Improved Honeybee Health through Foundation Modification

Final Report for FW13-128

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

Using the Tycksen foundation method (named after my father Walter Tycksen), participants used a two-inch wax “starter” foundation placed into a traditional frame, allowing bees to build their own honeycomb. Thirty hives were placed in three locations with one-half of the hives utilizing the Tycksen foundation method and the other one-half used a traditional full wax commercial foundation, also known as the Langstroth method. The two-inch guide tells bees where to begin building. The frame, with wire reinforcements throughout, holds the weight of the honey, making commercial honey extraction possible. The intent of the project was to see if the Tycksen method created an environment where the bees were better able to fight disease, have healthier hives, and produce more honey.

The final outcome showed that the Tycksen foundation hives took longer to establish in year one but were stronger and healthier at the beginning of year two and at the end of the two-year study.

Introduction

New honeybee hives takes a minimum 30-45 days to get established and for the queen to begin laying larvae; therefore, this was a two-year research project. During the first year thirty packages of bees were acquired from a single source and were introduced to entirely new hives, foundation, etc. One-half of the bees were put in hives with the traditional wax frame foundation; the other half were put in hives with the Tycksen method of foundation. Three locations were chosen and 10 hives were placed at each location. At each site, one-half of the hives used the traditional foundation and one-half used the Tycksen foundation. All hives were fed for the first month with sugar syrup to insure consistent strength throughout the hives. No chemical treatments were used for mite control during the research project; over the full two-year project, only natural methods of mite control were used, which will be discussed later.

Project Objectives:

This research project’s main objective was to determine whether a change in the method in which honeybees build their honeycomb/foundation improved honeybee health. Objectives and performance targets were evaluated after year one and again at the end of the research project (October 2014). They were as follows:

  1. By utilizing hive weight, mite count, and visisual inspection, would the Tycksen foundation method improve bee health by allowing the bees to build their own foundation?
  2. Did the Tycksen hives produce more honey than traditional Langstroth hives?
  3. If so, was it substantial enough to offset the time it takes to make the frames and install a two-inch strip of wax in each frame?
  4. Did the Tycksen hives see a reduction in Varroa mites in the hive?
  5. If there was not a reduction in mite populations, were the bees strong enough to fight off the mites without use of natural mite control methods?
  6. Was the honey production in the Tycksen foundation hives equal or similar to the traditional Langstroth method?
  7. Was the honey able to be extracted from the Tycksen frames in a commercial extractor? 

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Year One:

In early March 2013 all new equipment was purchased, including 60 complete Langstroth hive boxes. Sixty boxes were needed throughout the project as each hive needs three boxes; the base box holds brood, the second and third boxes hold honey, but only the third box should be extracted so that bees have sufficient food for over-wintering.   

One-half of the hives were supplied with traditional full wax, wired foundation; the other half were built using an unassembled frame and adding a two-inch wax strip at the top of each frame for the bees to build foundation at their own pace and size (Tycksen method). Wire was added to the Tycksen frames for strength during the extraction process. 

In April 2013 the intent was to purchase 30 three pound packages of Italian bees from one commercial bee provider.  After researching availability of strong, healthy bees of the same variety and from the same location, thirty packages of Italian bees were ordered from a single source. It was stressed to the commercial provider that the bees were being used in a research project and that it was critical that all information provided was accurate and that the bees ordered were as stated over the phone. When the bees arrived in mid-April, it was learned that the supplier did not follow the specification provided. The bees that were received were a mix of Carniola, Italian, and Russian bees and many were literally starving to death; syrup cans were empty on many of the hives and the bees were in poor condition. The bees were immediately put into their hives with prepared syrup feeders supplied at each hive. The next day, six of the 30 hives were dead. The supplier was immediately contacted about the problems and “fessed up” that the bees came from a variety of locations and commercial providers. It was understood that the integrity of the research may have been compromised by having multiple varieties of bees, but after contacting several other bee providers and finding bees in short supply, the three partners in the project decided it was better to keep the bees and continue with the project rather than to see them all die. The 24 remaining hives were set-up in three locations throughout Montezuma County, CO. 

