Bee’s Eye View

Looking down from a light aircraft gives insights you just can’t match on the ground. At 6,000 feet, you appreciate how close flowers are along a beeline from hive to field. Beeing in the air is useful for a beekeeper – I’m not going to write about the thrill of flying in a four-seater, looping around the Alberta prairies, nor will I mention that my son was at the controls for about half the flight. (Though I couldn’t resist inserting my 30-second video at the top of this page. A good friend, a seasoned pilot (and beekeeper!), sat alongside my teenager. Many, many thanks to my friend for our flight!)

Years ago, I kept bees in Florida. The owner of a private airstrip took me up in his plane. It was the first time I had a real sense for central Florida’s terrain. Citrus groves were mostly near roads, partly because harvesting trailers need to park close to the fruit. From the air, I realized that groves were often narrow strips hugging the roads. Both trees and roads prefer higher ground. Farther from the roads, I saw more pasture than I expected. The rest of Florida was cypress swamps and flooded sinkholes.  I owned forty acres of swamp, a field, and a few nice oak hammocks. My bee shed is in the center of the pasture in the picture below. The rest of my land was reserved for alligators. A real eye-opener from the air.

I really thought there were more groves in Florida!

From the air, you can select new yards and see where the competition placed their hives. You also get a sense of meandering streams, potential flood plains to avoid, and (here in western Canada) you may find remote alfalfa fields which you didn’t know existed.

I met a Montana beekeeper, Harry Rodenberg, who served as a bombardier in World War II. He told me that he kept track of his 3,000 hives from the seat of a light plane. Montana’s alfalfa fields are vast and scattered. After a bad storm, Harry sometimes flew out to check yards for blown lids or tumbled hives. Today, the Rodenberg family operates close to 5,000 hives. Piloting remains part of the family skill set.

You might already know that the first report of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight appeared in a bee magazine. Gleanings in Bee Culture was published by Ohio beekeeper A.I. Root. He manufactured beekeeping equipment, sold candles, made honey, and (like most good beekeepers) had an insatiable curiosity. When he heard that some boys down in Dayton, Ohio, had built a flying machine, he wrote about their adventure less than three months later. The Dayton newspaper missed it entirely, simply doing a tiny ‘Society’ piece announcing that the Wright brothers had returned from a visit to North Carolina. Aeronauts and flying machines were never mentioned. Beekeeper A.I. Root was more enthusiastic. Below is the fourth piece he published about flying machines. It’s from January, 1905, and begins, “What hath God wrought?”

A.I. Root continued writing about bees and flying machines. In 1908, he described an 8-mile flight made by the Wrights “in 7 and 3/4 minutes, which is just over a mile a minute.”  I don’t know if A.I. Root ever checked his bees from the seat of a flying machine. But I wonder why more beekeepers don’t take a flight over their bee yards. These days, with easy access to satellite images, it’s less important than it used to be. But for real-time knowledge of where the neighbouring hives are and which fields are blooming, nothing beats a spin in the air.

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Long Live the (New) Queen

During the past week, we looked at how to requeen a hive. On Monday, we considered the reality of queen troubles and how our hives differ from feral colonies. Tuesday was about identifying a queen’s quality from her brood pattern, then on Wednesday, we murdered the queen. Yesterday, a new queen was inserted into our failing hive. Today, we’ll consider what happens to a requeened colony and we’ll ask ourselves if all this was really necessary.

I’d like to say that the princess becomes a queen and lives happily ever after. That’s usually true. However, after you’ve done everything as correctly as you can, you may still find that some of your hives rejected replacement queens.

I’ve seen wildly different results requeening. Once, with a batch of a hundred queens, one-third rejected immediately or didn’t make the summer. Weather  or some beekeeping mistake might have been the problem. But I suspect that the issue began back at the queen breeder’s ranch. Other times almost every queen in the batch does well. Again, it might have been our own brilliance, but more likely it was a good set of properly raised and fully mature queens that we received.  As with most of our beekeeping, our best efforts may improve our success a notch or two, but even a small mistake can lead to an epic fail. (That goes for raising kids, too.)

If you’ve done everything right, you probably have a new egg-laying machine in your hive. Was it worth it? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. When I learned beekeeping from my father, we had about 300 hives. (He had once had 800 but when I was old enough to help, was cutting back to run other businesses.) My father was similar in age and life experience as Richard Taylor (whom I’ll paraphrase: when in doubt, let the bees sort it out). They used similar beekeeping tactics. Particularly, both Richard Taylor (1919-2003) and my father (1919-2002) learned about life during the Great American Depression. My father didn’t spend much money. He never requeened. Failing hives were doubled up with better ones. In the spring, he’d get numbers up again by splitting the good hives – sometimes he’d splurge on purchased queens for the divides, but often he’d just split the hive at the end of the spring flow, let the queenless units raise their own queens, and he’d usually have reasonable hives for Pennsylvania’s autumn goldenrod and aster flows. I’m not advocating this system – it wouldn’t work too well if you have an intense July/August flow, as we do here on the great plains. But that’s one way of managing the poor queen issue if you have a lot of hives and can accept some losses.

