Creating a Depository of Local Honey Bee Strains From Feral Swarms and Demonstrating a Sustainable Beekeeping Model Using Horizontal Hives and Bee-Friendly Management

Final Report for FNC15-1013

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $7,469.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Good From the Woods
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Leo Sharashkin
Goods From The Woods
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND

We maintain a stationary apiary in Drury, MO, now numbering 36 beehives. All of the hives originated from swarms caught using swarm traps (bait hives) in the surrounding wilderness. We only use natural beekeeping methods: no drugs or chemicals of any kind, no sugar feeding, no artificial requeening, bees are given freedom to swarm, hives are never moved around, etc. Our colonies are all hived in horizontal hives that simplify management and are wonderfully suited for producing specialty honey with minimal stress on the colony. Dr Leo Sharashkin is in charge of the apiary.

From the very start, the apiary was conceived as a model for demonstrating that you can keep bees sustainably using only natural methods (no drugs, no sugar, no swarm control), local stock obtained from the wild and employing low-input beekeeping practices and simple horizontal movable-frame hives such as the Layens hive. The apiary at its present location was started in 2013, but is a carry-over from Dr Leo Sharashkin’s experience in natural beekeeping in Russia.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Honeybees are extremely beneficial on any farm as pollinators and as producers of honey and wax. The increased production of agricultural crops due to honeybee pollination is estimated at $19 billion (2010). But with only 2.6 million beehives in the US - down from 6 million in the 1940s - up to 70% of honey consumed in the US is imported. Why is not beekeeping more widespread? Major problems discouraging farmers from adding bees to their operations include low quality (yet expensive) bee stock, costly beekeeping equipment, and complicated management methods that are unsuitable for a small apiary.

First problem: commercially available package bees predominantly contain southern races (e.g., Italian) and come from a shallow genetic pool with low disease resistance and poor adaptation to northern conditions. They are expensive (over $100 per bee package), require treatments against disease, and have high mortality rates. A northern apiary relying on commercially bought bees is rarely sustainable. We will address this issue by establishing a depositary of locally adapted bee strains and demonstrating how any farmer can do the same at minimal expense.

Many feral honeybee populations now have high level of disease resistance and adaptation to the local climate of the Northern Region. The densely forested Ozarks are particularly suitable for finding these "survivor stock" bees: abundance of tree hollows provides feral bee habitat, and there are relatively few beekeepers (forests offer much smaller honey harvests than agricultural fields), thence a lesser influx of commercial bees and queens. Honeybee races found in the Ozarks include the European dark bee (native to Europe's north), known for resilience and productivity. To tap this genetic resource we will attract feral swarms (over two successive swarming seasons) to thirty swarm traps (bait hives) placed on trees over a large territory, away from known apiaries. We anticipate catching 30 feral swarms over two seasons. These colonies will form a collection of local disease-resistant winterhardy bees. We will monitor their productivity, health, and survival rates, and the most successful colonies will provide basis for subsequent breeding of resilient stock, which is crucial for sustainable beekeeping. We will also develop a detailed guide of best practices for swarm catching, including swarm trap plans and placement instructions and economic feasibility study - making it easy for any farmer to replicate this approach.

Second problem: the standard beekeeping equipment is expensive (over $100 per hive); beekeeping methods are often detrimental to the bees and require years of experience to master. We will address this issue by demonstrating simple hive models and beekeeping methods accessible to anyone. The swarms will be hived at our model apiary in Drury, MO, in special bee-friendly, low-maintenance, easy-to-manage horizontal hives (30 deep frames per box) that any farmer can easily build in 3 hours using less than $50 in materials with only basic tools. We'll prepare free plans and a detailed hive management guide.

In summary, we will demonstrate a turn-key, low-cost solution to starting a sustainable apiary based on catching then propagating local bee stock; using bee-friendly do-it-yourself hive models and simple, accessible management techniques. This approach will benefit farmers (pollination, honey production, income diversification), ranchers, and forest land managers (pesticide-free honey production and enhancing biodiversity of flowering plants) who would otherwise be unable to start beekeeping using the conventional methods due to high cost, low colony survival, or lack of advanced beekeeping skills.

We will widely disseminate project results through detailed, well-organized and beautifully illustrated website content at HorizontalHive.com, presentations at numerous venues, including Baker Creek Spring Planting Festival, Mansfield, Missouri (attendance 10,000), and a field day at our apiary in Drury, Missouri.

