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

Experiments in natural beekeeping

Double deep hiveOur honeybee experiments aren't really unique to our farm, but they are outside the mainstream.  They all began nearly two years ago when we got our bees and chose to use foundationless frames to decrease varroa mite potential without chemicals (and to cut costs.)  This year, we added to the experiment by changing over to double deep brood boxes to help the colonies bulk up quicker in the spring and to prevent swarming.  We also used a non-mainstream honey harvest technique of robbing the bees in the late spring rather than in the fall to make sure the hive would have enough food over the winter without feeding sugar water.

The results are a mixed bag, but are primarily positive.  So far, hive checks suggest that our varroa mite levels are under control without resorting to pesticides, although one hive had higher levels than I hoped when I sampled in November.  We didn't see any swarming activity in the spring, so the double deep with checkerboarding definitely worked as swarm prevention.  And the hive that we changed to double deep earliest in the spring stocked up the majority of our year's  honey, so double deeps are also quite effective for getting more honey.  Finally, we made it through the first winter with no mortality, so harvesting in the spring was a good choice.

Comb collapseThe primary problem we had was a comb collapse during hot weather soon after our honey harvest.  I think that the comb collapse was the result of all of my alternative methods merging together in just the wrong way, and could easily be prevented in the future by keeping all of the boxes at 10 frames rather than getting greedy and downgrading to 9.

How do our results stack up compared to those using traditional management (frames with foundation, early fall harvests, chemicals in the hive to kill varroa mites, and then feeding copious sugar water and/or corn syrup to get the bees through the winter?)  In terms of honey harvested, our numbers were low --- the Kentucky extension service Jar of honeysuggests that the average yield per hive should be 50 pounds (about 4 gallons), and we only got 4.5 gallons from all three hives combined.  On the other hand, our costs were also low --- we could have spent about $60 on foundation, $25 on varroa mite medication, and maybe another $75 on feed for the hives.  In addition, we didn't have a single swarm and didn't lose any hives.  Clearly, our method fits the homesteading model of a sustainable harvest even if it doesn't maximize yields.

In year three, we'll be faced with yet more decisions in our natural honeybee setup.  Do we requeen or let the hives replace the queen when they see fit?  Should we try to split a hive to increase our numbers so we'll have more honey for gifts?  Should we cut out any of the old wax and make them rebuild?  If we do decide to split, should we try out top bar hives for the sake of comparison?  We're looking forward to researching these and other questions in the year ahead.

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This post is part of our 2010 experiments 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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I'm going to be starting over (more or less) this spring with beekeeping. My stepdad is keeping my hives in exchange for buying me new ones... it seemed easier than moving my existing ones. Thanks for posting your trial and error -- some of the techniques you mentioned I'd been considering, and this makes the decisions easier.
Comment by Eliza @ Appalachian Feet Wed Dec 29 18:24:25 2010
I'll look forward to seeing if your results line up with mine!
Comment by anna Wed Dec 29 20:32:29 2010

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