Coping with a queen shortage.

My phone is ringing off the hook with beekeepers needing queens to split their strong and thriving colonies.  I’m not really set up for mass production of surplus queens although I do sell some occasionally.  I’m mainly working at being self-sufficient in queen production, and sell only surplus queens.  In this post I’ll try to convince you, the Manitoba beekeeper, how to deal with this shortage of queens by splitting later in the season.

Beekeepers like to split early in the season to give all the queens time to build their colonies up before the main honey flow.  Queens also introduce more readily to small hives early in the season.  However, in Manitoba it is not possible to produce queens to meet this timing requirement, and so most queens are brought in from warmer climates more conducive to queen rearing.

One of the main restrictions on queen production is drone availability.  It is not prudent to start grafting queen cells until you see adult drones in your hives, since the drones are not viable mates until they are two weeks old (about the same time it takes to raise a queen cell).  This year I started grafting on April 28th, the earliest ever.

I can then reasonably expect to have queen cells available around May 9th, and Mated queens around May 23rd.  How can I be self sufficient in queens if the earliest queens I can produce are nearly at the end of the optimum window for splitting.

I actually have some queens available earlier, as some of my mating nucs are wintered with queens from last summer.  These queens can be used when the nucs are set up for the current year mating cycle.  I winter about 120 two-sided hives and expect to get about 100 nucs and about 80 surplus queens from these to replace normal winter losses.

Most of my splits are made later by allowing colonies to build up into very strong colonies, always in doubles and sometimes triples.  These colonies are so populous it is impractical to split the hives by finding the queen and allocating the bees and brood frame by frame.  Instead, around June 1st, as queens become available, I will split these hives by the brutally simple method I call the “logical split”.  I rely on the fact that the hives will be so full of brood it is not necessary to make careful allocation of brood and bees.  I merely remove and transport the 2nds and thirds to new locations (typically summer locations, since the honey-flow is near).  As I do this I number each box with its site and hive number so that I can tell which 2nd belonged to which 1st.  After 3 days I check each box for eggs, if there are eggs in one box, its corresponding numbered box will require a queen.

Beekeepers nervous about leaving bees queenless for multiple days can always insert a queen excluder between the boxes 3 days prior to the split so that the queen and her eggs will isolated within the hive.

I contend that window optimum window for splitting hives can be extended into the first two weeks of june by this techique.  Although the hives are unmanagably populous, the simplicity of the manipulation overcomes this problem.  I also find that these populous hives will more readily accept a new queen when they are 3 days queenless.

Queens from local breeders will be come available in quantity by June 1st in any year, especially in an early spring when there is high demand.  If you are concerned about availability, then you should consider setting up mating nucs of your own.  You would not need to learn to graft cells, since there are several queen breeders who also make cells available.  Setting up mating nucs and catching your own queens is much easier then developing a full cell building program so I recommend you start with that.

A simple mating nuc could easily bee a frame or two of bees and brood in a regular hive body to which you will add bees and brood once the queen has “taken”.  Don’t commit too many bee resources to the cells, since their success percentage can sometimes be low.

Good Luck!

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Spring 2015

Spring 2015 has been a refreshing change from the last two years of damp and cold weather for April.

This year set a new record, moving bees out on the 7th of March, nearly 6 weeks ahead of last year.  The weather was so nice I couldn’t resist.  The bees that went out early were checked, fed and cleaned, then put back into the wintering shed when normal weather reappeared for a week in mid march.

This experiment now is proven successful as those hives appear to be excellent strong and healthy hives, several weeks of development ahead of other hives who either were kept inside until late march, or were put out early and left outside to weather the cold nights as best they could.

Overall, the hives appear strong and healthy with only a few hives exhibiting the dwindle and weakness that characterized things in 2014.

I’ve just finished the first round of careful checking and equalizing hives.  Each hive now has a viable queen and worker population so that all the hives should continue to move ahead.

Other beekeepers must be experiencing similar success, since my phone is ringing steady with beekeepers wanting queens to split their strong colonies.  I hope the weather continues to be warm, however a rain would be nice at some point in the next week or so.  It is getting dry on the land.

