Native Pollinators

Yesterday I attended a short course on Native Pollinators presented by The Xerces Society and held at MOFGA’s education center.  While much of the course seemed restatements of common sense for establishing pollinator habitat (“use less pesticide” being one example) there were some statements that caught my attention.

Just under 250 native pollinators work our wild blueberries.  That does not include the honey bee (which is native to Europe.)  It makes me wonder if a truly agricultural chemical free operation that worked to provide buffer habitat for native pollinators around the blueberry fields, would get adequate pollination without the use of honey bees.

One consideration would have to be the size of the blueberry field as there are ground dwelling bees that would have a tough time surviving bi-annual prunnings, and would have flight distance limitations from buffer habitat.  Perhaps you have pollinator habitats scattered throughout the field.

The big advantage to humans that honey bees have for the pollination of wild blueberries over native pollinators is that honey bees can be managed.  You can flood an area with honey bees and be confident that as long as the weather conditions are conducive to honey bee flight, you’ll achieve adequate pollination.  The key phrase there is “conducive to honey bee flight.”  Today is rainy with the temperature hovering around 50.  Honey Bees are sticking to the hive today whereas some of the native pollinators will be out pollinating.

With a typical monoculture blueberry operation, the honey bee colonies are removed at the end of bloom and removed to pollinate another crop somewhere else.  Native pollinators can’t be moved and depending on individual pollinator concerns, may starve.  So a habitat consisting of a progression of pollen and nectar sources is needed.

At BeeBerry Woods, I think there is plenty of existing native pollinator habitat.  Perhaps it can be augmented with bee blocks for wood dwelling pollinators, but since the vast majority of native pollinators are ground dwelling we don’t need to go crazy putting out blocks.  I do need to think about how I go about pruning the field – presently I mow with a rotary mower – it might not be a bad idea to establish habitat islands within the field.

Of course at present our blueberry field (between 5 and 10 acres in size) is not commercially harvested – though I admit to having fantasies that one day it will.  It is being encroached on by great bee plants – golden rod and field roses – so while I lament the loss of picture perfect blueberry field – I enjoy having the additional food sources for the bees.

This summer I will endeavor to photograph and identify native pollinators around the property and post their pictures here.  That presumes I’ll learn how to post pictures.  One can hope.

test update 1 – queens released

The new colonies were checked 5/14/2012.  The packages were removed from the deep and the space taken up by the package replaced with new frames w/ foundation.  In 7 of the colonies the queens had been released by the bees.  In the 8th the queen was still in her cage until she was directly released.

Syrup is being fed in frame feeders and there looks to be several days of feed remaining in all the colonies.

3 days down, 3 (plus) years to go!

The testing process

The “survivor” bees have their own yard about 1/4 mile from my other bees.  They will initially be installed into new 10 frame deep equipment; a second deep will be added as the colonies require it.  The frames will be wooden with Permadent plastic foundation installed.  Extra wax from my own cappings will be painted onto the frames before they are given to the bees.

The yard the bees are in is within flying distance of commercially managed and pollinated wild blueberry fields.  I counted three sets of hives placed for pollination within three miles of my driveway yesterday.

Local forage for the bees includes Shad, Apple, Brambles, Wild Blueberries, clover, vetch, rosa rugosa, and other plants native to this area.

The bees will be fed light sugar syrup (roughly 1:1 but my measurements are, ahem, course) as they build up.  Once they have finished drawing out the bottom deep and have accumulated what I judge to be a two week reserve of food, the sugar syrup will be discontinued.  In the fall hives that are short of a target winter weight of roughly 120 pounds will be feed heavy syrup.

Winter prep will include an entrance reducer, mouse guard, insulation on top of the inner cover, and wrapping with tar paper.  The bees will be checked in late January/early February for stores and colonies needing supplemental feed will be given fondant.

The test begins

There was a spirited conversation on Bee Source a while ago on the best protocols for dealing with the Varroa Mite.  I found myself getting almost angry at the calm voices who insisted that if you have bees of the correct genetic stock – so called “Survivor Bees” – that no chemical or cultural “treatments” for Varroa are needed – the bees survive/thrive on their own.

