Saturday, June 17, 2017

Musings on Minimalist Beehive Management

In their zealousness, some new beekeepers always want to get into their hives to see what is happening. They are overly enthusiastic with this new endeavor and want to do inspections a couple times a week. And then there are other beekeepers who do minimalist management, letting the bees do what they know how to do with infrequent intervention. And sometimes it becomes very infrequent or even nonexistent.

So, is more management better? Is less acceptable? My guess is many beekeepers will say there’s a point when the beekeeper will overdo their inspections. But this debate could also be about whether the beekeeper does not do enough inspections.

How much intervention in the hive is enough? Some beekeepers do lots of management, entering their hives at least weekly, if not more. Others are minimalists with little or no inspections. Every beekeeper has their own unique situation that dictates their management.

I consider myself a minimalist when it comes to the management of my top bar hives. Often, I put little effort into checking them and managing them. It sometimes reaches the point where a person can consider me more of a bee-haver instead of beekeeper. I don't even touch some of hives except to harvest them. 

For example, one of my apiaries is in the mountains of Honduras on a coffee farm. I don't get up there very frequently. The last hives in the line get the least attention. Time runs out and the truck is ready to take the workers back down to town. This is a Saturday and they work only until noon. I must go with it (or take a couple hours and walk down the mountain which is not likely after spending all morning in the hives). These are the hives that I only enter to harvest.

But minimal management works for me in my situation. I want honey from them but I don’t do beekeeping as my primary income source. I’m an elementary school teacher and bees have become a secondary income (unfortunately). They give me what they want for effort I put into their management. I accept that and I’m grateful for it.

My time constraints are one of the main reasons for this style of hive management. Teaching definitely interferes with beekeeping. Fifth and sixth graders can wear a guy out. There is too much work to do as a teacher. The weekend arrives and that’s when I have time to go to the bees. Most times, however, I just want to rest and get back the energy I lost during the week.

The bees themselves are also part of the cause. I work with Africanized bees and their bad temperament make management difficult. It is often wiser to just let them do their thing rather than entering their brood area and messing around with them. I occasionally get the bees so out of control that the best thing for me to do is close their hives and come back another day.

I begin slow and careful but the situation just gets worse as I keep entering more hives.

How much time can you spend on inspecting and managing a hive when there are 30 or 40 that you need to check? Africanized bees don’t help the situation. Intensive intervention isn’t always possible. You do the management that you can in the amount of time you have available and for as long as the bees cooperate. 

Even commercial beekeepers do their own form of minimalist management. I experienced this when working with a commercial beekeeper back in Wisconsin several years ago. When you have almost 2,000 hives, there just isn’t the time to check them frame by frame. This large-scale beekeeping is a game of getting into and getting out of the apiary as fast as possible. There are too many yards and you need to get to the next one.

A beekeeper can’t afford to spend 15 or 20 minutes to really go through a hive when there are 40 to 44 hives in the yard and 40 to 44 of these yards. You give a bit of extra attention to those that obviously have a problem but you don’t go overboard with it.

Time is money. You just accept that there will be some colony losses.

John, the owner of this operation, had a yearly routine set up for hive management. There was a cycle of work that was done which changed as the honey season went along. We never went to the bee yards to specifically “check” the hives. 

There was always an ulterior motive such as adding supers or harvesting. As we were putting on boxes and taking off boxes we would note which hive had odd activity and required further checking. The same would happen when we were medicating and feeding. These were earmarked for John to take a closer look at them. This is where the beekeeper needs to be able to read the hive and see the telltale signs that indicate something is abnormal without directly going through the entire brood nest.

The activity at the entrance can also tell the beekeeper a lot about the hive. Even the sound they make or the smell can give you a clue as to what is going on. You look at the population and their behavior. Direct intervention isn’t always necessary to know what is happening.

Each yard usually had a couple bad hives, but it was still a matter of not spending too much time dinking around with those. If they truly did have a problem with their queen, for example, they were probably shot for the season anyways as far getting a honey harvest from them. They often got combined with another weak hive and left with the hope that they would make the grade later for pollinating the almonds in California. Or we would carry a couple nucs on the truck to fill in the holes caused by the losses.

You are better off focusing on making honey with the good hives rather than trying to save that occasional bad one.

The commercial beekeeper often cannot dink around too much and save all the problem hives. They probably won’t make a honey harvest anyways. It is better to focus on the good colonies and ensure they produce as much honey as possible. Those are the ones that pay the bills.

My reason for minimalist management isn’t only the lack of time. As I mentioned, part of it is having to deal with Africanized bees. The bees get especially defensive when you go through their brood combs. The whole apiary gets into an uproar if you decide to go through all the colonies in the yard. Just looking at the first two brood combs usually gives me a good idea of what is happening. That’s far enough for me. If something looks wrong, then I keep going through it. Otherwise I close it up and go on to the next one.

Having to dress in full battle gear to deal with the Africanized bees is another reason for doing minimalist management. This involves a full suit with an extra long-sleeved shirt underneath. I wear a small towel draped over the back of my head to better protect my neck. 

