Naturally Treated Hives at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey : Pt 1 of 2

The other night I was invited to give a talk on how I maintain my Naturally Treated, Antibiotic-Free hives at the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association.  Seems like a good moment to write that up for a few reasons.

1) Customers ask me about how I keep hives, so now I can point them to a single page. 2) My talk had a lot of references in it, but not enough time to give a lot of details or links. 3) Got to have something to write about – I’m cleaning boxes, feeders, and floats and that really makes a dull blog.

First, let me clarify a few things:

  • Everything I write is in “my humble opinion”
  • This is how I keep honey bees, I expect no one to do things the same way
  • There is a great difference between Natural Beekeeping, Keeping Honeybees Naturally, and Naturally Treated honeybee hives.

NATURAL BEEKEEPING

Bumble Bee Wikipedia public domain by Alvesgaspar

Bumble Bee by Alvesgaspar

Natural beekeeping, to me, is creating forage and habitat for our native bees, which do not include honeybees.

Our native bees including bumblebees and mason bees lost habitat, and could use some support. The best place I know to go for information and great downloads about how everyone can help our native bees, and all our native pollinators, is Xerces.org, the invertebrate conservation center based in Portland, Oregon.

KEEPING HONEYBEES NATURALLY

The closest I think anyone comes to this are the folks who do foundationless beekeeping, with no treatments.  That’s not me.  I have tried this and failed, but will probably try again.

Close in this category would be the small cell, treatment-free folks.  At least they’re not foisting honey-sized cells on the bees – which I do.

Small Cell and Commercial Cell foundation Side-by-Side

A comparisonof small cell and commercial cell foundation for honeybee hives

NATURALLY TREATED HIVES (this would be me)

Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey Beehives in a westerly bee yard near Bellingham, WA

Brookfield hives at Spring Frog Farm

I do treat my hives, but only with naturally occurring substances that I would ingest or that occur naturally in bee hives.  I do not use any antibiotics in my hives.   The use of naturally substances rates this as “Naturally Treated”, but it isn’t natural.  There are no forest sprites flitting about putting formic acid, thymol, or other natural chemicals (they are chemicals) into hives.

WHEN I TREAT:

I feed cane syrup with essential oils for three weeks in the spring – timing the feeding to, hopefully, end just as our Big Leaf Maples come into bloom.  I do this again in the fall right after I pull honey.   More on that below.

I treat for varroa mites in the fall, soon after honey harvest

VARROA TREATMENT:

Currently I am alternating between Miteaway Quick Strips (formic acid) and Apiguard (a thyme oil – a.k.a. thymol – based product).   I come from raising 4-legged livestock where we treat for worms.  One always alternates wormers each year, to avoid the worms becoming tolerant to the chemicals.  I figure this would hold true in a hive.  If one kept up the same mite treatment every year, one would soon have mites resistant to that treatment.  (Here’s more on how I use Apiguard )

Weighing out Apiguard at a Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey bee yard

Weighing out Apiguard

I used to use Powdered Sugar (the Dowda Method), but it seemed to work less and less well.  This corresponded with my bees becoming less and less Russian (Primosky), which may give you the answer as to “why” that would happen.  Russians are very resistant to varroa.

As I mentioned above, I feed cane syrup with essential oils in the spring and fall.  I use Spearmint, Lemon Grass, and Thymol (thyme oil).  It’s the spearmint and the thymol that are said to help with varroa.  The lemon grass, I think, is simply an attractant “look here, eat this”.   The idea makes sense to me: Varroa don’t do well eating mint and thyme.  The larvae are eating some of that mint and thyme courtesy of the nurse bees.  The larvae incorporate it into their system.  The mites suck the oils down as they feed on the larva.  Who knows?  It seems to buck the girls up, at any rate.

NOSEMA TREATMENT:

I have not treated for this since my first year of beekeeping.  At that time, I didn’t realize the Fumagilin-B was an antibiotic.  When I did, I stopped using it.  I’ve nothing against antibiotics when used for heavy-duty infections on humans or animals.  I do think they’re overused on mammals, and the idea of giving them regularly to any creature is, in my humble opinion, asking for trouble, as we’ve already seen.

