Written in collaboration with Tim Ives. Also referencing the research conducted by Randy Oliver.

For some of us, the winter has been harder, colder and just not too kind… but some recent discussions with fellow beekeepers Jim Orem, Garry Reeves and Jim Farmer as we drove to the ISBA spring meeting reminded me that we’re having a more typical winter for our region than the previous couple.

While this should have been obvious to me, it did take a reminder. What else would explain coming out of last winter with all my hives-a-thriving, queens-a-laying and those rainbows over my hives? Everything lead to a bumper crop of honey, the biggest crop yet… and a lot of fun. It thrust me in to the farmers markets and set the rest of the summer in motion. Well, like many green and enthusiastic minds, it took a hard winter to put me back in place. I’m still picking through my deadouts. But, even now, I remind myself there’s a purpose for everything, and my purpose is to take a harder look at what things went right, and which went wrong. I have been positioned to better understand what nature did, what I did… and how it all swirled together this winter.

For me, there’s an ebb and flow between book work and fieldwork. After so much bookworm, I shut down. I just can’t read another word about bees until I go out and play with them for a while. The 2012 season was this time for me. I went out and exhausted all I had in the field. I set up two new outyards, enjoyed the farmers markets with the surplus honey, prevented swarms, collected swarms, split hives, grew colonies and gave them to my new beekeeping friends. I built equipment, presented to cub scouts, talked about bees, wrote about bees, and even acquired two new “mentees.” During this whirlwind adventure, I put my hands on things and I tried different things, with different hive set-ups, 8-frame, or 10-frame… and I watched the affects. I was using my smartphone to beam my hive inspections into spreadsheets to form a rudimentary basis for future decisions and maneuvering. If it sounds like a lot of work, it wasn’t… for a computer guy, but my information is still scattered at best. In all cases, I made my best decisions and moved on.

Flying through hives of my own, and those of four mentees, I got a good fill, saw a lot of situations, and offered my “best” decisions to help people on things.

I be sure to remind my new beekeepers… “my instruction is my opinion, based on all I know about bees. Since learning about bees takes a lifetime, I surely don’t know the half of it, so take my advice with salt and make your own best decisions in the end.” I can offer tips, suggestions and quite a few funny stories. During this process, everyone learns something… and sometimes, they even learn what not to do. It’s real-world beekeeping happening here in the corn belt.

On particularly challenging “stumpers,” I call some mentors higher up the chain. In my darkest hour… doing my best at things and seeing the worst, it’s enough to send a man back to school to delve in to some of that book work again! A wave of deadouts made it obvious to me, but this time, it’s a mystery and a darn big one too. Somewhere, somehow, I missed something, but what? Several of my hives had very low populations at last check and I was concerned about them going into the winter. I battled beetles and suffered waves of dead bees in front of the hives earlier in the season. It’s easy to blame arbitrary possibilities, but instead, I have been doing my homework on these hives since they were three-year colonies, and a significant loss. I even sent some samples to the Beltsville Bee Lab.

This last Sat., Feb. 9, I took a ride with Jimmy O, Garry and Jim Farmer… the three gentlemen who I credit mostly for teaching me anything important about bees. True mentors, that continuously offer an incredible spectrum of knowledge from different viewpoints and approaches. Every time I speak to one of them, I either learn something new… or question something I’ve been doing. These are the most useful experiences to a growing beekeeper. The true mentoring experience is alive and well here in SE Indiana.

Over a two-hour drive to Anderson, IN to attend the ISBA spring meeting, it was non-stop chatter talking about bees–my bees, their bees, bees in general, cool things about bees… and, those darn bees aren’t reading the same books we are. We arrived at our destination an hour early, and I’ll be darned, the one beekeeper I was looking forward to catching up with was there early too. Tim Ives, who is practicing all-natural techniques was ready to tell us all about it over breakfast. First, a little background on why I wanted to meet and talk to Tim.

