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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Keith Fielder on Beekeeping more Like Mother Nature

Last night Keith Fielder, Cooperative Extension Agent at UGA, Georgia Master Beekeeper, Welsh Honey judge and all around good guy, talked to the Metro Atlanta Beekeeper's Association on the importance of low impact beekeeping.

As a beekeeper who is trying to stay as natural as possible with my hives, I was thrilled to hear Keith supporting Mother Nature.

By low impact beekeeping he emphasized:
  • No chemicals
  • A more natural environment both inside and outside the colony

He also emphasized the importance of us beekeepers understanding the biology of the honeybee (see my notes from his earlier talk) as well as the biology of the pests that intrude on the bee and the biology of the diseases of the honey bee.

Keith uses no chemicals in his hives - no chemical treatments and no drugs. He discovered that he lost about the same number of colonies each winter with or without chemicals - so why not leave the bees be?

From the outside the hive natural approach, he put up the slide below. The tree in which a bee colony could certainly live stands alone, and thus the bee colony stands alone. We tend to put our colonies side by side (for the convenience of the beekeeper) and that is not natural. Keith is trying to locate his colonies at least 50 yards from each other.

While that is impractical for me in my urban yard, remembering the consequences of unnatural colony location is important. With hives beside each other, drifting between hives may occur and if you have mites in one colony, you will have mites in all the colonies. Just as if you have small hive beetles, you are likely to find them in all hives.

From the inside-the-colony perspective, he encouraged us to keep our equipment clean, to be super cautious about purchasing old equipment from old beekeepers because all of its problems will come with it, and to change out the combs at least every three years.

I asked him about the old comb in a tree (in other words, how does Mother Nature handle old comb) and he said that bees in a tree continually build upward in the tree trunk. When they've gotten as far up as they can go, they abscond and find a new home. The inherent wax moths then take over and destroy the old comb. Then scout bees show up, attracted by the hive smell, find a new home with no old wax, since it has been destroyed by the wax moths, and move a swarm in to start the process all over.

He said that screened bottom boards are essential to a clean hive. Debris, mites, and other detrius fall through the SBB and don't return to the hive. In addition the SBB provides ventilation, essential to a healthy hive.

While he didn't talk about or encourage foundationless beekeeping, he did say that if you use commercial wax, you will have chemicals in your hive introduced by the wax from the commercial companies. He suggested using plastic foundation with no wax coating.

Michael Bush says that the bees don't like plastic and it doesn't work to give them plastic with no wax coating. Cindy Bee who was at the meeting asked about using a strip of paper in the groove, much like I use a wax strip. Popsicle sticks will accomplish the same thing when glued in the frame groove. The goal of all of the aforementioned is to have fresh, uncontaminated wax in the hive.

He talked about bee genetics - using queens from hygienic stock such as the Purvis Brothers' gold line or from survivor stock - like great swarms. If there are enough drones around, he is fine with the bees making their own queens. (Currently my hives at home all have queens that they have made themselves).

When asked about the bad queens many people got in Atlanta in the early nucs this year, he said that buying commercial nucs means that you are getting old queens from last year that the commercial guys don't want any more and that the new queens, with all the rain this spring in Florida, are (and what I heard here was:) shortbread.

As a cook I wondered how the queen bee can be shortbread, but his answer made me understand that what he actually said was, "short-bred," meaning that instead of 17 or 18 drones mating with the queen, she may have only mated with one. (See the story about Julia's drone laying queen at Blue Heron)

He said that nutrition for bees will be the next area of research after colony collapse disorder. Bees have a hard time now getting variety into their diet. We have a "fragmented habitat" and less plant diversity. You should see in a healthy colony all colors of pollen coming in the door in the spring. If you don't see this, then your bees are probably not being fed in a well-rounded way.

He did encourage feeding nucs sugar syrup - not corn syrup. As an Ag agent, he is quite aware of the process sugar goes through from cane to table and feels fine about feeding syrup made from cane sugar to his bees.

