I practice preservation beekeeping in a high mountain valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. By driving just twenty minutes from my home I can step onto the Continental Divide trail at 13,000’ elevation, and the honey bee colonies I monitor are all between 7,000’ and 9,000’. Stewarding honey bee colonies in this region presents some particular challenges, but these challenges are shared, I’m sure, by preservation beekeepers in other parts of the world with similar climates.
As a preservation beekeeper, my goal is the development of regionally adapted honey bee colonies. A regionally adapted honey bee colony would be called an ecotype – a genetically distinct geographic variety, population or race within a species, which is adapted to specific environmental conditions. In addition, I have the long-term goal of actually encouraging these ecotypes to swarm and thus repopulate the region I live in. So, the critical question I am always asking myself is, If the colonies I am monitoring were to cast a swarm that moved into the wild, would they be prepared to survive and thrive there, without human intervention of any kind?
With that goal in mind, my region presents three particular challenges: longer, colder winters; shorter, sparser nectar flows; and large, determined predators.
Longer, Colder Winters
It has been suggested by other preservation beekeepers that the “winter cluster” may not actually be a normal part of a honey bee colony’s annual life cycle. Rather, it is an extreme, last-ditch effort to survive the cold in an inadequate hive cavity. Whether or not this is this case, I have taken it to heart to learn how to provide a hive cavity that is ideal - from the bees’ perspective - for the region in which I am stewarding them.
For me, this means a number of things. One characteristic is interior hive cavity volume. I was very fortunate to be able to spend a day with Dr. Thomas Seeley, in the spring of 2018, and hear first-hand about his research on the preferred hive cavity volume of honey bee colonies. He had determined that honey bee colonies will choose a hive cavity with a volume of approximately 40 liters over a hive cavity with a significantly smaller volume or one with a significantly larger volume. In light of his research, I now build all of my hives with an interior volume of right at 40 liters. It has been interesting to learn that other preservation beekeepers around the world, even those who are building log hives, or weaving skeps, are also determining that a hive cavity volume of around 40 liters seems to be best. This volume appears to have several advantages: it’s easier for the bees to control their micro-climate throughout the year, it’s easier for the bees to keep this amount of space adequately heated during the winter, and it encourages swarming in the spring which provides another list of advantages to honey bee health (and that’s a whole other topic).
Another characteristic of the ideal hive cavity that I am working on is the insulative and hygroscopic qualities of the cavity walls. I build my hives out of 2-inch-thick western red cedar, with a rough surface on the inside. Western red cedar is considerably more insulative than pine, and is far more hygroscopic than pine. (Hygroscopy is the phenomenon of attracting and holding water molecules from the surrounding environment.) Using 2-inch-thick western red cedar, with a rough interior surface that the bees tend to coat with propolis, results in a hive that I’ve calculated to be approximately 5 or 6 times as insulative as a conventional 3/4” thick, pine Langstroth hive.
I also provide the bees with multiple screened vent holes at the top of the hive that they can propolise in order to control both the amount and route of their ventilation. They are completely in control of the amount of heat that vents out the top of the hive. In addition, the top of the hive is insulated, and the brood nest sits directly on top of an eight-inch-deep eco-floor.
All of these characteristics combine to provide the colonies I steward with a hive that I believe to be much better suited to my region. Remember that my goal is to be able to say “yes” to this question: If the colonies I am monitoring were to cast a swarm that moved into the wild, would they be prepared to survive and thrive there, without human intervention of any kind? So, I am essentially trying to design a hive cavity that allows the bees to live like they would in a hollow tree in the wild. But, because I live in the United States, I must still allow for the use of removable frames.
Shorter, Sparser Nectar Flow
Honey bees produce and store honey in order to survive the winter. It is both the food they ingest to provide nutrition for themselves, and the fuel they consume to produce the heat they need to live through the winter. But there’s yet another factor: combs of honey are also highly insulative; the more honey a colony has stored in their hive, the better insulated the hive will be.
