The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Backyard bee breeding


One of the main thrusts of Michael Bush's book is --- backyard beekeepers of every experience level need to be breeding homegrown bees.  With diseases and pests wiping out colonies left and right, we can't risk narrowing the gene pool by letting a few big companies breed all of our queens, and we shouldn't even use our single favorite queen as the mother of every new hive in our apiary.  Meanwhile, we should try to include the survivor genetics of feral bees, letting our queens mate with wild drones and allowing queens of captured swarms to maintain control of their colonies.

Queen rearingBut the reproduction of bee hives is quite complex, as my swarming post probably made clear.  Do we need fancy equipment and a PhD to raise our own queens?  Although Michael Bush does go into some production methods that felt beyond me, he also mentioned very simple breeding techniques for those of us who aren't obsessed with maximum productivity.

Remember how I split my hive this past spring?  Splitting by the box (one full box of brood in each daughter hive) is indeed the easiest way to double your number of hives with very little work.  If you put ten deep frames or sixteen medium frames of brood and honey in each daughter hive, both hives will take off so quickly that you might be able to split the hives again before the year is out.  Those of you with several hives can take a single frame of brood and a frame of honey from each of your strong hives and create a new hive in this manner without setting the parent hives back much at all.

Successfully split hiveSmaller splits are handy for raising queens --- a useful technique for the more advanced apiarist who wants to replace ornery or failing queens with daughter queens from a stronger and nicer hive.  For these splits, Bush recommends having some nucs on hand.  Nucs are smaller boxes --- often just big enough to hold two, three, four, or five frames --- that keep the workload down for small colonies of bees.  You might put one frame of brood and one frame of honey in a two frame nuc, then add the tiny colony to a queenless hive once the nuc has raised a queen.  Alternatively, you could put three frames of brood and two frames of honey in a five frame nuc, then transfer the new colony to a normal sized brood box to create a new hive once the queen is laying.

When's the best time to split?  Beekeepers have a saying that you can either produce lots of new hives, or make lots of honey, but not both.  If you split hives before the main nectar flow, the bees can use all those blooms to create a strong colony that will make it through the winter with no help from you...but you probably won't be able to harvest any honey.  On the other hand, if you let the parent hive collect lots of honey during the main nectar flow, then split them, you might end up having to feed the daughter hives to make sure they have enough winter stores.  As with any other part of beekeeping, you have to decide how much to focus on the health of the bees, and how much to focus on your own stomach.

My 99 cent ebook is full of tips on being a good apprentice.

This post is part of our The Practical Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Anna, all your stuff on bees lately jogged my memory of a piece of poetry,which I went in search of today. It's by Kahlil Gibran, and it's in The Prophet:

And now you ask in your heart, "How shall we distinguish that which is good in pleasure from that which is not good?"

Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,

But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.

For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,

And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,

And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

Comment by Cameron Fri Feb 10 22:04:58 2012

Beautiful poem!

I know everyone's probably sick of bees --- I'm going to give them a rest for a while. I've just been wanting to figure out our spring campaign and thought I'd share my research. :-)

Comment by anna Sat Feb 11 08:35:37 2012

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