Thursday, March 31, 2011


 As Bob mentioned I am in the 'never ever use' camp, I think I should make a statement as to why I am personally against ever using antibiotics for bees;

  • They don’t always work
  • They are not some ‘magic bullet’ that makes everything in the hive better, they only treat bacterial diseases like foulbrood and possibly nosema., and there are a whole host of other non bacterial diseases that beekeepers have to contend with.
  • .They make these bacterial diseases more resistant, causing beekeepers to use larger doses, or having to find different and new types of antibiotics. 
  •  They weaken the hive because antibiotics also kill some of the beneficial intestinal bacteria that bees have naturally in their gut, leaving them in a weakened state and less able to fight off the next round of infection.

As tragic as it is, the death of a colony is really a good thing; it is an example of survival of the fittest. Providing you  raise your own queens from your healthiest hives, keep the hive as stress free as possible, and see the death of a percentage of your hives every year as an acceptable loss, then nature will always prevail.  

This could be trouble...

I was just reading Dennis Murrell's blog "Bee Natural," linked above and in our blog list. First, a note for Dennis: I am devastated to hear about your hive losses and hope you can recover and do it well! Thank you for posting your insights on the issue of virus overload - hopefully folks will learn from them!

The particular blog article I'm referring to is Dennis' reflections on what happened to his hives. He has been raising bees for decades, but has focused on natural beekeeping for about the last ten years. He had placed his hives in a commercial beekeeper's bee yard for safekeeping for a couple of seasons as he headed off to Florida. When he got back, despite the bees being left alone and in near direct contact with treatment resistant diseases and pests, his hives seemed in great health. But the next season they started exhibiting some health issues. Despite antibiotic and other treatments (and I do agree with him that there are times when dosing your bees with antibiotics is a good idea - even though John might not), the bees completely died out over this last winter, exhibiting the signs of Colony Colapse Disorder (CCD).

Not likely CCD since there are lots of bees present -
but it gives you the idea of what happens when a
colony dies out. Also, not our bees nor Dennis'.

Yet it's not the death of his own bees that worries him as much as something possibly more dire. Just by mingling in the area his bees readily caught everything that the commercial bees had (except, interestingly, the mites) and those diseases tore his hives to pieces. Research has pointed to those diseases being easily trransmitted from commercial/domestic bees to wild bees and even other pollinators. And this is what has him worried.  I'll let him explain:
I don’t know whether all my past wishing would have prevented this season’s outcome. Maybe the wild bees, which have also been decimated, were the disease vector my for bees. But I suspect it was probably the other way around. And recent research shows it possible,
It’s one thing for me to loose my bees. But it’s quite another thing for the wild bee population to perish because of my bees.
The implication here is that the CCD problems we face could easily spread to feral pollinators. As I was getting at in my previous couple of blogs, they are inexorably linked, we really need to find a solution and a better way to do things when it comes to our practices both in the realm of beekeeping and agriculture.
Posted by Bob Nelson

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Intuitive beekeeping

Solid Bottom Board with entrance reducer -
as it's name implies, the bottom boards are the base for the rest of the hive

With the first inspection of the season, we found that the underside of the cover of the Sicilian Beehive was damp and peeling. We assume that this was caused by a build up of excessive condensation during the winter. However, the lid of the Italian hive showed no such damage. We have come to the conclusion that this is in all likelihood due to the fact that the Italian hive has a screened bottom board which helped in some way to reduce the condensation, whereas the Sicilian hive has a solid bottom board.  Were the beehives to spend a second winter at the side of my house I think we would have dispensed with the solid bottom boards altogether and would have switched to screen bottoms only. However the bees have been moved to a friend's farm, and the beehives are exposed to more sun and wind now. Perhaps with the change in their environment the bottom board may now be an asset, though we won’t know for sure until they have overwintered for a second season.

Screened Bottom Board - hardware screen allows for easy ventilation
 I begin to suspect that a good beekeeper is one that pays attention to the condition of the beehive in respect to the environment it is located in, and that just  like bees, hive design needs to adapt to local conditions, as what may work in Florida may not work so well in Maine.

It will be interesting to see what the lids will look like next spring.

Posted by John Rodgers

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Maybe I was a bit unfair

A couple of posts ago, I basically excoriated the beekeeping industry for practices that hurt bees and that these practices contribute solely to CCD. That is a bit unfair as there are other factors to consider.