My next objection was the commercial availability of these bees – while I’m aware of small scale production of survivors, I wasn’t aware of any large scale producers.  I was steered towards B Weaver Apiaries based in Navasota, Texas.

So packages were ordered, equipment assembled, thoughts prepared on what a test should look like.  There are two questions that I to answer with the test.  The first is an easy one: will the “survivor” bees survive without any chemical applications or cultural practices intended to treat Varroa and Trachael mites, as well as the two variations of Nosema.  The second: will the “survivor” bees makes roughly the same amount of honey as my other traditionally kept bees?

Three years seems to be the general length of time needed to show survivability.  I don’t expect to get any surplus honey this season.  But the second and third…

One bullet dodged… but the next one

may do some damage.  All of the “Queenless” Russian hives are producing lots of brood.  So the introduction technique worked well.  Riding that emotional high made it tougher to realize in my next yard that there is a potentially big problem.  The two hives there with honey supers both have shot gun like brood patterns, and what appears to be EFB.  I spent some time today reading up on EFB and I’ll go back tomorrow to do some further testing.

New Queens and no brood–a deeper look

Russian Bees have been touted as being able to sustain themselves without chemical assistance in the face of the Varroa mite.   To test how well this theory works I now have two yards of Russians – One made up last year from Italian packages requeened with Russian Queens from a RBBA member, and a second created this year using Italian nucs from the same source.

The requeening method was 1) find and remove the old queen, 2) let the hive be queenless for 24 hours and  3) install a Queen cage containing the new queen with no attendants.   The first year the exit tube on the queen cage was covered with masking tape for three days to delay the new queens introduction.

About ten days after introduction of the new queens the colonies were inspected.  The first hive checked the new queen was seen and there was plenty of freshly capped brood along with eggs and larvae.  Things were looking good!  Unfortunately in 4 of the 5 remaining colonies there was no young brood, eggs or larvae, leading me to conclude that queen acceptance had been poor.

So I waited a week and again inspected.  This time in 3 of the 4 “queenless” colonies I saw queens, but still no young brood, eggs nor larvae.  What was going on?  In thinking about it I realized that the summer dearth had just begun and that the new queens had been accepted just fine but in keeping with Russian tendencies, the new queens “felt” their colonies didn’t “need” any additional workers – hence no eggs!  (And no signs that the hive was queenless)

I’ll inspect again today to see if things are ok.  If not a whole lot of combining will need to happen as new queens in quantity are not available.

The Russians have names!

Ok, so it was no big deal to give names to the five hives of Russian bees at COA’s Beech Hill Farm – but it seems like an important first step.  The hives’ names are: Alexandra, Olga, Dina, Natasha and Catherine.  Natasha (think Bullwinkle’s Natasha) is the strongest hive.  She has a honey super of mostly undrawn plastic frames on and when checked yesterday there were bees present in the super – not tons but some.  When we tipped the top box there were 4 or 5 frames with queen cups on the bottom.   No signs that they were more than cups, but we ran the hive tool through them anyway.

Catherine is an overwintered hive that was getting lost and dwindling in a deep so she was moved first to a cardboard 5 frame nuc box and then yesterday to a wooden nuc box with a top feeder.  There was brood on three frames (pattern ok) and my guess is that in another two weeks she’ll be ready to go back to her deep.  Only a single at first.  Standard nuc treatment.

Alexandra, Olga & Dina are all in double deeps and while they are not busting at the seams all three are using the top and bottom boxes.  Hopefully all three will be ready for honey supers within a few weeks. 

A great day for the fair

The Blue Hill Fair runs this weekend and with the passing of Hurricane Earl the weather is gorgeous.  The Blue Hill Fair advertises itself as an old fashioned agricultural fair – so I’m expecting to see all kinds of animals, 4-H demonstrations and so forth.  I’ll be curious to see if there are any bee exhibits this year.  I’m expecting there will not, but I would love to be surprised.