Improving Honey Bee Survival and long-term Sustainability in Indiana by Using Three Deep Brood Boxes vs. Traditional Two Deep Boxes

Final Report for FNC14-957

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,771.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Steven Lesniak
Peace Bees, LLC
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND
Steve Lesniak manages a young, but growing family beekeeping business with approximately fifty honey bee colonies (Peace Bees, LLC). This family business covers a wide variety of bee related income opportunities from honey, balms and lotions, candles, package bees, queens, nucleus colonies, training and consulting. 

Tim Ives manages a slightly older sole proprietor beekeeping business with approximately three hundred honey bee colonies (Ives Hives, LLC). Tim’s primary business is honey but he has also raised and sold queens and beeswax. 

Both Steve and Tim have several years' experience managing honey bees using sustainable methods. Steve has been treatment and sugar-feed free since 2004 and 2009 respectively. Tim has been treatment and sugar-feed free since 2008. Both have been successful keeping larger colonies with more honey stores since about 2008. Tim has experienced the most success in not only sustaining, but also growing his apiary by focusing on breeding for quality genetics.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION 
Our goal is to challenge traditional beekeeping methods and mimic the environment of feral colonies found in our area to show minimal human intervention provides more sustainable honey bees.

Our hypothesis is keeping larger colonies; three deep brood boxes vs. two deep brood boxes will provide sustainable colonies with high production potential while providing numerous opportunities for splitting and growing colony numbers. These larger colonies will have the ability to better maintain food stores and not require supplemental feeding to survive. Having sufficient winter stores will allow the colonies to build brood earlier in the spring than other colonies and take advantage of early spring nectar flows. We also believe these colonies will be healthier than their sugar fed counterparts and better tolerate and manage mites, hive beetles and pesticide exposure in the environment. These larger, healthier colonies will have the ability to produce larger and more frequent honey harvests.

Summary:

  • Higher honey yield
  • Lower mite count
  • Mite resistance
  • Colony Movement
  • No need to supplemental feed
  • Sustainable; no need to purchase bees to maintain colony count

PROCESS
Our test was to compare three deep systems vs. two deep systems over the period of twenty-two months. We wrote the grant with intent of using 15 splits building half up to three deeps and half up to two deeps. We also planned to start five packages to see how growing to three deeps would work with packages. Noted in the Annual report, the grant was approved without a proper control group of colonies so annual and local club numbers serve that purpose.

The severe winter of 2013-2014 (multiple Polar Vortices) decimated Steve’s colonies and he was unable to make splits for the study. The partners discussed several options but there was insufficient time to carry out the original project. Tim also experienced a notable loss for 2013-2014 but he still had sufficient colonies to conduct the study. The idea of Steve purchasing splits from Tim was not an option and therefore Steve was forced to scramble for bees to continue the study. As noted in the annual report, the supplier Steve found for splits that would commit to meeting the required delivery date was not reputable. Tim continued with five splits and one package growing to two deep systems. Steve purchased five California packages and five nucleus colonies from his supplier intending to grow them to three deeps. The nucleus colonies turned out to be no more than southern packages dumped on to old drawn comb. Again, the partners found insufficient time to carry out the original project.

All colonies received minimal management of frames to ensure consistent comb draw. None of the colonies had supplemental feeding (sugar syrup, HFCS or pollen patties). None of the colonies were reversed to stimulate the queen movement within the hive.

None of the colonies had queen excluders and all used solid bottom boards. All colonies were given as many supers (6 5/8 boxes) as they could draw and fill once they reached their designated two or three deeps. All honey supers were extracted as needed in June, July, August and October. No honey was removed from deep (9 5/8) boxes after April. All colonies received an insulation box on top with top entrance and 15# felt wrap for the winter. We used a FLIR E6 infrared camera to monitor relative colony size and movement within the hive.

PEOPLE
Tim kept his hives at The Unity Gardens, a not for profit organization in South Bend (www.theunitygardens.org) and they supplied the fencing for his hives.