Migratory beekeeping has been happening almost as long as humans have kept bees. Egyptians put hives on barges and coasted them up and down the Nile. Other peoples have strapped them to donkeys to follow the flow. When intercontinental rails opened up, beekeepers were there with their hives. Some bees migrate all season long: Borneo beekeepers sometimes migrate with the bees in a small reversal. CCD didn't affect the Egyptians - but those bees had access to multiple flower types along the Nile's fecund shores.

In America, migratory beekeeping is so popular because the current agricultural model is to lay waste to the land, er, rather...plant one crop and only one crop over all surrounding acreage. This monoculture model directly contributes to the undernourishment of the bees. Even if migratory beekeeping wasn't practiced, this lack of biodiversity would likely have some ill effect on the bees, just not to the same degree.

Due to monoculture crops, the land itself is weakened and must be supplemented with all sorts of synthetic fertilizers to nourish the crops. And, due to the lack of full nutrition to the crops, the weakened crops must be supplemented with all sorts of pesticides. Pesticides kill insects indiscriminately; bees are insects. Get the idea? Most of these pesticides do not kill instantly, but rather allow time for the bees to bring them back to the hive, thereby exacerbating the problems inside the hives with existing miticides. And remember, those pesticides are still present when you eat your fruits and veggies. Some of the pesticides are now systemic to the plants: they become part of the plant so that growers need not worry about rain or watering washing off the posion. Pests thus have no way to avoid the pesticide as it becomes part and parcel with the plant. So, that means you can't wash it off, either.

The problems affecting bees will soon be problems affecting us. To a degree, they already do in that the nutrition we get from monoculture crops is a ghost of what it should be and the pesticide residues. A recent study in Spain found that men between 18 and 23 all have significant traces of multiple pesticides in their blood. Many even had traces of DDT, something that I believe was banned before most of these men were born. The study wanted to see if their was a correlation between pesticides and fertilization or lack thereof. If these residual traces do have an effect on humans, what kind of effect do they have on beneficial insects?

So, and this will seem like crazy talk to those who now my conservative viewpoints, my point of this blog is this: a cycle of bad agricultural practices feeds into bad beekeeping practices and will land all of us in a bad spot if we don't change how we view how and what we eat. Will it be easy? By no means. Change rarely is nor is making the right choices. But that doesn't make it any less necessary.

Posted by Bob Nelson

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hello, Spring! We missed ya!

Today is the first full day of spring, and I am ecstatic that it has arrived! John and I showed winter out the door with our first inspection of the hives. I must say, they look lovely. The number of bees surprised me as I would have expected it to be a bit of a slower build up. To my mind, the population looked equal to, if not greater than, what we started with from the nucs last year - roughly 10,000 bees.

The temperment of the Sicilians reflected the beautiful temperature of the day: warm and cheery. Ditto goes to the Italians, though they got a little annoyed when John thunked the inner cover against the pallet their hive rests on to clear of bees so he could scrape burr comb and propolis off. One of the girls let me know of their displeasure and stung me (I wonder if this is the sort of reason most beekeepers are solitary animals).

Both hives contained good honey and bee bread stores. As importantly for this time of year, they both held a good number of eggs, larvae and capped brood. This means that despite not seeing the queens they are active and healthy. Because of the healthy population boom, John and I have set our sights on splitting the hives. Splitting is the most cost effective means of building up one's apiary. And it is just what it sounds like: taking one hive and making two by putting frames with a bunch of brood and capped honey along with plenty of worker bees into another hive. The tricky part is knowing whether the queen remained in the "mother" hive or got moved into the new one. It seems that most beekeepers that do splits just let the queenless hive take care of itself and raise a queen from the brood. However, we have a goal to expand the apiary with different breeds like Russians and Carniolans. So we want to time our splits with having new queens that we order. Judging by the dearth of mail order queens (which reminds me: be careful with searching for Russian queens on the Internet as you get a lot of results that have nothing to do with bees), we might be thinking a bit too early about splits.

Nonetheless, our beekeeping season is officially open and yesterday was a much better day for it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Natural or organic?

Some of the inspiration for posts comes from email threads John and I have. That's where this one comes from.

