Spring 2010
2009 Farmer-to-Farmer Conference

Christy Hemenway
Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees in Bath, Maine, with her top bar hive made of Maine pine, and a bar on which bees have built their own foundation of natural beeswax. Hemenway was one of three beekeepers who talked about different methods of keeping bees naturally at the Farmer to Farmer Conference. English photo.

Presentation by Ross Conrad, Christy Hemenway and Luis Feliciano

By Jean English

Roughly one-third of the world’s crop plants depend on insects for pollination. On Maine farms and homesteads, with their emphasis on fruits and vegetables, pollinators are important for fruit set and crop yield – but environmental problems are reducing pollinator numbers.

At the November 2009 Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, cosponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and MOFGA, three speakers discussed establishing healthy honeybee colonies using natural and organic apicultural practices.

Organic: Ahead of the Game

Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, Vermont (www.dancingbeegardens.com), and author of Natural Beekeeping, Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, said that we look to honeybees because the current system is not designed with pollinators in mind, so native pollinators are not present in numbers nature intended nor in adequate numbers to pollinate crops on most of our farms. Without adequate pollination, crops won’t be fully developed, and the market doesn’t accept misshapen produce.

“You guys are already ahead of the game, being organic, where you’re providing habitat for native pollinators, providing them with forage and not spraying the toxins that indiscriminately kill the good bugs and the bad bugs,” said Conrad. “We have to build up our native pollinators, but until then, honeybees are playing a critical role in maintaining pollination in our agricultural system. One hive of honeybees has up to 30,000 individuals, whereas the native pollinators tend to be solitary, or, in the case of bumblebees, a very large bumblebee nest is maybe only 250 individuals. So honeybees, in terms of economics and providing pollination, are still the workhorses.”

The Mite Problem

Ross said the varroa mite is the biggest challenge for beekeepers and the reason people tend to put toxic chemicals in hives. Varroa mites, which are about the size of a pinhead, don’t have very large brood rearing capabilities – each female produces about two additional mites in each bee breeding cycle – but they have a high survival rate, so growth is exponential.

The mite brood cycle is tied to the honeybee brood cycle. When the bee larva is about 5 or 5-1/2 days old, the female varroa mite crawls into the cell, hides in the brood food, waits until the cell is sealed, then comes out and lays her eggs. Then baby mites suck the bee’s blood as it develops and may transmit disease.

When the bee matures and chews its way out of the cell to join the colony, the mites come out to repeat the cycle. So during every brood cycle – 21 days for the worker, 24 for the drone – the number of mites in the hive can double. By the end of the season, the mite population can overwhelm the colony, causing it to collapse or weakening it so that it can’t raise enough healthy bees to survive the winter.

Monitoring the level of mites in the hive is important. “Everybody has them at some level,” said Conrad.

Check the drone brood, he suggested; mites prefer it because drones give off more of the pheromone methyl palmitate that attracts mites. Stick a capping fork into the drone brood, pull it out and look for mites.

Also, “a lot of people are using screens on bottoms of the hives to check the natural mite fall,” said Conrad. “From 10 to 20 percent of mites naturally lose their grip and fall through the hive during the season, and once they’re 1-1/2 to 2 inches away from where the bees are, they can’t sense the bees and can’t make their way back into the hive.”

He believes that all hives should have screen bottom boards – the simplest way to remove a small percentage of mites throughout the year with little work or expense. “If you already have a solid bottom board, just cut out the center, take 1/8-inch hardware cloth, staple it on. It’s open to the ground, so you don’t have to clean out all the debris that usually collects on the solid bottom.”

The screen bottom board also helps with overwintering by keeping the hive ventilated and dry. “Three critical things for the winter are healthy bees, plenty of honey and keeping them dry,” said Conrad. They can tolerate the cold if they’re not wet.

Remove even more mites by spreading powdered sugar or any inert powder over the bees. The powder acts like marbles under the mites’ feet; they lose their grip and, with a screen bottom, fall through in higher numbers. Also, bees don’t like to be covered with sugar, so they groom themselves more and are more likely to dislodge mites. Some people mix confectioner’s sugar with garlic powder, which is antibacterial and may help limit some diseases in the hive.

You may be able to spot mites on bees after you’ve been working with them for a while, said Conrad; or you may see misshapen wings on bees due to a virus that mites spread; that’s a sign that the mite population is high and should be brought down within a month.

Three strains of bees have some mite resistance: Russian, Varroa Sensitive Hygiene, and Minnesota Hygienic. “I never consider buying anything but one of those strains or some with those genetics,” said Conrad.

However, “don’t have the mindset of zero tolerance for mites,” he continued. “Having some level of mites in the hive exposes the bees to them so that they’re more likely to develop the ability to live with the mites.”

