Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Practicality of the Practical Beekeeper: Adopting Michael Bush’s Practices in Ontario

Let’s first begin by pointing out what this is not about. It is not about proving Michael Bush incorrect, nor about taking a stab at him. I have a great deal of respect for the man, he dedicates a tireless amount of time to helping out people with questions on forums; he offers the information in the book for free on his website; and (from personal experience) willing to dig up information and references (which he has a wealth of) even if it contradicts his statements. This is not about attacking treatment free beekeeping; some people are successful with it –live with it. At the heart of it, he is a beekeeper with many years of experience, fought wars with both tracheal and varroa mites, and is successfully treatment free. That deserves the outmost respect. Nor for the most part, is this a treatment free versus chemical debate.

The purpose is to take the general framework presented in The Practical Beekeeper and critically analyse Michael Bush’s method and how it relates to beekeeping in Ontario –with a general eye towards new beekeepers or conversion to said method. Following the same framework as the book (as key issues are presented,) we can identify problems and difficulties associated with each topic.
The equipment Bush chooses to use can be outlined as follows:

  • ·         Eight frame boxes
  • ·         All Medium boxes
  • ·         Narrow frame
  • ·         Small Cell / Natural Cell (foundationless)
  • ·         Top Entrances

Many of his equipment choices focus around the ability to manage the weight of the boxes. Beekeeper back is laughed about, but until experienced is a cause for concern –especially if you live in the United States and do not profit from the same health care system we do. Bush elects to use eight frame, medium equipment for this reason and frankly I cannot blame him. One benefit of this setup is the ability to perform walkaway splits.
Traditionally to perform a split we would take our two deep brood boxes, and divvy up the frames so each received an equal amount of eggs, open brood, capped brood, honey, and pollen. In this way we can assure that no matter which box has the queen, the other has the ability to make a new one. This is fine if the amount of colonies you must perform this on is limited. Bush’s method is simply to put down a new bottom board and divvy up the four medium boxes. This is time saving and because the bottom boxes probably have eggs in them, the odds are likely that the outcome will be positive. 

This also allows the ability to be able to “micromanage” bee resources better. All the boxes use the same frames so everything is interchangeable. On the contrary a typical two deep brood box plus medium honey super setup does not allow this. 

The downside to this method is the cost. You require more boxes, and more frames to achieve the same goal. In the United States many of the major bee suppliers offer very competitive pricing, and free shipping. We do not. Shipping from the US is extremely cost prohibitive (usually much more than the cost of the order). To combat that many of the larger suppliers in Ontario will hire drivers to pick up product from the States, and resale it at a higher mark-up. This also brings up the topic of availability –it’s not there. I have not found a single supplier of eight-frame equipment in Ontario.

Barring having someone fabricate you eight frame equipment (and for the right price I will) we have to immediately eliminate eight-frame equipment. Our second choice will then have to be whether or not to go with all mediums. This we can do.  

First let’s compare pricing between several US retailers, and several Ontario retailers. For sake of comparison we will use Select hive bodies (no knots), and Plastic foundation (uncoated) in wooden frames –per unit price.

Bearing in mind, marginal differences but comparable product, we can discover that Canadian prices are about 20 percent higher than those of the states. In addition to this we have to factor in our higher sales tax and shipping/cost of pick up, whereas the American companies both offer free shipping.
Now let’s say we are just starting out. Using these averages (well stick to the Ontario prices as they are more relevant,) and factoring out bottom boards, top cover, inner cover, etc. The difference between using all mediums and standard setup is:

·         3 Medium brood box – $134.25
·         2 Deep brood box – $98.96
·         Difference of $35.29

This works out to being 70% cheaper using deep brood boxes. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize the cost savings over multiple colonies.

Another point worth considering is your bee stock. Unless you specially ordered, all Ontario bees come in four frame deep nucs. In order to overcome this hurdle, you would have to start out in deeps slowly expand downwards with medium boxes, and then take the deep off at the end of the season filled with honey. This somewhat negates the lifting principal, and leaves you with a deep box you don’t plan on ever using again. Or, conversely you can treat your nuc like a package, and shake them into medium undrawn boxes. This approach would deprive your bees of the resources the nuc provided (and you paid for), you run the risk of damaging your queen, and you run the risk of those bees absconding.

As far as boxes are concerned you can conclude based off the evidence that: the lack of availability of eight frame equipment negate the possibility of using it; and using an all medium setup is cost prohibitive, and would likely involve some difficulties in achieving (both time, and money).

The subject of frames is multifaceted. Bush attempts to solves three different conditions with his: firstly, he is trying to regress his bees to 4.9mm small cell; secondly, he is trying to achieve a more natural environment for the bees allowing them to build their own cells; and finally by using foundationless he can diminish the amount of contaminated wax in his hives.

