Thursday, May 7, 2009

Getting Started

April 8th, 2009.
In a week, I will receive two packages of bees containing 10,000 workers and 1 queen each. My two hives are almost ready. Then I will have to fence around the hives to protect them ... and us!
This is my beginning at beekkeping.
There are different reasons I decided to raise bees despite the fact that I have always been scared of them, the first is the disappearance of pollinators worldwide, and more particularly honeybees. We, in the US, loose 30% to 50% of our commercial honeybees every year. The reasons for those losses are multiple, from insecticide to mono-cropping, transportation of hives cross country, wax contamination, intrusive hive management and even some disease treatments. The weakening of bee colonies lets opportunistic parasites such as varroa thrive and spread.
I got my apprenticeship training last October, and have been researching during the whole winter. Several things in the way bees are currently manages should be changed in my opinion:
1. Wax foundation. By reusing wax over and over again, chemical concentration increases and eventually hurts the bees even before they are born (as larvae in the wax cells). Therefore, I will use foundationless frames, where the bees build their own combs. The drawback is a lower honey yield. The advantage is chemical free wax cells, at the size the bees want them (foundations force the bees to build cells at a particular size), and cost saving (no wax foundations to buy).
2. No top suppering. The current hive system consists of adding "suppers" at the top of the hive, for the bees to store the honey in. That's not how bees naturally store honey. They start their nest with brood (bee larvae), and as the larvae emerge, the workers build more combs BELOW the brood nest, for the queen to lay eggs, while the top cells, empty after the larvae have emerged, are filled with honey. To replicate this, we should add suppers at the BOTTOM of the hive (this is called nadiring). This means brood boxes and suppers need to be the same size, interchangeable. Once the bees have filled their brood box, an empty box is added at the bottom, without foundation, so they can build new clean wax, and raise brood in it, while the top used cells are filled with honey.
3. Non-intrusive inspections. This is a delicate one. It is necessary to inspect for diseases, but the inspections severely disturb the bee nest, exposing fragile eggs and larvae to open air, therefore increasing the probability of diseases. Inspections are recommended every week, I will go every 2 weeks. They recommend to remove every frame, I will remove none, but inspect the bottom of each frame by lifting the hive boxes, one at a time. I will also try to monitor the hive by watching entrance activity during the day. Another technique is to record the background noise inside the hive, then tap the hive and record the "hiss" the bees make when they are disturbed. The background noise and the hiss tell about bee population (percentage of young workers ...) and can be used to predict swarming without even opening the hive.
4. Controlled ventilation. Like termites and ants, bees have developed an efficient way of controlling the climate of their colony. Unfortunately, modern hives don't always let them do that easily. I will add features in my hive to allow them to control the climate of their colony:
Addition of a quilt. This is a box full of absorbent (shredded paper, wood chips ...) set at the top of the hive, just under the roof. It also improves insulation of the roof.
Addition of a cloth. A piece of burlap below the quilt, that the bees can close shut with propolis ("bee glue"), and then open on demand, according to their ventilation needs.
Addition of a sump. Normally, a hive stands about a foot above the ground, with open air between the hive and the ground. The bottom of the hive been open, this produces too much ventilation. Instead of an open hive stand, I will use a closed hive stand, made of cinder blocks enclosing the space below the hive. My only worry is wax moth larvae, that can reach the ground and hibernate.
5. Help them fight varroa with thyme plants around the apiary. I am not sure how much this will help. Bees love Thyme, but varroa hate it. So I hope that by collecting pollen from Thyme plants, they will have a certain amount of thymol in their body, helping them grooming varroa off. I have no idea if this is effective or not.
That's about it for now. I will eventually post a few pics of my setup.
Beside the disappearance of pollinators, I am raising bees to improve my garden yield, collect extra pure honey from all my neighbors yard (bees can fly 3 miles away from their colony), collect wax and propolis, and spend time at home constructively.
If I succeed with my two colonies, then I will look for places to setup more apiaries.

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