The locations are outlined as follows:

#1. Eight hives were placed at a location on Cedar Mesa, between Mancos and Cortez, CO. The area is fairly remote and arid. Many Pinon and cedar trees are located in the area. No agricultural fields or crops are located nearby and no herbicide/pesticide spraying was done during the duration of the research project. Bees received water from a yard sprinkler system, as no natural bodies of water are nearby.

#2. Eight hives were placed at a location in an agricultural area near Lewis, CO. The area is surrounded by pasture where many wildflowers and dandelions bloomed. Several homes are located within a two-mile radius and some yard and orchard spraying was done by neighbors; it is unknown whether they were spraying herbicides or pesticides. There was ample water for the bees provided by local irrigation sources.

#3. Eight hives were placed at a location in McElmo Canyon, CO. These hives were located near irrigated alfalfa fields and grape vineyards. Herbicide spraying of fields was conducted on a regular basis. Bees received their water from the McElmo Creek and irrigated fields, near the property.

One half of the hives in each location used the standard Langstroth foundation purchased from a commercial company; the other half utilized the Tycksen foundation method. All hives were fed sugar water syrup through the end of July; the hives were fed on an as needed basis – when the syrup was gone the feeder was refilled. Sugar water syrup was made by using a 1:1 solution of sugar and water. Water is brought to a boil, then sugar is dissolved in the water. The syrup is used at that ratio to encourage bees to build comb. A 2:1 sugar/water ratio can be used later in the season to build food stores for winter. Corn syrup should not be used when feeding bees.

All the hives were tested for mites in early June using “sticky boards” under the screen board of each hive. Additionally, a visual inspection was completed on each hive. Very few mites were found in any of the hives and no mite control was administered.  (See attached photos)

All hives were examined for bee numbers, brood, and colony health on a weekly basis from April through October. Depending on the temperament of the hive, smoking was utilized on a hive by hive basis. Smoking is a tool utilized to mask alarm pheromones which include various chemicals, e.g., isopentyl acetate that are released by guard bees and helps calm bees if they are aggressive. A log and pictures were kept at each stage of hive development. (See attached checklist for hive inspection and data worksheet)

Honey harvest was completed in early October. All hives were visually checked for honey production and weighed in the field. The second box of honey of each hive was left for bee consumption during the winter. Only honey from the third box was extracted. Honey was extracted utilizing a commercial extractor. The Tycksen method frames held up as well as the traditional Langstroth frames did during extraction. This was encouraging as it was one of our measurement objectives.  Overall, the hives with Langstroth frames had greater honey production than the Tycksen method frames.

All hives were winterized by wrapping the hive with tar paper, making sure to allow air flow and ingress/egress for the bees.

Year Two:

Hives were allowed to overwinter and not checked until early February. Beginning in early February all hives were fed supplemental food as needed in the form of sugar syrup (see recipe in Year One Methods). The supplemental feeding continued through the end of July.

All hives were checked for progress on a weekly basis from April through July, then bi-monthly to examine bee numbers, brood, and colony health. The same log was used to track hive progress as in Year One. Hives were weighed in April and again in October.

Replacement bees were bought for the six hives that had been lost upon arrival in year one and those lost over the winter. New foundation was placed in each hive at the onset of spring to measure progress, health, and success of the various methods. One half of the new hives utilized the Tycksen foundation method and half utilized the Langstroth. Each type was equally placed in the three locations.

No mite control was applied in spring. All hives were tested for Varroa mites in early June. Various levels of Varroa mites were found in the Langstroth hives but not in the Tycksen hives. A powder-sugar method of mite control was applied to all of the Langstroth hives at all locations; none of the Tycksen hives at any of the locations receive mite treatment. The powder sugar method of non-lethal testing for Varroa mites on honey bees was developed at the University of Nebraska by entomology professor Dr. Marion Ellis and some of his students. It involves the use of powder sugar in a dust application. They found that when honey bees infested with Varroa mites are dusted with a coating of powdered sugar, many of the mites fall off – perhaps as a result of increased grooming by the bees, or maybe because the sugar makes it more difficult for the mites to maintain their grip. We utilized this natural method of mite control. All hives were re-tested two weeks later on June 18, and since no improvement was noted, the powder sugar treatment was applied again to the Langstroth hives. Testing on July 2 revealed considerably fewer mites in all hives.

