This is a response to a comment about foundationless and natural beekeeping left by Sam a few days ago.

The natural habitat for honey bees is a tropical climate inside a hollow log, so there’s only so much we can do to emulate those conditions. Still, if we’re going to keep bees, the foundationless methods seem to interfere the least with their natural behaviour. (Nov. 20/10 update: See the Backwards is The New Forwards video for more info on the benefits of foundationless frames.) It’s a backwards approach compared to conventional beekeeping, but it seems better for the bees and I like it. (Basically, it’s the kind of beekeeping Michael Bush does.)

A 2-week-old Newfoundland foundationless honeycomb (August 28, 2010).

At this point in the game, though, I’m not sure how well backwards beekeeping will play out in Newfoundland’s cold, wet, east coast climate.

For instance, it’s highly unlikely that honey bees could become feral in Newfoundland. The winters, near the coastal areas anyway, are wet and slushy, and trees simply don’t grow large enough to provide natural hollows for hives. So the chances of starting up colonies from healthier feral swarms acclimated to Newfoundland’s environment are pretty close to zero. I suspect beekeepers in Newfoundland will always be dependent on domesticated bees.


A BACKWARDS BEEKEEPER CAPTURING A SWARM. (DOESN’T REALLY HAPPEN IN NEWFOUNDLAND.)

Another backwards beekeeping practice I’d like to following but which may not work out so well in Newfoundland is the crush-and-strain method of extracting honey. It involves cutting the honeycomb out of the foundationless frames, smashing it up and letting the honey drain through a filter into another bucket or some jars. The empty foundationless frames are then placed back into the hive where the bees build new comb from scratch and then fill it up with honey again — and that’s where it could get tricky in Newfoundland. With the short Newfoundland summers, I’m not sure the bees will have enough time to rebuild and fill the comb with honey before the weather turns cold.


A BACKWARDS BEEKEEPER CRUSHING AND STRAINING NATURAL HONEYCOMB.

But I could be wrong. The foundationless frames we’ve added to the brood chambers fill up just as fast, if not faster, than the conventional frames. The bees see that empty space and attack it with everything they’ve got. It’s impressive. There are two honey flows in Newfoundland: one in mid-August, I believe, or maybe July; the other in mid-September. So maybe it’ll be alright. We’ll see how it works out next summer.

And, well, that’s about it actually. For the most part, backwards beekeeping in Newfoundland means using foundationless frames, which isn’t as straightforward as conventional beekeeping — and it’s certainly not as easy as backwards beekeeping in the warm, sunny, snowless climate of California. At this point in time, we’ve got a mixture of foundationless and conventional frames in our hive — 10 foundationless frames spread out between two hives, both with brood chambers consisting of two deep supers. Knowing what I know now, though, I would have had foundationless frames in the brood chamber right from the start.

I’m also interested in starting up some top-bar hives, but that might be pushing my luck. Novice beekeepers in Newfoundland are pretty much flying blind most of the time because there just aren’t enough experienced beekeepers to meet with. I only know one full-time beekeeper in my area, and I don’t want to bother him every weekend (but I would if I could). There are no Newfoundland beekeeper meetings. Nothing. Going foundationless on my own is hairy enough, but at least I know some people using the same kind of hives who I can talk to. I’d be totally on my own with top-bars. But who knows, once I get a full year of beekeeping under my belt, I might feel confident enough to give it a go.

8 Responses to “Backwards Beekeeping Concerns in the Cold Moist Climate of Newfoundland”

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  1. Phillip I must say you’re an inspiration to me. Living in the dry, sunny Okanagan of British Columbia I was concerned about backward beekeeping this far north but you’re doing it in St John’s. You living in a tremendous province but it’s climate is quite a lot harsher than ours. I’m hoping to get a nuc next spring and am taking a beekeeping course right now…very exciting!

    Thanks to Russell at Backward Beekeeping pointing me to this post

    http://beehuman.blogspot.com/2.....anada.html

    I would have had a time trying to find your blog on the vast internet. Thanks for the inspiration I look forward to learning more from your experience.

    Dave

  2. Phillip says:

    Thanks Dave. Newfoundland may be the most difficult place in Canada to keep bees. It sure feels like it at times. As far as I know, I’m the only person in the province trying to follow the backwards beekeeping methods. I doubt I’ll ever catch a feral swarm, but going foundationless has a chance at working out. I’ll know more next spring when I check on the bees.

  3. Phillip, I’ve finished the beekeeping course and if all goes well I’m planning to get a couple of Nucs in the spring. Here we can get started in mid April (w/ feeding) After re-reading this post you say you would put foundationless frames in the brood chamber(s) Is this because of how quickly your hive was able to draw comb?
    The idea of letting the bees determine the cell size and be able to combat the mites better is very important to me. I’m interested in getting some honey but I want happy health bees before honey.

