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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 2

Dr. Leo Sharashkin gave a two-day series of lectures on natural beekeeping and managing Layens hives for my local bee club a couple of weekends ago. Part 1 of my notes is in an earlier post. It covers some general notes on keeping bees naturally and on selling honey for a premium price. Today's post covers some of the tips Leo gave for managing Layens hives.

Before I go into my notes, though, I thought it would be helpful to provide some background info on Layens hives for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Layens hive
The Layens hive was developed in France during the 19th century by George Layens. It's a horizontal hive that uses deep frames. As you can see in the photo below, the frames are narrower than a Langstroth frame, but they are much taller than a deep frame. In terms of volume, a Layens frame is 30% larger than a Lang deep.

Layens frame dimensions.
From 
http://horizontalhive.com/how-to-build/layens-hive-frame-plans.shtml

Layens frames are narrower than Lang frames so that there is less unheated space around the cluster in the winter. They are deeper so that the bee cluster can stay in contact with their honey stores all winter and move upward more easily. (Lang hives have a break between boxes.) In Zone 6, there should be enough honey above the cluster that they never have to move to a new frame over winter. (That is a drawback with TBHs in severely cold weather.) Another benefit to having all the honey the bees need for winter on the same frames as the cluster is that the beekeeper never has to wonder whether he/she is leaving enough stores.

Layens frames touch each other like top bars


Because Layens hives are horizontal and don't require bees to travel between boxes, they have a solid roof like TBHs, there is much less disturbance to the bees during inspections than with a Lang. Also, since they are horizontal, they are much easier on the back, just like TBHs. A fully built frame with honey weighs about 10 lbs.

Seven Layens frames is about 40 liters in volume -- what bees look for in a cavity when swarming. However, it's not enough volume to harvest any honey. So Layens' original design recommended 14 frames. Leo, though, brought an extended Layens hive that had 19 frames. If I did the math correctly, 19 Layens frames is equivalent to about 25 Lang deep frames (which is also half the volume of a Lazutin hive).

In case you are wondering how these numbers translate to honey harvests, at one point over the weekend, Leo said that he averages 20 lbs of honey per hive. However, that is an average that includes dead-outs, new colonies, and honey spent feeding colonies. He said that some hives make much more than 20 lbs.

So that's some background info. On to management notes...

Goals for natural hive management
Leo stressed several times that when managing hives naturally, the beekeeper needs to do the three following things:

  • Increase hives through reproduction (i.e., splits & swarms)
  • Give every colony a yearly brood cycle break
  • Time the brood cycle break in sync with honey flows

Syncing egg production with natural flows
Eggs need to be laid in sync with local forage conditions to take advantage of the flows. Because of the amount of time it takes to develop from egg to forager, eggs need to be laid 6 weeks prior to peak flow.

Egg production also has to stop in sync with flows as well. Otherwise, the bees waste resources rearing brood that emerge and become "hungering mouths that eat all the resources."

This is one reason why Sharashkin recommends using local bees. Egg production behavior is genetically encoded. Local bees will start and stop production at the right time.

The diagram below shows the timing of splitting for Leo's area. The x-axis represents time, and the the y-axis indicates volume. So if you look at nectar flow (the blue line), at the beginning of the year, there is no  nectar coming in in January. However, by the middle of May/beginning of June, the nectar flow is at its peak, but it quickly tapers off by the end of summer.

The green line shows how the bees perform. Around the end of February/beginning of March, the bees start ramping up very quickly so that their brood production peaks about 6 weeks prior to the peak of the nectar flow. Leo splits his hive at that time, around May 1. As the nectar production slows down, so do the bees, though there may be a small increase in production at the end of the year as they raise their winter bees.

Note: This graph shows Leo's conditions. Your own local conditions may vary greatly. For instance, if you live in an area, with two peaks in the nectar flow, you will see your bees build up twice during the year.


Because of the emphasis on producing bees in sync with natural flows, Leo warns against raising bees with sugar because it forces bee colonies to grow and develop faster than they would in nature.

Traditional way to create sustainable colonies
Layens wrote that beekeepers should leave colonies alone for 2 years.

  • Year 1: Leave bees alone and let them collect reserves
  • Year 2: Let the bees swarm and continue to collect reserves. You can use the swarms to increase your apiary.
  • Year 3: You can harvest honey, leaving 50-60 lbs in the hive at all times.