Honey harvest was completed in early October. All hives were visually checked for honey production and weighed in the field. Weighing was completed utilizing a commercial scale in the field. Again, the second box of honey of each hive was left for bee consumption during the winter; only honey from the third box was extracted. Honey was extracted utilizing a commercial extractor. The Tycksen method frames held up as well as the traditional Langstroth frames did during extraction. The second year, the Tycksen hives produced more honey than the Langstroth hives did.

Research results and discussion:

Year One:

It was anticipated that the Tycksen method of foundation would produce smaller cells for honey storage since feral bees tend to build smaller foundation. This was not the case. The cells in the Tycksen hives were actually larger than in the commercial foundations. This was true for all the Tycksen hives at all locations. Most of the Tycksen foundation hives made the cells from top to bottom and in like-form as the commercial foundations. There were two Tycksen hives, however, that produced more cylindrical foundation, much as is found in feral colonies. We were unable to extract honey from these two hives using a commercial extractor. The Tycksen hives were slower in getting started with honey storage as they took longer to develop foundation. All hives had developed full foundations, however, by the end of the season (October), and all hives had at least two boxes of frames with several Tycksen hives having three boxes. Most of the Langstroth hives had three boxes. 

We were able to extract 30 frames (approximately 280 pounds) of honey from the traditional Langstroth hives in year one and five (45 pounds) frames from the Tycksen foundation hives. The remainder of the hives did not have sufficient honey to extract. This is not uncommon for first year bees, especially as weak as the bees were upon arrival. 

One location proved to be considerably better than the other two for bee population and honey production. The best location (#1) as described above was located in a fairly remote dry area near Mancos CO with mostly pinon and cedar trees. No fields or crops were located nearby and no herbicide/pesticide spraying was done. Water for the bees came from a yard sprinkler system. The second most productive location (#2) was in pasture areas near Lewis CO where many wildflowers and dandelions bloomed. Several homes are located within a two mile radius and some yard/orchard spraying was done by neighbors. It is unknown if they were spraying herbicides or pesticides, but numerous bees dies a day after spraying was completed. There was ample water for the bees. The least productive area (#3) SE of Cortez is located near irrigated alfalfa fields and grape vineyards. Herbicide spraying of fields was conducted on a regular basis. It is unknown and inconclusive if the spraying contributed to the strength of the hives or honey production. Each location had at least two very strong hives with varying degrees of bee strength in the other hives.

During extraction, honey from each location was kept separated. Taste of the honey from the various locations differed considerably from a very strong, almost molasses taste and color from the hives at location #1, to a vanilla flavor from location #2 and very mellow, light taste from location #3. 

At end of season one, all hives were strong, with good numbers of bees and more than sufficient honey in each hive for winter. Hives weighed between 125-170 pounds depending on the number of bees and honey remaining in the hive. 

In only one location was herbicides used; location 3 where the alfalfa and grapes were grown nearby. The other two areas were herbicide/pesticide free.