If we were to seek "true" USDA organic certification, we'd run into a few problems. First off, everything inserted into the hive, whether sugar or probiotic supplement or smoke from the smoker, would have to be documented. I'm not saying we're lazy beekeepers, but this just isn't us. Second, and much more problematically, is that no true standards for organic honey exists.

Ross Conrad writes about this in his book Natural Beekeeping. Two quasi-standards have been adopted in lieu of official standard. One is the conservative: not only do you raise the bees organically, everything they can get their paws and proboscis on is also organic. That means that every neighbor or crop within 5 miles must be certified organic. That's a tough nut to crack as it desparately limits where a beekeeper can put hives.

The second is the liberal interpretation where the beekeeper raises the bees organically without regard to his or her surroundings. This way, if the honey isn't quite organic, the bees are to blame as the beekeeper has done the best s/he can do.

All said and done, one should know that even if the beekeeper sticks to the conservative definition, non-organic means may still be used on not only bees but every crop or animal that one eats. According to Title XXI - Orgainc Certification, Section 2110 Animal Production Practices and Materials a livestock rancher can still gain certification as long as s/he does not do the following:
So, when the label says "USDA Organic," it ain't what you think it means. If the animal has been sick, medicine or antibiotics have been used. And your organic milk possibly comes from an cow that has only been "organically" certified for a year. I don't bring these things up to suggest that organic farmers and ranchers are running a con on American consumers, but rather that the label doesn't mean as much as we've been led to think it does.

So what does this mean for the bees John and I raise? Because of the location of the hives, in John's backyard on the east side of the third biggest city in Colorado, we could be categorized as a strong sense of the liberal definition of organic beekeeping. Our goal is to raise strong bees that can take care of themselves. If this means that a hive dies out due to a disease, we're okay with it as that suggests something is lacking in their immune system. However, with assistance such as natural probiotics like kombucha and acidophillus and using organic menthols to deal with mites, we aren't just out for survival of the fittest.

So if you want to label us, call it natural honey as we have no intention of seeking the organic label. But I must say (a little biasedly, of course) that our "Suburban Blends" from last year taste better than anything else I've had!

Monday, March 14, 2011

first pollination observed

I observed a tree full of bees in the street next to ours. Suprised me to see bee foraging this early. I think the tree is a type of Maple ( I will confirm later in the season when leaves appear ). Not sure if they were our bees , but a quick look at our hives showed they were coming and going in large numbers.

A Call to Organic Beekeeping

Sometime in 2006 I heard about Collany Collapse Disorder - the bees in thousands of hives across the globe just seemed to disappear - and figured it was another fearmongering tactic by left wing eco-Nazis bent on destroying the economy (no, I'm not a fan of Al Gore, but that's an argument for another day). I was wrong. I started paying attention to my neighborhood butterfly bushes. I don't know if that's what they are actually called, but they do attract butterflies and bees love them, too. All I ever seemed to see was wasps and hornets. I didn't see any bumblebees either. At the time I didn't do much else but keep looking and watching.

When John asked me if I wanted to get into beekeeping, I jumped at the idea and really got into the research (see some of our earliest posts for this story). As far as CCD goes, there is no single smoking gun that seems to cause it. That doesn't mean researchers haven't given us some really good ideas as to it cause, though. For a detailed look into the most likely causes of CCD, I recommend reading Rowan Jacobsens's Fruitless Fall. He discovers, as well as further findings from the EPA and others, that it comes from a multitude of factors:
  • increased losses due to the invasive varroa mite (a pest of honeybees);  
  • new or emerging diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema;
  • pesticide poisoning through exposure to pesticides applied to crops or for in-hive insect or mite control;
  • bee management stress;
  • foraging habitat modification;
  • inadequate forage/poor nutrition and
  • potential immune-suppressing stress on bees caused by one or a combination of factors identified above.
(, 03/11/2011)
 I want to focus on the bee management stressors, particularly "in-hive insect or mite control," "inadequate forage/poor nutrition" and "migratory stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distances to provide pollination services" (though it's not mentioned in the list above, the article cited adds this as another factor in CCD). To see how these factors work together to cause the bees stress, let's look at the honey industry for a moment.