PROCESS

Each spring we set up a large number of swarm traps (simple plywood boxes baited with swarm lure) around the countryside in Douglas and Ozark counties, Missouri. Swarm traps were set out at 30 locations in 2015 and 42 locations in 2016. Care was taken to position the traps away from any known apiary (of which there are very few in this area) – so we could have greater assurance that we are catching swarms that originated from feral (wild) colonies of honeybees, which are locally adapted and are showing increased resilience and disease-resistance.

The traps were regularly inspected for bee occupancy, and honeybee colonies that moved in were transferred into stationary hives at our apiary. The success rate was around 30% in 2015 (rainy spring) and over 50% in 2016. Thirteen swarms were caught in 2015 and 22 – in 2016 (total: 35 swarms).

The swarms were transferred into horizontal hives. Management was limited to inspecting the colony in the spring (March) and harvesting honey in the fall (October-November).

PEOPLE

Two people from Goods From the Woods wild crops farm were involved:

- Dr Leo Sharashkin, the primary investigator / professional agroforester / apiarist

- Penny Frazier, founder of Goods From the Woods wild crops farm, wild plant expert & developer of businesses based on the sustainable use of local wild botanical resources

A local farmer and beekeeper, Jeff Barry of Ava, MO, helped with woodworking and setting out swarm traps.

A very large number of people helped with the dissemination of project results at numerous venues and conferences. These include SARE (invited Dr Leo to speak at the Kansas Rural Center’s conference in November 2016), University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry (presentations at three field days), numerous beekeepers associations from several states (see Outreach section below).

RESULTS

We demonstrated that obtaining bee stocks by catching local swarms is a viable way of starting and increasing an apiary, and a robust alternative to buying commercially-bred bees. For example, in the course of the 2016 season, we caught $4500 worth of bees, which is enough to completely cover the cost of equipment and labor.

Next, we are confirming results of previous research that show that local bees from feral stock have high survivability rates in a treatment-free apiary. The multi-year study conducted in upstate New York by Cornell University professor Dr Tom Seeley show that such bees have survival rates between 80% and 90% per year (treatment-free and with minimal management and no swarming prevention). Likewise, in our operation the average survival rate has been around 85% per year.

Therefore, since 1) the value of the bees attracted to swarm traps is enough to offset the costs; 2) the local bees have high survival rates; and 3) horizontal hives offer a low-input, low-management, low-cost beekeeping system that is accessible to anyone even with no prior beekeeping experience – this approach presents a viable option of easily adding & then increasing the number of hives at any farm or ranch that is in an area with an existing feral bee population.

This would increase pollination on the farm and will also produce a marketable honey surplus. Using this approach we were able to produce a honey crop of avg. 20 lb / hive. While this would be considered a very modest honey output, it should be considered that a) we did not move the hives around, so there was no expense of hauling the hives; the produced honey is specific to the place and has distinct flavor; b) this honey was produced completely chemical-free (no treatments), sugar-free (no sugar-feeding) and with minimal expenditures of labor, and c) because of these properties, we’re successfully marketing this honey at $20/lb (2015 crop sold out in a matter of two months), 2016 crop ½ sold out as of Jan. 1, 2017) and are therefore able to make robust profit-per-hive comparable with more-intensive beekeeping operations.

As part of the project we also established that lemongrass oil serves as as good an attractant to swarms as the much more expensive pheromone lures. This finding allows anyone to use the cheaper lure alternative, making swarm-catching even more economical and accessible.

PROJECT IMPACTS

The impact of the project are two-fold:

  • 1) As envisioned, we have assembled an inventory of local strains of wild honey bees which can now be used as foundation of a breeding program (starting with 2017 season) to help spread this valuable genetics.
  • 2) In the time when honey bees and agricultural systems are under a lot of stress, it is not surprising that the simple sustainable alternatives (local bees + low-input management) demonstrated in this project generated A LOT of interest. We’ve been able to reach out to TENS OF THOUSANDS of beekeepers and farmers with our project results, and there are at least SEVERAL HUNDRED who are already applying our methods. Each farmer/beekeeper can save upwards of $100 with EACH swarm that they catch. So the overall economic impact of the project is now likely in the six-digit dollar realm.

Apart from that, it becomes apparent that honey bees (and production of specialty wilderness honeys) can be a viable way of obtaining livelihoods from the wild and marginal lands – a sustainable and non-destructive economic use.

OUTREACH

Outreach was integral part of this project and was HUGELY successful. Here are only some of the highlights (they also serve as measures of interest in our work and project results):

1) WEB CONTENT & EMAIL LIST. We actively used our website www.HorizontalHive.com for disseminating project results and sustainable beekeeping information. Just as originally envisioned, we saturated the website with free information on 1) catching local swarms (complete step-by-step guide), 2) free plans for building all equipment (including swarm traps and horizontal hives) inexpensively, and 3) the essential guide to managing horizontal hives successfully.