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2014 in review

2014 was another weird weather year in the Red River Valley.

We had an exceptionally cold wet spring that held the bees back well into May.  June and early July were also cold.  Then the sun came out mid july and never stopped.  By mid august we had a decent first round of honey and were starting to get optimistic.  Then the sun took the rest of the year off and we had rain and unseasonably cold weather right through until freeze up.

The plan had been to build back up to our regular 1100-1200 colony count after last years disaster that brought us as low as 600 colonies mid-summer of 2013.

Because the weather was so poor in the spring, we didn’t get this done and I resorted to mid-season splits again this summer.  Although that normally costs a lot of honey, i don’t think it did this year, because those hives wouldn’t have produced much late season honey anyway because of the inclement weather.

The high-point of the summer was actually taking a weekend off in august to get away to a fiddle event with my son Timmy in Saskatoon.  I don’t think i’ve been away during august since i started beekeeping full time in the early 90’s.  So that was nice.

The low-point was once again fighting with sick bees in the spring with cold weather.  I think they could have shaken off whatever is bothering them better if the weather had been warm and calm instead of cool and windy.  The provincial and federal bee poisoning experts were out to take samples of the bees, but nothing has come of that.  I’m told the samples have never been analysed.  It might be that there is no clear evidence for a cause of the bee problems, but its pretty clear they aren’t looking very hard.

I was offered a chance to help advise students in the U of Manitoba’s School of Agriculture Diploma Program.  The course I’m involved with is really big picture and applied at the same time, which fits my approach nicely.  The students are to bring all their knowledge of financial tools and agronomy together and apply it to their own farms.  This isn’t necessarily easy.  I’m to help with that somehow…

Continuing my previous commitments in the Faculty of Arts, Dept of Philosophy, together with the new ag duties means i’m now on campus 4 days a week Sept to April. This means winter projects will be limited this year.

I’m back on the board of BeeMaid honey filling in for a fellow beekeeper who has to look after himself first.  I’m still on the board of the St. Norbert Farmers Market, and there are some exciting things going on there, including an building project and our online market:  http://stnorbertfarmersmarket.ca/online.

I also invested a lot of time in a working group on small scale agriculture.  As I write, the report is siting on the desk of Manitoba’s Minister of Agriculture.  The next year will hopefully see some of our recommendations implemented.

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Beekeepers sue Bayer, what gives?

Two large beekeepers in Ontario have launched a class action lawsuit against Bayer, the manufactuer of NeoNics:  the chemicals most beekeepers think are killing their bees.  I’ve been asked by many people what I think about this.  So…

Symptomatic of NeoNic poisoning is a generally healthy stock of young bees and queen, but nearly absent older forager bees.  As the older bees contribute significantly to the health of the hive; without them, the hive gradually dwindles away to nothing.  Sometimes with only a queen and a few bees to feed her.

I think this happens because the bees and the young queen are fed by the other bees.  Once the workers start feeding themselves, they too are poisoned by the residual chemicals.  The queen eats only royal jelly, so the attendant workers sort of “clean” her food, protecting her from poisoning.  We’ve seen this in 100+ hives on my farm this summer, and combined losses in the last two years is nearly 800 hives.

Beekeepers have traditionally tolerated isolated cases of pesticide poisoning in their hives because they understand that they depend on healthy relationship with cooperating farmers in the areas their bees forage.  Beekeepers would much rather take the occasional loss in hives then engage in a lawsuit that would invariably involve neighbouring farmers.   I have worked hard to find locations and farmers who appreciate my bees and will help me keep the bees healthy.  A reputation for suing anyone would quickly make me and my bees unwelcome in the community.

The NeoNics threaten this traditional relationship for several reasons: Firstly, the farmers are told these seed treatments are safe for bees, so the usual communication with the beekeeper is not initiated; Secondly, the losses are not manageable, many beekeepers are being pushed to the edge of viability by repeated massive hive losses.  Finally, Crop Life Canada, the chemical producer lobby agency has chosen a divide and conquer approach to this issue.

