I (Tom) first started keeping bees when I was still just a kid. Beekeeping has been a part of my family for a long time. I am the fourth generation in my family to keep bees. My grandfather had bees in Europe and so did his father, my great grandfather.
In high school I kept bees to sell the honey for extra spending money– and simply out of my love and fascination for them.
Back then, wild colonies of bees could be found nesting in trees in the woods or in the walls of old buildings. I spent many seasons catching swarms to increase my number of colonies. I had an observation beehive in my bedroom (my parents were amazingly understanding). Some of my childhood friends thought I was a bit strange– but I didn’t care.
It was over 35 years ago that I first began keeping bees. Much has changed since then. The “good old days” of putting bees in boxes, forgetting about them until it was time to extract honey are long gone.
Mites came and colonies were devastated. In many areas, wild colonies of honeybees are rare or extinct. In the southern parts of the country, Africanized honey bees (AHB) arrived and have changed beekeeping and queen raising forever.
Like everyone else, at first I lost many colonies to Varroa. It was heart breaking. Treatments worked but only for a time until the mites became resistant.
“There must be a better way…” I thought.
We’ve been breeding our own bees from a cross of our own favorite NW Carniolan-Russian-VSH hives that are gentle, mite resistant and which overwinter well. I haven’t had to buy bees to replace losses now for years, though I still bring in new queens to test, to see if I’d like to add to our genetics and to avoid inbreeding.
We have an active mite surveillance program (mite roll and screened bottom boards). We use drone comb removal as our primary method of Varroa mite control. We monitor for damaged or “chewed” mites on the bottom board, and in 2016, we will also begin testing all of our breeder queens using liquid nitrogen killed brood (LNKB) for confirmation of hygienic behavior.
Although we are not yet 100% treatment-free (I don’t like to see bees die), we treat only minimally (ie once a year) and only when needed using organic acids or concentrated essential oil treatments- never with synthetic chemicals or miticides. We also actively monitor for Nosema, using microscopy for spore counts.
We overwinter 5-frame nucs to replace any losses, to test all new queens and to have extras to sell to local beekeepers. If a nuc has survived a fall and winter, you know that the queen and her offspring are definitely adapted to local conditions.
At a time when many beekeepers are losing 30% or more of their hives, we are proud to have averaged only 10% loss over the winter of our production hives. We would much rather take our winter losses during our new queens’ first year while they are still only in a 5-frame nuc- than the following year when they are in a full strength production hive.
I was trained in how to perform instrumental insemination of queen bees (from Dr Kaftanoglu at Arizona State University). Now we will have more control over the genetics of our breeder queens as well as the opportunity of collecting the semen from the drones of feral survivor colonies to use for insemination our virgin queens.
I also became the first and so far the only certified Master Beekeeper in South Dakota (University of Montana 2016).
Despite how long I ago it was that I started as a beekeeper, I look forward to continuing to learn new things every year.