Bees do better in winter if they have cold hives.
The sentence above is the essence of this writing. It is a paradox and, for many beekeepers, hard to believe. The disbelief comes from our personal human understanding: cold is unpleasant and sometimes deadly.
Although I have read quite a lot scientific studies about bees and beekeeping, I have not come across an explanation what phenomenon is behind this fact, but to verify my claim I have two sources:
- Experience of Brother Adam, which he described in his book ”Meine Betriebsweise” (”Bee-keeping at Buckfast Abbey” in English)
Both studies have the same outcome: bees are in better shape in spring, if they have experienced cold environment instead of warm.
I cannot give you a link to Brother Adams text, and therefore I must here translate his writing:
In pages 54-55 he explains the experiment made with Buckfast Abbey beehives.The inspiration to these test come from USA: Dr Phillip and G. Demuth had promoted for decades a very careful packing hives in groups of 4 hives. The hives were set side by side with several inches of insulation in the bottom, sides and top. Brother Adam made two exact copies of this kind of packages. Eight hives all together. The result was that the bees came out perfectly dry and in very good condition through the winter, but in spring they developed not so well as the hives without insulation. He made another experiment in the next winter, and once more a third similar experiment, all with same results.
Then he summarizes:
“These experiments confirm that cold wintering has a positive effect in spring development, and excessive insulation has the opposite effect. This phenomenon can probably be explained with the effects on bee physiology, but which exactly, is not known. I think the bees do not enter in wintering mode in too well insulated hives. The winter cluster is not formed, and therefore the eager and rush to develop is missing when the spring comes. We however think that protection against wind is necessary. Adding insulation is beneficial in spring, March and April, but otherwise our hives have no or very little insulation. The honeybee is a child of the sun, but one which prospers without pampering.”
Beehives in Buckfast monastery were made of 13 mm (!!!) timber.
Wintering in Finland
I have constructed my hives inspired by the books of Brother Adam, the major difference is that I use only one frame size, shallow honey frame in brood boxes too. This same structure is used by Erik Österlund in Sweden too. There are in winter two entrances, the bottom is open front and back, both 1,6 cm x 44,8 cm.
The pictures above and below are taken just to demonstrate the structure, no bees were harmed… The bottom has a detachable rim in the back. In wintering set up this rim is removed and queen excluder is put between bottom and the 5 cm yellow ”expansion space” above it. The summer time landing board is transformed/turned into a ”snow stopper”. Green house plastic and 5 cm polyurethane sheet on top. The 5 cm ”expansion space” is for air circulation and space to raise drone brood as much as each hive is capable. Notice the hive number plate in the corner!
Our winter conditions can wary very much, sometimes one(1) meter snow sometimes nearly nothing, temperature sometimes weeks -25 C, sometimes around zero most of the winter months. This hive structure ensures air circulation and moisture removal in all conditions. No matter how many dead bees end up in the bottom, air is going through the 50 cm x 50 cm queen excluder. Tar paper is to protect against winds (Brother Adams advise!), plus when sun is raising higher it gives warmth for spring development. All frames and bottom corners remain free of mold. Food consumption is about 1-1,5 kg/ winter month (October-March), after that brood rearing is of course making the consumption bigger.
When cleansing flight days come closer, the summer set up is restored: queen excluder is removed and with it 95 % of all debris and dead bees. (No other cleaning of bottoms is done.) Landing board is turned open. The detachable rim of the bottom is put back to close the rear entrance. In late April when brood rearing is really getting gears after willow blooming start the front entrance is reduced with styrofoam strip to about 5 cm.
Winter bee physiology
Heaps of studies can be found about winter bees and their physiology. The process of summer bees turning into winter bees is very well known: Lack of pollen slowly shuts down brood rearing and the remaining bees can concentrate in building their fat body.
Here is one:
Riikka Elverson from BHP Queens https://bhpqueens.co.uk paid a visit to Ulla and me.
Riikka was born in Finland, but life took her to Sweden and eventually England where she met her husband Tim. After learning beekeeping for a few years alongside Ged Marshall, who is a well known bee farmer in UK and a founder of British Honey Producers, Riikka and Tim took over Ged’s queen producing business in 2020.
We had a nice cup of coffee and conversation about bees and beekeeping. Riikka and Tim get their breeding material from Keld Brandstrup in Denmark, who has been providing their business with queen breeders and drone mothers for a long time. BHP Queens sell about 1800 queens annually to beekeepers in the UK.