  4. Phillip says:

    Hi David,

    Before I pass on any pearls of wisdom, be aware that I often don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve done a lot of online research and I have a stack of books on order for studying over the winter. But like most novice beekeepers in Newfoundland, 99% of the time, I am completely on my own, flying blind, doing things I probably shouldn’t be doing half the time because I don’t have anyone around to tell me not to do them — but I’m doing my best to learn from my situation. The rest of the world where people can meet up with master beekeepers, purchase beekeeping supplies locally, take beekeeping courses and start their hives from nucs as early as April… well, all of that is a huge advantage over beginner beekeepers in Newfoundland who don’t have any of it. (And I hate you.) This time next year, with all the resources you have access to and a much bee-friendlier climate, you’re going to be further ahead of the game than me — and I’ll be asking you questions. But until then…

    …I’m planning to get a couple of Nucs in the spring. Here we can get started in mid April…

    Have I told you lately that I hate you? That’s great. By the way, if you can start up a hive in April, you’ll be able to harvest some honey before the end of the summer.

    After re-reading this post you say you would put foundationless frames in the brood chamber(s) Is this because of how quickly your hive was able to draw comb?

    I would put foundationless frames in from the start — and I plan to do it in 2011 with two more nucs — first of all because it allows the bees to determine the size of the cells, and that’s better for the bees. (Michael Bush has plenty to say about this.) I’m not worried so much about it in NL, because we don’t have mites here, but it’s still good for the bees. (I’d suggest wiring the frames, though, just to give them extra support, and look into screened bottom boards which also help keep the mites out and provide better ventilation. I’m thinking about screened bottom boards at least for when the weather in warm in NL.)

    The second reason I said I would use foundationless frames from the start: Avoiding the whole drone situation (read the post). Because regular frames with foundation squeeze out the natural number of drones, the first two or three foundationless frames the bees build on will fill up drone cells. The number of drone cells will eventually level off, but initially, the hive goes crazy with drones. I didn’t add foundationless frames to my hives until I added the second brood chamber, which means the hive created a large number of drones and then the weather got cold and hundreds of drone pupae suddenly got the boot. I think that unpleasantness could have been avoided had the hive been introduced to foundationless frames from the start.

    Also, it takes the bees awhile to regress to a naturally smaller cell sized if they’ve been raised on foundation. It can take several brood cycles before the smaller cell size becomes the preferred cell size for the bees. My bees were just getting used to a few foundationless frames and then the weather got cold and that was the end of it. They didn’t have a chance to fully adjust to foundationless cells. That’s another reason why I’d go foundationless from the start.

    As long as the foundationless frames have a wax starter strip for the bees to build off, they will build on those frames just as fast, if not faster, than conventional frames.

    So that’s the long version of why I would go foundationless from the start. If you start with nucs in mid-April and feed them until they’ve built most of their comb in two brood boxes (and you may not need to feed them all summer long), I think you will easily be able to add at least one honey super and harvest some honey in your first year.

  5. Thanks for the great response….you hate me ’cause I can start earlier…..I hate you ’cause you have NO MITES soooo I guess we’re even. :)

    Now to say…. don’t under estimate the value of your pearls of wisdom. Having a year under your belt and a hunger for knowledge and obvservation; I’m certain you can relay some great info. Another benefit is that you’re not jaded by the “old” practises and methods. You’re mouseless entry looks simple yet should be really affective.

    In the course I took there was much said extolling the benefits of screen bottom boards including leaving them in year around. If designed with an open back the beekeeper can insert boards on both sides and control the air flow in winter, check for mites and assist the bees with house keeping, oh! and did I mention check for MITEs (which you don’t have grrrr.)

    If you like I can send you a picture of the back of a hive showing the space but unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the actual screen boards some of the local beekeepers use.

    One good thing I’ll need to check on with getting more drone cells is that the greedy little mites are more likely to target those cells since the larva is larger. I wonder if I’ll end up with more mites initially? I’ll have to ask around.

    Once the bees figure out they don’t need all the drones hopefully they’ll have their cell size figured out and be more suited to live with the mites according to the theory.

    It is too bad about the drones come winter, just reinforces what I read some where that bees can be very pragmatic. “If it’s not good for the hive it’s gotta be changed”.

    Thanks for the tip on wiring the frames for brood comb this make good sense. I think I’ll try both with and without. I like the looks of cutting the comb out. (as shown on the Backward Beekeeping site) Brings back childhood memories of have a special treat once every couple of years. HONEYCOMB!!! yum….

