Keeping Bees at Sandhill – an Overview
The vision behind the founding of Sandhill Farm was to move toward self sufficiency – a key component was to grow our own food. Keeping bees was an easy fit and so a year after taking over the farm (1974), Ann & Ed ordered bees and equipment from Sears. The hive did fine until the milk cow accidentally knocked over the hive. Eventually, the bees died. In the meantime, a beekeeper in the area asked to locate one of his apiaries (25 hives) on our land – we were thrilled to have bees in our environment.
I get stung a few times driving by the hives with our farm equipment – I get the community to agree to request Desi to move his hives somewhere else. When I ask Desi (Cuban), he responds: “Oh no, can’t move bees in summer – zere are zousands & zousands of baby bees – they get lost. I make you good deal – you buy them.” Huh? interesting proposition: but wait, I’m getting stung – maybe it will be different if they are our bees? We decide to buy them and as Desi predicted, we make half of our investment back with the first year’s honey harvest.
One of the impulses to buy bees is that we were trying to find ways to support ourselves – to make a living off the land. We began making sorghum syrup in 1977 and were selling it at local fairs and on the farm. We soon note that when we’re at a table and have only one product to sell, – it limits the customers. With 2 products, we can potentially double our sales! (Since then, we have continued to increase the number of products we sell at our booth – sometimes, 10 different products).
Honey sales are good – it’s a profitable venture for us; having Desi as a mentor and consultant helps. He also supplies us with equipment and queens when we need them. In 1986, we purchase another 27 hives from him – this apiary is at a neighbor’s farm about 5 miles from us. Two years later, we purchase another 25 hives from Desi at another neighbor. We are rockin-n-rollin.
Everything is going well: our average honey harvest is approximately the national average: 4-5 gallons per hive.
FOULBROOD! What every beekeeper dreads. We lose a lot of hives, burn some boxes, bees, & honey (recommended in the literature and by Desi).
1992: I’m hearing news of a new bee parasite: mites. After research, I decide to buy 20 Buckfast queens – reportedly, they can live with the mites.
Spring: I’m scared – the mites are spreading all over the world and killing large numbers of hives. I decide to control the mites by treating with an insecticide (the next year, it’s recalled).
Fall – we have a record honey harvest: 480 gallons from 50 hives: I’m ecstatic.
BUT: friends who are helping us harvest the honey point out that we have the dreaded varroa mites on the bees; according to the literature, it takes 3 years for the mites to kill bee colonies. OK, I have 3 years to come up with a strategy.
While in one of his apiaries harvesting honey, Desi has a heart attack & dies. My mentor is gone – now I’m on my own.
We buy 24 hives from the person who purchased the entire operation.
All 50 sandhill hives dead! I’m dumbfounded – how could this be? Ah! I thot we had 3 years; however, this must have been the third year: it fits – apparently, it is common to have a record honey crop when the bees have a heavy mite load – they pull out all stops in their attempt to overcome the mites. Also, the Buckfast queens are reputedly resistant to mites – but not the varroa mites.
12 hives survive in the apiary we purchased last fall.
We build up the number of colonies by dividing the hives. To overcome the mites, we get Yugoslavian queens (just released by USDA), reputedly able to live with varroa mites.
I don’t trust it: I treat most hives with formic acid (allowed in organic certification & used a lot in Europe).
1995: lots of queen failures: on further reading, many beekeepers report queen failures after using formic acid. Yuk! Also the bees hate it.
In the fall, distrusting other solutions, I treat most hives with Apistan – the conventional
miticide used in the industry.
1996 – 33 hives
I try to raise lots of our own queens – very little success. Why? My guess is that I did it too early and did not really pay enough attention to important details. It’s more complicated than I’d imagined.
I feed grease & essential oil patties to bees – to control mites (the grease is vegetable shortening – makes the bees slippery so the mites fall off).
Only 7 hives survived the winter. OUCH! What am I doing wrong?
I begin to do essential oil treatment seriously – in sugar water fed to bees weekly.
We buy bees and frames of brood from a local beekeeper and queens from commercial producers in AL & CA to start new hives. (At this rate, it is not a paying enterprise…)
End of year I treat a few hives with Apistan and all hives w/ Terramyacin (for foulbrood). (I don’t want to lose so many hives again…)
1998 – 33 hives
FOULBROOD again – ugh! I take away their honey and feed it back to them w/ Terramyacin & essential oils.
Amazing – they bounce right back and we have an average honey harvest.
Foulbrood continues – I treat hives individually. I continue with essential oils & terramyacin. For the first time, I hear that foulbrood is now resistant to terramyacin.
2000 – 24 hives
I buy bees and queens again – wanting more bee hives NOW.
I make a few screened bottom boards – for mite control; apparently, mites fall off bees and if they fall through a screen, they can’t climb back up into the hive.
2001 – 23 hives
I begin introducing small cell foundation – for mite control (what else?). The only bees that draw it correctly are captured swarms. I realize that this will require a lot of management. I put all hives on screened bottom boards.
No more chemical treatments: terramyacin or apistan. From now on I use only treatments allowed in certified organic production: powder sugar, essential oils, acids.
I begin using powder sugar & garlic powder for mite control – the powder sugar makes the bees slippery so that the mites fall off and through the screen bottom board; the garlic? To deter/kill the mites.
I start to use drone comb catchment & destruction for mite control: drone brood is more attractive to the mites – they migrate there and then we freeze it and kill the mites.
12 hives survive, I buy more bees, brood, & queens.
I try a new system of mite control (developed in Holland): rotating brood in and out of hives so that each colony has a time of no brood and so no place for mites to reproduce. It consists of drone catchment and a lot of brood & hive manipulation – it really upsets the bees and so is unpleasant for us as well.
