2017 may go down as the year I completely lost my mind.
Let us take a journey back, back in time to 2014. This is the year that, using spring splits as a swarm control method, I found myself with three beeyards and 30 colonies.
What I had neglected to factor in was the equipment required for housing all those split colonies as they grew. I became my bee supplier’s favourite customer. I spent all night hammering together supers and frames. I was always covered in paint. I began to feel….a little stressed.
That summer went by in a blur. A rather unpleasant blur. I kept up, barely, with my beeyard chores. But I was not having much fun. Over the winter I realized I needed to spend quality time with my bees: I love handling the frames, and observing the life of the colony. How to do that?
I dropped the outyards, one of which required a monster commute. And the following spring I sold half my colonies.
Fast forward…I took more courses, stuffed my garage with my bee equipment, got my honey sales under control (jars, labels, posters, business cards, storage, generating a reliable customer list…) and took my time to enjoy the bees.
I became a beekeeping mentor, earned my Master Beekeeper designation, and found I had a zest for teaching the craft…and so earned my instructor level as well.
And that is when another shift happened in my beekeeping career. I began answering emergency calls from new beekeepers. Most of the time…well usually ALL of the time, they were in trouble because of ineffective Varroa control.
It wasn’t all their fault. Many had experienced, as I had, the influence of a Treatment Free mentor. Many were simply not aware that Varroa can overwhelm even a package in its first year. We live in a very bee-dense area where Varroa infestation is heavy and constant. Many could not believe that a bug they couldn’t even see was killing their beloved bees.
And a lot were losing queens early in the season, the victims of poor package queens. In the spring of 2016 there was a record number of package queen failures on both sides of the border. And in response to that, there were rumblings about bringing in exotic sorts of queens, including Africanized. Oy.
I had been kicking around an idea in my head for some time. I live on the Canada/USA border, and my club includes a nice, pan-border assortment of talented, collegial and kindly beekeepers. The answer to our queen issues lay above our heads, in our shared DCA’s (Drone Congregation Areas).
Genetic diversity in the hive is correlated with superior colony health. In Canada we suffer from a lack of genetic diversity as we can only import bees from New Zealand, and those bees are demonstrably poor at dealing with Varroa. In the USA, most of the spring packages were splits off the California almond hives, queened in a hurry.
I already knew I could make better queens than I could buy. What if, in answer to the queen dissatisfaction in our club, I ran a targeted, multi-year, local queen breeding project to improve the quality of our locally bred queens? Members on both sides of the border could source superior queens, whose drones would add diversity to our local DCA’s.
What would that look like?
Hmmm. Would this be an unhappy repeat of my 30 hive summer?
The plan is to learn how to raise queens in larger numbers than I have to date (I only raise enough to requeen my own hives). Not huge numbers…not like the big producers…but the numbers still add up.
If I raise 10 queens a week, in the height of our swarm season, May -June, that is 10 x 8 weeks = 80 queens. All the queens go into mating nucs, and roughly 80% should make it home from their nuptial flights = 64.
64 nuc hives are run out to “proof” the fecundity of the queens. This is the worrying bit. All those nucs have to be monitored, with a view to choosing the very best 20 to take into winter. Next spring, the best 5 of those overwintered queens become the breeder queens for 2018…when I repeat the entire process.
There is another worrying bit: where do I find enough bees to populate the mating nucs? Well, they have to come from my existing hives. I am coming out of winter with 6 strong colonies…I can split them all with purchased queens on (oh dear) April 1st.
Ok, so the idea looks sound…but how am I going to pull this off? I can empty the bee bank account. Multiple times. Boxes, frames, wax, mating nucs. But where does the labour come from?
Enter my wonderful bee club and (relatively) new beekeeper Tim Trudel. Tim is on for this project and so we have not only a team, but one that includes a retired engineer (Tim). Someone thoughtful, organized, detail oriented, practical. All the things I kind of am….not!
Our plan for the summer includes giving ourselves permission to say “enough” if the work load spins out of control. But we are going to give this a shot. And along the way we are trialing new equipment and techniques. We’ll document our experiences as the project unfolds.
We are certainly going to have buckets of fun.
Wish us luck. Wish us success.
And luvlerly queens:
Update April 2017:
Well, maybe I will lose my mind in 2018!! We are having a very long, cold, wet spring and the bees are really suffering for it. In first hive checks I found hives much weaker than I had anticipated. This has been the worst winter performance of my 8 year bee career! A new winter yard site proved to be more windy and exposed than I had thought and so if I spend another winter there, I will radically change my hive config.
Another contributor may be the extended nectar and pollen dearth of late 2016. Normally my two deep colonies have, by September, filled the lower deep wall to wall with pollen (this pollen is gone by first spring checks, having been used to fuel late winter brooding and to maintain bee fat stores, extending the life of the winter bees). But in fall 2016, likely due to extended drought, there was absolutely no pollen in the hives. None. That was a shock. The effect seems to have been: with little or no pollen on board for winter, hives cannot brood up, are dwindling and thanks to the adverse weather, cannot replenish their pollen stores. Alas.
This weakness coming out of winter was a real shock to me. I am usually confident my hives will overwinter well and come out of spring like Ferrari engines. This year I have a fleet of aging Chevettes! Unfortunately, this has derailed my plan to do early splits to double my numbers of laying queens, and thus prime the pipeline for the worker bee production needed to populate mating nucs (and more than that, the nucs the queens go into once mated).
I will be re-orienting my goals for 2017. The beeyard needs to be built back up, largely through beekeeper TLC and careful management through the nectar and pollen glut that will arrive with the maple and alder blooms. For the first time in years I will buy nucs! New queens of promise arrive in July, and I will be breeding from my own very best queens this season…but in reduced volume.
New goals: to arrive at the end of summer with 10 robust double deep colonies, and at least 10 robust nucleus colonies in Michael Palmer style side by side nuc colonies (“Polar Huts”). IF things go well I can aspire to 10 strong singles as well.
On the topic of managing singles, the University of Guelph will in 2017 be presenting a new instructional video in their excellent series on the care and management of singles. I am looking forward to that one!
May this be a season of making lemonade!