Complete hives, $6; Queens $11/dozen (in 1908)

Generally, you should requeen failing hives with new queens. The value of three pounds of bees and a queen (over CA$200 in western Canada) or 5-frame nucs (US$130 in the States) tells us that a $20-$40 queen invested in a colony at the right time saves a huge amount of money. I won’t go into the value of the honey crop and the difference a good new queen can make to a hive’s production compared with a failing one. In the end – despite some occasions when bees will sort it out – responsible beekeeping usually means requeening a colony when it’s in a death spiral. With a healthy, well-mated, new queen, most hives can recover.

Obviously, I didn’t cover everything you need to know about requeening a hive. That’s partly because I don’t know everything there is to know about beekeeping. But I hope that this review gives you some things to consider. If you are new to beekeeping, do some research, read some good magazines, and (especially) find a mentor – you’ll learn much faster and you’ll be a better beekeeper. If you are an experienced beekeeper, feel free to disagree with everything I’ve written. Let me know how wrong I am.  Either way, I’ll be back tomorrow with a short piece on scouting bee yards from 6,000 feet.

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens | Tagged | 5 Comments

Sticking the Queen In

Over the past few days, I’ve written a little about identifying poor queens by examining brood patterns. Then we discussed  finding and pinching her failing heinousnesses.  The next step in your requeening saga is inserting the caged queen.

Here in Canada, people are paying about $40 for a single queen. That’s Canadian money, so it’s really only about fifty cents in American. But for us, that hits the pocketbook hard. You don’t want to dequeen a hive, pay a day’s wages for a replacement, and then later find her dead in the cage. Since that’s such a big risk, I’d rather not tell you how to do it. Instead, I’m going to tell you what a lot of other beekeepers say. You can get mad at them if something goes wrong.

Benton mailing cages, usually made from soft basswood, have been used for almost 150 years. This one is from an 1893 magazine, The American Bee-Keeper.

A lot of beekeepers say that the caged queen can last a week or two with her attendants if you can’t install her because of weather or because you didn’t plan things ahead. During this time, give the caged bees a droplet of honey and water a couple times a day, keep them at room temperature or slightly warmer, and in a dark/dim location. It’s not a good idea to keep her majesty waiting, but if necessary, it’s possible.

A lot of beekeepers say that you should remove all the attendants from the cage before inserting it into the new hive. I always do that. It probably increases acceptance by a third – instead of having maybe 12 in 100 queens rejected, perhaps you’ll have just 8 in 100 caged queens killed by the queenless bees. (12 in 100 is just an example, not an aspiration. Individual results will vary. Time of year, strength of queenless hive, period of queenlessness, and the alignment of the planets affect acceptance rate.)

A lot of beekeepers say that you should remove the non-candy cork from the trusty Benton cage and place a finger over the hole. Whenever a worker gets close to the hole and the queen moves away, remove your finger and release the attendant. It may take a few minutes to get them all out. It pays to free the workers while you are seated in a truck with the windows rolled up. Over time, you will likely accidentally release a queen of two. You should be able to recover her from the windshield and nudge her back into the cage again. When all the workers have escaped, recap the hole with the cork. (You saved it, right?)

A lot of beekeepers say that you should wait a few days between removing an old queen and adding one in a box. I’ve made 3- and 4-way splits and put the caged queen in immediately, even before loading the nucs and driving to their new yard. But you may want to be more cautious when requeening an in-place hive with an aging population of workers. If you do requeen immediately, follow this advice from the queen breeders at Weaver’s:

When you are re-queening, you may install the new queen immediately after killing the old one or you may wait as long as four or five days before installing the new queen.  We recommend installing a new queen right after killing the old one, though we don’t recommend poking a hole in the candy to accelerate release in this case.

A lot of beekeepers say that you should remove any queen cells in the queenless hive before inserting the cage. Their theory is that the bees will feel they’ve already taken care of the problem. I don’t know if bees have feelings so I won’t comment.

A lot of beekeepers say that you should place the cage near the top bars, between two frames of brood. Face the screen out so the queen can make friends with the bees in the queenless hive. They’ll probably pass a little honey to her.

A lot of beekeepers say that you should smear honey and wax from the queenless hive onto the cage to mask the cage’s imported odor. I think that it wouldn’t hurt and it only takes a few seconds, so why not?  Some use essential oils to neutralize the mixing of bee odors. We tend to think that we invented the idea of masking queen odors, but take a look at this cartoon from 100 years ago:

The caption to this January 1920 Gleanings in Bee Culture sketch says, “…the professor says you introduce a new queen by drowning her in a cup of honey.”

A lot of beekeepers say that the only safe way to introduce a new queen is to use a ‘push-in cage’, a wire mesh stuck into the comb that confines the new queen to a very small acreage yet lets her lay a few eggs. You may want to research this as it could save a queen or two from time to time.