Riikka wanter to learn more about breeding varroa resistance. They use Apivar strips (Amitraz) for varroa control as do most commercial beekeepers in the UK. She was a bit surprised when I said Amitraz has been banned in Finland for decades. Everything works fine, mites are under control, but what about if one day Apivar does not work anymore? We discussed the benefits and challenges treatment free beekeeping brings.
Now that England is not part of EU any longer it is going to be more difficult to import almost anything, including new bee material. As a major producer they need all the paper work to be done properly according to regulations. Including semen could be one new possibility.
Here are some of her questions and my answers:
R: Varroa resistant bees, do they make less honey?
J: Probably yes, but how much less? With a small hive number fighting against inbreeding is taking its toll, but just one crossing with unrelated bees can create enormous hybrid vigour and great honey gathering potential. ( One guess could be 20-30%, although Randy Oliver says that his resistant colonies are often the best in their yards. )
R: How do you select your breeder queens?
J: In recent years it has been astonishing how often a breeder must be selected according to her pedigree. She might be the only representative of a certain crossing. Then of course, if there is the possibility to choose, the normal criteria, like honey production and gentle behaviour are considered.
R: How often do you visit your hives and go through them?
J: Buckfast is very slow to swarm, that is why I normally just make quick inspections and add boxes if needed. Going through the whole hive is very rare.
Couple hours went fast and if it weren’t such a rainy day, we could have seen more bees or even worked with them. Taking of feeders for instance. She had some last feeding yet to be done back in England.
In my most popular blog writing “Genes and Races” I outline the possible dangers of bee breeding if, and when, all breeding aims to similar goals.
In a situation when all bee races around the world are bred to maximise honey production and to make beekeepers work easier, it forms a threat to genetic versatility. Bee races become uniform little by little.
Block hives could be one solution to fight this threat.
Our National Epic “Kalevala” has stories of bees and beekeeping and healing with honey. These stories are ancient, they date back thousands of years to the time when we Finns were living in a warmer climate somewhere where honeybees existed naturally. That place might have been near Volga river in Russia or in Belarus. In these regions there are free living wild bees, in Finland there are no wild bees. Finns among other people living there took advantage of wild bees by collecting honey. Climbing in trees was hard work and the next step were block hives; beehives cut out of a tree trunk and replaced near home.
Today block hive beekeeping has become trendy. It is part of the beekeeping and gardening boom when people search more ecological and self-sufficient ways to live.
However, commercial beekeeping has got some hits in media lately: In one article for instance the author said, “having more honeybee hives to save the planet (by pollination etc.) is like having more chicken to save the birds”. People understand now better that honeybees can be a threat to wild pollinators.
(For instance Thomson 2016)
Bees living in block hives resemble bees living in nature. Swarming is a necessity because of limited space. Suppressing the inclination to swarm is unnatural but luckily when bees are left alone the willingness to swarm comes back quickly. But how many genes were and are lost in the very hard one-sided breeding, not to mention the unnatural limitations of race breeding?
In block hives more drones are raised. Cutting drone brood when fighting against varroa mite is a big problem. The massive package bee production industry favours very large brood areas. This kind of bees make unnaturally large hives. All in all: Thriftiness and the ability to survive becomes the major driving force of evolution in block hive beekeeping, instead of big honey crop, gentleness, and low swarming.
When designing my own block hive I had couple starting points:
- the size of fallen (by wind) trees found in a typical Finnish forest
- the practicality of the modern beehive should not be abandoned (weight of hive parts <30 kg)
- bees must be able to build wild comb, but changing queen should be possible
- chainsaw blade length 13 inches is the most typical in Finland
Kalevala and bees (in Finnish Language):
Opening picture by Arvid Lundén
My friendship with Toivo Koskinen in Savitaipale started somewhere around 1995 when he made an extractor for me, and later a wax melting device too. (Yes, it is the one I have presented in this blog.)
Toivo has treated varroa with one time oxalic acid dropping in late fall. That is too little for most bees. He is one of those few individual hobby beekeepers who has invested in my inseminated breeder queens. Toivo has been co-operating with my breeding work for a long time: He was one of those beekeepers year 2009 who received queens when I posted 50 queens to various beekeepers in Finland and Europe to test their varroa resistance.
