Monday, April 14, 2014

Chris Harp

Updated: Added link for Naturally Grown Handbook.

Saturday was an amazing day. For about a year, I've been communicating via email and phone with some very dear individuals, and I finally got the privilege of meeting them in person at a meeting of the Connecticut Beekeepers' Association. That was the highlight of my weekend.

Also on Saturday, I got to hear beekeeper/bee doctor Chris Harp of speak. Chris Harp gives classes and lectures on beekeeping. However, he says that his main source of income comes from providing apiary services for clients like CSA's and private estates. (My husband didn't quite understand my description of apiary services. I guess the best way I can describe it is to imagine someone who doesn't have time/experience to care for a garden, so they hire a gardener. In the same way, there are people who don't have the time/know-how to care for beehives, but they want them on their property, so they hire a beekeeper.)

I can't say how much I enjoyed meeting him and his partner Grai. They such genuinely nice people and a wealth of information. My mind was just blown -- and Chris didn't even have a chance to give half of the info that he had prepared. Wow!

Thought I'd share a few of the notes that I took that day:

Chris mentioned that he manages over 200 hives for his clients. For people who say natural beekeeping can't be done, Chris has proved them wrong because he had only a 20% loss this past winter with his clients' hives. Among his own hives, which Chris compared to shoemaker's children that don't get nearly as much attention, he had a 35% loss this winter. (Author's note: I've been hearing reports of winter losses this year as high as 80%, so 20-35% seems spectacularly successful.)

Beekeeping is a relationship between bees and humans.
Chris talked a lot about how beekeeping should ideally be a relationship between the beek and the bees. Bees are smart. They can recognize individual human faces. They sense and react to human pheromones and emotions. So when beekeepers enter the bee yard, they need to be calm and "grounded." He mentions that he even talks to the bees before he performs any work in the hive.

"We should not alter the [group] soul [of the bee colony] to make things "normal" in order to make things easy for us."
Chris talked about how conventional beekeeping seeks to boost production & make beekeeping easy for the beekeeper, but it fails to take into account the group soul of the colony and how bees actually prefer to work and live. (He referred to A Spring without Bees by Michael Schacker.) In a hive, very complex coordination, cooperation, and communication are going on. For example, he mentioned Gene Robinson's work on the social life of genes. In an experiment, marked European honeybees were put into Africanized hives. In this experiment, the gentle European bees took on the highly aggressive characteristics of the Africanized hive. Then Robinson put marked African bees in European hives, and the Africanized bees chilled out.

Chris Harp's extended frame

One of the ways beekeepers make things easier for themselves, and worse for the colony, is in the way they manipulate the hive and, in particular, the comb, which is "the skeleton" of the hive.

  • In wild hives, the comb in the brood area is the longest comb in the hive. This facilitates the queen's ability to travel and lay more eggs. In a Lang, the comb queen has to travel the gap between brood boxes, and it hinders her. Chris Harp talked about how he uses extended frames in his brood box. (Extended frames can be built or ordered from Kelleys, I believe.) I think he said that the height of the exended frame equals the height of 1 deep frame + 1 medium frame + the space between the brood box and super. Sorry, my notes are not complete, and I'm pulling some stuff from memory.
  • Comb is pure fat, so it transfers heat, which is essential for warming brood and keeping the hive warm in the winter. When a bee is head down vibrating in a cell, she is heating up the six cells that surround her so that the brood can develop. Slight variations in heat determine the type of bee that emerges. 
  • Comb transfers vibration, which bees use to communicate during their waggle dances.
  • Bees use Housel positioning (which refers to the little Y in the middle of comb cells). In natural comb, the shape of the Y varies depending upon where the cell is located on the comb. This allows the comb to support the various weights of brood or honey.
  • "Comb retains the memory of past events." Comb is the liver of the hive. Old comb should be removed every 3-5 years.
  • Chris discourages the use of foundation because bees will build faster if they don't have it. When the bees form their daisy chains, they can build both sides of the comb at once. If they have to build on foundation, they have to build each side separately.
  • Chris says plastic foundation should NEVER be used because it doesn't transfer heat and vibration they way that wax does.
  • He says that commercially sold wax foundation should be used sparingly because it contains a cocktail of antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, etc., including miticides like fluvalinate and coumaphos which are harmful to larvae and are known to contribute to the sterility of drones & queens. Testing of these chemicals is done according to the LD50 standard. However, these chemicals are tested in isolation. In the hive, when they are all mixed up together, they create a deadly synergy.
  • When Chris sets up his frames, he reduces the amount of wax foundation by using strips of wax. Strips can be inserted horizontally at the top of the frame, or they can be placed vertically. If using vertical strips, he mentioned that he will set up the frames so that one frame will have 2 strips. The frame next to it will have 3 strips. The next one has 2, then 3, and so on. This creates a visual "wall" for the bees so that they build straight comb.
Example of a frame with horizontal strip of foundation

Examples of frames with vertical strips. Chris alternates his frames in the box so that he uses Frame A, B, A, B.
This creates a visual "wall" for the bee.

