Developing Locally Sustainable Apiaries

It's not news that our bees are under constant assault. Whether it's mites, beetles, foulbrood, chalkbrood, or other diseases, raising honey bees is more challenging than ever even for experienced beekeepers. Add on top of these challenges the unusually cold 2013-2014 winter in the Ohio River Valley, and our hive losses are exceeding fifty percent. However, with prices in our region for three pound bee packages and nucleous (nuc) colonies now exceeding $100 and $200, respectively, most of us cannot afford to continue spending money on replacement colonies from Georgia, Florida, or Texas every year or so as our hives generally don't generate enough honey to cover those costs. In short, we need to find a way for our operations to become self-sustaining.

Sustainability, quite simply, means that as individuals and as a group, ACABA members are able to raise our production hives and replace them internally with our own queens and nucs. Sustainability doesn't mean we're raising "organic" bees or that we're necessarily using special equipment in some unusual fashion. It means that we are attempting to break the cycle of buying bees from down South (especially those not acclimatized to our weather), setting them up, hoping they survive the winter, and then looking again to southern state bee suppliers to help us strengthen or replace our colonies.

Establishing self-supporting bee yards is based in no small part on the Sustainable Apiary lectures presented by Mike Palmer, owner of French Hill Apiaries in Vermont, and the writings of Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey. Over the past two decades, Mike has transformed his large apiary into a system where production hives are kept strong by nucs and careful manipulation of the bees' natural cycles during the season. As a result, his reported bee losses are far less than the national averages, and he can replace his bees from within their own populations in an evironment where long winters include three feet of snow and temperatures 20-degrees below zero.

In 2014, ACABA member Michael McAvoy will begin experimenting with the Palmerized Hive methods, building upon similar methods started by ACABA member Jack Cantrell in 2013. We will provide updates throughout the year as to how this experiment proceeds.