Personally, I don't know how many people have the patience to follow that advice, but if you can do it, Sharashkin says you will have much more vigorous colonies.

Early Spring
Let's say you have a colony that has overwintered successfully. There are two primary tasks this time of year.

  1. Expanding the brood nest
  2. Splitting the colony

Expanding the brood nest.
In early spring, you have to expand the brood chamber. If you don't, the colony will keep doing it's thing, but it won't make any extra honey.

However, when expanding the brood chamber, you have to be careful that you don't add too much space because that could result in chilled brood or in your having to feed them.

Leo waits until nectar is flowing, bees are starting to build up, and the danger of chilling at night is over. He recommends talking to local beeks to identify the appropriate time for your location. For him, he is in Zone 6, and he waits until the redbud begins to bloom (about the last week of March). At that time, he opens the hive and expands the brood nest by 50%. So if the brood cluster overwintered on 6 frames, he'll add 3 empty ones. If they overwintered on 4, he adds 2 empty frames. The benefits of inserting frames this way are:

  • The brood area remains intact, so they stay warm if night temps drop.
  • The youngest brood is kept closest to the entrance where foragers want to drop off nectar. This reduces congesting, thereby delaying swarming.
  • Although Leo didn't say this, this approach has the advantage of automatically starting to cycle out some of the old comb.


Imagine the hive looks like this coming out of winter.
Brood bars are at one end of the hive near the entrance.

Expand the brood nest by inserting empty frames between the brood bars and entrance.
Expanding the brood nest this way has an advantage over the Lang hive because you can add as much or as little space for new brood as you need. In a Lang, you have to add an entire box, so you are limited to adding either 0% space or 100% space, even if a colony is not sufficiently strong to maintain or fill that space.

Note on feeding: In the event that something happened and you need to feed your bees in early spring, Leo offered an easy way to do this. If there is uncapped honey above the bees, the bees are highly unlikely to touch it because they view it as a reserve. If you absolutely need to fee them, break open the capped honey above their heads (a fork will work for that purpose) and lightly spritz the honey with a little water to dilute it a bit. The bees will treat it like nectar.

Splitting the colony.
Leo makes splits about 2 weeks after expanding the nest when he sees lots of capped brood. (He begins expansion about the end of March, so splits take place roughly around the 2nd week in April.) The presence of drone brood is another indicator that it's a good time to split.

At that time, he takes every other brood frame and every other honey frame and moves it to the back of the hive. Both sides should have eggs, larvae, and capped brood. A solid divider is placed between the halves. Make sure the bees cannot travel back and forth. If there are any gaps in the divider board, seal them off.

Split arrangement


If you know which side the queen is on, that's well and good. If not, notch the lower wall of 3-5 worker brood cells in both sides of the hive. This opens up the cells so that they look more like queen cells. Choose the youngest, tiniest larvae you can find.

Cut bottom of brood cells to jumpstart queen production.

Sharashkin says that splitting in the same hive allows the colonies to share warmth and conserve resources until spring is well and truly underway. At that time, you can move the split into its own hive.

In a Lang, splits should have a minimum of 4 frames, but as little as 2 will do. In a Layens, 2 frames is sufficient for a split, but Leo aims for 3-4.

Note: At some point in the year, the side with the queen will need a brood break. This can be accomplished late in the season by using a push-in cage to confine the queen for 3 weeks.

Note: If you want more honey, make sure the queen is by the old entrance so that she gets the foragers. However, if you want both splits to be more of an equal size, you could start your colony in the center of the hive and let them get used to using either entrance. Then split them up by putting each split on either side of the hive. Returning foragers will use both entrances.

Note: An alternative method to the split describe above is a shook swarm. Very early in the season (for him, early April) shake all the bees into a new box. Give them some new comb and a honey. Doing this early reduces the chances of losing a lot of brood.


Swarm Season
Hopefully, by the time swarm season arrives, you will already have split your hive. However, if you see swarm cells, you can try to head off the swarm by adding some empty frames near the entrance and removing all but a couple of queen cells.

During swarm season, Leo checks his swarm traps at least once a month. His traps are basically a Layens hive with 7 frames, which is 40 L in volume. Having traps that use the same frames and dimensions as his hives makes them easy to transfer if he doesn't get to check them right away.

Colonies that swarm at the end of the nectar cycle (June for him) will need to be fed.

You can read tips for catching swarms on his website.

