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

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.