Splitting the Hive

Making artificial swarms, or splits, can improve hive health. “We’ve found that the new splits have a higher survival rate than the older, established hives,” said Conrad, possibly because breaking up the brood nest removes some mites from the hive.

“We always let the bees raise their own queen from eggs from the nuc [a small hive of a few frames of bees and brood].” The delay between the time those eggs hatch into queens, the queens go into mating flights, come back and start laying also breaks up the mites’ brood cycle, slowing their exponential growth.

If making splits makes too many bees, “sell them,” said Conrad. “There’s a big demand for bees.”

To make splits, take a frame with some eggs and a frame on either side of that (with brood of different ages) and put them in a new hive. Keep any bees present on the frames. Leave the queen in the mother hive. Put a couple of additional frames with some honey and pollen in the new hive, and then fill the rest of the hive with empty frames of comb or frames of foundation to complete the nucleus colony. Leave it for 30 days, then look for eggs. “If I see eggs (which look like miniature grains of rice), I know they’ve successfully raised a queen,” said Conrad.

More Mite Controls

Because mites are drawn more to brood of drones, frames of drone brood can trap mites. When the cells are sealed and capped, remove the frame and destroy it.

However, “I didn’t like purposely killing my bees,” said Conrad, “so I developed a trap that takes the place of a frame. It has slits in the side and sticky paper. The mites crawl into the hive and get stuck on the sticky paper and you can remove them.” Adding methyl palmitate to the paper greatly increases its effectiveness.

Many commercial products can deter mites. Sucrocide is a sugar ester that is mixed with water and sprayed lightly on bees to suffocate mites. Products containing essential oils, such as thymol, work between about 55 and 80 F. Formic acid pads or strips can be put in the hive. (Wear gloves when handling the pads; formic acid is corrosive.)

Commercial cell size, Conrad continued, is now about 5.4 mm, whereas the natural size is about 4.8 or 4.9 mm. Smaller honeybees tend to have a shorter development time from egg to adult. The varroa mite’s natural host, the eastern honeybee, is a little honeybee with such a short development time that the varroa mite can’t reproduce on the workers but only on the drones, raising one additional mite with each brood cycle. So, the mite population never overwhelms those bees; they coexist. The European bees used for pollination haven’t developed that capacity. Some people suggest that a smaller size European bee (achieved by using the smaller cell size) may be less vulnerable to mites; but those who have tried this approach have had mixed results.

Use Natural Wax

Christy Hemenway’s company, Gold Star Honeybees in Bath, Maine (www.goldstarhoneybees.com), makes a top bar hive of Maine pine. The Langstroth hive (the conventional box shape that has been used since Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth patented it in the 1850s) typically uses a preprinted wax foundation. In a top bar hive, bees make their own foundation of natural beeswax on a top bar (a horizontal piece of pine).

The Gold Star Top Bar hive allows bees to make natural comb – in the various sizes that they need. Hemenway passed around a piece of natural beeswax honeycomb with obviously different sized cells – showing how bees make various sizes of comb naturally, depending on the seasons, and the hive’s needs. The natural honeycomb is also made in a parabolic shape, or catenary curve, according to the “hanging chain” theory (the shape a piece of chain will make when held at two points). Hemenway said that Michael Bush’s Web site (www.bushfarms.com/bees) describes how he has used all natural wax (no foundation) and has used no chemical miticides since 2004, and the Nebraska State Apiarist’s inspection certificates show him to have had no mite problems.

The 5.4 mm size of commercial foundation comb is just half a millimeter different from natural beeswax – but Hemenway says the larger size seems to extend bees’ gestation period. The one extra day that is added occurs during the larval stage and before the cell is capped, and this day coincides precisely with the life cycle of the varroa mite – giving the varroa mites one more “bonus” day to enter the larvae’s cell to breed.

Synthetic chemicals used in conventional beekeeping include coumaphos (an organophosphate) and fluvalinate (a pyrethroid). Both are wax-soluble, so they build up in the wax with repeated treatments year after year, encouraging the mites to develop resistance to the chemicals and weakening the bees.

“So this is my point,” said Hemenway. “Put your bees on natural wax, whether you’re using a top bar hive or not. Healthy bees do three important things. They make more bees, which is important; they pollinate, which is crucial; and oddly enough, they make honey as well. So what you need to focus on is, how do I make my bees as healthy as possible?”

Hemenway’s top bar hives come with a screen bottom and an observation window. The screen bottom can be fitted with white plastic “Mighty Board” from hardware stores – a piece of flexible plastic that beekeepers spray with Pam or vegetable oil so that mites stick to it when they fall through the bottom screen, enabling beekeepers to monitor the mite population.

A Biodynamic, Permaculture Approach

Biodynamic farmer and beekeeper Luis Feliciano of Miel Farm & Apiary in Brunswick, Maine (www.mielfarm.com), is a MOFGA journeyperson. Originally from Puerto Rico, he came to the United States in 2006 to study beekeeping and biodynamic farming at the Pfeiffer Center in New York. He then helped establish a bee sanctuary in the middle of corn and soybean farms in Illinois and earned his permaculture design certificate from Midwest Permaculture in Illinois.

