Monday, January 13, 2014

Overwintering Experiment – Winter 2013

Searching on the internet there is a multitude of overwintering beehives. Most of it is completely inappropriate to harsh Canadian winters. As a new beekeeper I was rather confused and worried about overwintering options –I didn’t want to lose more bees then I ought to. In addition to these difficulties this autumn wreaked havoc; the goldenrod bloom never came for their winter stores, and due to the unusually warm autumn any honey left on for winter stores was quickly used up. By the time this was realized, it was becoming too cold for syrup so emergency dry sugar feeding was the only option.

The Biology andManagement of Colonies in Winter, by Adony Melathopoulos contains a great deal of information regarding the overwintering of bees in very cold climate (Beaverlodge – Alberta, coincidently where my bees genetics began with work by TI Szabo). 

Michael Palmer has some great advice on wintering colonies on his presentation Keeping Bees inFrozen North America.
But, all this information was “after the fact” for me so I setup a short experiment. All the hives save one very small colony (late swarm catch) and one large colony (best producer) were roughly similar sized clusters. All had very little honey left and are surviving off emergency granulated sugar feeding.

Screen Bottom Board vs. Solid Bottom Board

It is very easy to imagine to ourselves that bees get cold. It is another example of how we as humans assume that because we are cold, that the bees are as well. This is a completely false notion. Bees are affected by temperature in the sense that they must keep their cluster at a constant 32-36 degrees Celsius. This in turn affects their metabolic rate, and how much they need to consume in calories to produce that heat. At 5 degrees Celsius bees use the least amount of honey, steadily increasing the cold it gets. Likewise, any warmer will trigger brood rearing which will also use up a great amount of honey.  
I placed three colonies on screen bottom boards, and the rest on solid to see if the open SBB would have a negative effect on those hives. In late December I had checked on them. The SBB did not seem to contribute any negative aspects on any of the three hives. Conversely, the ones with SBB looked to be drier. The solid bottom boards however had remnants of newspaper, sugar, and dead bees that had grown mouldy, whereas the same detritus found on the SBB hives was not mouldy. This indicates that although slanted forward to minimize moisture in the hive it was still an issue.
They are currently still on SBB, and Solid Bottom boards as they were, I do not feel that it affects the hives one way or the other.

Wrapped vs Unwrapped

Wrapping with tar paper (roofing felt), worth the effort? Not initially part of my experiment, but after running out of light while wrapping I had to call it quits, and consequently left some hives unwrapped. I went with it to observe possible differences. Tar paper gives a moderate amount of protection to the hive, prevents some drafts, but is primarily for solar gain.
When I went to check the hives in late December, we had above zero temperatures. I opened the entrance reducers to clean out debris, and dead bees from the bottom boards. I was surprised to see that hives with tar paper (with or without solid bottom boards) were able to take a cleansing flight. Those without tar paper did not. It goes without saying that cleansing flights are very important for the health of the colony, those without tar paper were later wrapped in hopes that they would get a cleansing flight the next warm day –which they did.

On Entrance Reducers

I am not bold enough as of yet to completely remove entrance reducers from overwintering colonies. Michael Palmer uses 1/4inch hardware cloth (wire mesh), to protect from mice entering the hives, but is otherwise wide open. What I can tell you is use the largest opening. Ventilation is the most important aspect of overwinter, and condensation equals dead outs. There is noticeably more moisture in hives using the smallest entrance reducer opening. In addition turn the entrance reducer upside down, and face the entrance up. This was a tip given to me by a friend. It prevents the entrance from getting clogged up from dead bees, which in turn prevents them from taking a cleansing flight.

It is currently January 13, 2014. All hives are currently still alive. This page will be updated as the experiment of SBB vs Solid continues, and if any long term effects are observed. All hives save one, are clustered at the top super eating granulated sugar. Fingers crossed.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Queen Rearing in the Sustainable Apiary

The other element of the equation is making the queens that go into those nucleus colonies. This was probably the hardest of the presentations to follow, it is so packed with information and numbers it could make your head spin. To say it was hard to follow is not fair, Palmer did an amazing job and would make an even better teacher, the hardest part was with me. I constantly had to rewind to write down those numbers and try to get it exactly right. In fact half the reason I am writing this is so I won’t have to think about it again!

The reasons for rearing your own queens is plenty: you can breed for qualities you are looking for in your bees; they are acclimatized to your locale; you aren’t buying queens; etc. Everyone should be making their own queens. Without going into the qualities you look for in bees, and sticking to the Michael Palmer method, let’s get to it!