Propolis -- The Gate of the City
Propolis, which literally means "before the city" -- has amazing properties. Bees use it to keep the hive hygienic. Chris shared research done by Marla Spivak (the researcher who developed the Minnesota hygienic line) which shows that hives that have been stained on the inside with propolis have greatly increased hygiene. For the stain, create a 50/50 mix of propolis and 70% isopropyl alcohol. (Just put the propolis in a jar with the alcohol. It will take some time to dissolve the propolis.) Chris says he simply rubs the stain on the inside of his hives using a rag.

* 70% isopropyl alcohol provides the optimal protection. Spivak's team also ran studies using grain alcohol and 90% isopropyl alcohol with less successful results.

Hive Maladies
Chris recommended a guide published by Penn State called A Field Guide to Honey Bees and Their Maladies. (Author's note: A free online pdf of this is available at:

  • Chris prefers Carniolans, Russians, and Buckfast bees for their hygienic qualities. He said that Italians do not deal with mites as well as Carnies and Russians which will actually abort larvae with mites. They just open up the cells and dump them out.
  • If he has to treat for mites, he uses oxalic acid vapors. He does NOT use oxalic acid drips. He said that oxalic aid vapors leave zero residue in the hive or honey, and they can be used with honey supers on. Oxalic acid is toxic to bees, but it will not harm capped brood. He mentioned that oxalic acid is not FDA approved because it is a product, not a medication. However, it is legal. (Author's note: Compare this to powdered sugar, which is not FDA approved, but it is legal.) If used, oxalic acid should be used with great care (goggles, respirator.) In a private conversation, Chris mentioned that 1 gram oxalic acid (no more than that) is enough to treat the hive. If my memory is correct, he mentioned that if he has to use it, he prefers to do so earlier in the year, before the colony is really into full-swing brood production.
  • In extreme cases, he will use formic acid vapors, but it is very toxic to brood (including capped broods) and young bees, as well as humans. Note: Grai said that she will never, ever use formic acid in her hives under any conditions.
Small Hive Beetles:
  • He said all hives will attract small hive beetles. However, strong hives have no problem dealing with them. He mentioned that he has not had great success with traps. He recommended either merging 2 weaker hives in order to create one strong one or turning the weak hive into a nuc.
Nosema ceranae
  • If you treat your hives with Fumagillin, you may notice short, stubby bees. This is one of the side effects of Fumagillin. Short, stubby bees are likely to have digestive disorders. (Chris explained why, but I neglected to take notes.)
  • Hives treated with Fumagillan end up with higher nosema spore counts six months later than they had prior to treatment. (Unfortunately, I don't remember what he said about what he does (if anything) to deal with nosema.)
Biodynamic Beekeeping
  • If you want to be a certified naturally grown apiarist, Chris shared a resource that he and a number of other natural beeks published called Handbook for Natural Beekeeping. It lists the requirements for a CNG certification. You can obtain a copy from Certified Naturally Grown's website.
  • Chris and Grai are biodynamic beekeepers, so they use the biodynamic calendar to perform various operations. For example, if he has to do a cut-out, he will only do it on root days. He said fruit days are also good for working with bees. Stella Natura produces a biodynamic calendar.

Apiary Services
Sadly, I didn't bring any paper, so my notes on biodynamics are sparse, and I didn't take any notes at all on Chris' second lecture. That lecture was fascinating because he discussed the business aspect of what he does. As I mentioned earlier, he manages hives for other people and provides complete apiary services which include setting up hives, managing them, treating them (if required), training hive owners, extracting, and even bottling honey. This second lecture included information about:
  • The types of clients he services -- CSAs, organic farms, estates. Note that he will not work with anyone who applies pesticides or chemicals. He will not move hives from one location to another in order to follow crops.
  • Pricing and cost considerations. For some clients, he trades services for produce. For paying clients, he has to consider things such as driving time; time spent on the hives; materials for the hives, bottling, etc.; emergency visits; training (if desired); family visits (he compared himself to a party clown who performs during family barbecues). He charges more for the first hour of each visit. Each additional hour was at a reduced rate of approximately $75/hr, depending on the client.
  • He went over some of the items that his contracts include, such as a minimum of 2 hives per site, 8-10 visits during the year with a minimum of 1 hour per visit.
I was so appreciative of his generosity in sharing this information because it really opened my eyes up to a completely different way to practice commercial beekeeping. Chris indicated that he does not sell any honey. Any honey from the hives he manages goes to the hives' owners. He said that he clients love getting involved with the hives and they sometimes take over the management of them. He claimed this was the greatest compliment he could get because his goal is to create great beekeepers.

Bear Fencing
During the Q&A portion of our meeting, Chris made some suggestions for bear fencing:
  • He likes Premier Solar PS 100, which is 8,000 volts and portable. He also recommended Parker McCurry Parmac Solar Ray R-12, and Rangemaster.
  • He said it was ok for a solar fence to be right next to the hive. He said fences operated with AC should be 10-12' away from the hive because they interfere with the bees' ability to use electromagnetism.


  1. "Comb is the liver of the hive". I've never heard it said like that before. Brilliant!

    1. Yes, Chris is definitely a brilliant beekeeper and a super nice guy. I learned sooo much from him. Of course, during lunch, he also very kindly and gently, but essentially, told me to forget the TBHs, but I won't hold that against him. LOL!


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