For instance, Pierre Petelle, their point man on this issue, has described critics of these chemicals as “extremists” and “sensationalists” who threaten mainstream agriculture by taking “tools away from farmers”.   It is this attempt to separate beekeepers from the rest of the agriculture community which is the most dangerous me.  My honey production depends on successful farmers planting flowering crops which grow vigorously to maturity.  I need their goodwill, and their crops, to succeed.  This goodwill has been attacked in the interests of defending NeoNics.

It is clear to me that Bayer and other chemical companies see bee poisonings as a PR problem best handled by spokes-people, not as a science problem to be discussed rationally by beekeepers and scientists.  Understood in this way, a lawsuit is likely the only way to get their attention.

 

 

 

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End of Summer???? Update. August 25th 2014

I’m doing computer work today since it seems almost too cold to go outside.

At noon it is 12 deg C with a steady drizzle.  After 6 weeks of hot dry weather, it started to rain last thursday, and hasn’t really quit since.

The spring season was also cold and wet, so the bees really struggled to build up, some hives seemed to be sick and either couldn’t grow or declined; about 60 collapsed completely and died out.

The field crops were also delayed by the cold wet weather.  The main nectar bloom didn’t really get going until about July 10th.  Good moisture conditions and staggered blooms meant that good nectar foraging persisted until about the 20th of August.

Although many hives were understrength they did their best and our crop is much better then I expected, perhaps even “average”.

Starting tomorrow, we will be taking the last boxes off the hive and beginning to prepare them for winter.   This will take about 3-4 weeks.  The last hives to be stripped down will be the 300 or so hives I’ve moved north to the Woodlands/St. Laurent/Lundar area to take advantage of uncut alfalfa clover that should yield well if the sun comes back out.

 

 

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I’ve procrastinated updating this page for over a year.  It’s time to face reality.

Since my last post the reality is that i’ve struggled with my bees for more then a year.

Winters ’12-13 and ’13-14 on the Canadian Prairies were long and cold.  Furthermore, my bees were suffering from some sort of malady which I still don’t fully understand.

Wintering bees in Western Canada pushes the limit of what is possible for honeybees.  Their normal lifespan is barely enough to keep a hive populous from fall to spring, and they don’t reproduce during periods of scarcity when natural food sources are unavailable.

So under normal conditions, it isn’t easy to maintain healthy hives from year to year.  Additionally, bees have a lot of new stresses which likely shorten their maximum lifespan.

Exotic parasites such as the Varroa Destructor mite, and the Nosema Cerana microsporidian can depopulate hives without good management, and introduce other virus and disease problems to the hives.

Changes in agricultural practises also have been pressuring honeybees.  Increased planting of non-nectar producing crops like potatoes, corn and soybeans reduce acres available for honey production.  More importantly the trends result in reduced land devoted to mixed cover such as the grassland-aspen forest mix typical of the cow pasture in southern Manitoba, as more farmland is devoted to annual cropping.  Ultimately, these changes result in reduced nutrition for honeybees.  For most of July, the bees can’t possibly visit all the Canola flowers, for the other 20 weeks of the beekeeping season, it is becoming harder to find locations where they can properly feed themselves.

Finally, many beekeepers believe that agricultural innovations such as varieties of pesticides used as seed treatments, and GMO varieties of crops have resulted in serious problems for bees.  I have reviewed the available evidence carefully, and i’m not convinced there is sufficient evidence to make any accusations, but I think we should carefully review the sustainability of all our food production methods.

As an aside:  While politicians and scientists have dithered about what to say about the new chemicals, there are still lots of old chemicals that kill bees every day which are used by the tonne. I think it would be a good start to get rid of chemicals we know are bad, and worry about the new ones later.

So…  These factors, and maybe others we don’t understand, are reducing the lifespan of the bees to the point where the populations of the hives are significantly reduced by the end of winter; should winter end late, some hives cannot keep themselves alive any longer.  This is exactly what has happened this spring and last.