This year I am testing Nozevit, which John Kraus, of Kraus Honey Company, said was working well for him.  It seems to be oak tanninbased, natural, organic, which makes me comfortable.  Hopefully it will work for my bees.

Nozevit image from http://beechwoodbees.co.uk/

Nozevit image courtesy of Beechwood Bees (UK)

NATURALLY TREATED IS  MORE THAN “TREATMENTS’

That’s the “treatments”, but they’re other aspects that I consider vital to my beekeeping operation.

HOUSEL METHOD OF FRAME PLACEMENT:

I learned of this method this year, from my friend Clyde Caldwell, who is a small cell / no treatments beekeeper.  The image here is from Dee Lusby’s website, where there is a great write up.

Housel position image by Dee Lusby http://www.resistantbees.com/index.php?r=120

Dee Lusby’s Housel Positioning Image

The basic idea is to make the frames we put in a hive mimic the pattern in nature.

Take a piece of foundation or drawn comb (it’s easier to see this with drawn comb).  Look at bottom of the comb: where the egg is laid.  It will look like a “Y” on one side.  Turn the comb over, LIKE THE PAGE OF A BOOK.  Now the “Y” at the bottom is upside down.  The side with the “Y” facing up faces the outside of the hive.  Thus, in the center of a ten-frame hive, frames 5 and 6 have upside down “Y”s facing each other.

This is apparently how honeybees build comb in nature.  All I can say is that my bees built and filled their comb more rapidly this year than in previous years.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I’ll keep doing it. It takes no time to make a mark on the frames.

ELIMINATING FRAMES

I also mark the year that the bees first drew comb on the frame, because my frames have limited “life spans”

I have come to this within the last 5 years or so.  No one spoke of it when I started out.  In fact, most beekeepers considered it quite wonderful to keep using older frames.  Think of all the money saved, not to mention the time for those of use who still hang wax.

The problem with older comb: Wax is a sponge.  It absorbs everything.

Most bees seem able to resist a small amount of a disease (say American Foul Brood spores). But if the spores keep building up in the cells, they can reach a point where the bees’ resistance can’t handle the amount of pathogens.  Then the hive crashes.

A dead hive is depressing.  It’s also lost money if the solution is to kill the bees and burn the frames.  So, my frames have limited “life times.”  Honey frames get to work for 5 years.  My brood frames were doing 3 years, until this year.  Then, with my second year of AFB, I lost it one day and got rid off all brood frames that were not working in hives.  If it works, it’s cheaper than AFB kills and burns.

It’s also good for bees to make wax.  They’re supposed to do that.

HANGING FRAMES (or the new “3-deep tunnel method”)

I don’t use moth crystals on my stored frames.  Let me first say I live in an area where it will drop below freezing for one to two months, which is a real detriment to wax moths, so I do have a bit of an advantage (plus the cross-country skiing is really good).

Most of my frames spend the winter hanging off of long pieces of wood in my hayloft (now the bee gear area).  This open-air treatment seems to ward off wax moths.

Bee equipment ready to create new hives and supers at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Bee Gear Prep Area at Brookfield Farm

I have also been trying the “3-deep tunnel”, as I term it.   Three boxes filled with frames are placed on their side, one in back of the other (thus the “tunnel”).  Another three are put on top of those in the same pattern, and so on until I think it’s too tall.  I figure my “tunnels” could be 4 boxes as the idea for this came from an article where the beekeeper was using deeps.  In that article, the beekeeper put 1/8-inch hardware cloth over each end of the tunnel.  I think this may have been to deter mice.  I don’t do this.  I don’t have mice in the barn; I have five happy barn cats.

Barn Cat : Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

She does love a nice mouse

There, that covers Natural Treatments and methods, but there is another aspect that’s critical to Naturally Treated hives (in my humble opinion) :  using and/or raising Queens that are adapted to no treatments, natural treatments and your local environment.