Now to the point: Last winter Toivo had 21 hives in three bee yards. 18 of them died because of varroa and late honeydew crop. The only survivor in each of these three yards was a dauhgter queen of Lundén Resistant breeder queen. One of them is in the picture above, two boxes of honey already extracted. Toivo has 6 beeyards altogether.
Toivo makes all his equipment himself, except frames and queen excluders. He is a retired professional metal worker and for the most of his carrier he was building factories to the Finnish forest industry.
Toivo belongs to a big generation of Finns who admire almost everything which is American or made in US. After the second world war, when we had fought a common war with Germany but survived the attack of Soviet Union, the Finns turned more to West, in our minds. The official Finland was very much ”friends” with ours eastern neighbor during the cold war years. Toivo can tell you dates of battles in the Pacific Ocean, and the only proper motorcycle is Indian.
Toivo is a long time reader of American Beejournal. He has picked up English by reading, in school he learned only German. In the picture above you can see his way to mark queens: ”Born new Q(ueen), Lunden D(aughter).”
We made a very nice boat trip to nearby Kuolimo lake. In the end of my visit we went to see a memorial of war between Sweden and Russia.
I love my queens, all of them. Selling them is a pain. Witnessing them die during transport or by mishandling is a nightmare.
These are the facts how I came up with the idea of renting queens. The formula is simple: you can rent a queen and her Mini-Plus hive for two months for less than half of the queen’s selling price.
- The varroa resistance genes are spread to new customers
- The risk to lose the queen in setting into a new hive is gone
- The diversity of my stock does not diminish
- I get my darling back in July
This is the third summer and I am actually amazed how this concept seems to gain increasing interest. Amazed because the hive must be collected and returned to me by the renter. And with these diesel/gasoline prices that aint cheap. But… this might actually be part of the secret. When you get a queen in a cage by post, the breeder remains a mystery and unknown mostly. When the beekeeper comes to me and my bees, it is all there for them to see. We open several hives, I ask their breeding preferences, if some quality of bees is specially important, and then the customer makes the decision which queen he/she wants to have.
Treatment free beekeeping is not what these beekeepers are aiming at. They need better varroa resistance. Like John Kefuss has said: his customers are not leaving treatments, they just need new tools to fight varroa.
Pictures below: Mikko Myllykoski, Markus Ruusunen, Jussi Taipale and Esa Pesonen with their new hives.
Different methods to grasp a problem lead to different solutions. The same applies to honeybee disease resistance, too. Here are some thoughts about my solution, a story of one leading principle: less work.
Long before 1999, when I laid down the main scheme of my varroa resistance breeding program, I had skipped many advice of beekeeping books.
Do you think cleaning bottom boards after winter is necessary? Well, I don´t. So I skipped it.
Do you think washing equipment with disinfection after AFB outbreak is necessary? Well, I don´t. So I skipped it.
Do you think feeding pollen patties stimulates colonies for better results? Well, I don´t. So I skipped it.
Luckily, I had come up with Buckfast bees in the early 1990s. So I had skipped looking for queen cells in swarming period. Below a picture of the Finnish beekeepers visit to Austria and Hungary. Translating Horst Preissl was an honor.
Luckily, I had worked for a professional beekeeper in New Zealand 1987-1988. The main lesson: do not open all hives, look into one average hive and decide. The weak ones may need care too.
Successful beekeeping needs three things: perfection of queens, plenty of stores and good pastures. (In cold climate we need to ad moisture removing hive structure in the list of must-haves.) Anything else is vein, bees do better without you. What is left, what is my way? Putting up boxes, queen rearing, making nucs, inseminating, honey harvesting and feeding for winter.
Looking from this perspective, it was clear, that when varroa came to my hives 1996 I knew I would not use varroa treatments for the rest of my life. I wanted less work. But I realized that varroa would be a tough one: I had to lay down a plan how to get rid of varroa treatments. I had enough education and beekeeping skills to realize that hasty decisions would lead to catastrophe.
September 1999 varroa resistance breeding program was in short:
- small nucleus colonies were left without treatments right away (2001)
- normal colony treatments were slowly reduced to zero (years 2001-2008)
- controlled mating with best drone lines for all queens (isolation mating yards 2001-2014, insemination 2017- )
- honey crop is the measure of success
How could I know this would be successful? I didn´t. I was prepared to lose everything, and that was all right too, because it would lead to less work.