In the spring of 2013, I lost nearly 1/2 of my colonies.  I had to take some pretty drastic steps to get back to 1000 colonies by the end of the summer.  In particular, since the hives weren’t strong enough to split in the springtime, I committed to mid-summer splitting of the best colonies, sacrificing honey production for colony replacement.

Now, we’re in the spring of 2014. I’ve lost around 20%, about double my normal long term average loss rate, but WAY better then 2013.  The colonies dwindled and suffered through April and early May as winter refused to surrender, but are now starting to rebuild and repopulate.  I anticipate managing about 900 production colonies this year, and will make some mid-season splits again to return to my target hive count of 1200.

So, at the end of May 2014, I hope things are back on track and we look forward to a normal crop.  Since many other beekeepers are also facing the same issues, honey production is down around the world, and so prices for bulk and retail honey are strong and stable, which is helpful in these trying times,

 

 

 

 

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A New Year

Since all the bees came in by the first week of november i’ve been kept busy running the recreation center in Starbuck.  It has an indoor hockey rink, three sheets of curling ice, and and also serves the Starbuck Hockey Academy.

I’ve learned allot about ice making, and things are starting to become routine, but it is keeping me away from planning and organizing for next summer.  As well, I am back to teaching at the U of M this term, with about 290 students in two sections of a basic logic/reasoning course.  That will also keep me busy.

I did my traditional christmas eve survey of hives in the wintering barn.  They look quite content and satisfied with themselves.  I don’t see any major change in their health from the nice strong hives i put away last fall.  As the winter wears on, if the bees are infected with a virus or parasite, then they will start to show stress, by being more agitated in their behaviour, and leaving the hives will little provocation.  I’m not seeing that at all, so far.

There is more snow then in the past few years, which should help the ground moisture replenish from the extremely arid conditions of last summer.

 

 

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Help Wanted

Beekeeping Season April 2013-Oct 2013.

Seasonal employment opportunity: April, 2013-Oct, 2013.

Experience with honeybee hives required.

Duties include heavy lifting.

Experience with machinery related to beekeeping an asset.

Wages Starting at $12.33/hour, depending on experience.

Health Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Board Coverage available.

Driver’s license suitable for operating medium duty trucks in Manitoba required.

All Persons eligible to work in Canada are encouraged to apply.

Contact, ‘Phil’s Honey” c/o Phil Veldhuis, 5075 Rd 48 NW, Starbuck Manitoba. ROG 2P0

Please email Resume and cover letter to Phil@philshoney.com

Deadline for application:  Dec 1st. 2012.

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Help wanted:

Help Wanted – Experienced Apiarist : Starbuck Manitoba.

Up to 3 Positions Available.

 


Seasonal employment opportunity: April, 2013-Oct, 2013.

 

Experience with honeybee hives required.

 

Duties include heavy lifting.

 

Experience with machinery related to beekeeping an asset.

 

Wages Starting at $12.33/hour, depending on experience.

 

Health Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Board Coverage available.

 

 

 

Driver’s license suitable for operating medium duty trucks in Manitoba required.

 

All Persons eligible to work in Canada are encouraged to apply.

 

 

 

Contact, ‘Phil’s Honey” c/o Phil Veldhuis, 5075 Rd 48 NW, Starbuck Manitoba. ROG 2P0

 

 

 

Please email Resume and cover letter to Phil@philshoney.com

 

Deadline for application:  Dec 1st. 2012.

 

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Moving the bees in!

Winter seems to have come early to manitoba this year.

People always ask me when the bees “go to sleep”.  Actually, they never do, they just don’t fly.  Inside the hives it is business as usual.  They bees will use strategies of clustering and activity reduction to reduce energy and effort, but otherwise they are still fully active and alert.  Jostle a hive and it will soon tell you to back off, as bees come to the entrance prepared to defend themselves.

When we move the hives indoors, we use a little smoke to calm the hives, then its on the truck with the forklift and home we go.  I usually move about 150 hives each load, so 8 trips should be nearly enough.  By the end of october most of the hives should be in.  Usually i aim to have all the hives in by Nov 11th.  The past few years, I have been moving bees on rememberance day, and so have taken my minute of silence in the bee yard.

 

 

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