I’m seeing a lot of mites, I treat all hives with formic acid and continue with small cell and powder sugar dusting.
I continue having to re-queen about half of our hives every year: it dawns on me – it may be the effects of formic acid – the literature confirms my suspicion. I back off on formic acid: at most, one application per year (rather than 2) and treating only half of the hives.
No more formic acid. At end of season, we treat most hives with thymol.
Honey harvest is the lowest ever – average 1 gallon per hive (due to cold rainy summer).. We should not have taken any because we had to feed them heavily in fall
2010: we have the best over wintering ratio in a long time – we lose only 2 hives.
THE BIG PICTURE
Beekeeping changed dramatically with the arrival of varroa mites which have now spread all over the world; they arrived in our area about 1990. A reference point: the few years prior to that, we had 75 hives; after the mites, it takes as much time & energy to manage about a third as many colonies. Everything we do is centered on how to control varroa. Perhaps it is making us better beekeepers – we are paying a lot more attention to the bees and looking for hardy bees.
Our strategies for managing varroa are in two categories: treatments and management.
With the arrival of varroa, the industry responded with chemical treatments – apistan was the standard and is applied by inserting plastic strips treated with fluvalinate into the beehive. The bees walk on them and spread it throughout the hive. In emergency situations, I used them. Beekeepers discovered that after 3 years of treatment, the mites developed resistance The chemical companies responded by coming up with new (& nastier) treatments. The beekeeping industry acknowledges that chemical treatments are short term; the long term strategy is to breed bees that can live with varroa. It is proving more difficult than envisioned. Many producers are advertising their queens as being varroa resistant: hygienic in general, and in particular Minnesota hygienic, Russians, etc. Each has merit: we’ve tried several but it appears that none are magical – after awhile, they lose those particular genetics.
Essential oils: when varroa first appeared, many beekeepers looked for natural controls – esential oils were popular: especially wintergreen & peppermint oil (I added tea tree oil). I thought they were working for several years – looking back, it seems that some of the effect was due to my paying close attention to the bees. After a few years, I concluded that they were not worth the effort.
Formic acid: is found in the hive naturally and ants have it in their bodies as well (but the kind we use is from a laboratory). Beekeepers – especially biodynamic ones and in Europe have been treating with formic, oxalic, and lactic acid for quite a while with apparent good success. I treated hives with formic acid for several years and it appears to control the mites – but it is nasty stuff. The fumes burn my nostrils, the bees hate it, and it seems to result in queen failure. It works by soaking special pads with acid and then inserting them in the beehive: the acid is released slowly. Over a period of 3 weeks, it releases enough acid fumes to kill the mites but not the bees. So far, every time I have treated them, some of the bees seal off the pads with propolis – rendering them useless. As of 2008, we discontinue using it.
Thymol – appears to be more gentle: bees do not react to it like formic acid. We have used it only once – in the fall of 2009.
Small cell: we began introducing small cell foundation in 2001 (for more info on small cell – see my blog post of 3/28/2010 – on sandhill website). The idea is that small cells result in smaller bees, who are better able to live with varroa mites. The challenge is that often the bees do not build small cells consistently so I gave up on it. Then I found a Mennonite beekeeper in mizzourah that invented a different small cell – the bees like it and draw it more consistently. However, he moved to Arkansas and is currently not selling the foundation. We are still in process of introducing small cell foundation – the goal is to have all hives using small cell for their brood nest – it is fine to use various cell sizes to store honey.
Powder sugar & screen bottom boards: we dust the bees with powder sugar. The sugar makes the bees slippery so that the mites fall off, through the screen bottom board, and unable to crawl back into the hive.
How effective is it? It’s hard to tell – but it’s a fairly benign and non intrusive practice – we continue to do it.
Drone catchment: the varroa mites prefer to incubate in drone brood (they take 24 days rather than 21 to mature) and more food is packed into the cells. More food = higher reproduction rates. We wait until the drone brood is capped – but before they hatch, then freeze the brood – killing the mites and larvae.
It appears that what has happened with beekeeping mirrors developments in agriculture in general: the idea being that by controlling nature, we can overcome all challenges. Control consists of chemical treatments to kill the bad guys. Nature responds by evolving resistance and the treadmill continues.
What about CCD (colony collapse disorder)? The scientific and beekeeping community continue to collaborate on trying to solve this puzzle. Result? Nothing definitive; the current theory is that it is due to a combination of factors centering around STRESS: due to more systemic pesticide use in crops, migratory beekeeping in which the bees are moved often and pumped up for particular pollination contracts (eg almonds in CA), as well as the widespread use of insecticides inside the hive for mite control, etc.
Top Bar Hives have recently become very popular with hobby beekeepers. The advantages: no lifting of heavy boxes, the bees build their own comb and decide what size cells to make, opening the hive is less invasive, and the bees become more gentle. It is attractive for many first time beekeepers. The trade off is that the comb is harvested along with the honey: more wax but less honey. Many of the folks who have top bar hives are more interested in the bees than the honey.
We just started our first top bar hive today 4/18/10.
As of now (4/18/10 ), we are planning to not use treatments of any kind. Our strategy is to get the bees to live with the mites with the help of: small cell, screened bottom boards, and having the bees raise their own queens to coexist with varroa.
THE COMMUNITY FACTOR
We live communally. I’ve used the personal pronoun a lot in this narrative – I have been the primary bee caretaker since 1982; however, there has usually been at least one other member that worked with me every year and each left their imprint: Grady, Thea, Ann, Inge, Jules, Gigi, & currently, Apple. When they were involved for more than a year, we began to make decisions jointly. We have also taken numerous interns and visitors for their first experience with bees. It’s a real treat to watch a newbee be awe struck at seeing thousands of bees at work in the hive – and sometimes crawling on their arms!