Honey doesn't make the most money for a beekeeper. These days pollination services can actually make more money than the liquid gold. Most large scale beekeepers (keeping at least 500 hives but more likely a thousand or more) move their hives all through the year, following the blooms of various crops. They rent out their bees to farmers to pollinate the crop to maximize fruit or vegetable production. The almond crops in California are probably the largest of all the single crops that need the bees. Beekeepers this year will make between $120 and $180 per hive. Ironically, almond honey is bitter and not used for human consumption (

After one crop is finished, the beekeepers pack all their bees onto flatbed trucks and haul them to the next crop that is throwing nectar or needing pollination, moving northward as the season gets warmer. At the end of the year, they usually move them back to the south to get them ready for the next year. (Read Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop for an unabashed look on the migratory beekeeping industry.)

By doing this, migratory beekeepers have done a number of things to the bees. Bees are pretty much homebodies. They pick a spot and can stay there for years as long as nothing disturbs them too much. In other words, they naturally only move if they have to. Forced migration stresses a hive badly. Stress a body too much and it will get sick easier. One side effect comes from pests and diseases (such as the aforementioned mites and gut parasites Nosema from the EPA article, plus many more) spreading with the migrations. What would take decades for a disease or parasite to do via traveling from sick hive to healthy hives and beyond, migratory beekeeping has spread most of the them to nearly all points of the United States.

As beekeepers found their bees succumbing to the pests and diseases, they sought treatment. Antibiotics and miticides were applied liberally. It worked for a bit, then the diseases and pests developed resistance to the treatments. More and different treatments were applied and resistances continue to build.

Ready for another irony? In small doses, the pesticides used to treat the mites are harmless to the bees. But the pesticides build up in the honey comb that the bees build and eventually gets to levels that are harmful to the bees, whom don't seem to build any resistances to them. In the bullet point above that aims at pesticides for crops and in-hive use being a contributing factor to CCD, it doesn't mention something important. Jacobsen discovered that the wax comb from an average hive contained multiple types pesticides, most of the variety coming from those that are applied to crops. However, the ones by far in the highest concentrations were the ones beekeepers use for mite control. The evidence strongly suggests that beekeepers carry most of the responsibililty for poisoning their bees.

Inadequate forage and poor nutrition also play into this problem. Imagine eating nothing but hamburgers (with no condiments or cheese or bun, just the burger) and only one kind of beverage for several weeks. It wouldn't do a body very good: we need not only good food but a variety of it for diversity in nutrients and in flavor. When the bees are used strictly for pollination, this is what happens to them: the pollen they collect gives them protien and the nectar gives them the sugars they need, but the monoculture diet doesn't give them all the nutrients they need. A study from France shows some of the negative effects of such diets.

At least two studies in Europe found that the monoculture-style of agri-business has made an impact on bee health. In every industrialized nation food production focuses on large tracts of single types of plants. In America, corn stands as the plant of choice, taking up so much space in our greenbelt that the crops can be seen from space. This lack of diversity has its own impact on the health of the land, but also on the health of pollinators like bees. Matthew Oates, Nature Conservation Adviser at the National Trust, an charity that works to protect 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments in England, cited the limited pollen sources available to bees in the country as one of the causes of the 50% decline in the population of bees over the last 20 years. But urban beekeepers are finding the exact opposite. Due to the wide variety of plants avaialbe to bees through gardening, honey bees thrive in the city. “These are interesting early findings, seemingly backing what we've suspected for a while - namely that bees today often fare better in urban environments than in contemporary farmland,” he said. (

In France, the findings run the same course. Urban beekeeper and artist Olivier DarnĂ© spoke about a similar study. "We did an analysis of the honey we made here in Paris and discovered that it contained more than 250 different pollens. In the countryside there can be as few as 15 or 20 pollens." Much more anecdotedly, John and I have seen the same thing with our bees. We did four harvests through the season last year and each successive harvest contained darker and darker honey, suggesting a variety of flowers over their gathering season. Such a variety helps keeps the bees healthy and productive. As DarnĂ© puts it, "It is an unwelcome paradox that city bees do better than country bees." (
As much as it seems that I am, migratory beekeeping practices cannot be held completely to blame for this interplay of stressors that wreak havoc on the bees. Because of our penchant for "better living through chemicals" and looking for easy fixes, humans love to get addicted to the "what works" method of dealing with life, even when it no longer does. Most migratory, non-migratory commmercial, small-scale and hobbyist beekeepers use miticides and antibiotics on their hives. And they often use them whether needed or not for preventive measures or because that's what they were told to do by the books, internet, etc.

