- Name: Gage and Sarah Werner
- Address: 11857 122nd Rd.
- City, State, Zip Code: Winfield, KS 67156
- Phone: 620-222-5821
- Website: wernercreekfarm.com
- Project Duration: 2 years
- Date of Report: February 15, 2017
Werner Creek Farm is a small homestead/market farm, located on approximately 15 acres in South Central Kansas. Werner Creek Farm is also a part of a larger 130 acre family farm. Gage and Sarah Werner began as vegetable producers for the Walnut Valley Farmers Market in 2008, and have expanded into fruits, nuts, jams and jellies, and most recently, honey and bees.
Before receiving the grant, we employed crop rotation with our vegetables, cover crops, mulching/composting, high tunnel season-extender, and rotational grazing.
The immediate goal with this project was to find and maintain the feral bee genetics before they were lost as they have been across the country. The long term goal, beyond this project, was to breed different bee stocks that are acclimated to the region for different traits.
The second goal was to create a source that would provide locally adapted bees for regional beekeepers.
We first purchased and constructed hive bodies, frames, trap bases, covers, and stands. We also purchased and collected survivor stock. For two seasons in the spring,we also collected and trapped swarms of feral bees. We also collected colonies that must be removed from structures. The genetics from feral colonies were also collected by mating virgin queens with feral drones. Because the eventual goal was to produce queens and nuc colonies from lines bred from the genetics collected, we also began attempting the grafting of queens. In addition, we simultaneously tried to raise carnolian bees as a way of improving varroa mite resistance. We originally wished to incorporate black russian bee strains to increase the varroa mite resistance, but the feral colonies were highly aggressive in nature, a trait that black russians are known for. We then began to raise carnolians but found the feral colonies’ aggressive behavior resulted in robbing that created an environment in which the carnolians could not flourish. We then decided to focus on the purchase of survivor-stock and were able to obtain ten hives from a retiring beekeeper who collected all his stock from feral swarms. The beekeeper did not keep his colonies in an apiary but had them spread out geographically and they had been collected from a large area. Though we could not verify the genetic diversity of the bees collected by expensive DNA analysis, we feel we took steps that would allow us to get a good representation of the diversity available. Unfortunately, the ultimate goal was the ability to graft queens and produce nucs that could be sold, but we feel that will not be possible. Though different colonies vary in temperament, on average the feral bees were far too defensive in nature to produce grafted queens using the current popular techniques and standards employed by the bee and honey-producing industry. The defensive behavior escalated with every manipulation of the colony and it is impractical and even dangerous to disturb the colonies as frequently as queen-grafting methods demand.
We were assisted by many farmers, ranchers and business people throughout the course of this project. Most interactions were with private individuals who had swarms or established colonies on their property or individuals who had property on which they offered an area to place colonies. Some of the many farmers, ranchers and business people who contacted us about feral bee colonies on their property had colonies that had taken residence inside farm equipment, buildings and homes and had to be removed. Others had trees, abandoned equipment and unused outbuildings that housed established feral colonies. Swarm traps were placed near these established colonies. Landowners were encouraged to protect the colonies and were given advice on strategies to co-exist with the colonies that were in close proximity to homes and areas of activity.
Another group whose assistance was significant was the farm and ranch stores and their employees that helped by allowing us to post contact information and a description of the project. We also received many contacts from the family, friends and neighbors of youth who are aware of the project from different outreach activities. These outreach activities included being part of a farm tour with Cowley County Farm Bureau, being a stop for a summer farm camp through Winfield Recreation Commission, and speaking with approximately one hundred school students about the project.
We also would like to thank the NCR-SARE Associate Regional Coordinator Joan Benjamin for directing our attention to a very relevant and insightful project by Leo Sharashkin (FNC15-1013 – (2015) Creating a Depository of Local Honey Bee Strains From Feral Swarms and Demonstrating a Sustainable Beekeeping Model Using Horizontal Hives and Bee-Friendly Management).
The bees were caught over two seasons. Because the 2015 swarm season was short with lots of contacts about swarms coming in all at the same time, we made improvements for the 2016 swarm season. During the winter of 2015, we took all the hive bodies that were not housing bees and temporarily converted them into swarm traps. We did this by stacking two hive bodies together with a lid and a bottom and screwing a 2” x 21” x 3/4” strip of wood to each side. The top box was filed with frames of wax-coated plastic foundation and the entrance was reduced. Lemongrass oil was used as an attractant and the boxes were placed eight to ten feet off the ground, mostly in trees and secured with ratchet straps. Some boxes were made lighter by using 1/4” plywood as a bottom and creating an entrance between the two hive bodies in a 2” x ¾ “ square spacer. This was very successful the second season and we believe it was the fact that the survivor-stock purchased earlier that year came with a lot of frames containing old black wax comb that needed to be cycled out of use. While frames of wax comb can’t be used in catch boxes, the very old used dark comb can be. Good wax is quickly found and destroyed by wax moths, but they do not hurt the old comb. Before setting out the catch boxes, we replaced one or two frames of foundation with the old wax comb. This paired with the use of lemongrass oil worked very well. Next year, we intend to place multiple catch boxes in each location to see if after-swarms can be caught. The after-swarms are smaller, but the queens are younger. We had 10% to 12% failure to thrive on new swarms and we believe this was due to aged queens.
