I get asked this question a lot, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the answer isn’t ‘ become a bee keeper’ (there’s a lot of evidence that feral bees are doing just ok, often better than kept honey bees), and our transport of bees/honey/pollen around the world in the age of globalization has done a great job of transporting parasites, viruses, and other maladies, which have now started crossing to other species.
So you want to ‘save the bees’, then start thinking about all insects, and our use of toxins in the food system. Here’s recent reply to a visitor of our website which sums things up as succinctly as I can:
———- Forwarded message ———
From: Peter Brezny<[email protected]>
Date: Thu, Oct 11, 2018 at 4:17 PM
Subject: Re: Interest in becoming a Bee Guardian
To: <redacted for privacy>
Thanks for the note and your interest in protecting pollinators on our planet.
Sounds like you’re heavy into food systems and education. Well done!
As I hope became clear from your reading on our website, honey bees are the economic indicator we follow that helps us understand just how much peril all insects are in at the present time. Only 2% of insects on the planet are harmful to crops, and many of the other 98% are ‘pest’ insect predators!. All of them are in drastic decline and pesticides (duh)/climate change are the problem.
The very best thing you can do to protect pollinators is not to become a beekeeper, but to work to create pollinator habitat, and advocate for pesticide free zones and organic farming/chemical free farming techniques. Everyone with a yard has the chance to create a safe habitat for pollinators.
There are a lot of excellent resources directly related to this:
WNC experienced pretty significant honey bee colony losses over the past winter. The Buncombe County club reports an average of 70% loss. Our bees were wiped out as well, so this year, I’ve teamed up with friends Joseph and Erik, to raise queens from local, treatment free survivor stock.
For a better understanding of why local, treatment free, bees with good genetics is so important, check out:
Bees are expensive to buy, so this year (in addition to buying some bees, as locally sourced as possible) I’ve put up bait hives in multiple places with the hopes that I might be lucky enough to attract a feral swarm. If they find the bait hive an acceptable place to start a new home, they’ll move in and start building comb for the queen to lay in. Here’s an image of one on a roof in East Buncombe County.
Our first run of grafted queen cells (where you remove young larvae and place them into special cups for bees to rear as queens) weren’t accepted by the cell builder colony. They chose to raise their own queens instead, so we simply moved the frames with queen cells on them into mating nucs.
For our second round (grafted today) the cell builder now has no other appropriate aged eggs to use for raising queens so we’re hoping to have the easier to transport/share queen cell’s that we grafted ‘take’ and be ready in about 12 days.
Here’s a gallery of our queen rearing efforts so far this year:
Last Sunday, Carl Chesick from the Center for Honey Bee Research here in Asheville, NC invited a bunch of volunteers who support his research to participate in a demonstration of making increase using five frame nuc colonies.
If you’d like to get in on invites like this while brushing up your hive management skills, sign up to volunteer here:
And It’s worth noting that you don’t have to have four nucs going to make this work. The inventory of frames needed for a successful split could all be pulled from a single strong colony.
One of the advantages of having 4 nuc’s like this to work with is that, constrained in a small space, the bees are continually in a ‘prepare to swarm’ mode, which gets them ready to rear queens. It takes weekly monitoring to insure they don’t swarm, but this method works well for creating weekly new splits from 4 strong nucs.
I wrote Carl after the demo, as I had a few more questions and even after a long hard day at the office, he was gracious enough to more thoroughly summarize the technique he uses, and some of his philosophy around it.
The Nucs are about timing, and making them up from the correct slices (frames) of “time”. With enough nurse bees they can make an omelet.
(1) Frame of eggs. Frame APPEARS empty is covered with bees. These are nurse bees. Do this in late morning/early afternoon when most foragers are out. Nurse bees stay with the new nuc. Nurse bees feed the royal jelly. Nurse bees keep the cells warm.
(1) Frame of open brood (larva) with some capped. Bees on this frame are nurse bees. Nurse bees stay with the nuc. The presence of capped brood indicates the frame was laid earlier by the Queen. These bees will hatch in about two weeks – one week before those in the first frame.
(2) Frames of capped brood. These capped cells don’t need to be warmed by the nurse bees. They will begin hatching right away and ALL will hatch within ten days. They will be nurse bees. Nurse bees stay in the hive until they are approximately 3 weeks old.
