Notes from Windward: #71


Tales of beekeeping

July 12, 2011


Langstroth beehive alive with activity in June
     The beehive that MaryLou gifted us last year did not make it through the winter. The first clues that the hive was not doing well came in mid February when we had some warm sunny days and there was no activity surrounding the hive. When I opened it up to inspect, indeed the hive was dead.

     They had plenty of honey, so they did not starve, and the bees were spread out throughout the hive, not clumped together, which to me indicates that they weren't too cold either. There was some evidence of varroa mites, but these mites take a few years to kill a healthy colony‒which the hive was in the fall, so it seems unlikely that the mites were the primary cause of the hive's failure. So I am still not sure what exactly happened, but perhaps it was too moist or something else altogether that I have yet to think of.

     Working with MaryLou last year was my first season as a novice beekeeper. I very much enjoyed working with and learning about the bees and was looking forward to continuing to do so this season. So, we purchased a nucleus hive and brought it home in mid May. And thus began my adventures in beekeeping.

a nucleus hive
     A nucleus hive is essentially a few frames from an existing hive, filled with worker bees, drones and a queen that can be purchased to repopulate a hive or start a new one.

     In our case, the nuke hive came with 4 frames, which I transferred over to the empty deep and filled the rest of the deep with deep frames with already drawn out comb.

     When using the Langstroth hive (which is what most people think of when they think of bee hive, and what we are using too), it is recommended that you give them two deep boxes to fill with brood (bee larvae), pollen and honey to ensure that the bees have enough honey to make it through the winter.

frames in a deep box
     In order to do this, I had to purchase more deep frames, and what I found in the process of purchasing equipment was an opening into a world that I quickly realized I had yet to give my fullest attention. Unlike many things in my life, I did not come to beekeeping with already existing philosophical framework of how I wanted to keep bees.

     Quite frankly, I did not know enough about the bee world to be able to have created such a framework and apparently nor was it intuitive enough for me to just operate from a deep sense of knowing. My interest in beekeeping stemmed primarily from my understanding that bees are really important pollinators and that they make delicious and useful products.

     But as I searched through the options of frame sizes and foundation types, I became somewhat overwhelmed, both with a realization that I knew very little of the details necessary to confidently make these decisions, and an underlying confusion as to why this was so complicated. I guess I had this notion that bees just made honey and wax and all the other necessary pieces to run a self managing hive. I have never taken any formal beekeeping course to learn "the way" to keep bees, I had just helped MaryLou throughout this past season and gleaned from her the practices that have worked best for her over the years. How silly and naive of me.

Bees going in and out of the hive

     What I ended up choosing to purchase for the deep boxes of the hive were Wedge Top Bar/Grooved Bottom Bar frames with a crimped wire wax foundation and cut comb wax foundation for the honey supers (I already had enough honey super frames).

     With the Langstroth hive and method of beekeeping, the beekeeper provides the bees with foundation‒already imprinted with the well known honey comb cell structure‒which the bees then draw out and fill with honey, pollen and brood. The theory is that comb is more uniform when the bees are provided the foundation, sturdier, and that the bees then don't have to use the energy to create that extra layer of wax, and instead can put that energy into honey. There are a variety of foundation types that are available, including plastic foundations.

Bees at work: filling comb
with honey and pollen
     I don't really like the notion of giving the bees plastic as that is not what they are used to, and I have heard that the bees don't respond as well to plastic foundation as they do to the wax. Also, since we do not have an extractor, the easiest way for us to extract honey is through the crushed cut comb method, which requires the use of wax foundation, instead of plastic.

     In addition, when using the crushed comb method of honey extraction, you get a wax harvest with every honey harvest, which I find quite appealing.

     So when the frames and foundation arrived, I had to first assemble the deep frames and then insert the wired wax foundation. While this was all straightforward enough (thanks to YouTube there are some great videos to aid with the assembly), it made me wonder why this was necessary to begin with.

     Probably, like some other modern beekeepers before me, I thought, bees have made honey without human help for a very long time, why do I need to purchase these materials and do this work for them when they are fully capable of doing it for themselves? I somehow doubt that humans are capable of doing bee work better than bees are.

Bee brood or larvae: a sign
the queen is healthy and laying

     For the most part, it seems to boil down to convenience and yield. As honey production became commercialized, crafty beekeepers have thought of ways to make honey harvests easier, more reliable and larger. Not unreasonable goals.

      Initially, when people harvested honey they had to essentially destroy the hive as the honey and brood were all mixed in together. Lorenzo Langstroth, known as the father of apiculture, introduced the design for movable hive frames in the mid 1800s (so you can effectively harvest honey without killing the hive and return comb foundation to the bees so they don't have to keep making more). Hence, the most popular form of bee hives are are referred to as Langstroth hives.

     While the Langstroth hive certainly is a considerable improvement from hive destruction with each honey harvest, what are the costs? In some respects, not much. Some time, some money.

     However, since my general philosophy is to use the nature of any given entity‒be it an apple tree or a pig‒to minimize the amount of work that we have to do, the goal of increasing the size of the honey harvest by a few percentage points in exchange for me doing more work (and continually having to purchase replacement parts) is not all that attractive. I am more inclined to measure the yield by the health of the overall system.
the queen bee

     I am still very new at all of this, and I have much learning and observation to do. For this season I am content to stick with the Langstroth hive, with frames and wax foundation. So far the hive is doing well and the bees have pretty much filled up the two deeps with brood and honey and have now placed the first of the honey supers on top.

     But I would like to move towards more minimal methods of beekeeping in time. Where that will take me, I am not sure. Top bar hives‒where the bees are provided with a top frame and they then make their own foundation in the shape and size that suits them perfectly‒is an attractive notion. As a first step, I placed a few empty frames (e.g. with no foundation at all) in the honey super, to see what would happen and to be able to compare the quality of the comb with and without wax foundation.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71