Bees will naturally raise queens under three circumstances:

Emergency - OK               
Bees are suddenly queenless and will take larvae in a worker cell, turn that cell into a queen cell and feed it royal jelly. The larvae are of various age, they will not be of top quality. 

Supercedure - BETTER
The bees feel as though their queen is failing, builder queen cells, and prompt the queen to lay in them. These queens are raised by the bees with the initial intention of creating a new queen, feeding as much royal jelly as is required. It will produce a quality queen, but not many of them. This can be prompted by injuring the queen. 

Swarming - BEST
When the bees decide to swarm, they create many queen cells that the queen lays in. They are fed as much royal jelly as they need. This usually takes place in the spring during a nectar flow, so they receive the best nutrition, and have the most nurse bees to look after the developing queens.
Relying on natural methods however, are neither reliable, nor practical for the beekeeper wishing to produce a number of queens. However, any good beekeeper must imitate the bees in order to produce the best results.

Nowadays, most queen cells are produced using the Queenless Cell Starter / Queenright Cell Finisher method. There is a great deal of literature and videos available explaining this method, however I will not delve into it. Michael Palmer believes this method is not sustainable because you must tap into the resources of your honey production colonies to do so.


Palmer and Webster utilize many of Brother Adams principals; however they did not realize it at the time. The method that Michael Palmer uses is simply a deviation of Brother Adams method. It capitalizes on both the emergency queen building response, as well as the swarm cell building response; this should create the best possible cells.
Firstly a strong colony is needed, containing 9-12 frames of brood. A queen excluder is then put on the hive as well as another hive body contained sealed brood harvested from elsewhere. When the sealed brood hatches the colony’s nurse bee population will be at a maximum. The hive is now crowded creating swarming conditions, pollen/nectar are coming in –the best possible time for harvesting.


Breeder Queen Selection

Use the best of what you have available. The breeder queen is kept in a box containing vertical queen excluders. Frames can be added in to accurately control the age of the larvae. Ideally you’re larvae should be around 12 hours old. His criteria selected is quite simple: wintering, does the hive winter well, and keep a tight cluster; disease, are they prone to disease and if so how are the dealing with it?; temper, goes without saying; honey production, are they good producers?; lastly, how much sugar do they consume during the winter with a noticeable comparison to how much honey they produced (i.e. A colony that produced 100lbs, but had to be fed 20lbs of syrup could be seen inferior to a hive that produced 70lb of honey but only needed fed 10lbs).

Day 1

  •          Harvest frames of sealed brood from over wintered nucleus colonies, place on strong colony over a queen excluder.
  •          The hive is setup thus: The area below the queen excluder contains 2 deeps, and 1 medium as the brood nest, as well as a medium of honey on top of that. On top of the queen excluder is another medium box of honey, and the box of sealed brood above that.
  •          The overwintered nucleus colonies are 4 frames stacked 3 high; giving a total of 12 frames per nucleus colony. He can harvest 1-2 frames from each for populating cell builders with nurse bees. This also prevents the nucleus colonies from swarming by creating additional room for the queen to lay in.

Day 10

  •          Check the cell builder for any queen cells, all must be destroyed. Above the excluder could contain emergency cells, and below the excluder could contain swarm cells.
  •          The nurse bees have hatched out.

Day 11 – Morning (Cell Builder Prep)

  •          Remove queenless section (above excluder) from the queenright section (below excluder). Turn the queenright selection 180 degrees and move back, providing it with its over top cover, bottom board, etc. The queenless section is then placed in the original spot that the hive was located. Put the honey super of the queenless section on the bottom (it was there anyway), to insulate as well as simulate honey flow conditions.
  •          Check the hive to ensure there are no queen cells, or open brood in which the hive could create them.
  •          Using a shaker box (a deep with a queen excluder nailed to the bottom of it), to shake additional nurse bees into the queenless hive. Any queens will be caught by the excluder and can be put back in their original hive.
  •          A frame of pollen is put into the space next to where the grafts will go. Palmer traps his own pollen, freezes it, and gently presses it into a frame of empty drawn comb.
  •          Feed 1:1 sugar syrup

Day 11 – Afternoon (Grafts)

  •      The queenless section is now hopelessly queenless and will accept your grafts.
  •          Add grafts placing them directly beside your comb of pollen

Day 16 (Cells are sealed)

  •       Remove the top feeder
  •          Set the cell builder in its original configuration, in the original location, with the queen excluder.

Day 21 (Cells are done)

  •       Keep cells warm, and put one each in a mating nucleus.
  •           Check the cell building colony for any queen cells, and to make sure there is still a laying queen.