I’ll leave off here. This stage – inserting the queen – is usually the simplest. You’ve made your decision based on brood and you’ve eliminated the failing queen. So put the cage in already.

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Pinching the Queen

Today I’ll write a few words about finding and murdering the old queen. We’ll assume that you have decided the queen must die. Harsh as that sounds, sometimes it’s the only way to save a hive. Think of the colony as a living creature (superorganism) and the queen as the heart. Or more to the point, the ovaries. You are conducting a transplant of a vital organ when the queen is removed and replaced.

If you still aren’t completely sure that requeening is the the right thing for you, then don’t do it. Maybe the feeble brood is due to other conditions, as noted last time. My favourite beekeeper, Dr Richard Taylor, used to say, “When in doubt, let the bees sort it out.” (Or some similar Taylorism.) Unless it’s a hive with a drone-laying queen and no supersedure cells, maybe you just can let a declining queen continue her reign well past her best before date. Maybe the bees will recognize the problem and replace her. But if the brood is seriously haphazard and limited in quantity, maybe it’s time to sharpen the axe.

So, you need to find the queen. For this, all your activities must be smooth and deliberate. This is not the time to show anyone how much smoke your smoker can produce or how loudly you can drop a hive lid to the ground. To find a queen, you have to almost not be there at all. If you work quickly yet gently, the queen will almost certainly be on a brood frame. After a gentle puff of cool white smoke at the entrance, open the hive and (if it’s multi-storied), determine which box has the most bees and the happiest cluster. That’s likely where the brood is and it’s a good place to start looking.

Remove a non-brood frame near the brood nest. Experienced beekeepers can usually see where brood is without removing frames. They look straight down between the top bars to get a good idea of the brood’s position. Chances are you worked the errant hive a few days earlier and realized the queen was failing (and ordered a new queen) – if that’s the case, you should already know which box and which frames have brood.

After removing the non-brood frame near the brood nest, quickly glance at both sides of it and put that frame aside, perhaps in an empty rim or empty nuc box – somewhere that the queen (if you missed her) will not be lost in the grass. Almost as quickly, examine the next frame, which likely has brood. I’m not going to tell you that you are looking for the biggest bee in the hive and queens are not drones. That should insult your intelligence. Instead, I want to focus on technique. First, spend three seconds scanning the side of the frame facing you. If you don’t see her, spend fifteen more seconds systematically looking at the frame as if you were speed reading, moving your eyes along the length of the frame about a third of the width at a time. This is not a good time to think about what you’ll make for dinner or where you’ll go on your next winter holiday. Focus. I’ve worked with queen breeders who were consistently five times faster than me at finding and caging queens from mating nucs. They could really focus, but they also had a knack for observation. It’s likely hard-wired into the DNA, but it’s a skill that the rest of us can usually develop to an acceptable extent.

Zen-like, you ooohm your way through the brood and you find the queen. Or you don’t. You missed her. She was right there, waving her little queenly hands at you, but you saw drones or noticed how yellow this year’s pollen is. If you’ve examined (and replaced) each brood comb in the hive without finding the queen, you might broaden your search. Check empty frames, lid, bottom, the grass. By now, using 30 seconds to a minute per frame, you’ve had the hive open for five or ten minutes and you lost. The queen won. This time. Close the hive and ask yourself why you hadn’t marked the queen the last time you saw her, beat yourself up for your poor beekeeping skills, and plan to return tomorrow.  Beekeepers reading this may have better tricks and ideas and hopefully will offer advice in the comments below. But if you haven’t found the queen early in your search, it becomes exponentially harder. You might as well admit that you’re a failure. But redeem yourself next time.

If you have found the queen and have decided that she’s had a good run but now she’s an old timer, snuffing her out is your next task. If you find this hard to do, I like you already. But for the good of the hive (which may fail to replace the queen and may end up dying of despair), remember how we started this post – time for an organ transplant. Make it quick and forget about it.

Where to hide the body?  A friend of mine suggests that beekeepers should drop the dead queen into the hive so the workers will know that she’s really, really dead. He says that you will see workers surround the dead queen, fanning furiously, acknowledging to the entire hive that the queen is dead. This, I’m told, should allow better acceptance of the new caged replacement queen. He is a smart beekeeper, so I have to give his idea a moment’s thought. And then disagree. I suspect that the activity around the dead body (if there actually is any) is not a funeral ritual but instead indicates that the bees are making a last effort to spread pheromones. I’d just as soon keep the dead queen’s body in a labeled and dated matchbox and collect all the matchboxes on a display shelf. What would you do with the body?

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens | Tagged | 9 Comments

Good Queen; Bad Queen

Quite a few commercial beekeepers replace queens every second year. It’s a scheduled event, sort of like a birthday. Half the hives will get a new queen in 2017, the other half in 2018, then back to the first group again.  But hobby beekeepers may be able to watch their bees more closely, allowing a good queen to continue past her second year, or replacing a fizzled one after a few underproductive months. How can you judge queen quality and when do you sharpen the axe?