So where does a second-year hobbyist get off telling everyone they need to change their ways? Looking at the research tells me that we need to move to new methods to save the bees, and thus a good portion of the agricultural business that depends on them. We need to change our beekeeping habits as much as we need to change the habits of agribusiness if we are to sustain our food industry. Just as the bees suffer from long term exposure to "harmless" pesticides, we will at some point, too. As an example tied to agriculture, manufacturers of high-fructose corn syrup tell us that ingesting it in moderation is fine, no different than sugar. But how does one take HFCS in moderation when it is in nearly all processed foods?

Pesticides and herbicides in our diet are even worse: they are in everything that we eat that is not organically grown.

John and I and a number of other beekeepers are looking to organic beekeeping as a way not only to save the bees, but to enhance their lives. Ross Conrad recently put out a book called Natural Beekeeping. I recommend doing the research and discovering what we did, it will change how you view the food you put in your mouth and change it for the better. Then look into getting into'll be glad you did when you realize that you can contribute something to the world in such a fun and fascinating way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

To feed or not to feed...

I'm on a mailing list for a beekeeping club here in Colorado and the hot topic in the last week has been late winter or early spring feeding. There's a bit of a joke that if you ask two beekeepers a question, you'll get three answers, and spring feeding fits that well.

Beekeepers get worried this time of year as they dread that their bees didn't store enough honey to make it through the winter. It's an easy worry to fall into and I have felt it a bit. I know in my head that our two hives were loaded with honey going into the late fall, but in my gut I get a little "oogie" thinking things like "What if they didn't store enough?" and "What if they can't get to all of it?" (this last scenario seems a bit too common: a beekeeper opens the hive in the spring and see a bunch of dead worker bees with their heads buried in cells as they tried to get the last dollop of honey as they starved, yet a full frame of honey hangs nearby). John and I have invested a good bit of time and money into the girls and the last thing we want to do is open up a hive and find them dead. So, it's easy to feel a bit worried.

Three camps of thought appeared on whether a beekeeper should feed their bees this time of year:
  • Never do it
  • Always do it
  • Do it if necessary
Before I go on, let me explain a bit about feeding bees. Feeding can involve something as simple as sprinkling table sugar on the top of the frames the bees cluster on or making sugar patties out of Crisco, sugar, essential oils, and a protien supplement or anything in between. Again, ask two beekeepers, get three answers on what you should feed your bees.

The Nevers usually get to that point by believing two things. First, the cost in time and money seemed to outweigh benefit. If a beekeeper has just a few hives, this may not be such a big deal. But for those that have a dozen or more, mixing up sugar patties or even sugar syrup (table sugar melted into hot water) can be a hassle. Plenty of products can be found to do the same thing, but that means cash outflow. The second reason they stopped feeding their bees, if they started, is to just let the bees be. They know how to take care of themselves and the ones that survive tend to be strong bees and produce more strong bees and just accept the losses as they come.

The Always...well, I'm not entirely sure why they always feed the bees this time of year. Habit and concern, I would imagine, primarily feed their desire to make sure their bees are all fed up. Humans are habitual by nature and beekeepers are no exception. If the beekeeper has always engaged in feeding in the past, why change the habit? The concern factor is easy to peg, too. I was quite relieved yesterday when John texted me that both of the hives were alive and well. Last week when I checked on them, I heard a good healthy buzz coming from the Sicilians, but couldn't hear anything from the First Italians (placing my ear directly against the hive gave me a nice bit aural access to the hive - next time I'm bringing a stethoscope).

Judging by John's and my philosophy about the bees, we probably fall in the third category: Never-leaning Sometimers. It seems that sometimes it will be necessary to give the bees a hand up to help them get to the nectar flow. I don't want to lose a hive just because they can't quite make it to the first bloom--too much money and time have been put into our girls to lose them to a fickle fall or an overly warm winter. But, I don't want them to get dependent on that first kick of sugar, either. To put it in political terms, entitlement programs are necessary, but a nanny state is unwanted in our realm. We'll keep an eye on our girls and do what we can to make sure they stay strong and healthy.

As spring approaches, John and I look heartily forward to interacting with the bees. We plan on splitting both hives and I want to pick up a package or two and collect at least one swarm. In the meantime, it's research and construction season!