How sought after this information is can be judged by the following fact: the size of our mailing list at the beginning of the project was under 1,000 subscribers. In less than two years it increased by MORE THAN FIVE TIMES and now represents over 5,000 subscribers from all over the U.S. and even internationally.

We made extensive use of streaming video and audio. Dr Leo Sharashkin’s presentation on swarm catching and natural beekeeping was watched 5120 times on YouTube; his 1-hr interview on treatment-free beekeeping received 2740 downloads.

2) ARTICLES: The following articles were published in the major national publications:

- Leo Sharashkin, "A Swarm Trap on Every Tree", American Bee Journal, March 2015 (circulation: over 20,000)

- Leo Sharashkin, "Not by Clover Alone: Native Honey Plants for Bees", Acres USA, April 2015 (circulation: over 20,000)

- Leo Sharashkin, "Horizontal Hive Advantages ", Bee Culture, November 2015 (circulation: over 20,000)

- Leo Sharashkin, “You can keep bees, naturally!”, Green Horizons, January 2017

3) PRESENTATIONS & FIELD DAYS:

Dr Leo Sharashkin mounted a truly impressive outreach program and gave the following invited presentations on swarm catching and natural beekeeping in horizontal hives:

- Bozeman, Montana, March 14-15, 2015 - Bozeman Natural Beekeepers - two-day natural beekeeping seminar. Attendance: 25 beekeepers, farmers, and ranchers from Montana, California, and Idaho.

- Tulsa, Oklahoma, March 27-28, 2015 - North Eastern Oklahoma Beekeepers Association Big bee Buzz Conference. Attendance: 160 beekeepers from Oklahoma and surrounding states.

- Drury, Missouri, April 11-12, 2015 - two day natural beekeeping class at our apiary. Attendance: 30 beekeepers and farmers from Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.

- Monroe, Washington, April 23-24, 2015 - two-day natural beekeeping class. Attendance: 20 beekeepers and farmers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.

- Baker Creek Spring Planting Festival, Mansfield, MO, May 3-4, 2015 - presentation attended by 250; booth for both two days, even attendance 10,000 of gardeners, farmers, and ranchers from Midwest and all over the US.

- Searcy, Arkansas, June 8, 2015 - White County Beekeepers Association meeting. Attendance: 75.

- Lynnville, IA, July 11, 2015 - Iowa Honey Producers Association Field Day. Attendance: 100.

- Columbia, MO, September 12-13, 2015 - Keynote address & natural beekeeping presentation, Missouri Master Gardeners Conference. Attendance: 150+.

- Springfield, MO, September 17, 2015 - Springfield Organic Club. Attendance: 100+.

- Columbia, MO, October 16-17, 2015 - Missouri Beekeepers Association Conference. Attendance: 150+.

- Springfield, MO, November 24, 2015 - Beekeepers Association of the Ozarks. Attendance: 50+.

- Columba, MO, January 28, 2016 - National Agroforestry Symposium . Presentation "Agroforestry and Wilderness Beekeeping for Conservation and Profit" Attendance: several hundred. (Video of this talk receive over 5,000 views on YouTube)

- March 5-6, 2016 – Bozeman, MT – two-day natural beekeeping class taught by Dr Leo. Attendance 30.

- March 11-12, 2016 – Mountain Home, AR – information booth at Arkansas Beekeepers Association conference. Attendance: 150

- March 19-20, 2016 - two-day natural beekeeping class and field day at our apiary in Drury, MO – Attendance: 40 from 12 different states.

- April 7, 2016 – Nixa, MO – Dr Leo presented at Bees Alive Club (attendance: 100)

- May 17, 2016 – presentation in Monnet, MO. Attendance: 75

- May 24, 2016 – St Louis, MO – presentation to St Louis Beekeepers association. Attendance: 80

- June 25, 2016 – Ozark, MO – Natural beekeeping workshop. Attendance: 50.

- Jully 25, 2016 – New Franklin, MO – Agroforestry Academy presentation. Attendance: 40.

- October 8, 2016 – New Franklin, MO – booth and lecture and University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry Chestnut Roast. (Overall attendance several thousand)

- October 14-15, 2016 – Lake Ozark, MO – information booth at Missouri State Beekeepers Conference. Attendance 200.