It would be a ludicrous argument to propose that the current chemical laden wax supply is anything but a detriment to the bees and the beekeepers. It is also equally ludicrous to think that you are going to negate it out of your operation. The bees you purchase will come on contaminated comb, the foundation you buy will be coated with it, and unless you have a supply of chemical free wax the foundation/starter strips you coat with it will have it present as well. This will not happen overnight for you, unless like previous stated, you treat your bees like a package, without waxed starter strips of any kind (I don’t suggest it). As Bush puts it, “Having an area of the hive that is the only part there when chemicals are applied is a nice idea, but it's a lot like a no-peeing section in a swimming pool.”

This means that although you can mitigate the amount, and not contribute to the contaminated wax it is a reality you will have to come to terms with.

Foundationless frames can be created quite easily from existing frames using inexpensive materials. It does however involve more dedication and vigilance on part of the beekeeper. Your hives must be level from side to side, easy enough. The problem is that it is very illegal in Ontario to not have “moveable comb hives,” and bees love to build crazy comb. Having experience in this, it is much easier to start with foundation and insert foundationless  frames between drawn comb. Michael Bush contests this but from personal experience it is not overly successful carte blanche. Use foundation first.

Based on historical data Bush recommends a comb spacing of 1 ¼ inches. To achieve this you would have to plane down your own frames. Historically this is a bit of a half-truth. There have been observations of 1 ¼ inches in brood comb, this is true. It is equally true that the people who made those same observations noticed a spacing of 1 ½ inches in comb used for honey storage. Historically many cut the difference and used a comb spacing of 1 3/8.  This is also dependent on cell size, type of bee, climate, many different factors. However if there is one thing we know about how bees manage the brood nest it is that they keep brood on the inside and honey towards the outside. Logically speaking that means that the spacing suggested by Bush would be in agreement with only the centre frames.  If however four or five middle frames were at the smaller spacing there would not be extra room for an eleventh (or ninth frame in eight frame equipment). The narrow spacing will work however if you are inclined to try it.

The small cell argument is beekeeping is nothing but exhaustive. There is enough evidence out there to suggest that it probably will not help with your varroa problem, however it will not hurt your bees either. Without opening that can of worms, let’s look at the practicality of it and how it affects us. Only a few people in Ontario carry MannLake small cell foundation: Munro Honey, and Dancing Bee. Its expensive ($3.00 @ Munro, $2.35 @ Dancing Bee). It comes unwaxed, so you will have to buy that chemical laden wax to brush onto it (counterproductive). Finally, they only stock deeps. You cannot go all medium AND small cell in Ontario. The shipping of one case from MannLake is over 135 dollars, which is four times then the cost of the product itself.

Top entrances are actually encouraged in this area for overwintering practices. It is not quite accomplished in the same way as Bush (he wedges up migratory covers, and uses exclusively top entrances) and we tend to have a small upper entrance and full bottom entrance. Nevertheless it is an idea worth adopting, and will help keep moisture out of the hive during winter.

*you will be cutting plastic
** serves no purpose

As you can see, utilizing the equipment choices laid out in The Practical Beekeeper are very difficult for those of us living north of the border. Most of this is due to availability of the product (it is available with cost prohibitive shipping). This is in no way meant to detract from the reasoning behind Bush’s equipment choices, as they are well thought out and logical; but more to understand the reality of the logistics involved in making that happen.

Instead of being pessimistic, begin by accepting this truth. Once it is understood that the Bushian model of beekeeping is out of reach for the first year (but still attainable), it is important to think of what can be done.
Wax contamination is a problem; we can start reducing the residual chemicals in the hives by incorporating foundationless into our hives. Done gradually, we can achieve natural cells both in the brood box, and create a marketable comb honey. These combs can also be crushed and strained (you didn’t want to fork out for an extractor this year anyway), the wax rendered, and used next year.

It is also possible to start small cell. The nucs you bought are on deeps, instead of wasting valuable resources why not embrace using deeps? Deep brood boxes aren’t even close to the weight of a deep filled with honey. You might not be able to do a walkaway split, but chances are in your first year you weren’t going to do that anyway. Wait a few years until your deep boxes start rotting, and your bees are regressed! By then you will feel comfortable with migrating to the mediums, and chances are youll have more laying around from your honey production.

Alternatively if all mediums is important to you –consider a top bar if it’s a weight issue- there is an easy albeit a little manipulative way for a first year beekeeper to attain it. You buy a deep brood box for every hive. Once your nuc has filled out 8-9 of the ten frames, put a medium filled with foundation underneath of it. Once that is filled out add another medium. The queen will naturally want to move downward and they will start filling the deep with honey. When it is filled with honey (we don’t want to waste honey), remove it. Now your hive is on all mediums, you have a heavy box filled with honey, and you have removed a great deal of contaminated wax.

Once you have extracted a honey crop, made a few bucks, have a bunch of empty boxes with frames laying around… that’s a decent time to consider your eight frame equipment (narrow frame fits in here as well). Its winter, the off season; get access to a table saw. Take them apart and cut them down eight frame equipment. The following spring simply take the survivors and move them into new boxes.

Michael Bush’s method is not impossible, it is just not practical (no pun intended) for us to achieve in one year. You must weigh what is important to you, and demonstrate patience. It is a goal to work towards, concentrate on keeping your bees alive first.