RESULTS
Executive Summary:
The results of the study are mixed ranging from inconclusive to successful. It is the opinion of the writer that the grant should have been delayed due to the inconsistency of the livestock used. Ideally, both partners should have used the same genetics. At minimum, both should have used overwintered survivor stock. The use of some packages is still appropriate to see if new beekeepers unable to obtain survivor stock can achieve success. Use of a control group should have been included where the same genetics kept at the historical two deeps and offered supplemental feed through winter. A notable outcome of the poor genetics Steve worked with, the three deep system did in fact provide him the resources to rebound from significant loses. 

Results:
Higher yield: Inconclusive. Steve’s colonies did build to three deeps for fall 2014 but as expected honey harvest was low at no more than two hundred pounds from all ten colonies. Steve’s 2015 harvest was again two hundred pounds. Tim did not report honey harvest. Due to the difficulties with Steve’s livestock, any honey yield comparisons would not be of value. 

Lower Mite Counts: Inconclusive. Tim’s mite counts were consistently low, under 4 mites per 100 bees average, with the exception of one colony. Steve’s counts were low but skyrocketed by October 2014 to nearly 20 mites per 100 bees average. Unfortunately 2015 mite counts for Steve’s colonies were sparse due to losses and splitting. The inability to count and the forced brood breaks made it difficult to count. Without an ability to compare across the full twenty-two months it is inconclusive. 

Mite resistance: Inconclusive 

Colony Movement: Successful. We suggested that colonies do not need box reversal in the spring to stimulate queen laying. The FLIR did confirm our belief along with visual observations that the colony does in fact move up and down as needed. The colony seems to know when is the appropriate time to move the queen down in the spring. We also found that in three deep systems the colony tends to store pollen in the bottom box, which would help explain why the colony moves down to begin raising brood in spring. 

No Supplemental Feed: Successful. All colonies, including packages, built up to two or three deeps without supplemental. No colonies died over winter due to starvation. 

Sustainable: Inconclusive. Tim’s hives not only survived winter at two deeps, he was able to double his hive count from six to twelve due to swarms and swarm cell splits. From his original ten colonies, Tim went into December 2015 with 11 colonies. Steve was able to overwinter eight of ten colonies until April 2015. This is significant considering we experienced another severe winter 2014-2015 (multiple Polar Vortices). Several of Steve’s colonies seemed to stall during April and began failing. All had sufficient resources but dwindled until only four remained in May 2015. By June 2015, Steve was down to three colonies of the original ten. By not extracting the honey remaining in the dead outs, Steve was able to make egg splits and return colony count to ten queenright hives. As of December 2015, all ten colonies were at three deeps or two deeps and at least one medium of honey.

While the overall goal results are inconclusive, the ability to rebound with drawn comb and stores is significant. This highlights the importance beekeepers must put upon saving drawn comb and stored honey from dead outs. These are extremely valuable resources to help rebuild lost colonies. What our twenty-two month work does seem to highlight is the importance of quality genetics. During our study, the USDA released a report that beekeepers across the country are experiencing an average 40% loss. While not part of the study, genetics appear to be the standout. Not only did Tim not experience a 40% loss, he actually saw at 92% increase. While we still believe the three deep system is superior to two deeps, we must conclude the study is inconclusive. 

We hope that someone does consider trying this with the following changes.

  1. All colonies from the same genetics.
  2. A control set fed sugar from the start and through winter.
  3. Consider a way to determine equal strength of each starting colony so that they all begin at a similar point. i.e., frames of brood, weight of nucleus colonies etc.
  4. Consider location consistency. Should all colonies be in the same yard? Should all colonies have the same natural or artificial wind blocks, hours of sun exposure, etc.?
  5. When extraneous events insert significant variables, delay and/or restart the study after removal of the new variable[s].