My recent research preparing for SIBA’s January bee school lead me to Randy Oliver, a biologist and a beekeeper who lives in Grass Valley, California. I read his daily posts on the BEE-L list, and it was his articles on Vitellogenin (Vg)-rich “fat bees” that lead me to more reading on his site. More on fat bees in a moment. After meeting and talking to Tim Ives about fat bees, it became clear to me that Tim was already privy to this research and enjoying the full benefit of Vg-rich fat bees in his apiary. In addition to “fat bee” studies, Randy Oliver was also studying the effects of corn planting and neonicotinoids on bees. He states “When I’m trying to figure something out, I generally look for the most extreme examples.  So I downloaded figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service in order find out where in the U.S. that bees would be subjected to the most intense exposure to planting dust. I found that, incredibly, two out of every three square feet of soil in Iowa and Illinois is planted to either corn or soybeans! The vast majority of these two crops are planted with neonicotinoid-treated seed. Clearly, this would be ground zero for bee extinction.”

Apparently, in California, such a study would not be practical since there’s not nearly as much corn planting… nor the accompanying neonicotiniods as there are here in the corn belt. Randy ended up making a visit to the apiaries of Danny Slabaugh and Tim Ives and after meeting and talking to Danny and Tim, it seems Randy was surprised with what he found. He states…

“I can’t stop thinking about that annoying enigma—the successful beekeeping by Danny and Tim (and many others) in the midst of pesticide-laden fields of corn and soy. How could that be?”

Read Randy’s paper on these findings here. Once you’ve read it, you will have arrived at the same place I am and will also want an opportunity to talk to Tim Ives! Could there be a correlation between Vg-rich bees and and a tolerance to pesticides? What about that state of excellency we talk about where the hive “takes care of itself?” Tim’s beekeeping represents what many of us in SIBA strive to do. Talking to Tim, he describes to me that putting anything un-natural into bee hives will only compromise something else. Like anything else, the hive has an ideal ecosystem that it will thrive in. Tim doesn’t do any treatments to his hives (chemically, or naturally). He doesn’t feed sugar of any kind during any part of the year. He doesn’t use pollen substitutes of any kind nor does he do many inspections that include disrupting the brood chamber unless absolutely necessary. He does this right next to fields where the clothianidin, Poncho is being used, yet still manages to suffer minimal bee deaths as evidenced by incredibly strong hives. How?

Tim’s secret is “fat bees” and Randy explains fat bees best in this article. Briefly, fat bees are young/nurse bees that produce valuable Vitellogenin, or “Vg”. Vg has a high level of sugar, fat and protein and is manufactured only by nurse bees, then stored in the hypopharangeal gland in their head. Vg precursors provide the major “egg yolk proteins” that are a source of nutrients during early development of egg-laying vertebrates and invertebrates. What does this mean to us beekeepers? Quite simply, it’s the fountain of youth for your bees, it’s the “bee-knees” man! The nurse bees administer Vg to the queen, to regulate her egg-laying. They can tell her to speed up or slow down. They can administer Vg to mature adult bees (MABs) and extend their life! They can tell a forager that “we need more help in the hive” and pull a forager back in to become a hive bee again. In short, a hive rich with fat bees full of Vg, means a lot of things can start taking care of themselves… arguably, a better immunity to pesticides, a higher tolerance to mites and beetles, and a stronger precursor towards hygienics.

It still takes skill and effort to make hives full of fat bees. You are doing things, and not doing things with more intention. Tim’s hives have 3 deep boxes for brood chambers, and it’s common to have 10-18 frames of brood in its peak, and 10 and 12 supers on them during honey flows. He suggests that a minimum of three deeps is what is most natural for the bees. Consider a cut-out of a wall where the combs tend to be endless. Around now (late Feb. in our area) is when the average 2 hive body systems are on the verge of starvation, depending on the winter and level of food stores. 3 hive body systems, with enough stored honey are not facing starvation… and end up raising brood earlier. I saw this personally last Thurs (2/14) as I went through hives with Garry Reeves and saw his bees had already completed one brood cycle and were in to the second! We tipped up his candy board and saw a basketball-sized area of bees on the top frames. Tipping up the top hive body (#3, on top) showed a second basketball-sized area of bees on the top of box #2 in the middle. This suggests an already powerful cluster already in bee-manufacturing mode. I saw this in multiple 3 hive body systems of Garry’s.

