing this first year and learn how well they operate as a colony.  

~ Also, as always with all bees, don’t take any honey off their first year
Below is an excerpt of research on Russian bees that provides some perspective to northern bee race differences. I've replaced "Russian" with Northern acclimatized & you can read the whole article at the link in the title:

“(Northern acclimatized) bees are quite different from standard Italian bees in several ways 

• (Northern acclimatized) bees do not build their colony populations until pollen is available, and they shut down brood rearing when pollen is scarce. This characteristic makes them suitable in areas where the main honey and pollen flows occur later in the year, such as the mountains of North Carolina (or New England). By contrast, Italian bees maintain a large brood area and worker population regardless of environmental conditions. This trait can result in more bees than the hive can feed and may lead Italian colonies to early winter starvation. It also explains the Italian bee’s tendency to rob other colonies of their honey stores. (RESULTS IN THE DEATH of northern colonies vulnerable while continuing to cluster due to the northern acclimatized colony’s genetic disposition to conserve resources)

• (Northern acclimatized) colonies maintain active queen cells throughout the brood-rearing season. In Italian colonies, the presence of queen cells is interpreted by beekeepers as an attempt to swarm (reduce overcrowding by establishing a new colony) or to supersede the resident queen. This is not the case with (Northern acclimatized) bees as the workers often destroy the extra queen cells before they fully develop.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cosmetic Grade Beeswax

The Bucket - I have been learning to perfect the processing of my beeswax after years of trial and error and collecting. It is such a pleasure to take a big whiff of my scrap bucket from hives past still smelling of fresh honey. That's good beeswax!

I think one of the primary reasons I can't bring myself to treat my hives with miticides or feed my bees with essential oil recipes is the fear it will end up in the wax & other precious products of the hive... and it can.

Before & After processing - silicone bar mold is well worth the investment
Cosmetic Grade Beeswax - But, not all wax is considered "cosmetic grade" and if your neighbor calls with a request for beeswax for homemade lotions, cosmetic grade is what you will want to offer.

Cosmetic grade come from the little caps our girls excrete from their bellies to seal up honey in the comb. Other pieces of wax should be kept separate from this "cappings wax" - a valuable resource of the hive.

Candle Grade - Honey comb in chunks from crush and strain methods of harvesting honey, from old lost hives, or rotated out brood frames contain organic matter. This beeswax is best suited for candles.

Candle Grade or Furniture Grade - If you have scraps of beeswax foundation or brittle, recycled foundation sheets it is possible some chemicals have found their way in to the mix as well, from the maker or brought in from the environment. I keep these collections separate just in case.

Someday I hope to use my cappings wax stash to roll my own foundation to insure a chem-free hive and there is a great video on some UK beekeepers who have perfected that here. 

My Farmers' Market bars & bears
A Safe Sell - So, I believe we beekeepers, no matter our management practices, can reasonably insure that "cappings wax" is pure and worthy of use in making creams, salves, lip gloss, and lotions. It demands a premium price for all your great efforts in raising healthy bees. I have assessed that my own 2017 cosmetic grade wax is worth $2 an ounce; my own "candle grade" wax $1.25 an ounce.

The $1 Crock Pot - I gave up on my solar melter - just doesn't get hot enough here for dependable results - and now use a crock pot from a second hand store, covered with cheesecloth that is rubber-banded on to hold a paper towel that acts as a very good sieve.

This sits all day while I periodically place handfuls of cappings wax on top. Once it melts down, I turn off the pot, let it cool, and there is my beautiful naturally golden disk of cosmetic grade beeswax. YouTube Example Here

I am not a candle maker - maybe I would be if those silicone molds were not so expensive! I did invest, however in one that makes one ounce bars. This allows me to sell by the ounce as most cosmetic makers only need an ounce or three. Do not use a mold release on your cosmetic grade beeswax. The silicone mold if kept clean should not stick. Exposing your cappings wax to a mold release of any kind is not appropriate.

Before I pour the bars they go through one more strain in a nylon stocking, rubber-banded onto a double boiler, also for cheap at a local second hand store - but I love these tools and would have bought them new if I had to for the ease they have afforded my beeswax processing routine.