Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Honey Bee Nucs and Packages


     There are few hard, set in concrete rules in beekeeping despite what some will tell you. Whether to buy a bee nuc or package depends like a lot of things on your location.  A nuc (nucleus of a colony) consists of 4-5 frames of bees in a half sized Langstroth deep box: laying queen, 2 frames of brood and 2 frames of honey and/or pollen. A typical package consists of 3 pounds of bees, and a queen. Normally the bees are from production hives where they shake out bees into the package box. A mated queen is then placed in the package, protected in a queen cage.  There is usually a container of syrup in the package to feed the bees for the days before they are transferred to a hive. A package is usually put together a few days before sold and in the case of cold weather beekeepers comes from a warmer location far away. In our case because of government restrictions (No U.S. Bees to Canada) this means thousands of miles away from New Zealand. The video below shows the process of creating a package of bees.



      The main advantage of the package is that in cold weather areas they are available (March) a few months before local nucs (May) which allows beekeepers to take advantage of spring fruit blossoms.  Fortunately for us a supply of "overwintered nucs" are available this year at the same time as the package, cheaper than the package (devalued dollar) and a much better option.  However, in British Columbia the supply does not meet the demand as over 3,000 packages of bees will be imported this March from New Zealand to help pollinate the Fraser Valley blueberries.  In l985 biologist and author Mark Winston wrote "it is estimated that, at present colony densities, BC has the potential to produce 75,520 spring packages each year, and increased colony density and a higher level of commercial beekeeping could elevate this figure. Continued and increased package and nucleus production, coupled with increased wintering and queen production, could result in a high degree of Canadian self-sufficiency within the next few years (l989 Study on package and nuc production in B.C.)."  That self-sufficiency was never realized.  Large scale package and nuc production was never developed and with current 30% winter colony losses our dependence on imported packages will continue.
      Packages are a necessity in some areas because of the lack of nucs available.  They are usually cheaper, have less pests and can be installed into any type of hive.  In most areas the packages come from a warmer climate so winter survival is less likely as proven in a good, small scale study carried out in New England by master beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes (Comparison of colony strength and survivability between nucs and packages).  This single study is certainly not conclusive evidence but suggests a problem with imported warm weather packages and a need for more projects like this.  Erin found a significant difference in winter survival between the southern package and nucleus (the nucs had twice the survival rate) but also found that a southern package with a replaced local queen performed as well as the nucleus.



      In our situation bee packages come from a similar climate but the opposite hemisphere so they leave New Zealand in late summer and arrive in Canada a few days later in early Spring where it can be freezing and snowing (I have experienced this).  This obviously can be hard on the bees.  Erin also found in her study that the packages outperformed the nucs in terms of honey production which she attributed to a high rate of swarming by the nucleus colonies. I don't know if she took measures to prevent swarming but this has not been my experience .  I've not had exceptional problems with nucs swarming but have used swarm prevention methods like checkerboarding and splits (Check out "Swarms" in the "Basic Beekeeping" section of our library).





       The benefits of using a nucleus over a package are that the queen is established, she is laying, you can see the brood pattern and there are usually at least 2 frames of brood.

Good brood pattern
The worker bees in a nucleus colony know their roles so there are nurse bees and foragers and the foundation is set (drawn comb) which will put them at least a few weeks ahead of an imported package. 

Bees with a sense of humour drawing out a frame
Most backyard beekeepers will not have drawn frames to install their packages on to so a lot of energy and feeding will be required to produce the wax to draw out the frames.  Because there are foragers and at least one frame of honey and pollen the nucleus will not require feeding.

Frame of honey


      While the package may be a necessity for the commercial beekeeper, in my humble opinion if available the nuc from local, survivor stock is a better option even two months after the package particularly for the new beekeeper.  With the nuc because you have an established colony (Queen) with drawn comb and stores there is less likelihood of problems.  Biologist and author Mark Winston (Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive) suggests we need to wean ourselves off of this dependence on imported bees.  The solution lies in the lowering of the winter loss rate possibly through the development of a strong local, survivor stock with hygienic behavior and a love of mushrooms.  The increasing popularity of overwintering nucs may also be helpful.

  

     In the video below Michael Palmer describes some of the difficulties associated with starting a bee hive from scratch using package bees including the lack of nurse bees for the new brood.



     For more information on nucs and packages check out "Splits, Nucs and Packages" in the Basic Beekeeping section of the Beekeepers' Library.  In Vancouver Urban Bee, West Coast Bee Supplies and Dancing Bee Apiary will be selling New Zealand packages in March and B.C. Beekeeping will be selling local, overwintered nucs from March to May (Vancouver Bees for Sale). 
     Vancouver has been experiencing unseasonably warm weather with temperatures in the 50's (10-12 Celsius).  The willow, witch hazel, early flowering cherries, crocus and hellebores are in bloom and the girls are actively bringing in the pollen.  Spring is in the air.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year Beekeepers!


     To everyone I wish a very happy and healthy year to you and your loved ones (including your bees). May your bees survive the cold of winter, develop a resistance to Varroa and other pests, be free of all diseases and produce buckets of honey. 
     Please, don't drink and fly!