DISCUSSION
The writer cannot say that anything specific was learned but many things have been reinforced. Both partners intend to continue managing three deep colonies. Both intend to focus on genetics. Both believe these are critical for improved production and sustainability.

Following the scientific method is critical. Remove as many variables as possible so that the key data stands out. Genetics and weather are vital when dealing with livestock. Genetics are controllable; weather is not so you must have a plan to handle any significant changes in weather. 

A project of this type may not reveal true data during a twenty-two month study. Be prepared to go beyond the grant period to see true long-term results. By definition, sustainability is to continue a specific behavior indefinitely. Few if any studies continue indefinitely but two years may be too short of a time to conclude effectiveness with livestock such as honey bees. 

OUTREACH
The project was documented on a Facebook group where individuals could ask questions about the methods and relay their results back. As of writing, the group has 1,911 members. Tim’s personal Facebook page is dedicated to beekeeping and Steve manages a page and Twitter for his business that has 2,445 and 836 followers respectively. Classes and speaking engagements were shared via these social media outlets. Tim gave several group presentations and Steve conducted several all-day class sessions. A press release about the grant was sent to all local media outlets but Farmers Exchange was the only media to print anything.

Project Objectives:

The number of producing honey bee colonies in the United States has decreased from 5.9 million bee hives in 1948 down to 2.5 million in 2013. (USDA ARS) “Since 2006 an estimated 10 million bee hives at an approximate current value of $200 each have been lost and the total replacement cost of $2 billion dollars has been borne by the beekeepers alone (J. Frazier, unpublished).” (USDA October 2012)

Honey bees contribute to one third of our food supply and approximately $20 billion to our economy. It is vital that we find a solution to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) or a new way of keeping bees in order to insure their sustainability. The USDA states that research is focusing on four general areas as a cause for CCD: Pathogens, Parasites, Management Practices and Environmental. Furthermore, studies have found no consistent pattern in pesticides found in healthy vs. CCD-affected colonies. Of those tested, the most common pesticides found were Coumaphos used to treat Varroa mites and neonicotiniods used in crop treatments. In our own beekeeping operations, we have observed feral colonies during cutouts in farmhouses and barns that are strong, long lived, and able to cope with mites and pathogens. Most of these were located on or directly adjacent to farmland planted with crops using neonicotinoid pesticides, specifically commercial seed corn. We have also found that we are experiencing far less winter loss than the national average and the local Michiana Beekeepers Association. The commonalities between our beekeeping methods verses the others is that we do not treat or feed our colonies. A third item is that we keep larger colonies, usually three deep brood boxes vs. two deep brood boxes.

Our hypothesis is keeping larger colonies; three deep brood boxes vs. two deep brood boxes will provide sustainable colonies with high production potential while providing numerous opportunities for splitting and growing colony numbers. These larger colonies will have the ability to better maintain food stores and not require supplemental feeding to survive. Having sufficient winter stores will allow the colonies to build brood earlier in the spring than other colonies and take advantage of early spring nectar flows. We also believe these colonies will be healthier than their sugar fed counterparts and better tolerate and manage mites, hive beetles and pesticide exposure in the environment. These larger, healthier colonies will have the ability to produce larger and more frequent honey harvests.

The basics of our test will be to compare three deep systems vs. two deep systems over the period of 22 months. We will start with 15 splits building half up to three deeps and half up to two deeps. We will also start 5 packages building half up to three deep and half up to two deep. All colonies will receive minimal management of frames to ensure consistent comb draw. None of the colonies will be given any supplemental feeding (sugar syrup, HFCS or pollen patties). None of the colonies will have box reversals to stimulate the queen movement within the hive. None of the colonies will have queen excluders and all will use solid bottom boards. All colonies will be given as many supers (6 5/8 boxes) as they will draw and fill once they have reached their designated two or three deeps. All colonies will be checked and honey supers extracted as needed in June, July, August and October. No honey will be removed from deep (9 5/8) boxes after April. All colonies will receive an insulation box on top with top entrance and 15lbs felt wrap for the winter.

