Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to maximize your honey production while minimizing swarming

October is here and in McClure, OH that means that my winter preparation is winding down as my honey bees and I are enjoying our last couple weeks of nice weather. The bee hives that needed winter stores have all been fed. The honey bees have propolized the interior of the hives. They have already organized their stores and brood for best wintering. I am working on cutting insulation for the bee hives and pouring candy boards for my nucs. My honey bee season is almost over and while it is still fresh in my mind, I start penciling out my plan for next year.

My invaluable helper is Gilbert M. Doolittle and his book “A year’s work in an out-apiary; or, An average of 114 ½ pounds of honey per colony in a poor season, and how it was done”. You can find the most recent edition on Amazon by clicking here. The book was originally published in 1906. Its fifth edition (published in 1922) as “Management of out-apiaries” is available as an e-book here.

Even though this beekeeping book was published more than 100 years ago, the techniques described are very relevant to modern beekeeping. So let’s not delay any longer and dive right into the details.

Summary of A year’s work in an out-apiary

The book is only 60 pages long and is divided in 12 chapters (one for each visit in the out-apiary for the year):

• Chapter I: An average of 114 ½ pounds of section honey per colony in poor season, and how it was done. On April 14, 10 days before elm and maple bloom, G. M. Doolittle levels the hive stands, takes the honey bees out from their cellar (his bees are wintered indoors in a single hive body) and sets them out on a new/clean bottom board.

• Chapter II. April 24, the elm and soft maples are in bloom. G. M. Doolittle checks the available honey stores of each colony. He supplements any colony that has less than 20 lbs. of honey with capped honey frames. He adds those frames on the outside of the brood nest. His honey bees are still in a single hive body. He enlarges the entrances appropriately for the strength of each beehive and makes sure that the brood is in good condition. He supersedes his queens after the harvest, so if he finds any queens need to be replaced early in the spring, he just combines the hive with another with a good queen. How do you handle underperforming queens in the early spring? Re-queen or combine? Leave me a note in the comments below!

• Chapter III: Bloom time. The thirds visit is almost a month later on May 20th, during apple and fruit tree bloom. During this visit, G. M. Doolittle finds and clips all queens. He also equalizes the brood among his hives by taking brood off the hives with more than seven frames of brood and adding those frames to the bee hives that have 6 or less frames.  In addition, he supers all the hives that have 7 frames of brood. He takes the 2 outer honey combs from the brood nest and exchanges them with 2 empty combs from the super. The first super is all drawn, filled with more or less empty comb. He installs it above a queen excluder. The colonies that have 7 frames of brood and a super are his honey producing colonies. The weak colonies are his increase colonies. At this visit, he also fully opens the entrances on all but the weakest colonies. Do you keep any colonies back to serve as increase colonies or do you order packages? G. M. Doolittle uses 1/5 of his existing colonies as increase colonies. What percentage of your total bee hives are your increase colonies?

• Chapter IV: How to control swarms when running for comb honey. It is June 16 and the white clover has just started blooming (black locust is done). Time to mow the bee yard as tall grasses at the bee hive entrance will slow foragers down and reduce the honey crop. This is also the visit in which G. M. Doolittle treats his honey colonies with “shook swarming”. In essence, he prepares a new box for the brood nest with 1 empty comb in the middle, surrounded by the honey comb from the super. This new box is placed on the hive stand. Then he adds the queen excluder and above it he puts a super with bait (half-drawn) sections and above that a super of sections in foundation. Finally, he shakes all the bees in front of this new brood box. He puts the brood over a queen excluder on top of one of the weaker colonies. Have you tried the shook swarm method of swarm prevention? I have tried something similar, but not exactly as described by G. M. Doolittle. What is your favorite method of swarm prevention? Leave me a note in the comment section below!

• Chapter V: A simple and reliable plan for making increase. It is June 26. On the previous visit, G. M. Doolittle had found some swarm cells in a hive that he wants to breed from. He uses those cells (they are ripe) and the brood he removed on the previous visit to make nucs. He also shakes (shook swarm) the colonies that were weak on his prior visit.

• Chapter VI: How to save unnecessary lifting in taking off filled supers of honey. It is July 10. Basswood bloom has begun on July 6. G. M. Doolittle brings extra queens in case the mating failed in the increase colonies he made on the prior visit. He checks the supers and takes off the capped ones. He uses a wheelbarrow to minimize the lifting of full supers. He also adds an empty super to all colonies from which he removes one.  He puts supers on the week colonies that had brood combs added to them on the prior visits. He uses one of his queens in an introductory cage to re-queen one of the increase colonies. He also makes sure the grass and weeds are not blocking the entrances to his bee hives. He believes a tangled entrance can lead to as much as 1/3 of the possible honey crop being lost. Do you mow around your bee hives? Do you believe it is necessary?

• Chapter VII: Taking off the surplus, what to do with the unfinished sections, preparation for the buckwheat flow. It is now July 24 and the basswood bloom is all done. G. M. Doolittle brings another load of supers to the apiary in preparation for the buckwheat flow. Again, he takes any completed or more than 2/3 completed section honey supers and replaces them with empty ones. His philosophy is to always have an empty super available at all times for the bees. On this visit, he also replaces any queen that hasn’t been performing up to par with a ripe queen cell that he brought with him. He also replaces any queen that is 2 years old. When do you replace your queens? I usually replace mine after the main flow with a ripe queen cell. This gives my colonies a much needed brood break which helps control varroa buildup.

• Chapter VIII: Progress in the supers. It is August 18 and the buckwheat is in full bloom. G. M. Doolittle uses this visit to check progress in the supers from the buckwheat flow.

• Chapter IX: A simple way to put on escapes without lifting. It is September 8 and the end of G. M. Doolittle’s bee season. The goal of this visit is to put bee escapes on all the colonies in order to be able to remove the supers. He uses a wooden wedge to lift the supers and slide the escape board beneath them without ever having to remove them from the hives.

• Chapter X: Taking off the honey and storing it at the out-yard. Two to four days later, on a cool day (to prevent robbing) G. M. Doolittle retrieves the supers. He always keeps them covered with a robber cloth in order to prevent robbing. He weighs the hives and makes sure they have a minimum of 25 pounds of stores. He adds full combs to those bee hives that have less. Remember, he overwinters his hives in a basement is single hive configuration.

• Chapter XI. October 10. He installs the winter bottom boards and mouse guards on his hives.

• Chapter XII: Closing words, further suggestions to the plans given in the preceding chapters. It is November 23 and with temperatures just above freezing, it is time to set the bees back in the cellar.

The above summary does a very poor job of describing what a treasure G. M. Doolittle's book is. Every time I re-read this book, I find new ideas to implement in my apiary. I believe every serious beekeeper should become familiar with this work!

So how does this tie into increasing your honey production today? G. M. Doolittle gives you a pretty good plan to manage hives at the serious sideliner or even the smaller commercial level. His plan is a good blueprint to follow if you want to learn how to manage your bees by the yard and not by the hive. He manages to accomplish all his buildup, swarm control and winter prep in just 12 separate visits.

Do you use a system that is similar to G. M. Doolittle’s method? Do you use a completely different method? Please leave me note in the comments section about which method you’ve been using so far.

This blog post is getting quite long, so I will continue next week with some pointers on how to use G. M. Doolittle’s management principles in your own bee yard. I will also publish my management schedule, which is based on G. M. Doolittle’s plan. I will post the second part of this post on Sunday, October 20, 2013. Check back on Monday to read it or click here to get it delivered directly to your inbox! 