This is an interesting phenomenon. More honey stored means a better insulated hive, which means they will need to consume less of the honey in order to survive the winter. So, harvesting honey is a “triple-whammy;” when we harvest honey we are removing their nutrition, and removing their insulation, as well as removing the fuel they need to stay warm through the winter in their now-less-insulated hive.
How much honey does a colony need to store in order to survive the winter? That depends on many factors, but the longer and colder the winter, the more honey they will require. A healthy colony of honey bees at my elevation in the Rockies, living in a conventional Langstroth hive, may likely need to store as much as 80 to 100 pounds of honey in order to survive a particularly long and cold winter. But, of course, less honey is needed in a better insulated hive where the bees can control their ventilation.
Producing and storing honey is an extremely laborious process. It requires the efforts of tens of thousands of honey bees working together in incredible harmony throughout all of spring and summer, and even into the fall. It has been documented that a single forager honey bee will fly approximately 500 miles in her very short life. She will make hundreds of flights to bring nectar back to the hive. But, even so, the result of all of her work will be the production of just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey on average. That’s just 0.02 ounces! It therefore takes the lives of 80,000 forager bees to produce 80 to 100 pounds of honey. And, don’t forget that they are also consuming it, as they go, during their busiest season. So they actually must produce considerably more than 80 to 100 pounds during the nectar flow in order to go into winter with enough stores in central Colorado. Again, this assumes the colony is living in a conventional Langstroth hive. A much better insulated hive can mean that the bees need to store less honey in order to survive the winter in good health.
The high mountain valley I live in is classified as High Mountain Desert. This is because the valley receives less than ten inches of precipitation per year, the humidity is very low (typically in the teens or single digits), and, at this elevation, the sun is very intense. Plus, we have well over three hundred days of sunshine per year. Our native flowering plants are anything but lush. The dandelions don’t bloom until April, and the Rabbitbrush has finished blooming by late September or early October. Although my valley has always been like this, decades ago there were many feral colonies casting swarms every spring. I know a local beekeeper, now in his seventies, who remembers that, as a young man, he was so busy collecting swarms each spring that he could not get any other work done for a couple of weeks. I want it to be so again. Part of that effort involves, of course, educating the public in holistic, sustainable ways of caring for the earth. Preservation beekeeping, by its very nature, is a regional effort; we cannot realize success without the help of everyone living in our region.
By “large, determined predators” I mean, of course, black bears. Black bears are so prevalent where I live that they have gotten into our trash can in the alley behind our house… and we live right in town! So, most of the hives I monitor are inside an electrified bear fence. These are actually quite simple to construct, and this issue is so common that our local Colorado Division of Wildlife provides the kits for free. They are typically very effective.
However, the bears are still quite determined and intelligent. Just this past fall, there was a bear who discovered a hive inside an electrified fence, knew what the fence was and didn’t touch it, but realized he or she could reach over the top of the fence and knock the hive down with the hopes that the hive would come apart and some of the contents would slide out under the fence. (Someone besides myself built this fence enclosure and didn’t set the fence panels far enough away from the hive.) The bear was out of luck, however, because the hive did not come apart. I strap all of my hives and the entire hive remained intact. And, thankfully, the entrance side was not facing the ground. (I actually strap all of my hives, whether they’re inside a bear fence or not, for a completely different reason. You can read about that HERE.
I was able to stand that hive back up and, at last check, the colony was still going strong. The hive was quite heavy, so I’m optimistic that this colony will over-winter well.
For myself, I believe that the highest calling a preservation beekeeper can have is to work at developing an ecotype in his or her region. This is what the earth needs and this is what human beings need. There is no one-size-fits-all, however, as we all know. It has been wisely said that “all beekeeping is local.” (Besides the Langstroth hive, it’s my opinion that the internet is the worst thing to ever happen to honey bees.) So, given the region that each preservation beekeeper lives in, I encourage them to always be asking themselves that same question: If the colonies I am monitoring were to cast a swarm that moved into the wild, would they be prepared to survive and thrive there, without human intervention of any kind?