(1) Empty frame, to give those 10 day old bees something to do with the wax they excrete naturally. Let them build comb.
The nuc will lose any foragers that get included. The Nuc DOESN’T NEED ANY FORAGERS – they have a bottle of sugar water over their heads. There should be enough pollen in the two open brood frames to feed the queen cells and finish out the open brood. There will be NO NEW EGGS for three weeks.
By the time pollen is needed the starting nurse bees will have aged into foragers. Within two weeks approx. 8,000 nurse bees will hatch. As the new queen is getting mated the larva/open brood will add 4,000 more. Finally, as her first eggs go into the cells the frame that was eggs adds 4,000 more nurse bees. The colony now has bees for each occupation and although it will be three weeks before her eggs hatch the colony has a considerable population to support expansion. Nucs done this early benefit from utopian forage in April and May.
I ENCOURAGE skeptics to carefully go in on day four to see how many Queen Cells have been started. There will be on average 3-6 cells. Be very careful in removing the frames as the cells will stick out from the sides. be sure to clear enough space and lift VERTICALLY very slowly. Also care in replacing. The day the nuc is made up is day 1. If the bees select the proper 12 hr. old larva they will cap that cell on Day 5. Anything capped before five days would be from too old a larva. If it takes 7 days to cap the cells, it means the bees waited two days for a particular egg to hatch.
If one notes the day the cell is capped, it will hatch exactly 8 full days from that time. I ENCOURAGE new Beeks to go in on that 9th day and determine HOW MANY of the cells hatched. These are distinguished by a smooth hatch-like opening at the very bottom. Cells which are torn on the sides DID NOT HATCH – but either died in the cell, were torn out by workers, or were killed by rivals. You might actually see the virgins lingering near the cells or hear them “piping”! On average three virgins survive to walk on comb.
Knowing how many potential queens are present is reassuring. It takes 3 days after hatching for the queens’ ovaries to develop. Then in the afternoons they begin mating flights. Several people have witnessed queens returning with mating sign at their rears by pulling up a seat at the entrance around 3 PM:) on the fifth day after hatch. It takes two days for the queen to mix and store the semen in her spermatheca and begin laying so the soonest the queen can begin laying is 5 days after hatch and on average it is about 10 days. In about 15% of the cases it can take two and a half weeks (17 days). Having the nuc open and apart when a newly mated queen is returning can result in her winding up somewhere else, likely where she’s NOT WANTED. For that reason I RECOMMEND leaving the nuc alone for ten days after queen hatch, but checking every 4-5 days after that. If there are no eggs/open larva 3 weeks after queen hatch, another frame of eggs can be inserted.
I think that ”don’t disturb them” mostly serves to keep beekeepers from developing the art of not disturbing them.
In response to another one of those “you treatment free cooks…” posts, I put together some text and a lot of links to real facts (below).
It’s hard to see folks claim to be scientists, and spend a considerable amount of time on a ‘pretty article’ that turns out to be little more than an opinion post itself, with a mix of seemingly relevant ‘studies’ and ‘papers’ which if you take the time to research turn out to be funded primarily by the corporations that would like to do away with renewable energy, organic food, and common sense in exchange for profit. And then for the authors to have the audacity to say, ‘please cite references to back up your statements in the comments’…
Looking more at thoughtscapism’s ‘about’ page I see she’s been paid to provide articles for the “Genetic Literacy Project”…
Here’s all you need to know about the genetic literacy project:
“A GMO lobbying outfit funded by Monsanto, the “Genetic Literacy Project” is run by its Executive Director, the infamous Jon Entine, the world’s leading biotech shill and character assassination operative.”
Many of the links I’ve listed below you’ve seen before, the top one however, is new, and well worth the time to watch.
In response to (link intentionally broken so as not to promote these falsehoods in the search engines):
https://thoughtscapism dot com/2017/04/10/treatment-free-beekeepers-give-varroa-mite-free-rein
Some statements of fact (with references to back them up).