Good queen or bad queen?

First, be aware that you can seldom recognize a good queen from a bad one on sight. If I were to place one of each into a small vial and ask you to play Solomon, you’d have about a 50-50 chance of picking the best. There is an exception (to every rule), as in the example in the picture to your right. You should be able to figure out on your own whether this dead queen will be an effective egg layer for your colony.

Don’t bother to find the queen with the idea of assessing her worth. I’d once come along a slowly plodding 5-legged queen in a hive with 12 frames of brood and a booming population. She looked old. She was somehow wounded. But there was this great hive. I let her live. However, think about this: Some beekeepers claim that one in twenty summertime hives actually has two queens, usually mother and daughter, working side-by-side. Maybe that was the situation in the nice hive with the gimpy queen. I don’t know because I didn’t look for a second queen. Most beekeepers don’t. We’re so certain a hive has just one queen (it’s in all the fables and children’s books) that we never look for queen number two. This can be a problem when requeening and inserting an expensive new queen mother.

If the condition of a queen isn’t a reliable indicator of her quality, what is? Well, it’s her brood pattern. If the hive has a normal population and isn’t honey-bound, you will see nice full frames of brood in late spring. The combs should have workers developing in worker cells, not drones. There should be just one egg per cell and brood should be fairly continuous with similarly-aged brood close together. Here’s an example of a very nice frame of brood:

On the other hand, if you see a frame with a highly irregular brood pattern, like this one below, the queen is likely failing. If you could look down into the cells, you’d see eggs next to sealed next to pearl – a real mish-mash of thoughtless irregularity. The queen isn’t able to produce a consistent flow of fertile eggs.

I’d replace a queen that was this inefficient. As queens age, they may deplete their spermatheca, reducing the chances that the egg dropped has been fertilized. I’ve not seen this documented, so I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the queen physically opens the sperm bank door and assumes the egg has been properly inseminated. She does what she thinks is a successful fertilization because she is getting a signal to her brain indicating she’s done everything correctly, so she deposits the egg into a worker cell. Poor thing. Normally, a queen only places unfertilized eggs (which will always become a drone) into large, drone-sized cells. She knows what she’s doing. Fertile eggs into worker cells; unfertilized into drone cells. So, she assumes the door to the spermatheca opened, the egg is inseminated, and it belongs in a worker cell. But as the queen ages, fertilization is less certain. She unintentionally lays an infertile egg in a worker cell.  When this happens, we consider the queen to be a drone layer and we need to replace her ASAP.  Here’s what the resulting ‘bullet brood’ may look like in this situation:

Finally, one other condition to be aware of is the case of laying workers. Worker honey bees do not mate so they cannot fertilized eggs. Unfertilized eggs become drones. Hives with laying workers will end up with just drone brood and worker population will nosedive. Laying workers are likely more common than we suspect. Most hives probably have some workers laying a few eggs at any time. Remove the queen and the queen’s associated odours and the egg-laying instinct of laying workers is no longer suppressed. In a queenless hive, one-third of the workers will eventually activate their ovaries and lay eggs. The longer a hive is queenless, the greater the likelihood that laying workers will lay. Usually such a situation can not be fixed and the beekeeper eliminates the entire hive by shaking all the bees out of the equipment and letting the displaced bees enter other hives. This is a complicated issue and you’ll have to research it on your own. For some background on laying workers, you might check my blog post on how they develop by going to this page. In the meantime, look at the photos below to recognize the signs of laying workers and do not try to requeen such a hive with a freshly purchased caged queen. The laying worker hive will kill the gift you’ve given them.

Photo by Michael Palmer/Beesource.com

In the remarkable photo above (credited to Michael Palmer via Beesource.com), you see the clear evidence of laying workers. Worker bees can’t count as well as queen bees. They don’t stop at ‘one’ – some of these cells have ten eggs. Most will be removed by other workers, but in the top row, you can see at least two hatched eggs (larvae) in the cell near the middle. None of the eggs in this picture are fertilized. If they develop, they will become drones.  Another clue that workers have been at work laying on the comb above is in the third row from the top, second cell from the left. You can see the egg stuck to the cell wall instead of the cell bottom. That’s because workers have shorter abdomens than queens and can’t always reach the cell bottom to drop their eggs.  Again, when you see this, don’t waste your time and money trying to requeen. Cut your losses and eliminate the hive.

Most hives will not have drone-laying queens or laying workers.  It will be less clear to you that the queen is failing. Your clues will come from the brood – its quantity and pattern. Don’t be hasty making your decision. A hive weakened by mites, skunks, weather, foulbrood, or other maladies may have a fine queen but the brood quantity (and perhaps its pattern) may be sub-optimal. Not every hive will have the perfect pattern that you see here, to the left. There is a spectrum of brood quality and it will give you a sense for the quality of the queen. Tomorrow, we’ll assume you have decided to requeen and we’ll consider your next move.