Bait hive.
In warm climates, Leo recommends an upper entrance.
If your climate is cool, it may be unnecessary.
Winter
The beauty of the Layens hive in cold climates is that they provide ventilation for moisture with minimal heat loss.

When closing up for winter, any honey outside of the brood nest is surplus, so if there are any honeycombs, Sharashkin takes all but one of them. He leaves one frame for spring emergencies.

Wintering frames go in the center of the hive with a divider on both sides of the brood. The divider boards should have a 1/2"-3/4" gap under the divider board.

Insulation goes over the cluster frames. The roof of the hive has a 2" air pocket between the frames and the roof to accommodate the insulation. The roof also has screen openings on both ends to allow moisture to escape.

See the holes in the roof? Those are screened vents.
There is also 2" of space between the roof and the tops of the frames.


Warm air rises to the top of the cluster and preheats the honey they are about to consume. It also warms up the space between the cluster and divider boards. The gaps beneath the divider boards also provide ventilation, sucking moisture out of the hive.



Note: Sharashkin said that you can either winter with frames in the center of the hive or frames at one end of the hive (which is what the first diagram illustrated showing bees coming out of winter). However, the diagrams he provided regarding wintering showed all frames in the center, so that's how I've shown them here.

The diagrams above show the hive without any frames on either side of the cluster. The frames that get pulled are frozen for 48 hours. Sharashkin then allows the frames to come to room temperature and lets any condensation evaporate (you can use a fan to speed up evaporation). He then stores them in a hive that is totally sealed (all cracks are taped up.) However, if you are in cold climate, he says you can store empty frames in the hive behind the divider boards. Just be sure to leave a gap between frames somewhere behind the dividers for ventilation.

Insulation
Sharashkin recommends insulating hives in a cold climate. Two methods he recommends are:

  1. Double-walled hives using straw, wool, or wood shavings as the insulation. He recommended using a natural material because they allow moisture to pass through the walls of the hive. 
  2. A mixture of fresh manure, straw, and clay or dirt in equal proportions with a few handfuls of ash mixed in and enough water to make it workable. This would be applied to hive walls and allowed to dry. He says it lasts quite a long time, even in severely cold climates. 

Dr. Sharaskin gave another talk called "Not by Clover Alone," which discussed the importance of varied forage. To be honest, I didn't take that many notes. However, one thing that interested me was a side comment about how thin-walled Langs came into being. Originally, Langstroth had proposed much thicker walls (double walls with insulation, if I'm not mistaken). However, these thick walls took up a lot of space, so as beekeepers began migrating bees, hive walls were made thinner in order to get more hives on railroad cars.

For awhile, I've been considering starting a Layens or Lazutin hive, but I've had trouble deciding which to try. Leo really inspired me to try the Layens. I now have a better understanding of how and why its management differs from a double-deep hive like Lazutin's, and I can see how it fits my overall goals better. So maybe in the springtime, I'll have a couple of new hives...

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 1

The Connecticut Beekeeper's Association invited Dr. Leo Sharashkin to speak about natural beekeeping methods using Layens hives this past weekend. Wow! What a speaker! If you ever get a chance to hear him talk, seize the opportunity. You will be so glad you did.

The constant themes running through the various lectures he gave were:
  • Beekeeping should be a low maintenance activity
  • Use bees and a hive design that are suited to your local conditions
  • Use smaller hives, but have more of them
  • Let bees be bees

Dr. Leo Sharashkin

I won't share all the notes that I took, but here are some of the takeaways that were really notable for me.

An extended Layens hive with 19 frames

Beekeeping does not have to be labor intensive in order for bees to thrive or for beekeepers to harvest honey. 
Dr. Sharashkin shared a quote from a 19th century Russian text (1835) called Practical Beekeeping by Vivitsky. Vivitsky wrote:
 Peasant families commonly have 1000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.

Nope. That was not a typo. People with no electricity or running water or any of our modern comforts were able to keep 1000 hives. Each year, beeks collected swarms that issued from these hives and populated new hives with them, accumulating them over time. These hives were passed down to their descendants who continued to accumulate their own hives. The actual harvest from each hive might be small (about 12 lbs), but with so many hives, the honey and wax added up. Other than catching swarms and harvesting, families did nothing with the hives -- so they had time to tend farms, cut trees, harvest crops, etc.