A very natural, as in nonchemical, way to control for mites is to do splits. This is because in a split, the old queen stays in one place and the other half of the split has no queen. bees in that half of the split have to make their own queen from an egg, and the process takes about a month from egg to laying queen. This disrupts the varroa mite life cycle because without a laying queen, the mite can't reproduce themselves in a bee egg. Thus the mites die out over this period.

In essence he promoted in every way that a good beekeeper helps the bees have what they need NATURALLY.

What a breath of fresh air!
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  1. Dear Linda,thanks a lot your sharing,very useful information.I believe that we must keep those important rules.Best wishes.

  2. I'm so glad so many beekeepers are beginning to embrace low impact practices. I spoke to an old-time beekeeper this past week who said "I lost 11 hives this winter. I think I poisoned them with the chemicals I've been using. From now on I will only be using sugar shakes." Yaaay!

  3. Wow, Linda what a great insightful talk - I would love to get that man to speak down here !I agree totally with all he has to say, we must get back to caring for our bees as naturally as we can - we will loose them if we don`t. What he says makes so much sense . .

  4. Charles B.5:59 PM

    I trust Keith'S Beekeeping judgement a lot.
    Does He use "sugar shake" for varroa?

    Please keep up the good work here, you are my
    Georgia "bee" contact now that I am in Tn.

  5. Yes, he encouraged using powdered sugar shakes to help the bees groom off varroa mites

  6. Thanks for sharing all this helpful information. I just got my first hive recently, and want to do everything as naturally as possible.

  7. I have a swarm that has a heavily completed brood box and nothing above. I live at 7,000 ft. in Colorado. My 2 other hives are new since May. They each have 2 full deeps with little cell drawing in the supers above.

    It seems I need to combine the swarm hive for wintering.

    1. Do I split the swarm between the 2 other hives?

    2. The 2 deeps in the other hives are bursting. Where do I put the swarm frames?

    3. Should I take some honey frames from the other two and add them to the swarm hive? Then, do I have 3 weakened hives?

    Thank you,

  8. Valerie, You probably should consult with a Colorado beekeeper. I don't know what a hive in Colorado needs to go through the winter. The swarm hive sounds like it is doing fine but doesn't have stores for the winter. You could feed the swarm hive and leave it intact. Let me use what you feed them to build up for winter.

  9. Iread Dennis Murrel's site where he talks about checker boarding when the bees are in survival mode. I guess that means preparing for winter. Here are my thoughts on what to do with 2 strong hives (Gold & Joy) and one month old swarm hive (Slim).

    Slim has no honey storage. Gold and Joy have 2 bursting deeps each and 1 scantly developed super each (both are new hives).

    1. Remove the supers.

    2. Checker board the honey deeps among the 3 hives.

    3. Check them at the end of August.

    What do you think?

  10. Yes, I thought about just feeding them. I see you have a link to Dennis Murrell so I suspect that you know him. Dennis and I have been in communication and we are feeding our bees probiotics that we make from Kombucha tea. I also use a tea mix I took from Rudolph Steiner: chamomile tea, thyme, and a good pinch of organic salt. They really drink this brew up. I buy my chamomile tea in bulk from Mexico and get only flowers. Much better than US brands and prices.

    Thank you,

  11. Checkerboarding is mainly to combat swarms in the early spring, according to Walt Wright who developed the concept. I haven't read Dennis Murrel, so he may some idea about checkerboarding for winter. If there's not a nectar flow, no matter where you put the frames of honey, the bees are not going to make more. But I am all for doing whatever you can to encourage the bees to get ready for winter~~ especially in Colorado!

  12. I received an e-mail from Dennis and he emphatically wrote not to checkerboard but to feed.

    I'm taking the extruder off and maybe that will encourage the bees in the other hives to go up and build. That might give me some frames for Slim in September.

    Thank you,

  13. André Rosa9:43 PM

    i have a big swarm and i have been thinking in splitting it in 2 or more swarms before next winter....what do you think?


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