If bees are bred from chemically dependent stock they probably lack the ability to fight pests, pathogens, and parasites on their own.

But this blog has gotten a bit long, so I’ll go on about Queen rearing in the next blog : Part 2.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, Washington.  Where I’m very happy to say the rain has finally stopped and the sun has poked out from behind the clouds.

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About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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9 Responses to Naturally Treated Hives at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey : Pt 1 of 2

  1. Emily Heath says:

    There’s a lot of evidence that changing brood frames regularly, preferably annually if you can, is really good for bee health. Changing the combs all at once using a ‘shook-swarm’ technique in Spring (you burn up the old combs and shake the bees onto fresh new foundation) is a good anti-varroa technique too.

    • I think you’re right about AFB and brood comb, but again, it’s the cost when you get into lots of frames. I burnt all of the brood comb that wasn’t working in the hives a few months ago. In the spring, I’ll swap all the ones now working for new comb. the only way I could see moving comb out to help with varroa is that you would break the laying cycle as the bees build new comb, which does really mess the varroa as they have no where to lay and prey. But I wouldn’t destroy comb for the sake of varroa – the comb would be fine.

      • Emily Heath says:

        That’s right, in the spring the varroa will take advantage of the new brood to reproduce. You then burn up the brood frames containing most of the varroa. The population is further hit as the bees take time to build new comb, delaying the mite’s reproductive cycles.

        Cutting out the old comb before burning it and boiling the frames in a washing soda solution is possible to reuse the frames and save a bit of money, then you just need to buy new foundation, or even just put foundation in every other frame and give the bees starter strips in the others.

        • Cutting the old comb out and dealing with the frames depends on the amount of time available versus the costs of new frames.  I’ve a friend who bakes her frames – can’t remember the heat.  I figure I’ll just blast them with the garden flame thrower.

          Around here the queens start laying in Jan. but one wouldn’t open a hive until possibly Feb (if the Feb snow decides not to arrive), if it does, it means opening the hives in March or April, by which time the queen has laid up the brood.  Open any earlier in a climate like ours, and the hive will probably die.  Like most things in life, it’s all a compromise….

          Starter strips don’t do that well up-river.  We’ve a very short season and build up on those is noticably slow.  I’m running another test next year, but remember, this is how I make my living, so frames must drawn out and make it though the 20 frame extractor intact.  Again – life is a compromise.

          On Wed, 5 Dec 2012 21:12:20 +0000, “Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog”

  2. Bill says:

    After I heard of housel positioning I looked through my 2 hives to see if I could observe it “in nature.” (This is my first year of beekeeping and I’m attempting to, as you put it, keep bees naturally.) I’m using 10-frame, foundationless, medium size Langstroth hives. Although my 2 hives are not a statistically significant sample size, I did not observe any natural housel positioning. In fact, the cell structure and “Y” orientation can even vary across one frame. I also observed cells that didn’t have a Y at the bottom, but had more of double-ended Y.

    • That’s interesting. This fellow certainly agrees with you: http://beenaturalguy.com/housel-positioning/ It seemed to work well for me, but remember 1) this is the first year I did it, so it could have just been a good year and 2) I’m on commercial foundation – basically forcing the bees to do something not natural (foundationless didn’t work well for me here in our often 8-week season, but I’ll try again). So perhaps this is something that helps bees who are faced with foundation, where as if they can do what they want to do, they just go with what they need. Equally, it could be as this beenaturalguy said, something that just makes ME feel good. Kind of like I eat garlic everyday to lessen my arthritis…does it work? Who knows, but I keep doing it. It doesn’t hurt.

  3. Emily Heath says:

    Sorry, forgot that you’re doing it for a living. This is just a very small-scale hobby for me, with my 1-2 little hives costs and time aren’t such a worry. Hope 2013 goes well for you.

  4. Old Git says:

    I am waiting for my first nuc to arrive and would like to keep bees as naturally as possible. I came across this site and I am greatly encouraged by the respectful and helpful – even collegiate nature of the exchanges. It makes a refreshing change from some of the other blogs I have come across. Keep up the good work chaps!!

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