Rinse and repeat

The benefits of this system are many. Firstly, you are starting your cells in an emergency condition, and then finishing them in a swarming condition. Secondly, you are maximizing the amount of nurse bees, which maximizes the amount of royal jelly being fed to the developing queens –better quality queen. You are not robbing resources from your production colonies, you are harvesting brood from nucleus colonies that would otherwise swarm from overcrowding. This system can be used repeatedly whereas traditional systems would work once and then the hives resources to make good queens would be depleted. Using this method Palmer can produce (from 35 cell builders): 1500 Queens, and 2 tons of honey.

Day 36 – 41

  • Queens can be checked for laying, marked and caught.
  • Add new queen cell
  • On the last (third round) of queen rearing, catch only half the queens, remove dividers to turn queen castle (2 frame by 4 mating nucs) into Palmer's conventional nucleus colony (4 frame by 2 nucs) for overwintering.
  • If the queen is allowed to lay longer than the 16 days, the mating nuc can become overpopulated. This can create swarming conditions as well as make it harder to find/catch the queen.

Palmer uses a rotational system where he is producing queens every four days. He gets three rounds out of each group every season. I created a spreadsheet to illustrate this, as it was hard to visualize myself.

The Sustainable Apiary by Mike Palmer

Recently Mr. Palmer was invited to do a series of talks at the National Honey Show in England. Graciously for us these presentations were filmed and made available to everyone. Previously, there was an earlier video for the sustainable apiary which is also worth the watch. Here and there you might find a small clip of Michael Palmer discussing a technique, or giving a short explanation about how he does something. It is not long till you figure out “this man knows what he is talking about”

I had a great deal of questions about his system that I scoured Internet forums for answers to, even asking Palmer himself –which he was more than happy to answer. His operation is big, it’s involved, and during the season it is running. This can make it a little difficult for the novice beekeeper to catch on to. I had watched all these videos a multitude of times, and it was not until I sat down with a notebook, constantly rewinding I started to be able to piece it all together.

To understand how this works, you must understand the ‘why’. Today beekeepers experience winter losses, that in the spring they replace by making splits, and ordering packages/queens. The demands of pollination has significantly increased the price of these packages, as well as lowered the quality. Consequently this means that if you are buying these packages to replace your stock you are probably just scraping by financially.

Now what if we could make our own nucleus colonies, our own queens, which are adapted to your climate, and of better quality to replace our stocks or use for increases for FREE (ok not free, but close). All of a sudden you aren’t buying early packages and queens from stocks that are not adapted to your climate, that are more likely to overwinter. Get off the package treadmill! Bees’ dying does not make for fun beekeeping, its heart breaking, and its costly –no one wins!

Here comes Michael Palmer, showing us the way. He’s the first to admit this is not his idea. Kirk Webster introduced him to the idea of overwintering nucs. Once he started digging a little deeper, low and behold Brother Adam, and a host of old-timers were doing it as well. This is not a new idea!

This can appeal to me! In Ontario, we can’t order packages. The only way to replace your bees is to split them, or buy nucleus colonies. With all the bees dying in Ontario this has driven the prices of nucleus colonies up to almost $200. In northern Vermont (where Michael Palmers apiary is,) they experience the same harsh winters we do. I can’t afford to replace 50% of my bees each year at $200 bucks a nuc; but I can afford to try and follow in the footstep of someone who just frankly know better (and more).

Sustainability is about having a system that sustains itself, and the parts of that system are interconnected and sustain other parts in that system. Recognizing this Palmer has broken this down into three parts:


The nucleus colonies can become your production colonies, they can boost your production colonies, they can make new nucleus colonies, they are “…nothing more than a queen with support staff,” for requeening. The production colonies are there to make honey, isn’t beekeeping all about making honey? Queen Rearing colonies supply the queens to your nucleus colonies, or can be sold.

OVERWINTERED NUCLEUS COLONIES – the foundation of sustainable beekeeping.

·         What can you do with an overwinter nucleus colony?
  •          Replace winter losses
  •          Use the queens from those colonies to requeen your weak colonies, or failing queens
  •          Increase the amount of colonies you have
  •          Sell them for extra income
  •          Use the extra frames of brood from those colonies to boost production colonies, or set up cell builders.
  •          Use them to make the nucs that you plan to over winter next year

I have never run into an experienced beekeeper that will tell you not to bother having a nuc box laying around. Find a swarm? You have a swarm box. Find a swarm cell? Make a new nuc. Everyone should have a nuc box. Smart people will have more!