Year Two:

Hive health varied at the beginning of the spring cycle, which in our area is typically April. Bees were fed supplemental food as described above and checked at all locations in early February. Interestingly, the Tycksen hives survived the winter in better condition and with stronger honeybee numbers than many of the Langstroth hives had. Location #1, which had been the best location in year one, had total bee loss of three hives with the strongest living hives being the Tycksen. Location #2 had similar experience with four of the Langstroth hives being extremely weak. No losses were experienced in the Tycksen hives. Location #3 had lost two hives; both Langstroth and the remaining Langstroth were weak. Preliminary conclusion was that while the Tycksen foundation method took longer to become established and produced less honey in year one, they were stronger and healthier after experiencing a winter and at the beginning of a new production season. Bees were fed sugar water syrup through the end of July. All hives were checked for progress on a weekly basis through July, then bi-monthly through October to examine bee numbers, brood, and colony health. Hives were weighed at the beginning of spring and again in the fall of the second year. The mean average of the Tycksen hives was 72# while the Langstroth hives weighed 60#. Weight of a hive is an easy measure to determine colony health. Overall, the Tycksen hives were weighed approximately 10# more than the Langstroth hives, both in the spring and fall. Again, extensive logs and pictures were kept at each stage of hive development and at each location.

Replacement bees were purchased for the hives that had died. New foundation was placed in each hive at the onset of spring to measure progress, health, and success of the Tycksen foundation method verses the traditional Langstroth method. Again, in the second year, the Tycksen foundation hives developed slower than the traditional Langstroth hives but had good bee count and began producing honey sooner than in year one. 

No mite control was applied in early spring. In June, we tested for Varroa mites in all hives utilizing sticky boards under the bottom screen of each hive. Varroa mites were found in 11 of the 15 Langstroth hives but very few or none in the Tycksen hives. Mite count varied from hive to hive in the Langstroth hives; typical count was 6-8 mites per square inch. The Tycksen hives that did have mites were counted at 1-3 per square inch. The powder sugar method (described above) of mite control was used on all Langstroth hives; none in the Tycksen hives. All hives were re-tested two weeks later with no significant improvement. A second application of powder sugar was applied to all Langstroth hives. Upon mite testing two weeks later, the hives had significant reduction in mites; with 3-4 mites per square inch.

Honey harvest was greater in the Tycksen hives at the end of year two with over 100 pounds of honey being extracted from the Tycksen hives and 90 being extracted from the Langstroth hives. The honey harvest was reduced considerably in the Langstroth hives due to fewer bees in the hives. Overall honeybee population was greater in the Tycksen hives in October 2014. From all sources available, it appears that our area of the country had reduced honey flow in general. Commercial and cottage beekeepers were contacted to determine if they had reduced honey flow as well. The conclusion was that indeed the honey flow was less than in previous years throughout our area due to lack of moisture and natural bee forage in early spring.

Only in location #3 were herbicides used; where the alfalfa and grapes were grown nearby. The other two areas were herbicide/pesticide free.   

Preliminary conclusion at the end of year one (October 2013) was that the Tycksen hives took longer to get established and produced less honey than the Langstroth hives; however, the Tycksen hives were stronger in the spring of 2014, with less hive loss and greater bee counts. Results at the end of year two showed that the Tycksen hives were considerably stronger in numbers than the Langstroth hives and produced more honey. Additionally, the bees in the Tycksen hives did not need any mite mitigation throughout the research project, whereas the Langstroth hives required two treatments of powder sugar to mitigate the mite population.

The Tycksen frames were easily extracted using a commercial extractor. This was an unknown at the beginning of the research project. We were unsure whether the strength of the “bee made” foundation would withstand the force of the extractor. The wire inserts in each framed added strength and did not hinder the bees building comb from top to bottom. There were a few Tycksen frames where they bees did not build top to bottom but rather in a cylindrical fashion that we were unable to extract honey using the commercial extractor.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Data and information was shared with other beekeepers through bee clubs and small educational workshops in SW Colorado and northern New Mexico. At the end of year one, a group of beekeepers attended a workshop held at one of the project locations. Beekeepers were shown the research project and taught how to make the Tycksen type frame. Several producers liked what was done and began modifying their hives with the two-inch wax strip at the top of each frame. Additional data will be gathered from these other producers in the spring of 2015 to see if their results are similar to those found in this project. 

We met with the Colorado State Bee President on two occasions to give an update on the research project. She and other local bee clubs in Colorado put updates and information that we provided on their websites. This information produced a lot of emails and phone calls for additional information and attendance at workshops. No formal publications were produced as the results are still preliminary and we believe further research needs to be completed. 