Posted in Beekeeping, Queens | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Long Live the New Queen

Photo Credit: SJ Bennett

Spring is typical requeening season. Sometimes you do it yourself; other times, the bees swarm or supersede. A young queen is the result.  When a queen is failing, you’re told: Kill the old queen and replace her.  Pretty straight forward, eh?

For an experienced beekeeper, requeening is as easy as pinch and insert. But if beekeeping is new to you, it might take a while to get comfortable. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll write a little of what I know about requeening. Tomorrow, we’ll start with recognizing the signs that your hive is in trouble.  After identifying queen issues, we’ll describe finding and murdering the old queen, then I’ll post about introducing a new queen. Finally, we’ll see what you should do during the reboot stage.

Today, before we dig into the business of requeening, let’s consider the natural state of affairs. Queens may sometimes (rarely) live four or five years. In a hollow tree, with just a small cavity, broodnests might be small so the queen doesn’t lay 2,500 eggs a day non-stop for four months. Egg-laying isn’t so intense. With less stress and activity, the queen can live longer.

In the past, beekeepers used smallish hives permanently perched near a garden. Today, we assure plenty of open brood space, encouraging the queen to lay. Some haul hives from flow to flow and latitude to latitude, keeping queens active and exhausting energy. Today’s environment exposes bees to synthetic chemicals. Intercontinental migration and mites spread viruses. It’s a different world for bees. Queens are living shorter lives.

In the wild, a colony swarms almost every year. That’s the way their superorganism, the colony, reproduces. It’s how new queens naturally enter the cycle. The secondary natural requeening system, supersedure, occurs when bees figure out that their old queen is failing. They build queen cells. Virgin queens emerge, execute the old queen and rival virgins, then mate and begin their egg-laying career. In swarming or supersedure, queen cells grow from well-fed young larvae. Resulting queens are very good.  Occasionally in a feral hive, the queen dies suddenly (a wasp enters the nest and catches her, or a storm knocks the treehouse over and the queen is squashed). In such events, replacement queens are hastily generated and the result is usually inferior.  Queen breeders know the difference. When they raise queens for you, they mimic swarming and supersedure conditions.

Queen cells, produced from swarm-strength cell-builder hives.

As a beekeeper, you work with hives that have a variety of queen conditions. You’ll try to prevent swarming and your queens will lay more eggs than they would if the colony were residing inside a tree. You will occasionally find a failing queen weakening your hive and you’ll need to consider a course of action. Next time, we’ll look at ways to assess the fitness of your colony’s queen.

Posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Queens, Swarms | Tagged | 8 Comments

Best Site for Beekeeping?

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Beesker, a website based in Cambridge has created a neat resource for all of us. The folks running it check out websites from around the world, looking for what they deem to be the best in a niche. For example, they picked a seriously good website about Humphrey Bogart which is produced by a company in New York City. Beesker tells us that someone named Deborah Mele has the best site about Italian Food. The NHL is selected as owners of the best Hockey website in the world. These choices are free of financial influence or bias. Instead, the goal of the company, Beesker, is simply to grow a large, reliable, interesting database of the best websites.

You may be wondering if Beesker has chosen a ‘best website in the world’ for beekeeping. They have, and you have seen the site at least once. I was surprised when they said this about our blog and its associated information. . . let me quote them: “We have selected Bad Beekeeping Blog as the world’s very best website on Bees and Beekeeping.” That’s a nice validation for our readers who wonder if they are wasting their time here instead of looking for something better. Apparently you have already hit the jackpot.

I’m a born skeptic. I was dubious when I got the message that we’d been selected. I was wondering what it would cost. When would the shoe drop? So I dug into Beesker, researching links, checking scam advisories, and trying to find something that would caution me. But it seems totally legit. Since then, I’ve browsed the Beesker place and enjoyed reading the backgrounds to favourite website authors and bloggers. So go ahead and add Beesker to your family of go-to sites when you’re looking stuff up.  Enjoy Beesker: The best of the web from Aardvarks to Zippers.

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There are undoubtedly better choices for beekeeping sites – I’ve seen many marvelous bee websites and blogs – a lot of them look better than this one. But we appreciate the notice. We work hard here on this blog/hobby, trying not to sell anyone on wild ideas or useless tools and equipment.  I can be brutally honest. This has earned me a few insults.  One notable zinger accused me of hiding anonymously behind a computer in a basement somewhere. My accuser didn’t like something I’d written.  I’m not hiding from anyone. You can look me up anytime you want – there’s only one ‘Ron Miksha’ in the world and this is he. If you go to the Beesker site for beekeeping, you’ll find more about me than most of my friends know.

I’m constantly looking for interesting stories that might have escaped notice and I’ve been doing my best to offer occasional bits of science to go with your morning oatmeal and honey. I’m attempting to run a helpful site, though you might find today’s post more self-aggrandizing than instructive. I hope not.  Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow with a post about installing replacement queens.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach | Tagged | 14 Comments

200 Years of Dadant

Charles Dadant, around 1900. Happy 200th birthday!