There are many nuc boxes on the market made out of any conceivable material. Traditionally there are five frame wooden nuc boxes, they are the norm. Palmer uses one 10 frame deep divided into half, with separate inner covers. When they get bigger he puts a little four frame super on top of that. The benefits of this are that in the winter although divided the bees form one cluster in the middle (clinging to the dividing board). In a forum post when asked “why not five frame nuc boxes,” I remember he replied “think tippy”. Fair enough.
The important part is the concept of the nucleus colony, not the box you put it in.


Traditionally in spring, beekeepers will make early splits to counter their winter losses. It’s more than common, I never questioned it. Palmer questioned it. His argument is that those hives are your production colonies by splitting; they never build up to where they could have been. Don’t split, use your overwintered nucs to replaces your losses, or increases.

In his presentations he stresses, do not weaken the prosperous colonies that are doing well. Make your nucleus colonies from non-productive colonies.

  •          Identify the weak non-productive colony
  •         Put: 2 frames of brood, 1 frame of honey, 1 empty frame in each nuc box
  •          Move to new location
  •          Add Queen or Queen Cell
  •          Check 10 days later

Lets do the math, we lose one weak colony $300 replacement value, and we gain four nucleus colonies $760. If we have to buy four queens those nucs costs us $120, or $48 in queen cells. We could let them raise their own queens, could be risky, and we lose out on one month of production. This is why queen rearing is an important concept in this system. These nucleus colonies can go on to make more nucs as well.


There are a few issues with managing nucleus colonies. They have a reputation for building up fast, which can cause them to swarm or abscond. The important concept here is that you need to give them room to expand you can counter this by:

  •          Removing a frame of brood to start a new nucleus colony, or boost a colony (BROOD  FACTORY).
  •          In his double nuc system, you could put a queen excluder on, and a honey super above they can fill.
  •          Expand to single colony
  •          Put in foundation for them to draw out (FOUNDATION FACTORY).

He has several resourceful uses for nucleus colonies. One such concept is the bee bomb. Using the nucleus colonies as a brood factory, he inspects the nuc yard removing 1-2 frames of sealed brood from each nuc until he has a box worth. He then takes this box of sealed brood and places it on a production colony that he feels could use the extra work force. In 1-12 days that colony will be overflowing with nurse bees. When building cell builders he uses a similar concept which will be addressed later.


     May 9 – Jun 19 – Harvests 245 frames of brood, to populated 35 Cell Builders
·        June 16 – July 20 – Harvests enough brood to make 330 Nucleus Colonies to Overwinter
o   Harvests 900 frames of brood in total from 50 overwintered nucs

For overwintering he simply feeds them 1-2 gallons of sugar syrup. See you next spring. You will notice the astonishing amount of productivity he can get from 50 nucleus colonies. Palmer does produce 330 nucs to overwinter, and withholds sale of 50 for use in the sustainable apiary model. Understanding the importance of the nucs is one part of the cyclical equation.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Option Towards Developing Treatment-Free Bees

Being a treatment-free beekeeper is a marathon, not a sprint. First you must learn how to keep bees, and keep them alive. Secondly, you must acquire the genetics that are resistant, or otherwise cope with the varroa mite. This second option can take a great deal of time. Many of the “successful” treatment-free beekeepers have been breeding their own stock for thirty years or better. It is possible to get their stock, but it is unlikely Dee Lusby’s or Michael Bush’s bees will survive a tough Canadian winter –if we even could import their stock, which we cannot. Finding survivor bees is actually the easy part of the equation. If they survive winter you don’t really have a choice but to breed from the bees that survive. Mites however, are not that easy.

Many people ascribe to the “Live, and let Die,” Bond philosophy of beekeeping. Let nature take its course of natural selection and what you are left with are your survivor stock. The largest problem with this philosophy is that you must ask yourself “Where do the mites go?” Weak colonies or dead outs will simply get robbed out, and the robbing bees will take them back to their parent colony. Perhaps that colony was a survivor stock until those robber bees brought back a disproportionate amount of mites, and will now also die because they have exceeded their mite threshold

“A key point to remember is that the relative infestation (percent, or mites per 100 bees) is more important than total mite population—a large colony can handle more mites than a small one. At much above a 2% infestation in spring, honey production drops off severely. At much above 5% in fall, colony winter survival suffers (although the fall “economic injury threshold” numbers by various authors range from 1% to 11%) (Currie & Gatien 2006). “ (Randy Oliver,  IPM 3 Fighting Varroa 3: Strategy – Understanding Varroa Population Dynamics)

This method has a great deal of risk; you could end up with no bees at all! Also, it does not really make for a good business model in the years that it takes to get to that point.