An article was published in the Cortez Journal in April of 2013 regarding bee loss and our project.  http://www.cortezjournal.com/article/20130415/NEWS01/130419876/

There is certainly no reason why the Tycksen method could not be adopted on a wider basis, although for commercial beekeepers the adaptation would mean considerable change in their current practices in that all hive foundation would need to be changed out on a two to three year rotation. Smaller “cottage” beekeepers could easily adopt the practice, although, once again, it is more costly to replace foundation every few years. The upside is that the hive health is better; therefore, there is less loss of bees and hives due to disease. With few exceptions, the Tycksen foundation was built in a neat order from top to bottom so commercial extraction was not an issue.

Several other local beekeepers and small producers in our area adopted the practice after attending one of our workshops or visiting the research project areas.

We attempted to maintain a blog to provide information and resources to local beekeepers; however, there was not enough interest in the area to continue providing this service.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

After concluding our two-year research project, the researchers found that, overall,l the Tycksen foundation hives had stronger number of bees and less mite problems. In general, the flow of honey was greather in the Langstroth hives in year one and greater in the Tycksen hives in year two. The Tycksen hives took longer in year one to build foundation and produce honey; however, by year two the Tycksen hives had caught up and, in fact, exceeded the honey flow of the Langstroth hives.

The number of bees in each hive was measured by weight of the hive in the spring and again in the fall before honey removal. The Tycksen hives weighed (on average) 10 pounds more at the beginning and end of year two. Even without weighing the hives for bee weight, it was apparent from visually looking in each hive that the Tycksen hives contained a substantially greater number of bees.

Throughout the research project, Varroa mite control was only applied twice and both times to Langstroth hives. We believe the Tycksen hives can fight off the Varroa mite better than the Langstroth due to a healthier hive environment.

As there was little to no herbicides/pesticides used in two locations and herbicide regularly used in location 3, there appears to be no correlation to the use of herbicides at a distance to the health of bees.

The conclusion, after two years, was that overall the bees in Tycksen hives were healthier and had greater numbers. They appeared to better fight off mite infestation due to strength. Having fresh foundation that they had built to their needed size may have help contribute to this. That remains an unknown. The Tycksen hives, by year two, had caught up with the honey flow and it is anticipated that in years three and beyond that this will remain a constant. More research will need to be conducted to determine these factors. There is conclusive evidence that commercial extraction of honey can be accomplished utilizing the Tycksen foundation method.

Although the official research project has concluded, all participants in the project have committed to following the Tycksen vs. Langstroth project for several more years.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Economic Analysis

The overall cost of purchasing bees and new equipment, bees, feed, etc. is quite expensive. We estimate the cost of each hives to be approximately $450.00. The current cost of a package of bees is $110.00 per package. Certainly utilizing new equipment and foundation materials adds to the cost. Most commercial beekeepers utilize the boxes for 10 years and many do not change out the foundation more than every five to seven years. We believe the long-term use of old foundation contributes to the high rate of loss they see each year. While replacing foundation every year or at least every other year is considered too costly by the majority of commercial beekeepers, our research indicates a lower loss of bees and stronger hives in those hives where new Tycksen foundation was utilized.

Future Recommendations

Additional study is needed in a variety of areas. Two years gave us ample information and data to determine that indeed the Tycksen foundation method worked in that the Tycksen hives survived better and were better able to fend of Varroa mites and that commercial extraction was possible. There were many variables in the two-year period, though, that may have impacted the results. A five-year study utilizing both foundation methods would provide more conclusive evidence to the overall health of the hives and the ability for the Tycksen hives to fight off Varroa mites, as well as continue the strong bee numbers on a long-term basis.

More research/data collection is needed on the issue of spraying of herbicides and their impact on bees.  Beekeepers can send dead bees/larvae to the USDA Ag Research Center in Beltsville Maryland for diagnosis of disease; however, the USDA does not test for any herbicides in bees.

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.