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Gifts for Beekeepers


     At this time of year I'm especially appreciative that I have a roof over my head and food in my belly when so many in the world have neither.  Giving gifts to those in need seems like a good idea at Christmas and for that matter throughout the year.  
     In many countries beekeeping is a practical solution to reduce poverty and relieve suffering.   Beekeeping requires little space, minimal cost and offers much needed income from the sales of honey, beeswax and pollen.  In addition increased pollination from the introduction of these bees can substantially increase fruit and vegetable yields as well as pollinating native plants.  For most beekeeping has become a supplement to the family income but for an increasing number it has become a major part of the village economy.  There are many good philanthropic beekeeping organizations like "Bees for Development", "ICIMOD" and "Global Hand" that are worthy of your Christmas donation.  An organization on my gift list is "Heifer International" which has been operating throughout the world for over 70 years.  For a mere $30 you can give the gift of honey bees


     Another organization that I support at Christmas and throughout the year is Fair Trade.  Farmers in developing countries have traditionally been exploited by greedy food distribution corporations.  A small portion of the price you pay for agricultural products from developing countries goes to the farmer.  The concept of "Fair Trade" has empowered these farmers and provided them and their communities with a fair income which has allowed them a healthier, happier lifestyle. This documentary "Hope is Golden" is about the beekeeping cooperatives in Brazil’s arid Caatinga region that produce Fair Trade certified honey.


     The Fair Trade organizations provide funding for the infrastructure required by farming cooperatives in developing countries.  "Fair Trade International" began 25 years ago and in 2012 the number of Fairtrade producer organizations grew by 16%.  It works and it is growing.  Each time you buy a Fair Trade product you are supporting the farmer and their family in the developing world rather than the multinational food distribution corporation.   Buying "Fair Trade" products (honey, tea, chocolate, sugar, fruit, flowers and coffee), easily identifiable by the "Fair Trade" symbol is a good idea throughout the year.
     Another organization that I support is "Schools for Chiapas".  Mexico is a prime example of how corporate agriculture exploits local farmers in developing worlds.  The Zapatista organization "Schools for Chiapas" struggles to educate (Schools for Chiapas projects) and empower local, native communities.  One part of this is the promotion and education of the beekeeping tradition of Meliponiculture.  Melipona beecheii are  stingless bees native to Mexico, Central America, the Carribean, and many parts of South America (Stingless Honey Bee of the Maya) which were domesticated by the Mayan people long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.  In much of Latin America stingless beekeeping has been replaced by the introduction of the Africanized European Honey Bee (Killer Bees).  The native stingless bees are essential for the pollination of some native plants and Schools for Chiapas is supporting a revival of this traditional beekeeping practice.  You can support this initiative through the American Stingless Bee Recuperation Gift of Change  (other Gifts of Change).
       In this video a group of Mayan women are challenging social norms and preserving an endangered species (the stingless bee, Melipona Beecheii).  Traditionally the prerogative of men in Mayan culture, beekeeping is providing this collective with a source of income and a reason to keep the species from going extinct.


     
     There are many worthy beekeeping charities throughout the world like "The Bee Cause" (Britain), "The Bumblebee Conservation Trust", "The Xerces Society" and "Seedles".  For me, in my community Hives for Humanity is a great organization which works to enhance community through apiculture.   

      
The History of Hives for Humanity:
     "In the summer of 2012 we placed a colony of bees at 117 East Hastings in the DTES (low income, high drug use area) of Vancouver where, in 2007, the Hastings Folk Garden Society had transformed an empty lot into a beautiful garden space. With the mandate of providing therapeutic opportunities to community members and peaceful refuge from the chaos of the street, the garden was a perfect fit for our bees!
     Though we were unsure how the bees would fare and how the community would respond, we believed that they would bring a general sense of well-being to the neighbourhood and that they would complement the many therapeutic and supportive activities already occurring in the garden.  We were right! The bees were respected by all: they were managed and cared for by a group of Portland Hotel Society staff, peer workers and community members, all of whom worked very closely with our Master Beekeeper.
     The bees enhanced the community in the most gentle and natural manner.  Something wonderful was happening: participants and the wider community traded stories and information as the bees did their work; people shared in the responsibility of and caring for the hives and marvelled at how the bees were thriving; and finally, everyone got to dip their fingers into fresh honey! It was a fitting reward for an incredible experience. There was a bumper crop of 140 pounds of raw eastside honey to be extracted, bottled, labelled and sold, with profits going directly back into the program.
      “Hives for Humanity”, a non-profit society established in September 2012,  came about as a result of this project and our goal for 2013 was to establish 20 hives throughout the DTES and neighbouring communities.  We currently have more than triple that number and have expanded to include more societies of the Downtown Eastside, societies out in the Fraser Valley, and schools in East Vancouver, West Vancouver and Langley."
      Today they have 73 registered hives in Greater Vancouver.


     On a more practical, personal level no beekeeper should be without an "Inflatable Bee Beard".  The perfect Christmas gift for the beekeeper in your life (maybe not).



    A gift I recommend to all beekeepers is the wonderful book "The Travelling Beehive".  This book is wonderfully written by Elena Garcia and Manuel Angel Rosado and beautifully illustrated by Juan Hernaz.  It is published by Apolo which is an organization dedicated to the preservation of pollinators and their habitat.  You can follow Polli the honey bee and her friend Dipter the hover fly as they face the challenges of a disappearing green space.  They are joined in their struggle by Bazumba the wild bee, Missus Bombus the bumblebee, Lepi the butterfly, her majesty the queen, Dorian the farmer and Ramon the beekeeper. Sit back with your children or grandchildren and enjoy the The Travelling Beehive  (Spanish version).


    The bees are snuggled in their hives waiting for Santa.  Penny, from the Natural Beekeeping Trust of the United Kingdom says "Traditionally, Christian beekeepers have visited their colonies at midnight on Christmas Eve to tell the bees of the nativity.  They also hoped to hear the special melodious humming that the bees were said to perform at this time, portending health and prosperity throughout the coming year.  It was thought that this custom was predated by an earlier pre-Christian one when the return of the sun was by no means guaranteed!"
     If you're wondering what to recite to your bees on Christmas Eve here is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight's key;
all the garden locked in ice -
a silver frieze -
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive -
trembling stars cloistered above -
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.
Merry Christmas!


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