The original plan was to end with 46 to 50 colonies of bees, a number needed for a breeding program. At the end of the second year, after losses, we were at 45 colonies. It would be unrealistic to assume no losses over winter. The goal of 50 hives was necessary for an industrial style breeding program which we now believe is no longer feasible. We do plan to nearly double the number of catch boxes to 30 next spring. We set out 18 catch boxes in the spring of 2016 and caught 8 swarms in them. In the spring of 2015, we set out 7 boxes without old brood comb and caught no swarms. The next time we start placing catch boxes, we will try to place at least one box close to the places we have collected swarms in the past. Even if the original colony that cast the swarm is no longer there, the trees, structures, etc. that house the bees get recycled and re-inhabited. Perhaps this is a beneficial mechanism for improving the selection of hardier genetics.
We learned a lot about beekeeping and bee behavior. By seeing the places where feral bee colonies chose to live, we developed a respect for how versatile bees and bee colonies are. We find the honey bee incredibly adaptable and capable of surviving and thriving across a wide spectrum of different conditions. There were colonies living in hollow stumps and roots underground, others inside steel boxes, and inside the grease and diesel-covered steel frames of excavation equipment. Another colony was doing well inside a high-voltage (60,000 volts) electrical box surrounded by a very intense electromagnetic field. One colony would have a single very small and long entry and the next colony may have many entries or an entirely open side. Seeing colonies surviving under all these different conditions has made us question the state of modern beekeeping and re-evaluate what we should consider sustainable.
The ultimate impacts of this project will not be realized until a sustainable management is developed that suits that genetic stock that was collected. It will most likely involve taking advantage of the stock’s strong swarming instincts and their tendency to make lots of bees rather than lots of honey. The main impact would be creating a source for hardy, low-maintenance bee stock. Such bees primary impact would be pollination with a modest production of honey. We believe these colonies should be placed in a stationary, horizontal-style hive with deep frames, unimprinted foundation, with minimal manipulations and minimal treatments. They have proven successful under such conditions on their own. Permanent placement of well-insulated hives that are built to last for many years could provide season-long pollination requirements for diversified agriculture crops, native grasslands and temperate woodland waterways.
Our project did not achieve the outreach it could have. The project was initially intended to be the first of three, and the outreach would have progressively increased as there were results to share. While we will continue to share our results with the public at various events, this project has convinced us that true changes in sustainability regarding beekeeping needs to focus on beekeepers. The relationship between beekeepers and the public has a long history and by its nature beekeeping has lots of outreach. So providing beekeepers with quantifiable results from sustainable practices will be important.
Fortunately the outreach we did provided more than enough responses to fulfill the needs of the project. We received more contacts about swarms than I could respond to during swarm season and we had more places available to put swarm traps than we had swarm traps to set out.
As small hive beetles move into areas of the Midwest that still have feral bee colonies, it is important to preserve bee genetics that have been naturally selected for success in those geographical areas. The environmental pressures of natural selection include: disease, parasites, predation, chemical exposure, temperature extremes, plant diversity, and lack of and extreme fluctuations in rainfall and humidity. The loss of feral honeybee genetics is the first part of the problem addressed here.
The second part of the problem is that there are few sources for acquiring locally adapted bees.
The success in beekeeping for both hobbyists and honey producers in the Midwest unfortunately depends on queens bred elsewhere. The selection available is for colonies that can winter in Texas, summer in North Dakota, and pollinate almonds in California. Well raised queens breed for specific geographic areas will benefit, bees, beekeepers, and local farmers.
While strong colonies can deal with small hive beetles, swarms and weakened colonies are often destroyed. Strong colonies will only survive until they reach a temporary weakened state which naturally occurs in a colony. The first part of the solution is to collect swarms from strong, feral colonies and use integrated pest management (IPM) and sound beekeeping practices to ensure their survival, thereby preserving their genetic diversity. Some of this diversity could also be found in local “survivor stock”.
A second part of the solution is to systematically place colonies with Russian queens expressing VSH hygienic behavior where they may provide drones to feral virgin queens which are in the process of supersedure. This will also give uncaptured feral colonies some resistance to their main threat, varroa mites.
The immediate goal with this project is to find and maintain the feral bee genetics before they are lost as the have been across the country. The long term goal, beyond this project, is to breed different bee stocks that are acclimated to the region for different traits.
For the past two years, the keynote speakers at the Kansas Honey Producers Association meetings (Gary Reuter from the University of Minnesota and Dr. Larry Connor from Wicwas Press) have stressed the importance of queen production at the local level. Online research of both SARE and non-SARE information shows a trend in this direction. Additionally, both spoke to the importance of genetic diversity in honeybees, which is important for breeding.
I propose that three lines be bred: A “hobbyist” bee stock with a very docile temperament, moderate honey production, and moderate disease resistance, a “Sideliner” bee stock which could be more aggressive, but are good honey producers, and a “pollinator” bee stock which are very disease resistant, low maintenance, could be prone to swarming, and could be weak honey producers if they are efficient with stores. All three lines should be acclimated for climate (i.e.: appropriate spring buildup, heat tolerance, wintering ability, hygiene.) Once this was accomplished, the final project would involve local production of quality queens from this stock.
There is an effort to increase numbers of new beekeepers and bring awareness to the public regarding the environmental condition of pollinators. Increased numbers of hobbyist beekeepers and local beekeeping groups can fuel the movement to a more sustainable environment by their interaction with and education of the general public. Whether new beekeepers want to sell honey or just pollinate their garden and neighborhood, the more successful they are, the longer they are likely to stay involved. Rearing local queens acclimated to their area with good genetics and breeding them for a specific use could increase the success beginning beekeepers have and keep them involved.