Follow Dr. Seeley's advice for having thriving healthy colonies.
Dr. Seeley, who has studied honeybees in the Arnot Forest outside Cornell for decades now, recommends the following for keeping healthy colonies.

  • Use local bees (either feral swarms or purchased from a local breeder) because they are adapted to survive in local conditions
  • Give colonies space 
  • Use smaller hives that allow for swarming each year
  • Don't use treatments

Local Bees. There was some argument at the club meeting regarding what constituted a local bee. For instance, caught swarms are not necessarily feral bees unless you can pinpoint the bee tree they issued from. And in order to develop a local strain, it takes bees about 10 years in isolation to fully adapt to local conditions. But isolation is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in a small state like CT, because you can't have any other beeks in a 10-mile radius. My personal feeling is that even though I was very careful about getting local bees developed from feral cutouts when I first started beekeeping, my bees have no doubt interbred with whatever feral bees and packages people have imported in the last 5 years so that a lot of different genetics have been introduced. Yet they continue to survive. So I figure that even if they may not be entirely local anymore, letting them be bees (not treating, allowing for swarms, minimizing the use of sugar, etc.) has giving them a fighting chance.

Space. If possible, give colonies space (about 100' between hives) because it helps reduce drift (and thereby disease transmission) between them. In an apiary with closely spaced hives, up to 30% of returning foragers may enter the wrong hive. Closely spaced hives has also been shown to contribute to the development of more virulent disease strains.  

If you don't have space in your beeyard, Sharashkin recommended reducing drift by:
  • Turning hives so that not all of the entrances face the same direction
  • Using distinct symbols at hive entrances. Many beeks paint their hives different colors, but honeybees can switch off their color vision in order to preserve energy. So when they return to the hive, they may be seeing in black & white. Instead, distinct symbols and patterns are more helpful to them.

Smaller hives. Smaller volumes are easier for bees to control the temp, and they encourage swarming, which creates a brood break and allows the colony to clean house. 

Not treating against disease. Treatments stress the bees out, and create their own problems. He said, "There is no such thing as being disease-free. Survival is about being disease-ok." In other words, we all have deadly bacteria all around us, but if we are healthy we can deal with it. It only becomes an issue when we are unhealthy and have compromised immunity. (Note: Dr. Sharashkin conceded that if you have bees that are not from the local area and are accustomed to being treated, they will probably die if you stop feeding and treating them, so you might have to prop them up to overwinter them. However, he cited several studies during his talks that even package bees that are kept without treatments, not fed sugar, and are allowed to swarm have a much higher chance of survival than bees from the same sources kept using conventional methods.)

Swarm Traps. Dr. Sharashkin spoke a bit about collecting swarms, and his website has a lot of info about catching them. However, there were a couple of points I thought noteworthy:
  • Scouts may start scouting 2 weeks prior to swarms emerging, so the bait hives should be set out early
  • If you don't have lemongrass and propolis to bait the hive, then you can use an old comb. However, if you DO have lemongrass and propolis to bait the swarm trap, then adding old comb as well is not shown to improve catch rates. Leo does not use old comb because he wants to encourage a brood break for the swarm.
  • When applying propolis to his traps, Leo sets a bag of propolis out in the sun to warm up. Once it is gooey, he just smears it onto the walls of his bait hive.
Wood taken from the wall of a feral bee tree.
Although it was a large chunk from a hardwood tree,

it was very light because of all the air pockets in it.

Why use Horizontal Hives?
Sharashkin second talk of the day was about using horizontal hives like the Layens hives that he uses. I confess that I didn't really take that many notes because I've read both Lazutin's book and more recently the one by George Layens. If you are interested in horizontal hives, I highly recommend reading both of these books. Layens wrote his book sometime during the 19th century and was one of Lazutin's inspirations when developing his own hive.

The real difference between these hives is that Lazutin's hive is much, much bigger (equivalent in volume to 5 10-frame Lang deeps). However, unless you have phenomenal forage in your area, Lazutin's hive may be much too large. It also doesn't encourage swarming. In his book, Lazutin indicated that he really had to force his hives to swarm every other year. By contrast, a 14-frame Layens hive is quite small -- equivalent in volume to about 18 deep Lang frames. The extended Layens hive that Leo uses has 19 frames (about 25 deep Lang frames).

He has the cutest kids.

Selling Honey for $20/LB.