    • Phillip says:

      In the course I took there was much said extolling the benefits of screen bottom boards including leaving them in year around.

      This is the kind of thing I would like to know about. Neither of the two professional beekeepers in NL use screened bottom boards, not that I’m aware of. Screened bottom boards may work fine in NL, but they just don’t use them. Which means if I take a shot at it, I’m on my own.

      If you like I can send you a picture of the back of a hive showing the space but unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the actual screen boards some of the local beekeepers use.

      If you don’t mind, that would be great. I’m curious to see how it’s set up. I’ve read that a properly ventilated hive is a healthier hive, and I just don’t see how a conventional hive with solid bottom boards and only a small upper entrance can provide much ventilation. My main concern is the NL weather — cold, windy and wet 80% of the year. Too much ventilation could be a problem in the NL climate. But I’m definitely willing to experiment next summer.

      One good thing I’ll need to check on with getting more drone cells is that the greedy little mites are more likely to target those cells since the larva is larger. I wonder if I’ll end up with more mites initially?

      Perhaps, but that might not be a problem because, from what I’ve read from guys like Michael Bush, the benefit of having the extra drones is that the mites, which prefer drones, won’t migrate as quickly (or at all) to the worker the bees. Most problems in the hive begin with the drones, and seeing how drones aren’t essential to the immediate survival of the hive, whatever the problem is stays contained to the drones who are then discarded from the hive. The natural structure of the hive (based on foundationless frames) makes a lot of sense when you view it in this light.

      It is too bad about the drones come winter, just reinforces what I read some where that bees can be very pragmatic. “If it’s not good for the hive it’s gotta be changed”.

      That’s something I’m trying to remember every time I see something unusual happening in the hive. Whatever is happening in the hive, chances are the bees are dealing with it the way they should. They know what needs to be changed.

      Thanks for the tip on wiring the frames for brood comb this make good sense. I think I’ll try both with and without.

      I put the wires in for extra support, though it may not be necessary seeing how the bees will eventually connect the comb to three sides of the frames (at least that’s what my bees have done). I’m not concerned about the wires because I don’t plan to take honey from the brood chamber, and the wires don’t do any harm. That’s my thinking on that. For the honey supers, though, they’ll be completely foundationless and wireless.

      I like the looks of cutting the comb out.

      Me too. I’m really looking forward to next year.

  6. Jeff says:

    Few other things to keep in mind with varro mites. Once the hive is established you can use drone comb to cull future mites. Allow the drone brood to be capped. Once capped take it out the comb and put it into a freezer for 12+ hours. Kills the drones but also kills the mites.

    Don’t forget powdered sugar. Good for cleaning mites off the worker bees. I’ve read about people doing this in the spring and fall, especially fall to get the mite numbers down going into winter.

    Look at Russian bees or at least Italian bees with some Russian breed into them. They handle the varro mite much better than some varities.

    Also sugar subsitiue is a good carbohydrate source for topping bees off for winter but nectar and honey have trace nutrients in them. I have heard mixed reviews on this but personally they need honey in the hive as the main source. Sugar is better as less cleanizing flights required but trace nutrients make for healthy bees. Healthy bees should be less prone to parasites. Kind of like us. I hope we don’t get mites here. That would suck.

    I was reading an article about wired versus wireless. They discussed about teh centers falling out of the wireless and that is attributed to lack off cooling within a Langstrom hive. Better airflow during the summer should allievate that. That being said comb was not designed to be spun out though. For brood it’s probably good, for collecitng honey in teh shallow supers wire is probably essential.

    Take care Dave and Phillip. To bad we didn’t get a chance to meet last week Phillip. You’ev got some great ideals.

  7. Thanks Phillip and Jeff,
    Give me a day or so and I’ll get some further input together and uploaded.
    The sacraficial drone comb was discussed in the course I took. The method is to hang medium frames of foundation alternating between full frames of foundations inthe brood chamber. The bees build drone cells on the bottom of the meduim frame and like you said, once once they are capped cut them off of the frame, freeze them, pick out the dead larva & mites. You can melt the wax but it’s not recommended for re-use in the hive but it make great candles!
    Controlling the mites here is a 21 day cycle of dusting with powdered sugar every 5 days. It is very effective and surprisingly simple.
    Good to know about the wired versus the un-wired frames. Heat may be a problem here in late July and August. I’m hoping to find out more next year.
    I plan on attending the monthly meeting of local beekepers and bouncing the foundationless idea off of them. Hopefully there are some that are stepping in to the backwards backyard so to speak….I’ll keep you posted.

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