- October 22-23, 2016 – field day at our apiary in Drury, MO. Attendance: 40 from 9 different states.

- November 12, 2016 – Springfield, IL – Illinois State Beekeepers Association conference. Presentation by Dr Leo. Attendance over 100.

- November 18-19, 2016 – Manhattan, KS – NCR-SARE Kansas Farmers Forum presentation and information booth/display. Attendance 150.

- December 1-2, 2016 – Omaha, NE – Acres USA Conference. Two workshops on natural beekeeping. Attendance 200.

- December 11-14, 2016 – Marshall, California – Bee Audacious Conference & Panel discussion. (Dr Leo invited participant) Attendance 200.

In addition, in the coming months there are the following confirmed presentations:

January 12, 2017 - St. Joseph, MO - Great Plains Growers Conference
January 27-28, 2017 - Kansas City, MO - Mid-America Organic Conference
February 18, 2017 - Bloomfield, IA - Southern Iowa Grazing Conference
March 3-4, 2017 - Rock Hill, SC - South Carolina-North Carolina Beekeepers Conference
March 18-19, 2017 - Rockbridge, MO - Two-Day Natural Beekeeping Course

Summary: project is concluded successfully, with all expected deliverables met or exceeded.

Project Objectives:

Honeybees are extremely beneficial on any farm as pollinators and as producers of honey and wax. The increased production of agricultural crops due to honeybee pollination is estimated at $19 billion (2010). But with only 2.6 million beehives in the US - down from 6 million in the 1940s - up to 70% of honey consumed in the US is imported. Why is not beekeeping more widespread? Major problems discouraging farmers from adding bees to their operations include low quality (yet expensive) bee stock, costly beekeeping equipment, and complicated management methods that are unsuitable for a small apiary.

First problem: commercially available package bees predominantly contain southern races (e.g., Italian) and come from a shallow genetic pool with low disease resistance and poor adaptation to northern conditions. They are expensive (over $100 per bee package), require treatments against disease, and have high mortality rates. A northern apiary relying on commercially bought bees is rarely sustainable. We will address this issue by establishing a depositary of locally adapted bee strains and demonstrating how any farmer can do the same at minimal expense.

Many feral honeybee populations now have high level of disease resistance and adaptation to the local climate of the Northern Region. The densely forested Ozarks are particularly suitable for finding these "survivor stock" bees: abundance of tree hollows provides feral bee habitat, and there are relatively few beekeepers (forests offer much smaller honey harvests than agricultural fields), thence a lesser influx of commercial bees and queens. Honeybee races found in the Ozarks include the European dark bee (native to Europe's north), known for resilience and productivity. To tap this genetic resource we will attract feral swarms (over two successive swarming seasons) to thirty swarm traps (bait hives) placed on trees over a large territory, away from known apiaries. We anticipate catching 30 feral swarms over two seasons. These colonies will form a collection of local disease-resistant winterhardy bees. We will monitor their productivity, health, and survival rates, and the most successful colonies will provide basis for subsequent breeding of resilient stock, which is crucial for sustainable beekeeping. We will also develop a detailed guide of best practices for swarm catching, including swarm trap plans and placement instructions and economic feasibility study - making it easy for any farmer to replicate this approach.

Second problem: the standard beekeeping equipment is expensive (over $100 per hive); beekeeping methods are often detrimental to the bees and require years of experience to master. We will address this issue by demonstrating simple hive models and beekeeping methods accessible to anyone. The swarms will be hived at our model apiary in Drury, MO, in special bee-friendly, low-maintenance, easy-to-manage horizontal hives (30 deep frames per box) that any farmer can easily build in 3 hours using less than $50 in materials with only basic tools. We'll prepare free plans and a detailed hive management guide.

In summary, we will demonstrate a turn-key, low-cost solution to starting a sustainable apiary based on catching then propagating local bee stock; using bee-friendly do-it-yourself hive models and simple, accessible management techniques. This approach will benefit farmers (pollination, honey production, income diversification), ranchers, and forest land managers (pesticide-free honey production and enhancing biodiversity of flowering plants) who would otherwise be unable to start beekeeping using the conventional methods due to high cost, low colony survival, or lack of advanced beekeeping skills.

We will widely disseminate project results through detailed, well-organized and beautifully illustrated website content at HorizontalHive.com, presentations at numerous venues, including Baker Creek Spring Planting Festival, Mansfield, Missouri (attendance 10,000), and a field day at our apiary in Drury, Missouri.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jeff Barry
  • Penny Frazier
  • Dr. Leo Sharashkin

Research

Participation Summary

Information Products

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.