Outreach

We currently have several far-reaching avenues to communicate our activities in place and plan to expand during the project. Current activities are posted to www.peacebees.org, www.facebook.com/groups/iveshives.peacebees/, @Peace_Bees (Twitter),  www.facebook.com/michianabees and www.peacebees.org. These outlets currently reach over 1,500 individuals in more than 50 countries. We will also share our results with hundreds of members in each of Michiana Beekeepers Association, Indiana Beekeepers Association and Indiana State Beekeepers Association. There are also the publications of American Bee Journal and Bee Culture should they be willing to publish our articles. We also have access to Randy Oliver, www.scientificbeekeeping.com who has shown interest in our current work. Other opportunities to present our findings will come at the various community events we participate in such as Ag Days, Earth Day, Growing Summit, Chicago Green Festival and beekeeping classes offered through Peace Bees and The Unity Gardens. We have also been asked to present at various group meetings and anticipate this will increase when our findings become known.

Previous Research

To the best of our knowledge, no one has done any research on the benefits of three deep, no-feed honey bee systems as a way to combat CCD. The current research is focused on Pathogens, Parasites, and Pesticides. There has been work done regarding management practices such as stressing bees by transportation and monoculture food resources because of pollination services. We have found work that suggests that high doses of sugar syrup turn off the gene responsible for Vitellogenin production (Amdam 2004). Vitellogenin being a yolk precursor and vital in the development of healthy honey bees (Oliver 2007). Previous SARE projects that relate but are quite different are Harris, Harris and Holden (FS11-252) studied various dilutions of sucrose and HFCS; Paslawsky and Ostiguy (FNE12-752) looked at a fabricated feed that included honey. We believe our research takes a unique approach, which more closely simulates feral colonies. The advantages of larger brood space, more frequent harvests and no supplemental feed will allow the bees to do what they do best and be more sustainable than common methods.

Evaluation

Measurements – pounds of honey harvested, mite counts, number of brood frames, dates and number of harvests, winter survival rates, Infrared monitoring of colony for size and location within the hive, photographs and videos. All data collected will be kept in Hive Tracks online database (www.hivetracks.com ) to insure security of the data and accessibility. Hive Tracks (HT) allows the recording of General items such as date and time, queen sighting -- is she marked or not, eggs capped and uncapped brood. HT automatically records, time, date and weather conditions. Hive Conditions include temperament, population, queen cells, laying pattern, and equipment type and condition.

Disease and Treatment section records problems and treatments but we will not be treating. Feeding and Food Stores will be used to track honey stores and again we will not feed. All sections of the application offer the ability to record freeform notes where we will be able to track general thoughts, comments not directly available. Hive Tracks allows printing of QR Code sheets for easy hive identification as well as To-Do List to track upcoming activities. Monthly mite counts, brood frame counts and honey harvests will all be kept in Hive Tracks. We also intend to make use of photographs and HD Video to supplement our record keeping by adding visuals to the data. Date and Time stamps of images will be kept in sync with the data. We will also make use of the photographs and video in our presentation, Facebook and website posts. The use of an Infrared (IR) camera will allow us to monitor the size of colonies, location within the hive and movement without opening and disturbing the bees, specifically in the winter. It has been a long practice to reverse hive bodies in the spring, as many keepers believe it is the only way to move the queen down to the empty bottom box. It is our belief that properly managed colonies will move the queen down on their own as a natural activity. The IR camera will document our belief and add to our data that minimal management is best for colony sustainability. Through the use of all of our data collection methods we intend to show that when properly managed, given sufficient space and not adulterated with artificial feed and chemicals, honey bees will: produce more honey than other colonies, be more prolific allowing colony count via splitting, be more resistant to mites, pathogens and environmental chemicals. All of which leads to sustainable honey bee colonies contrary to the current commercial decline due to CCD.

Cooperators

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Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.