A person doesn’t last long in warm weather when dressed like that. I seem to do everything in slow motion. My management sessions tend to be shorter so I need to make the most with the time I have available.

So, I do get swarming with my minimal management. I just accept that will happen and think about the new queen they will now have. 

I also lose some hives every year. They abscond if they run out of honey stores during the dearth (although I always try to leave them enough). Ants have occasionally caused hives to abscond also. Their control, however, has nothing to do with managing the combs of the colony. It’s an external management.

My hives usually don't have problems with diseases. Africanized bees tend to be hardy and hygienic. I don’t have to check as carefully for this as beekeepers do in other parts of the world.

All of this could be controlled with more intervention but the perfect situation isn’t always available. I do as much as I can. I just accept that I will lose some hives and have some swarming.

I get most of my colonies by capturing swarms (lots of them here.) If I do happen to lose a hive for some reason, it is simple enough to get it filled again with a swarm. The only investment is a bit of time, basically to hang up the trap and then later take it down. I’m not losing $120 or more that I paid for a package of bees or a nuc. I don’t like losing a hive but I accept that it’s going to happen.

Africanized bees don’t make intensive management easy. They get the most aggressive when you get into the brood nest. The more hives you check, the bigger the uproar in the apiary. I don’t like to spend too much time in them unless I detect that there really is a problem.

Often it is only the hobbyists or maybe some commercial sideliners who actually have the luxury of going through a hive frame by frame. The sideliner commercial beekeepers usually know what they’re doing and don’t go overboard. The hobbyists and new beekeepers many times are just overzealous about seeing what is happening inside their boxes and learning from the bees themselves.

These new beekeepers need to understand that each intervention in the hive is a disruption to the “machine” that is working inside there. Smoke disrupts their pheromone communication. Bees scatter to all parts of the hive. There are damages done to the combs that the bees need to repair. The bees’ routine is messed up. Ideally you don’t want this to happen too frequently.

Some management is necessary, however. Just not too much. If your objective is to get as much honey as possible, you need to intervene. You especially need to keep on top of the space issues with the brood and honey storage. 

Top bar hives have a limit to their space. They can’t be managed by simply throwing another super onto them like Langstroth hives. Empty bars need to be added so the bees can continue to build comb. Ripe honey needs to be harvested. Otherwise the result is swarming.

You need to make sure disease or other pests are not affecting the bees. Ideally you want your hives to stay healthy and strong. You don’t want a disease to propagate that could eventually spread to your neighbor’s hives.

There is also the possibility of killing the queen. Many times, beekeepers cause a hive to become queenless. It is easy to damage her or kill her when combs are replaced. You don’t always see her. New beekeepers are still learning to handle frames and combs carefully.

I set up a small apiary with my brother while working with a commercial beekeeper in Wisconsin. These were just something to putter around with on the weekend and hopefully to give me a bit of extra money. With just 12 hives a person can do intensive management.

But at the same time, I generally think that minimalist management is the way to go. Too much intervention could have a detrimental effect on the hive. Bees have been around for a long time and have survived just fine without us. They usually know what to do. Sometimes our well-intentioned management results in messing things up for them. Lots of it is usually for the beekeeper’s sake, not the colony itself.

I don’t want to argue that this is the way to manage your hives. It all depends on your goals for your colonies and your own situation. There really isn’t one correct management style. A lot of it depends on each beekeeper and his or her own unique situation.

The problem is when you’re new and really excited about having bees and want to see everything that is going on inside the hive. They may literally rip the hive apart on a weekly basis. Just use a bit of self-control so you don't go overboard.

New beekeepers need to learn and the best teachers are the bees themselves. They need to get inside the hive and see what is happening. But, again, use self-control—maybe once every ten to 15 days. 

In the meantime, observe them from the outside. Sit down next to them with your coffee and watch as they come and go from the entrance. Put an observation window in your top bar hives so you can peek inside.

As your experience increases, manage should become less.

This, for me, is a matter of doing limited intervention and doing the necessary interventions.

This is a matter of finding a balance with your hive revisions until you can also do minimalist management . 

A small apiary I had in Wisconsin where I could do intensive management. It was basically something that I could putter around with on the weekends.

An apiary of 44 hives of a commercial beekeeper I worked with in Wisconsin. With so many hives it isn’t possible to go through them frame by frame. It takes too much time, and time is money. Commercial beekeepers need to get into and out of yard as fast as possible because there are two or three more apiaries on the list for that day.

You look for the tell-tale signs that the colony is healthy and working well. Usually I check only the first two outer brood comes, which gives me enough information about the hives status. You also look at entrance activity, the population and even their sound.

Each beekeeper has their own unique situation. New beekeepers often need to see all the combs to understand the status of the hive. For them it’s just a matter of not going overboard and doing interventions too often. Older beekeepers with experience can “read” a hive better and know if they need to see everything or not.

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What kind of management do you do? Is minimal management the correct way to go or should you do more intensive management? Let me know in the comments.

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Comments and questions are always welcomed.