It’s May 20.  If he were alive today, we’d be celebrating Charles Dadant in a big way. Not just because he’d be exactly 200 years old today. (Though that would get some attention.) Instead, we’d want to recognize Charles Dadant as a pioneer of modern beekeeping.

Dadant was an unlikely hero in America’s bee history.  Imagine a mid-life crisis as colossal as this:  Your business fails and you go broke. You’ve got a big family, you are well into your 40s, you move to a new country where you can’t speak the language. You buy a farm which isn’t working, and you’re new business idea fails. That was Charles Dadant in 1863, age 46, shortly after arriving in Illinois from France. His vineyards of Champagne stock weren’t suited for America’s midwest prairies. But his bees were. They performed magnificently.

Dabbling in revolution

Charles had started working bees at age 12 in his native village of Vaux-Sous-Aubigny, France, about 100 kilometres from Switzerland. His first bee task was scraping combs and honey from skeps for the village priest. We’re not sure what happened, but Charles soon renounced his faith and became an idealist who dabbled in socialism. But the bees stuck. He was a hobby beekeeper in France and supported himself as a traveling salesman. As his horse and he roamed the country roads, Dadant sat at the reins, consuming books by evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and utopian socialist Charles Fourier.

I suspect that Dadant’s politics and religious views were influenced by the failed 1848 European revolutions. He would have been 31 at that time. Strikes swept central Europe and spread through France and Germany. People had grown weary of the autocracy of the aristocrats, hereditary monarchs, the old system of apprenticeships and (within the Hapsburg Empire) feudal serfdom. Riots, strikes, and some blood on the streets were quickly crushed by the soldiers of repressive governments. Young people fled. Hundreds of thousands went to America. For example, following the unrest, 57,000 young Germans settled around Cincinnati. Other parts of the US also welcomed thousands of similar refugees. These were educated, progressive people – a brain-drain for Europe which drove an economic collapse there. The ensuing depression contributed to the failure of Dadant’s business in France while the idealism of the revolution encouraged his move to America. At mid-age, Charles Dadant showed up in western Illinois.

Utopia in America

His first task in Illinois was to take over a farm owned by a French acquaintance. Dadant built a small log cabin and planted his vineyard, making things ready for his wife and kids who had stayed behind in France.  As you might guess, vineyards don’t do well in western Illinois. Before he was bankrupted by the scheme, Charles Dadant saw the potential for his lifelong hobby. Bees in America’s midlands could make 200 pounds per hive in those days. By 1865, his family had joined him from France, he had nine hives of bees, and more honey than they could eat.

At the time, his plan might have been to create a utopian community similar to several dozen others in the USA: New Harmony, Brook Farm, and the Phalanx and Harmonite groups. He didn’t, but he structured his business with his employees in mind, sharing in profits and working alongside them.

I think that Charles Dadant’s business fortunes really improved when his son, Camille Pierre (C.P.) Dadant, took over management of the family affairs. While the elder Charles was an idealistic dreamer, his son C.P. was a practical businessman. As a child, the younger Dadant was crossing the Mississippi alone on a ferry to sell honey. By age 20, C.P. was essentially running the business. He helped grow the honey farm to thousands of colonies, added a wax works and bee supply factory. Dozens of men were given jobs, important products were created for thousands of beekeepers across the country, and millions of pounds of honey were produced. And that was the real promise of utopia in America.

The visionary Charles Dadant

Meanwhile, the elder Charles Dadant continued to work with the bees and adapted the recently-invented Langstroth hive, redesigned with a larger brood cavity. It’s the Dadant design that most people use today. Charles invented a better way of making wax foundation for the frames which the Dadant factory produced. Charles realized that the European bees which the first settlers brought from northern Europe were not as easy to manage as Italian stock he’d seen in his younger days in Europe. So he imported queens from Italy.

But Charles Dadant’s real passion seemed to be his books and the science of beekeeping. His contributions to the American bee literature were significant. Although he never learned to speak English fluently, he became a great writer in his adopted language. He learned to write in English by using a French-English dictionary to translate the New York Tribune every day.  As early as 1869 – just six years in America – he was a regular contributor to American Bee Journal, a magazine he eventually bought and moved to Hamilton, Illinois, where it is still published.

Charles Dadant freely shared his beekeeping experience, insights, and ideas in the journals.  Here is just one excerpt, from August 1869, from among his thousands of contributions. Here he writes about the need for lots of space in a hive. Before Dadant’s time, it was common for beekeepers to use small boxes, produce small crops, and (because of the congestion) expect regular swarms. Here are Dadant’s thoughts on that:

 Many writers have suggested that the size of the hives should be proportionate to the pasturage of the district in which they are used ; small sized hives, being best adapted to poor honey countries, and larger hives for sections yielding honey more abundantly.