Bees have naturally evolved to resist varroa. New, and unpublished data (at the time of his talk) on feral colony mitochondrial DNA analysis pre and post varroa in New York State presented by Dr. Tom Seely of Cornell University and author of “Honeybee Democracy” definitively show that while feral colonies were drastically impacted by varroa, they have recovered and are thriving at similar levels to pre-varroa exposure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7CB8E7jKBc
Dr. John Keefus has been breeding varroa tolerant queens for more than a decade in the South of France rapidly creating resistant stock through actually adding varroa mites to his colonies, and published a paper in late 2016 showing his techniques applicable on a commercial scale: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00218839.2016.1160709
Terry Coombs reminds us that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a devastating impact from an introduced parasite–and that just as now, chemical treatments were not the answer but the bee’s own ability (if allowed to feel the impact of the environmental stress) to evolve has and will resolve the problems we experience now: http://americanbeejournal.com/letters-editor-march-2017/
In their book “Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health”, Harrell and Crowder describe the transformation of their apiary when they walked away from treatments, stopped ‘managing mites’ and started working again with bees: http://www.fortheloveofbees.com/
I’d like to note that this book is great for both top-bar and langstroth keepers alike. Concise, well written, extremely informative.
None of the above suggests treatment free beekeeping is easy. But even here in North Carolina, a state with a long, history of beekeeping (and I believe with the largest number of certified beekeepers in the US) where ‘treat and feed’ have been the long accepted mantra, the current president of the state beekeeping association, Rick Coor, (https://www.ncbeekeepers.org/about/leadership) is a treatment free queen breeder in the central part of the state and Aron Where of (https://www.wehrloom.com/) runs a 300 hive strong treatment free honey production operation at the Western end of the state, and a showing of hands at a recent Buncombe County Beekping meeting showed around 50% of the 50 or so people present were treatment free beekeepers.
Things are changing, but as long as we remove the environmental factors that encourage bees to strengthen their own genetics, they won’t, and its time for us all to recognize that treating mites is driving mite evolution rapidly to a stronger and more aggressive condition. You just have to look at the list of chemical treatments no longer considered effective to know that the mites are evolving: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371937/
Who wants weak bees you have to keep on ‘life support’ to survive?
Losing 90% of your colonies is a difficult pill to swallow (and what you can expect when you go cold turkey treatment free) but with thoughtful, careful management, things don’t have to go that way, and once you’re over the hump, your apiary becomes self sufficient, and treatment free with losses comparable to the treated apiary down the road (this is from my personal experience in Dr. Keefus Apiary in spring 2017 where he saw a 13% winter loss, which was better than the average treated apiary in that region in the South of France–data from an informal and probably statistically insignificant poll of local beekeepers).
The more people who choose a treatment free approach, the faster the general population of bees, both managed (hobby and commercial) and feral, will evolve to a stable state of tolerance with this new introduced pest, just as they did when the tracheal mite made it to the US in the 80’s. 2015 tracheal mite infections in NC were less than 1% (passed on to our club wncbees.org, by Jack Hanel, NCDA).
At least here in Western North Carolina, bees are in such high demand in the spring, it’s very difficult to get all you need from local sources. This year, I’m determined to be ready for the swarm season when it comes around in early spring. With any luck, I’ll be able to entice some feral colonies into a carefully placed box, from which I can then begin to rebuild the apiary’s winter losses–hopefully with regional genetics from feral colonies althoug these days, especially with the high concentration of bee keepers in Buncombe County where I live, there’s a good chance you may just be catching swarms from other beekeeper’s hives, which may or may not have locally tuned genes.
Here are some plans for relatively easy to make, and fairly light weight boxes that fit Langstroth frames or if you use top bar plans smart enough to match top bar length and height to Langstroth frames, top bars can fit as well.
The February meeting of the Asheville Bee-Centric Alliance will focus on the topic of catching feral swarms in the hopes of increasing the population of hives with regionally tuned genetics. We’ll also be talking about strategies to catch them, when and where to place your boxes, how often to check them, and what to do when you catch a swarm.
If there’s enough interest, we may even have a hand-on workshop focused on building swarm-catcher boxes using the plans above.
I just eliminated the viewing window and reduced the dimensions by two feet. So far, this is the best set of plans I’ve found for top bar hives. The combs that come out of these hives have a handsome look, the proportions just seem right. And there are many smart touches, including insuring the top bars them selves fit inside a Langstroth box, so some level of ‘interchange’ is possible–an invaluable touch. Whatever design you use for your top bar hive, keeping the bar lengths at 19 inches will serve you well in the long run.