Leo's last talk of the day was about selling honey for a premium price. However, since he recently wrote an article on that for Bee Culture (July 2017), I won't spend too much time on that. However, I did want to show how he packages his honey. Instead of using a regular label on glass, he uses a business card that is printed on both sides and folded in half. He says he pays about 2 cents per card and 5 cents for the string. However, the tag gives him extra space to market why his honey is special. It also allows buyers to focus on the beautiful honey instead of on the label.

A jar of Leo's honey

The inside of his packaging label

The back/front of his packaging label

Miscellanous
Beekeepers are advised to feed colonies sugar syrup early in the spring so that they build up earlier and collect more honey when the spring flow hits. However, the danger in this is that if you get a late freeze, the cluster contracts and brood can be lost. If the brood is not cleaned out quickly enough, this can lead to putrefaction and disease. If the brood doesn't die, it may emerge but be sickly and weak.

However, there is another danger to feeding syrup. Dr. Sharashkin mentioned a study that was described in Robert Page's The Spirit of the Hive. Apparently, bees who are fed sugar syrup in early spring get spoiled, and their perception of nectar is altered. They become accustomed to the high-sugar content of the syrup and they will only seek out high-sugar nectars, ignoring nectars with a low-sugar content. They can even starve if a high-sugar nectar is unavailable despite plentiful availability of low-sugar nectars. Additionally,  brood that has been raised on syrup will share the same sweet tooth. This affects honey composition as well.

Layens bait hive and extended Layens hive

So there are my notes on Day 1. Hopefully, I'll get some time this week to share Day 2, which focused on managing a Layens hive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Special Visitor in the Beeyard

Top bar hives seem to be gaining more and more momentum every year, but when I started out, it felt like they were still few and far between. Most people at my bee club hadn't even heard of them, much less had any experience with them. As a result, I turned to books and online communities for mentoring and support.

One of the online resources I found was Buddha and the Bees, a blog about everyday experiences keeping bees, and it quickly became one of my favorites. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because Don, the blog's author, was in the same boat as me. We were both just starting out with our TBHs and quickly realizing that bees are not the experts that all the books claim they are. They insisted on doing unexpected wrong things. ;-) It was refreshing to find someone who was writing not about how bees are supposed to behave, but about all the nitty-gritty, wonky stuff that happens in real-life (mostly about bees, but sometimes writing bravely about other things as well). Don is also a smart guy with a terrific sense of humor, so I always looked forward to his new posts (and I still do!)

One of the bonuses of living in a digital age is that one gets the opportunity to connect with people all over the world. Over the past few years, Don and I formed a digital pen-pal relationship that started with our blogs, but it has moved on to email, packages of honey, and FaceBook. Our friendship has even extended to our spouses who now follow each other on FaceBook. That's the power of the interwebs being harnessed for good!

Although Don lives out in Colorado, he has roots back East in my neck of the woods. That's lucky for me because on his recent vacation for a family reunion, he and his lovely wife, Diana, carved time out of their busy schedule to bless my family with visit. As I told Don, after so many years of correspondence, it was delightfully surreal to finally meet in person.  He and Diana are just as I'd always imagined them to be -- warm, giving, funny, kind, clever, and passionate. They are just brilliant, and it was a blessing to have them in our home. The only bad part was that they had to leave because I would have liked them to stay and stay and stay. My DH and I lamented all the next day that they couldn't be our neighbors.

Diana in the center, and Don on the right.

I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate Don and his blog. His blog is well worth reading just for its own merits. But over the years, he has also been such a generous supporter of me and my own endeavors -- raising questions I hadn't considered, offering his own experience and insights, suggesting solutions to problems, or even just leaving comments to let me know that I haven't been shouting into the void. (BTW, Don is a fantastic problem-solver, and true to form, he gave me loads of ideas during his visit, so more on those in future posts. My daughter, though, was more impressed with his genius for finding four-leaf clovers.)

When I started beekeeping, mental stimulation was one of my new hobby's most immediate benefits. Watching bees do their thing was endlessly fascinating. Later on, collecting wax and honey became other tangible benefits. However, what I didn't predict was that beekeeping would bring so many amazing people into my life -- people I never would have met any other way because we come from such disparate walks of life or different parts of the world. Don and his wife Diana are two of those extra special people that I feel so blessed to call friends.

Don makes the best comb honey ever. I shared some with my daughter's friend Emma who agrees.
She says it tastes like rainbows, cupcakes, and unicorns.