When we lived in Texas, we grew a small garden. In the garden we allowed a basil plant to become a perennial. The next spring it stood over 4 foot tall and when it flowered, the whole plant vibrated with honey bees. Seeing this amazing creature up-close started our interest in Apis Mellifera.
Thanks to the efforts of Beekeepers and members of the media, most Americans know honey bees are in trouble which spells trouble for our current food system. The honey bee troubles stem from the shipment of bees to California for the almond pollination and these troubles include: the varroa destructor mite, loss of flowering plants due to monoculture, use of specific pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. What you may not know is there are spots of hope shining through these dark repots. One such report comes from the author and Professor of Biology at Cornell University, Thomas Seeley. His research has shown that feral bees have not only found ways to deal with the varroa mite but their population levels are at the same level they were at the beginning of his investigation. The feral bees have certain and varied coping mechanisms. It is clear not all hives have the requisite coping mechanisms. Those hives that cannot cope die. The bees that are left recharge the population by swarming. Strong hives can swarm multiple times in a year. Beekeepers can find hives that possess the coping mechanisms by mimicking nature. The following is a list of beekeeper activities we use to encourage healthy bees and to find coping mechanisms.
Grafting gives a beekeeper the ability to mimic the swarming aspect of the honey bee while controlling where those swarms end up. Honey bee biology maintains in the natural world a high degree of genetic diversity. In nature, each queen is mated multiple times to different drones. There is a great likelihood those drones are not from her hive and are from a diverse pool of hives. This means the backyard beekeeper has at his/her disposal one of the greatest tools for finding hives that can survive without the use of treatments. We have successfully grafted and mated (2) queens this season (2016).
Small Cell or natural cell
In the late 1800 beekeepers started artificially enlarging the cell size of the bees. This was done to ‘build’ a better bee which in theory could collect more nectar. Since the new foundation was a manufactured product, advertisements came alone with the new cell size. These advertisements were so successful that the new cell size became the standard. There are some evidences that the larger cell size encourages specific pathogens. While we do not think small cell is a “silver bullet” to control mites, we do think cell size plays a role in a hives vitality and overall health. This topic is hotly debated in beekeeping circles. We believe the closer we keep to natures design, the better off we will be.
We feed bees minimally. Bees should be able to perform their own foraging even as the over use of herbicides reduces wild flowering plants. We feed packages (which do not have the correct combination of worker bee ages) and will feed hives that are less than a year and have not had sufficient chance to build stores. When we feed syrup, the Ph is adjusted to better simulate nectar. If we expect the bees to perform their own foraging then the beekeeper has the responsibility to not to take excessive honey.
Packages of bees can be purchased from commercial suppliers. The needs of the commercial beekeepers differ from the needs of a backyard beekeeper. The commercial beekeeper is looking for bees which will respond the same as every other hive and deal with the rigors of travel. To do this, commercial bees are bread to continuously grow. This growth requires feeding, treatments and specific care. Without these inputs the colony will most likely die. We have found a better source of bees are from feral hives. We actively capture swarms and maintain bait hives. If you are lucky enough for a swarm to land on your property, call a local beekeeper or contact 3 Hen Farm directly. It is helpful to have a picture of the swarm to send to the beekeeper capturing the swarm.
Swarms can be trapped by providing a structure which is attractive to the honey bee. This structure is called a bait hive and is the correct size, smells right and has the right size entrance. We are always on the lookout for people willing to host a bait hive. Once a swarm has moved into the bait hive, they are moved to a permanent hive in an apiary. If you are interested in hosting, please contact 3 Hen Farm. By hosting a trap you could reduce the chance a swarm will end up in an unwanted location such as the wall of your house.
Links to Swarm list:
Honey bee allies - A national network which conveniently connects swarms with beekeepers. You can call in or report on-line when you see a swarm. If you call in, an automated system will ask a series of questions and the system will contact the nearest Beekeeper able to respond.
Oregon State Beekeepers Association Swarm List – a list of registered beekeepers by area. You can choose to call any beekeeper in your area (Oregon only).
Links to Beekeeper web sites:
Michael Bush – Michael Bush has authored a few books as well as re-printing historical beekeeping books.
Jason Burns – Jason writes an excellent blog regarding his journey to trapping bees in the heart of monoculture.
Solomon Parker – Solomon is the host of the Treatment free beekeeping pod cast and associated youtube videos.
Bill Catherall – Bill is the current president of Portland Urban Beekeepers and host of The Bee Vlog.