Another method is to treat your bees every spring and fall, do mite counts and breed from the bees with the lowest mite counts. This method gives the bees a bit of a crutch; are they surviving because of the treatment, or genetics? There is also not a 100% they will survive despite the treatments. Testing for hygienic behaviour can also be a key marker for your breeding selection. Hygienic behaviour also reduces other diseases like American Foulbrood, and Chalkbrood.

"...100% of the non-hygienic colonies that were challenged developed clinical symptoms, and only one recovered. All non-hygienic colonies had symptoms of naturally occurring chalkbrood disease (Ascosphaera apis) throughout both summers. In contrast 33% of the hygienic colonies developed clinical symptoms of chalkbrood after they were challenged with American foulbrood, but all recovered. The diseased non-hygienic colonies produced significantly less honey than the hygienic colonies. The purpose is then to develop a system creating a balance between two opposing ideologies: sustain a sound productive apiary whilst developing mite tolerant survivor stock; as well as keeping true to a more natural method of beekeeping." (Spivak, Reuter, Resistance to American foulbrood disease by honey bee colonies (Apis mellifera) bred for hygienic behavior)

My proposal is this. Do not treat your bees prophylactically; let them have normal and acceptable pressures on them at all times. However, if a hive is in danger of mite related collapse treat it as to not contaminate the hives around it. Keeping chemical contaminated comb, honey and stock out of your developing resources is important. 

How do we approach this?

There is a hive in danger of collapse, being robbed out and spreading mites. Treat it with an organic acid, mark the hive body and all the frames so that you know those hives have been exposed to this chemical. Once the mites have been ‘knocked down’ let it overwinter. If it successfully overwinters, split that hive up into nucleus colonies giving each a queen cell from the breeding survivor stock. A queen cell as opposed to a laying queen is important; it allows a short brood break to reduce the mite population, and give the new queen a chance to prove herself. Swarm cells in the spring should be rather easy to find.
The marked frames (contaminated,) are then pulled as time will allow and the wax is rendered. That wax is then put in a separate stock from your uncontaminated wax and used for purposes other than foundation.

What we will have accomplished is:

  •          We have not endangered our existing hives by allowing them to rob out the infested hive
  •          We have created nucleus colonies from a hive that would have otherwise died
  •          We have perpetuated the genetics of our survivor stock
  •          We have isolated any chemical contaminates from our treatment-free operation

How can we model this into our existing apiary management?

Firstly, you have to monitor for mites. Whether it is a sticky board, an alcohol shake, it doesn’t matter. You need a baseline to know which of your hives have a mite problem and which don’t. Which are candidates for breeder stock, and which hives are going to need help?

Secondly, hygienic testing; either begin testing for hygienic behavior or buy bees from breeders who are selecting for these traits and breed from them.

Fall I believe may be the best time for integration: the mite populations are at their peak, struggling hives will be apparent, and winter is coming (had to throw the Games of Thrones reference in there). You take your surplus honey off. At this point we are still treatment-free. We isolate which hives are over their mite threshold and apply a treatment. Those hives/frames are clearly marked, I am thinking green paint marker for plastic frames, or green thumb tacks (green kind of has a chemical connotation to it). Feed and maintain those hives as regular and let them overwinter.

Spring has come. Your non survivor stock has died through the great selector –winter. If your isolated hives have survived split them into as many nucleus colonies as you can, giving each brood, honey, and feed. Acquire queen cells by either: harvesting from survivor stock, or buying new genetics from a breeder. If you let them raise their own queen, you will simply be perpetuating unwanted genetics and you have just exponentially increased them by the amount of nucleus colonies you have made. By giving them a queen cell you create a brood break. This allows the mites developing inside the brood to hatch out, and gives the existing mites no larvae or eggs in which to create more mites. It will not get rid of the mites, but it will decrease their numbers. By the time the queen hatches, mates, and begins laying 16 days +/- will have passed where no eggs have been laid, and the majority of mites will be in the phoretic stage. Nucleus colonies generally do not suffer the effects of mites as severely as large colonies (more bees = more mites). The queen can be evaluated, and the nucleus colony can be put to various other uses. 

Summer is business as usual more or less. Monitor mites, and test for hygienic behavior. This is also the time you want to start removing that contaminated comb, melting down the wax, and using it for anything other than new foundation. Any honey harvested from these frames can be sold commercially, but cannot be sold as treatment free honey, or fed to your own bees. Basically treat any product of that frame as like chemical waste, isolate it, get rid of it; minimize the chances of it re-entering your treatment free operation. Remove the marker from the frame and put it back into circulation.

Next fall, rinse and repeat.

Incorporating this into your treatment-free operation will allow you to remain profitable, sustainable, and still retain your core philosophical beliefs without vicariously endangering it by allowing mites to spread from dead hives.