My opinion differs widely from these ideas; for I think, whatever be the honey-yielding quality of the country, the capacity of the hives should be in relative proportion to the fecundity of the queens.

I have ascertained that, in the height of the brooding season, the normal fecundity of a healthy prolific queen enables her to lay three thousand eggs daily, if she is supplied with empty worker comb.  We know, also, that twenty-one or twenty-two days are required for the development of the worker bee, from the time the egg is hatched until she leaves the cell. If we now multiply 3,000 by 22, we shall have 64,000 as the number of empty cells required for the accommodation of a queen ordinarily prolific.

But there is, besides, some room required in the combs for the provisions—honey and beebread; and if we allow 20,000 cells for this purpose, we shall have the area of 84,000 cells as the necessary room inside of the frames in movable comb hives.                                          – Charles Dadant, August 1869, American Bee Journal

If you are in the USA or Canada, you know the Dadant company. Dadant & Sons, Inc is now in its seventh generation and is managed by descendants of Charles Dadant. The company manufactures beekeeping equipment, candles and wax products, and various woodenware supplies. And, true to the spirit of its founder, the company continues to spread the best beekeeping information via seminars, websites, and books – and, after 150 years, Dadant still publishes the world’s best bee magazine – the American Bee Journal.

Posted in Beekeeping, History, People, Queens | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

May 20: World Bee Day

Portable apiary in Slovenia. (Photo by David Miksa)

Portable apiary in Slovenia. (Photo by David Mikša)

May 20 is World Bee Day. Seems an appropriate day to celebrate the bee. (So was yesterday; tomorrow would be good, too.)  It’s spring north of the equator. I don’t want to neglect our friends south of Earth’s belt, but honey bees began their world-wide conquest by expanding from the northern hemisphere. For most of us in the higher (positive) latitudes, May is a fantastic bee month. Colonies expand, swarm, and maybe even make a little honey.

May 20th is also the celebrated birthdate of Anton Janša (1734-1773), the first teacher of modern beekeeping. (It’s ‘celebrated’ on May 20th, which was his baptism date. We don’t know the exact day of his birth.)  Anton Janša was Slovenian (hence the funny little squiggle over the ‘s’ in his name). He was so talented that Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa appointed him headmaster at the world’s  first beekeeping school, which she built for Janša in Vienna. It’s remarkable that he chose to be baptized on the same day that we would pick centuries later as World Bee Day. That date was chosen and promoted by beekeepers in Janša’s native Slovenia – do the coincidences never end? Now here I am, Ron Mikša (anglicized to Miksha), a bee blogger with grandparents who were born in that part of the world, encouraging you to do a wiggle dance in celebration of World Bee Day this Saturday. Get out and do something beely.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

Last year, I wrote the following piece about World Bee Day.  Rather than sending you to the old posting to see it, I’m repeating it here for you…

There’s a small country in Central Europe, a very beautiful alpine country, called Slovenia. Slovenia has only about two million people, but this tiny country is very big in beekeeping. Tucked between Italy and Austria, it has both mountains and Mediterranean sea coast, creating enticing niches for bees.

Every Slovene family has at least one beekeeper. I think beekeeping might be enshrined in their constitution. I visited before they adopted the Euro and paid for a Laško with coins that had images of bees, not presidents or queens. Beekeeping is taken so seriously that the nation’s unofficial motto is “Land of the Good Beekeepers“. The country produces gourmet honey, offers beekeeping tourism, and likes to point out that the Slovenes – the wealthiest Slavic nation in the world – takes its work ethic from the honey bee. Now Slovenia is trying to convince the world to recognize World Bee Day, a day for the bees, which we would celebrate on the presumed birthday of their most famous beekeeper, Anton Janša.

Janša (pronounced YAN-shah) is a Slovenian national hero and a beekeeper. We don’t really know his birth date – his parents were illiterate farmers and probably wouldn’t have even known (or cared) what year it was. But their church kept track. He was baptized on May 20 in 1734.

Beehive entrance plate, painted by Jansa.

Beehive entrance plate, painted by Janša.

The Janša family was impoverished, but three Janša brothers built an art studio in a barn, got noticed by the village priest, and were whisked off to Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, which controlled Slovenia at the time. One of the brothers became an arts professor. Another became a beekeeper. The royal beekeeper.

Anton Janša was the beekeeper. Empress Maria Theresa recognized his skill and appointed him as the queen’s own bee man. Janša created the world’s first beekeeping school, wrote a couple of important beekeeping books, and introduced modern apiary management. He championed expanding hive boxes to hold extra honey and he encouraged migratory beekeeping, moving hives toward the foothills in the spring to collect acacia (black locust) honey, the Alps in the summer for honeydew from the pines, and into lower pastures in the fall. He was among the first to realize that drones are not water-carriers, but instead mated in the air with queen bees. This latter discovery pre-dates Francois Huber’s similar observation by a few decades but was not generally known when Huber rediscovered it. Janša did all this before he turned 40 – he was only 39 when he died suddenly from a fever.

