February 26th, 2014

26 Feb

I listened to Jon Steinman during his radio series called Deconstructing Dinner.  I never thought I’d meet him or feature in the film version of his radio show.

Here is the link to the webisode I am in:

http://deconstructingdinner.ichannel.ca/urban-honey-guru-brian-campbell/

The other webisodes are excellent.  Obviously a lot of effort and thought went into each one.

If you’ve never listened to Jon or Deconstructing Dinner you can listen here:

http://deconstructingdinner.ichannel.ca/radio-archive/

With Blessed Bee Farm I take honey production very seriously and with the view that healthy and happy bees will produce a honey of unsurpassed quality but also a lot of it.    I put bee health at the centre of my practice, my business decisions revolve around what will protect and increase the health of my bees.

Queens are the foundation of hive health.

As a beekeeper my goal is to raise queens that will live 3 to 5 years.  The current practice in British Columbia among commercial beekeepers, and the standard advice to backyard beekeepers from those in the “know”, is to requeen every year.  In the States it’s to requeen twice a year.

The engine that drives the vigour of the hive is the health of the queen.  If a queen is failing, sick or injured, the hive can be revived with a new queen.  Kill the old one and put in a newly minted queen.

There are several factors that go into making a great queen.

How she is raised for one thing.  It’s true that bees can be driven to make a queen; that beekeepers can stimulate queen rearing without the bees being ready for it.  The results are often below par under those circumstances.

It’s better to start queens in hives eager for the task.  The right mix of drones, healthy nurse bees, foragers bringing in supplies, an abundance of flowers.  Those are key.  With these circumstances what the beekeeper does is identical but the results can be dramatically different.  A long-lived queen for one thing.

Another key factor is the queen’s mating.  Enough drones and drones with a good mix of genetics.  Much of that is by chance but it is possible now to artificially inseminate queens.

Big queen larvae and well mated queens with a diverse mix of genetics, that’s how great queens are made.

Why requeen every year as a standard practice?  My theory is commercially reared queens are not being raised right.  They were forced perhaps and emerged undersized.  Maybe they are not mated with enough genetic diversity from the drones.  It may be that commercial beekeepers are impatient and don’t have the time or money to invest in hive health?

It is said that two year old queens have a greater tendency to swarm so get rid of them.  My experience is a first year queen will too if the conditions are right.  It doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse to carry on the practice of requeening year after year.

Hive health is often considered in the negative.  Good health and what makes a person or a bee healthy is hard to define.  Disease or the absence of health is easy.  Just about every book on honeybee health I have read focuses not on health but on the absence of it, on diseases and pests.

Sadly researchers are discovering that many bee viruses are asymptomatic, meaning the bees could be extremely ill but show no sign of it.  Clearly in this case the absence of signs of disease are not an indication of health.

How to define honeybee health in the positive is a tangled knot I haven’t figured out to untie yet.  When I get there I’ll spill the beans.

Drones are a good indicator of hive health.

First look at the brood frames.  They should all have a more or less equal number of drone cells.  This is a strong sign of good nutritional health throughout each stage in the development and growth of the colony population.  Frames with a significantly higher or lower number suggest that in the area the bees are kept there are seasonal shortages of food.

The age of the drones in the spring tell us when the bees are ready to make queens.  Give them the occasional nudge on the thorax; gently to be sure they are unharmed.  Squishy drones that hang around after you lift your finger are immature, not taking their flights yet.  Slightly hard drones that give your finger a pleasant electrical buzz and run when you take your finger off them are sexually mature.  In the spring when the drones begin to reach that age is when the bees start making queens.

Great honey starts with great queens.  Great queens start with strong healthy hives in a mood to make queens.  It is a positive feedback loop, a generative cycle of expansion and growth based on the ecology of a place able to support a strong hive.  A big circle from healthy flower to healthy bees to healthy queens to healthy and delicious honey and then back again.  It’s the beekeeper’s delight to participate in this.

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