Introducing the Bee Report — Fall 2016

We’re bullish on bees here at the Low Technology Institute. We plan to expand our existing hives to test ancient and ethnographic beekeeping methods in the coming seasons. We’ll offer regular reports on how these experiments are progressing complete with data, do-it-yourself instructions, and, yes, cautionary tales. Our first foray into ancient beekeeping techniques might be to rely upon the new book The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt (available here) and other sources to reconstruct hives and management practices, but more on that as plans develop. The “Bee Report” will be a regular blog feature and eventually the data will find its way into Bulletins and articles for the Low Technology Journal.

Bee Report – Fall 2016

img_1711The season is winding down for the bees. We extracted about 60 lb. of honey in early August from one of our 10-frame Langstroth hives (built here on site from plans found at beesource). Both hives are in ideal fighting condition going into the late fall: 12 full frames of honey, 1.5 frames of pollen, and 6.5 frames of brood or brood space in each hive. Over the winter, the queen continues to lay eggs in the brood space. The other bees huddle around the brood and shake to keep warm in a roiling mass at the center of the hive. Those near the center are warmest but as they get hungry, they must work their way out to the edge to find stored honey to eat. The mass of bees moves upwards through the winter, the queen laying eggs and the workers keeping warm. The honey, therefore, must be stored above the brood, otherwise the workers might not find it. The Langstroth hive, which is standard in the US, has movable frames inside upon which the bees build their comb. In order to set the hive up for winter, I pulled almost all of the honey-filled frames up to the top of the hive and concentrated the brood in the lower center of the hive.

A Little Technical Background

We started this year with a nucleus of bees from the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association in April. A nucleus is a small hive that contains five frames of bees, brood, workers, and a queen. I placed this in the Langstroth hive and it grew quickly. In early June, I split the hive in two: I pulled two frames of brood, two frames of honey, and one empty frame out of the main hive and put it back in a nucleus. This traveled to a friend’s house to get established. The original hive was now queenless, so I crushed the bottom of a few cells with bee eggs in them. The workers could sense that the queen was gone because her special pheromone had disappeared. This caused a slight panic among the bees and they quickly turned the modified worker egg cells into queen cells. Queen bee eggs are identical to worker eggs except in how they are fed during gestation, so the workers were able to rear a new queen from the existing eggs. In the meantime, the workers had fewer and fewer larvae to feed and so they spent their time gathering honey for me. After four weeks, the new queen had emerged, gone on her mating flight, and returned to the hive to start laying new eggs. By this time the second hive had been returned from my friend’s house. We now had two hives. In the first year, we were able to extract honey and have two strong hives go into the winter.

This method of splitting is called the “on the spot” (OTS) queen rearing. It is not standard practice, but it is growing in popularity. We chose this method because it is a rapid way to increase the number of hives (more technical benefits include decreasing the chance of lost swarms, increased honey production, and suppressing mite populations through a brood-break). In time, we’ll do a post specifically about our experiences with this method. As we will be experimenting with ancient and nonindustrial beekeeping methods, we need many hives. Hives cost $150-200 each, which is unsustainable for our organization. By using the OTS method, we can provide ourselves with plenty of hives at no cost.

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