An image from the Slovene World Bee Day promotional video.

An image from the Slovene World Bee Day promotional video, visible below.

Here’s a lovely, short video of what the Slovenes want you to know about World Bee Day:

World Bee Day is a great idea. The exhibition “Save the Bees” will be opening at the historic Ljubljana castle, on May 20. The Slovene embassy in Washington DC had a big party. Elsewhere, awareness and round tables on “Bees and Sustainable Development” and bee memorials abound. World Bee Day is intended as a day to reflect upon the much maligned and threatened bees. A delegation of the European Union is also meeting May 20 with luminaries of the American bee world at a World Bee Initiative, which you can read about here.

WBDWorld Bee Day is immensely important. Maybe that’s why there are two world bee days. A group of Americans petitioned the USDA to create a World Bee Day of their own – on August 20th. While the Americans worked their idea through the US Congress, the Slovenes have been asking the United Nations to recognize May 20th as World Bee Day. I’m not sure how all this will play out, maybe the two world bee days will merge and be observed sometime in June or July. But I suppose both world bee days will persist, one on a world-scale, the other in the USA. As they say back at the bee lodge, “You can’t have too many World Bee Days, eh?”

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, History, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

PolliNation Podcast

Dr Andony Melathopoulos, host of PolliNation

Here’s a great new podcast. I’ve just listened to the first episode (twice!). If all the future episodes will be as good as Episode 1, PolliNation will be a great resource and a fun listen for beekeepers.  Since beekeepers spend lots of hours chauffeuring bees and boxes to their apiaries, bee podcasts are really popular. I’ve been told that podcasts keep bee folks awake during late-night long-hauls.

PolliNation’s focus is pollinators, of course. The show’s host, Andony Melathopoulos, is from my hometown, Calgary. He’s been a long-time friend. But that’s not the only reason I’m enthusiastic about his podcast. It’s seriously good, cleanly produced, and Andony’s enthusiasm and years of practical experience and research in bees shine in this venue. He’s operated his own hives, worked ten years as an apiculture research tech at Ag Canada’s Beaverlodge bee lab, and recently his investigations into the “Insect Pollination Benefits to Lowbush Blueberry” earned him a doctorate.

Andony recently accepted an assistant professorship at Oregon State where he specializes in pollinator health. Not limited to the managed species (honey bees, orchard masons, leafcutters, and alkali bees), he is tasked “to design, develop, implement and evaluate a state-wide pollinator health program” for all of the region’s pollinators. As part of the outreach for that role, Andony has created the PolliNation Podcast. It is set to excite the pod’o’sphere – at least that part of it that gets excited about bees and ecology.  (Which should be most of you.)

Episode #1, a conversation with Sussex Professor Francis Ratnieks on The Benefits of Bees in Urban Areas, mostly deals with the practical stuff which city-dwelling beekeepers need to know. You’ll hear tips on metropolitan beekeeping, selecting flowers for bees (though bees may ignore what you plant and fly 12 kilometres to fetch food from other people’s flowers, we’re told), and some safety notes regarding urban  hive keeping.

Professor Ratnieks

Professor Ratnieks knows what he’s talking about – he once kept 180 beehives, has done basic bee research, and is grounded in practical beekeeping. He helps us understand that if beekeeping is motivated by the noble desire to “Save the Bees” then the urban ecologist’s efforts might be better spent planting nectar/pollen-rich flowers rather than keeping honey bees. Ratnieks suggests eschewing lists of pollinator plants on the internet. Instead, he says, use your own eyes to see which flowers attract insects in your area. When you visit a garden centre or a neighbour’s bright blooming spot, note the plants with the most pollinators on them and consider planting those varieties.

Regarding the why-for of urban beekeeping, Ratnieks says that some people claim that cities are better than the countryside for bees. However, on average, the professor believes there is no clear advantage for your bees to live in town. In Ratnieks’ opinion, the main reason to keep bees urbanly is if you live in the city and want the joys of beekeeping close at hand. However, he adds, beekeepers probably shouldn’t be learning (and making mistakes) in a small garden behind the house.

I’ll leave it to you to listen to the entire 30-minute podcast, but here are some of the questions considered on the program:

– What are the particular challenges of a city beekeeper?
– Where are you going to put the hives?
– What if the bees become aggressive?
– How should you handle city swarms?
– If you use a lattice windbreak in the garden, will the bees fly up and over it, avoiding pedestrian traffic, or just fly thorugh the lattice holes and scare everyone?

Check out PolliNation for the scientists’ thoughts on these. Oh, and my favourite quote from Professor Ratnieks:  “A bee is a hairy vegetarian wasp. In the case of the honey bee, it’s a social hairy vegetarian wasp.”  PolliNation is available from I-Tunes or directly from Oregon State University’s home site for the program – don’t miss it.

Posted in Ecology, Friends, Outreach, Pollination, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments