Who the heck are these “Fools” and exactly why do they like these insects so much?
We’re Greg Hounsell and Gord Campbell and we started with two hives in June 2008. They split to four that August. We added 7 more in 2009 and after a significant setback in the winter of 2009/2010 we’re in the planning stages for a substantial increase in 2011.
Bees are amazing creatures. Incredibly specialized and important creatures. From the second they’re born to the second they die (about six weeks in season), they have one focus: collect food for the colony. They’re such compulsive foragers that it’s quite literally possible for them to entirely fill their nest with honey and have to move on.
That’s why we’re able to collect some of their product. The trick is not taking so much that you leave them without enough winter stores. In our area, an over-wintered colony of honeybees needs quite a lot of honey to survive: on the order of 20kg. Generally, as long as you keep that number in mind during the summer, they’ll do well over the winter and be raring to go the next Spring.
We come to beekeeping from a bit of a non-standard perspective. We try to keep one thing in mind at all times: the bees know what they’re doing. It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how much meddling in a colony is considered not only acceptable, but necessary, in commercial beekeeping. The industry has a disturbing tendency to medicate their hives “just in case the bees get sick”. This is exactly the same thing that’s lead to the rise of “superbugs” in our world. Not to mention the damage that you do the hive itself: is you constantly medicate a colony the bee’s already weak immune system will be suppressed. A suppressed immune systems will lead to more illness. Which leads to yet more medication. Eventually, you wind up artificially supporting a weak colony that couldn’t survive otherwise. A weak colony that’s contributing very little to the ecosystem around them and, more importantly, spreading disease to neighbouring colonies.
The bees know what to do. Strong, healthy colonies can handle a certain load of different diseases and parasites. Weaker members of the colony will naturally die off and only the stronger ones survive to fight off the invader. Dump chemical treatments into this system at the wrong time and you run the risk of ruining everything. We don’t like to see any of our bees die, but we’d rather lose a weak colony than have to continually support it while its members infect surrounding hives. Never mind the fact that one of these treatments, acceptable by organic standards, runs a 20% risk of killing the queen.
Our hives are not typical. The modern beekeeping hive is all based upon a design developed by Rev. L.L. Langstroth and patented in the US in 1851. We’ve all seen them: stacks of white boxes along the periphery of a farmer’s field. While this hive is convenient to work in, that convenience is of sole benefit to the beekeeper: every time you open the hive for an inspection, the entire hive is opened and the bees do not like it one bit. Hundreds of guard bees fly out to investigate the disruption. The beekeeper generally uses a smoker in the belief that it calms the bees. In reality, what the smoke does is to make the bees think that their home is on fire. They all run into the hive and prepare to evacuate. They’re not “calm”, they’re in a panic and it takes a long time for life in the hive to get back to normal. A simple, 10-minute, inspection can disrupt life in the hive for an hour or more.
The convenience of Langstroth’s hives lies in the combs: The bees are also enticed to build their combs in wooden frames with a thin layer of “foundation wax” in the centre. Again for the sole benefit of the beekeeper: the frames allow him to easily remove the comb from the hive for inspection, harvest or other manipulation.
A problem lies with using foundation and we don’t use it. Ever. Foundation is embossed with a honeycomb pattern that the bees use as a template for the comb. Bees need to build different-sized cells for different purposes and they have a hard time doing that with foundation. It’s all printed with identically sized cells, which makes management of the hive difficult for the bees. There’s mounting evidence that bees can benefit from being allowed to build smaller cells than is normally printed on the foundation as well: smaller bees develop more quickly, reducing the time that developing bees are exposed to some parasites. They also tend to be faster and stronger.
It IS possible for the bees to re-work some of the foundation wax to building the cells that they need and they do. But, it takes an enormous amount of extra energy. Some beekeepers even use plastic foundation. You can imagine what the bees think of that stuff.
We prefer the Kenyan Top Bar Hive that was developed for African development projects in the 1960′s. This type of hive is oriented horizontally, roughly approximating a hollow log hive. Instead of frames, the top of the hive is composed of wooden bars. The bees build the comb from these bars in whatever cell configuration that they need and it’s still easy for the beekeeper to remove the combs for inspection or harvest. We have modified the KTBH design to suit our climate and ease of use.
It’s all about the bees. So, we’re always moving forward with some new idea or possible modification to better help the bees and the hives. For example: of our first four hives, we have three different designs, four different building methods and two types of top-bars. We have now settled in the style in the picture above and it works wonderfully!
Honey production and hive products are not the primary focus for us. Yet, we are still a successful commercial apiary and as such there are limited runs of raw honey for sale. Only the excess goodness the bees provide being made available to the public. The wax is used in candles, lip balms and creams; pollen is dried for nutritional supplements, and of course the honey!
Educating the public is vital as well. We love to talk about the bees and show people what we do. We’ve had visitors from all over Southern Ontario and Quebec and in 2010 we helped a local Cub Pack complete their Pack Specialty Badge in Beekeeping. Our kids are the future and the sooner they know how vitally important our insect friends are, the better off we’ll all be.