Whenever I open the Feedly app on my phone, it says, “Never stop learning!” It keeps me up to date on the latest news from bee blogs that I follow, as well as the day’s political news and cute cat videos.
This past weekend I took that phrase to heart and attended another beekeeping class. You’d think after 5 years, I’d know a thing or two (and I do), but it’s always good to get another perspective. My first beekeeping class was through the Boulder County Beekeeper’s Association (I highly recommend it). That class focuses mostly on Langstroth beekeeping although there is one class on top bar hives – that’s the one that sent me down the top bar path. But finding one that focuses on top bar beekeeping and natural beekeeping is not all that common.
The class this past weekend was taught by Corwin Bell of Backyard Hive. Corwin has developed his own set of custom top bar hives – the Backyard hive, the Golden Mean Hive and most recently the Cathedral Hive. I found out this weekend that he started off building a Hardison hive – the kind that I started with – which explains the shape of his hives which have more vertical sides than most top bar hives. I bought the plans for the Golden Mean hive when I first started keeping bees and used it to tweak the Hardison Hive plans – particularly for the observation window.
Corwin has designed his class and methods around the idea of Bee Guardians – people who are committed to helping bees thrive in a more natural way than is typically done. This includes methods that take a more bee centric rather than keeper centric view of the bees and providing a habitat that is safe for bees. That fits nicely with my world view of beekeeping. He has a 90 minute DVD “Alternative Beekeeping Using the Top Bar Hive and Bee Guardian Methods” available for purchase that explains his philosophy in more detail.
While the material for this class was geared towards more beginning beekeepers, I still learned a few things that were interesting:
- Corwin does not smoke his hives, but uses water to “cool the down” if needed. Most beekeepers use smoke to disrupt the bees communication by scent, so if one or two bees start getting agitated, they can’t communicate to rile up the other bees. His method of inspecting hives is such that he is never 2 steps away from closing up the hive if it gets agitated. He used a scale of 1-10, with 5 being the cutoff point in agitation. If he’s going through and they reach a 5, he’ll close up the hive with a follower board for a few minutes until they calm down, then proceed if they stay calm. Worse comes to worse, he’ll just close the hive back up and come back another day. So this year, I’m going to try using water instead of smoke.
- When a queen goes on her mating flight(s), she mates with not just one drone but several (up to 15) drones from different colonies. This provides genetic diversity for the survival of the species. Different colonies have different traits – some are good pollen collectors, some are good comb builders, some are good at using propolis to seal their hives, some are good honey producers. Corwin contends (but I haven’t been able to confirm this) that when a queen is naturally mated like this, the sperm remains layered in the queen so she can choose which sperm to use to fertilize an egg as she lays it, based on the environmental conditions. If true, that’s really cool! Beekeepers generally mate queens by reducing the genetic diversity – breeding for specific traits like good honey production, mite resistance, etc. For artificially inseminated queens, Corwin likened it to injecting the queen with sperm package that had been run through a blender – no stratification, just one big slushy. Corwin’s idea is to let queens open mate and select the survivors each year to propagate those traits that are locally adapted to the environment. He encourages the use of swarms for increases over packages, a practice that I’ve adopted.
- One of his more recent projects is relating the colony winter die-offs to weather. He has correlated the effects of large temperature swings with colony kills. In Colorado, we can experience temperature swings from the 80’s to the 20’s in just a few hours during the fall and winter months. He’s found a good connection between such temperature swings and the times that colonies have died out. His latest idea is to design a heating system for a hive using a low watt light bulb that could be used to mitigate the effects of such temperature swings. I disagree with this approach. I feel it is just propping up weak bees who aren’t able to handle these kinds of temperature changes. But, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.
There were several other tidbits I picked up here and there over the two days. It’s always good to get another perspective on keeping bees.
Another reason for taking this class is that we are going to try to keep bees at the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram this year. It turns out that Corwin lives at the base of the hill from the ashram and offered to help them get started with a hive setup there. My friend Karvari, who lives at the ashram, rescued an unused Golden Mean hive from Shoshoni last year and we are planning to use that to get started. Karvari and another sangha member attended the workshop this weekend with me. They’ll need to have an electric fence for bears, but it should be an exciting new adventure for the ashram!
The class was held close to my Left Hand hive, so I invited my sangha friends to do a quick inspection with me after class on Saturday. While we were there, the owner came out and said she had something she wanted to show us. She had been working in her yard, raking up leaves and sticks and noticed that her cat was acting kind of weird. It turned out that there was a bobcat sitting in the tree just above her head! I didn’t get the greatest picture, but it was exciting to see!