Feliciano moved to Maine in 2008 and started Miel Farm as a diversified horse powered farm that practices biodynamic agriculture in a permaculture design system in order to create a sanctuary and safe haven for honeybees. (Miel means “honey” in Spanish.) At Farmer-to-Farmer, he talked about the whole bee colony as one organism – just as Rudolph Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, talked in the early 1900s about the hive as one being. Modern science, too, said Feliciano, recognizes the whole hive as a superorganism. Continuing with the one organism analogy, he noted that the reproductive cycle of the bees is in the swarming, which usually happens once a year.

Feliciano added that the entire farm can be considered one organism, which needs to have trees, annual crops, shrubs and other components to help bees thrive. He is not a fan of the word “sustainability,” because it means keeping the status quo; instead, “We as farmers are looking to have a thriving farm, something that will give more after we leave it.”

Most problems with bees started when we began treating them as an industry, said Feliciano, “exploiting them to get more out of them. With that came the artificial breeding of queens.”

Miel Farm developed, constructs and sells “Penta” top bar hives, designed, said Feliciano, with a healing, pentagonal shape with golden mean proportions. (See www.mielfarm.com/thebees.htm.)

To get a new queen, Feliciano suggested catching a swarm or allowing the natural breeding of queens inside the hive, so that local populations of honeybees are allowed to reproduce in their natural cycle.

Plant trees, shrubs and herbaceous crops that will complement the bee cycle, he continued. Bees collect homeopathic doses of substances from a variety of plants, and trees provide resin for bees. Feliciano plants thyme, peppermint and other beneficial plants around the hive.

He puts his hives as high above the ground – 2 feet or higher – as he can, since bees naturally want to go as high as possible.

Feliciano suggested dissolving propolis in alcohol, combining it with essential oils, and covering the interior of the hive with this tincture to give bees a head start by disinfecting the hive and because the oils repel mites. He also suggested inspecting hives in seven- to nine-day cycles.

Q and A

During the question and answer period, Farmer-to-Farmer participants were advised to check craigslist.org or the Maine Beekeepers Association (www.mainebeekeepers.org) to find sources of local bees rather than buying bees from Florida or Georgia.

To protect hives from bears, surround the hives with an electric fence or with boards with nails or screws poking up, and strap the hive so that if it does get knocked over, the top doesn’t come off.

Regarding siting, Conrad said ideal conditions include direct sunlight with the entrance facing south, or east if south isn’t possible; a well-drained area; a place you can drive into to do beekeeping chores; a site where bees can access forage and clean water for as much of the season as possible; a windbreak; and a place you can keep an eye on. He’s seen bees doing fine without ideal conditions, and direct sun seems to be the most important consideration.

Conrad recommended starting with two hives instead of one. “If one hive is doing something that seems strange and the other is also doing it, it’s probably normal. If one hive dies, you have a replacement.

“Hook up with local beekeepers,” added Conrad. “Remember that there is more than one way to keep bees, and you don’t have to use chemicals.”

Feliciano suggested starting with two hives, “because you kill one just by looking at it. People tend to open one a lot.” He said that the Langstroth hive is usually cheaper, more accessible and is very forgiving, and it is lighter when full (30 pounds for a medium super versus 50 or 80 pounds for a deep hive body), which may be a consideration for some.

Conrad said to look at hives regularly, but after the first year you don’t have to look at them so often.

Deb Soule, who was in the audience, said that the first year she kept bees, they didn’t get enough morning sun, and they froze that winter. Now they’re in the center of her herb garden where they get the morning sun. “By the fifth week, they’re starting to fill the super. There’s a lot of Greek mullein near them. Each plant has hundreds of flowers for three weeks. That’s where the bees went then.”

Among the plants that can feed bees during the season are pussy willows and soft maples (among the first things to bloom), dandelions (flowering during the first honey flow), clover, alfalfa and goldenrod. Also, different plants produce nectar at different times of the day, so be sure to have many plants flowering throughout the season.

Recommended Reading

Bonney, Richard, Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers. Storey, 1991

Conrad, Ross, Natural Beekeeping, Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. Chelsea Green, 2007. www.dancingbeegardens.com

Hauk, Gunther, Toward Saving the Honeybee. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assoc., 2003

Lovell, John, The Honey Plants of North America. 1926. Reprinted by A.I. Root Co., 1999

McGregor, Samuel Emmett, Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants. USDA Agricultural Handbook #496. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976; from used bookstores or bookfinder.com

Ransome, Hilda, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. 1937. Dover edition, 2004

Tautz, Jurgen, The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Super Organism. Springer, 2009

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