October 17, 2013
It was 50 degrees this morning, not too cool by mountain standards, but quite cool for us down here on the plains. I was up early as usual and in the first light of day I had a very strong sense that there was a touch of fall in the air. Perhaps it was the unusually cool morning air, perhaps the changing light as the sun starts to move south, I don't know, but it sure felt like a fall morning.
Although I've never been a farmer or a rancher I think we have some things in common. One of those is that we always have to be thinking ahead, and depending on what it is we may be mulling over in our minds — what our plans are for next week, next month or next year — it saves us a lot of pain and frustration if we anticipate what's to come. In production beekeeping, even on the smaller commercial scale that I ply my trade, there is always something ahead, something that needs to be planned or provided for.
Last Thursday I went up north to work through the bees up there. This is the beeyard I wrote about this spring, where they ran out of honey early and I had to bring them through to the dandelions with candy boards. Of the several colonies I had at that location, two just weren't strong enough to pull themselves through no matter how much help they got. A third made it to the dandelions, but just barely. I'd given up on it after I had donated a frame of brood on two successive occasions trying to boost it along. I expected it to expire and didn't see any benefit in taking more resources away from good colonies to try to save it.
That left me with three good colonies that had the potential to produce a crop if all went well. In June I moved in three of the new colonies from Niwot that had been started from packages and put one on top of each of the survivors. These had an entrance to the rear and a solid divider between it and the colony below, so there was no interchange and in effect I just had two colonies on the same footprint, times three.
What I was doing was preparing to set up two-queen colonies, I've written about this method in the past so won't go into too much detail here, but basically, through a series of manipulations, you get all the hive bees introduced to each other and working happily together while the queens are separated spatially and each continues to contentedly pump out brood.
The theory behind the two-queen system is that a two-queen colony will produce more than twice as much as two single queen colonies and use less equipment doing so. I've done it this way for many years and experience has confirmed for me the productiveness of two-queen colonies. In this area, given a normal season, average beekeeper, reasonably good colony, the average crop, the surplus honey, would be about 75 pounds per colony. This can vary. In really good years the surplus might be a hundred pounds, in a good area and with the good fortune of a strong honey flow, even more. Over time though an average of 75 pounds is probably fairly close. With a two-queen colony, given the same conditions, the crop should average 240 to 260 pounds. This doesn't come free however, a lot of time, labor, skill and manipulation of heavy supers is required to achieve this.
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It has been a struggle to maintain any level of production in the face of the losses we have experienced and I've had to use all of my beekeeping skills and experience to keep some semblance of an operation going. These three colonies up north are a good example. They wouldn't have even survived the winter if I hadn't been watching them closely and saw that they were running out of stores. I had to make several well timed trips to keep candy boards on them and because of this they made it to the dandelions and were back on their own.
Normally I would split colonies like this at the beginning of the dandelion flow, set them up as two-queen colonies and introduce a new queen into the top half, but although these colonies up north had survived they just weren't strong enough to split. They needed all of their own resources to continue growing and recovering. So what do I do? I could just run them as single queen colonies and they probably would have done OK probably would have brought in a fairly decent crop, but given my reduced numbers I want to push the bees to produce as much as they are capable of.
Which is why I moved the package colonies up in June. Those two-queen colonies are now ready to combine. Again, before we started seeing all these losses I would have taken the colony down to the second story, put the third story with the new queen on top of that with the auger hole to the front, then put all of the honey supers back on top. At this point the two-queen system has accomplished what I want, which is to produce a very high population of fielders for the coming honey flow. As a bonus, the queens will duke it out and usually it is the younger, upper queen that survives, so I've requeened the colony as well.
I want to try to regain my colony numbers as well though, so rather than combine the halves of the two-queen colonies I set the top hive body off and give this bunch an empty second story. This colony will be short of fielders for a while because their fielders will return to their original location, which will give that colony the high population of fielders. The new colony will recover, fill out the second story by fall and if they survive the winter, come on line as a producer next year.
So with some intensive beekeeping I've accomplished several things; I have three two-queen colonies and have created three replacement colonies as well. Between them the two-queen colonies have 17 honey supers on and if they fill them all out they will produce nearly 800 pounds of honey.
The tallest of the two-queen colonies is higher than my head and as I was putting it back together I had to lift a full super, about 65 pounds gross weight, above my head and position it on the top of the hive. I'm glad that at my age I'm still strong enough and agile enough to still do this, and I'm thankful that I still have some tall colonies and full supers that need me to do it, but I thought to myself as I was doing it, a guy could hurt himself doing this if he isn't careful.
Indications are that there will be a crop this year, but a small one. The yard with the two-queen colonies is doing the best, but the other yards are poking along, bringing in a little but nothing grand yet. A good second cutting could change that. The two-queen colonies will do well, but instead of three I need about a hundred.
While I was working the two-queen colonies I took a peek at the weak colony I had given up on, expecting to pop the cover and find that there was nothing left alive, but to my surprise, they were and seem to be coming around. Maybe they will make it after all. I gave them two more frames of brood, I'm a sucker for a struggling underdog.
Fall is coming. I need to start cleaning up the Honey House. ❖