So, what Tim says, and what I’ve seen at Garry’s, by having plenty of honey stores upon arriving at that critical time when the bees need it, you bolster an environment that gives you at least one brood cycle (maybe two) before the first major honey flow.

In Tim’s area, March 11 on average, pollen starts coming in. He says a typical 2 hive body system will start laying at this time and over the next 2 brood cycles (21 days) a 2 hive body system will average 12 frames of brood, but a 3 hive body system will average 18 since it incurred an earlier cycle. That’s 50% more brood in the 3 hive body system and by the end of April, a 3 hive body system can have 300% more bees versus a 2 hive body system. Of course… this is also requiring a healthy queen that is properly nourished and in her zone… laying approx. 2000-3000 eggs per day.

Now many of us question the difference of forage from area to area. While that certainly is true, consider the following. Tim says that most of the older beekeepers up his way would say their major flow doesn’t start till June (clover and alfalfa). Tim disagrees and suggests that their foraging force might not yet be strong enough, early enough to get the forage that is available sooner. A maximum foraging force will collect maximum forage. In my personal beekeeping style, my spring management has always been squarely focused on maximizing egg-laying before the  locust bloom. Then, there’s the weather variable which we’ll save for another discussion.

Tim provided me the rough/average timing for the forage in his area (North of the SIBA area) and keep in mind ours will be slightly ahead of his, and doesn’t include some forage, like the mint bloom. It’s important to watch for the signs and become familiar with what is coming in and when in your immediate area. You’ll be better equipped to understand what it means for your hives and what decisions you may need to make to accommodate.

Approx. bloom schedule near North Liberty, IN.

  • March 11, maple/willows
  • April, vast acreage of hensbit and purple deadnettle until the corn and beans are planted.
  • End of April, apple/various fruit trees and dandelions
  • May 20th, black locust, blackberries, and tulip popular shortly after.
  • Mid-June, clover and alfalfa
  • End of June, basswood
  • beginning July, catalpa
  • Mid-July, vast acreage of mint fields (St Joseph county is one of the largest mint producers in the nation)
  • End of July/First of Aug., soybean 
  • Mid-August, derth until goldenrod blooms end of August
  • Sept, various asters

To try and bring this around and summarize things, I offer you my “current” opinion. Within the corn belt, during a typical winter, we better have packed up a good, strong cluster of bees for overwintering and also make sure mites and beetles are in check.

Optimally, this strong cluster of bees will be comprised of young, nurse bees, “fat” bees. It takes getting that queen laying eggs as late in to the season as possible so that those fat bees are there… versus older MAB’s that only eat the resources and die prematurely… leaving the queen unprotected.

All our efforts over the summer should lead to disease and pest-free, strong hives at winterization. Opinions and techniques vary among all of us here. It takes, preventing swarms, watching your bottom boards, identifying pests… and dealing with them (naturally or chemically is another belief that varies among all of us). Of course ventilation, food stores and other cold weather preparations are important too… but (more and more) futile in the corn belt if you have a pest problem or old bees heading into winter.

At SIBA, we respect each others methods of beekeeping… accepting the fact that some use chemicals, or feed artificial supplements. We all strive for LIVE bees and care for them just as much as the other.

As a chemical-free beekeeper, my goal in this article, was to highlight natural beekeeping that is working… here, in the corn belt, where we’re known as “ground zero for bee extinction.” Beekeeping that is easier on the pocketbook… not needing to buy feed and medications. It’s working for people like Tim Ives who has minimized his actions with his bees to grow a colony of bees that tolerate an extreme environment and turn the heads of notable research authorities like Randy Oliver. It’s the style of beekeeping that will be my focus for the 2013 season.

This is a lot to digest, I know… and I hope to report back over the coming season with thoughts, advice and opinions about making and managing fat bees. I hope you’ll stop back. For now, I leave you with another great read from Randy Oliver… “Rules for Successful Beekeeping” and I wish everyone a successful 2013 season.