Sustainable—from sustain—to keep going, prolong, to hold up under
What is sustainable beekeeping? Having a sustainable beekeeping operation can be considered from several viewpoints. Probably, the first is financial. Does the value of your honey harvest offset the cost of producing it? Second, are you perpetually buying replacement stock or are you able to sustain your operation by making splits to replace your losses.
A sustainable operation has the added benefit of not importing and more rapidly spreading the bee parasites ( ie varroa, hive beetles, etc) and viruses known to be spread during the annual almond pollination. In addition, by only using Wisconsin bees, you will be helping develop a localized bee that is adapted to the american midwestern environment. The many subspecies of the European honeybee evolved as the European honeybee adapted to local conditions. The same evo;ution would occur here if allowed. The weather and plant environment of Wisconsin is distinctly different from sources of queen bees (ie. California, Texas, Georgia, etc.). Wisconsin (ie the Midwest) would naturally evolve its own locally adapted bee if not continually swamped out by the package bee genetics.
Most hobbyist beekeepers quit the hobby because their bees do not make it through winter and they must purchase replacements every spring. It is a known fact that overwintered bees will usually produce more honey than new packages or nucs. The hobbyist utilizing packages or nucs therefore starts at a disadvantage in trying to make the hobby pay or even break even. Also, nothing is more discouraging than seeing your bees die during the winter. Since probably 80% of winter losses are due to varroa and the related viruses, the first step to sustainability is to copy the varroa control practices of a successful beekeeper. Presently, there are only two ways to control mites. Chemical control (natural or synthetic) or by interrupting the mite’s reproductive cycle (See the March 1, 2018 blog article on natural mite control). Both methods work. Choose one method and apply it religiously. If you don’t your bees will die and you will probably give up beekeeping after a few years of buying replacement bees. Although there are designer bees (VSH, mite biters, Minnesota hygentic, etc.) none of these has been shown to control mites sufficiently to prevent winter colony demise without additional interventions.
Once you master the art of controlling mites and getting your bees through winter. These “survivor” bees will be more in sync with their Wisconsin environment. When you continually buy new bees from out of state (mainly California and the southern US) you are importing bees that a genetically better matched to our environment as mentioned above. In addition, you can then also purchase specialty queens better suited to handle varroa and improve the genetics of your bees.
Even under the best of conditions, all beekeepers lose bees throughout the year, but mainly during the winter. So there is always a need for replacement stock. The next step in sustainable beekeeping is to raise your own replacement stock. Actually, the raising of replacement stock is easier than the effort to control varroa. There are three basic methods of rearing your own replacement stock; 1) spring splits, 2) fall splits, and 3) summer nucs and 4)winter nucs.
Now that you have mastered the process of getting your bees through the winter, it is time to raise your own replacement stock. Beekeepers have traditionally “split” some of their stronger hives in late spring to raise replacements or make “increase”. Splitting is simply the dividing of a hive into two or more parts with the aim of starting more hives or replacing deadouts.
The objective of the split is to end up with 2 or more new hives. It is up to the individual beekeeper on how he/she wants to go about it. The split can be a 50/50 affair or other ratios such as; 30/70 or 30/30/40 or 25/25/25/25. A 50/50 split is the most commonly used. Here the brood and honey frames are divided between two new hives evenly. Obviously, only one hive ends up with the old queen. A new queen can be installed in the queenless hive or the beekeeper can opt to allow the queenless hive to raise their own queen. The 30/70 split is used if the beekeeper wants to increase the chances for a honey harvest from the stronger hive (70%). The larger hive gets the queen and the smaller either a new queen or the option of them rearing a new queen on their own. The other ratios (30/30/40 or 25/25/25/25) are used if the beekeeper’s goal is a longterm increase in their apiary. The smaller new hives will take almost the entire summer to grow to full size and probably won’t produce a honey crop in the year of the split. When planning to make splits be sure to get queens ordered with a delivery date that meets your needs.
Hives that have survived winter have a natural tendency to swarm. This can turn out to be a blessing for a beekeeper needing queens. Instead of the need to repeatedly searching the hive to remove queen cells the beekeeper can instead remove the frames with the queen cells to provide survivor stock queens for splits. Removing the queen cells will delay or prevent swarming of the original hive.
Fall splits are usually done in early August. The population of the hive to be split will be at its maximum before the autumn decline. Fall splits are usually 50/50 affairs. Some beekeepers split two hives in a 66/33 fashion. The two 33% portions are combined. The queenless portions of these splits are given a new young queen. These hives will have a large population of forging bees with little to forage in the field. Therefore, all fall splits are heavily fed sugar syrup immediately. This gives those excess foragers some useful work to do. The foragers will rapidly fill frames with syrup for the coming winter. In addition the syrup will stimulate the hives to start another round of brood rearing to bring the population up to strength prior to winter.
A nuc is simply a small 4 or 5 frame hive. Nucs can be easily be started in the spring from a strong hive by simply taking 3 frames of brood containing eggs, uncapped and capped brood plus to undrawn frames of foundation. Usually the nuc will raise its own queen. This action has the added benefit of reducing the urge of the strong hive to swarm.
Over the summer the beekeeper then has available a queen if one is needed for his other hives. Also over the summer the nuc will expand. This will provide the beekeeper with another full size hive by fall or maybe a nuc for overwintering.
As stated above all beekeepers lose hives over the winter. So come spring the beekeepers are in need of replacement bees if they want to keep their operation of the same size. Beekeepers that utilize the winter nuc concept have found that the winter nucs have the same or slightly better winter survival than their full size hives. Here is how winter nucs work.
In early August when the hive population is at its peak, the 20 frame hive is split equally between two 5 over 5 nucs. Each nuc gets half of the brood and half of the honey frames. Each nuc also gets a new queen. The new queen is the first advantage the winter nucs have to good survival. Introduction of the new queen also introduces a short, late summer, brood break. Brood breaks also result in an interruption of the varroa reproductive cycle. That is the second plus.
Next the beekeeper is essentially wintering two hives instead of one hive. Based on probabilities the beekeeper will come out ahead the next spring. For example, if the beekeeper overwinters 4 hives at 75% survival rate the beekeeper will end up with 3 hives in the spring. If the beekeeper instead makes 8 winter nucs from those 4 hives and again has 75% survival the beekeeper ends up with 6 hives!
From the example above you may end up with more nucs than you need or want. Think PACKAGES! Sell the excess to your local beekeepers who will be looking for packages. Your nucs has the added benefit of being local overwintered stock that has shown it can survive a Wisconsin winter.
The odd thing about winter nucs is that their survival rate seems to be higher and also that they build up faster in the spring than many full-size hives. It is speculated the young vigorous queens and smaller hive volume to warm during the spring brood buildup are the reasons for this performance. From my limited experience with utilizing winter nucs, I can also say they appear less likely to swarm and produce an equal or larger honey crop than overwintered hives.
The only thing better than getting your hives through winter is also raising your replacement stock from your own bees. Doing that you graduate from a basic beehaver to a full fledged beekeeper who has a sustainable hobby. This can then become a step along the path to having a varroa resistant Wisconsin/Midwest bee.