DID IT ALL SUCCEED LIKE PLANNED WITH ONE MAIN PRINCIPLE: LESS WORK?
Yes and no. The principle works, but what I didn´t understand was that this decision to skip varroa treatments, and more so my stubbornness to stick to it, would create me more work and worries than ever before during the hard years 2006-2016.
The next step in ”the journey of less work” is to skip insemination. But for that I need all beekeepers in Finland to join me. Modifying the words of Bob Dylan: The answer my friend is flying in the wind, the answer is flying in the wind.
It is amazing how fast bees gather pollen. All they need is 3-4 days warm days in the full willow blooming and their stores are filled until summer arrives. Below a queen less colony is united with a queen right with newspaper method.
Juhani Lundén, Instagram juhanilunden, ask to join!
Last Buckfastimker magazine had many interesting stories. One particularly.
Victor and Paul Jungels wrote about their VSH breeding.
Their key message was: “Only 29 of our honey producing hives had so many mites that they had to be treated. The rest, 201 hives, had so few mites that no treatments were made. “
Paul Jungels is reaching treatment free beekeeping with his Integrated Pest Management and VSH and SMR breeding. One drone insemination and rigorous mite counting has been crucials part of the program for over a decade now.
In case you are not familiar with VSH and SMR breeding if is difficult to emphasize how much work there is:
- One drone insemination, 67 last summer
- Making nucs for these queens
- Deliberately infesting these nucs with 150 varroa mites (mites are collected with powder sugar from heavily infested bees and thereafter washed clean)
- Counting VSH factor for each single-drone inseminated queen, this means:
- opening hundreds and hundreds of cells under microscope and determining each cell individually: mites or not, offspring or not, making notes of each cell
This all must be done every year, with a very precise timetable, rain or shine.
Would you be able? If yes, I raise my hat. You are a hardworking man.
If no, then maybe you are like Terje and I.
Terje Reinertsen says he has almost never counted mites. I have counted mites in my breeding work, but my counting has been absolutely nothing compared to what Jungels, father and son, and other beekeepers in their co-operating VSH breeding group make every year.
My self and Terje Reinertsen have reached treatment free beekeeping in much less time. Terje even claims that with very little losses of hives. Astonishing, but I cannot say he is lying.
Bond breeding or VSH breeding?
The best result is achieved when many ways of varroa resistance breeding are used.
Some should follow Jungels and Bavarian Buckfast breeders’ path and start new VSH breeding programs.
Some should continue the work of Erik Österlund and do it with Integrated Pest Management and mite counting.
Some should continue the work of John Kefuss, Terje Reinertsen and myself, and start new Bond breeding programs. We pioneers have smoothed this path considerably.
Norwegian court has decided that breeding of two dog races is not allowed. Starting from today it is against the law to breed English bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
General manager of Animal Protection Norway Åshild Roaldset says ”This is a historic verdict that attracts international attention.”
This is one incident, but has larger perspective.
As a general rule one can almost say that race breeding is unnatural. This is because, and I have said this before, race is a definition of man. Race, as a definition, is made to serve the need to categorize things, make order. Race should not be taken as an order.
Malus sieversi is an ancient ancestor of apple, which grows in Kazakhstan as wild forests. During centuries it has spread along travellers and tradesmen all over the world. Eventually it has been transformed to thousands of apple varieties.
In the original Kazakhstan sieversi forests apple scab is not a problem. Sieversi trees resist scab.
Today 10 major apple varieties demand 25 sprays to keep it protected from insects, diseases and fungi like apple scap. Venturia inaequalis is an ascomycete fungus that causes the apple scab disease.
American scientist Fred Huff (source ?) discovered the gene which causes some apples to resist scab. This happened in the 1950s. The gene for resistance was found in Malus floribunda: when Huff crossed it with normal apples, half of the offspring were resistant to apple scab. Perfect Mendel law result. But: Malus floribunda makes very small apples and therefore more breeding work was required.
A French scientist François Laurens received Huffs breeding work 1970s and began breeding work with these floribunda crossings. 30 years and 7 generations later 2002 a new variety named Ariane was published. It was resistant to scab, and big and sweet, just like we like to eat them.
Laurens and his group have been studying apple scab in French National Institute for Agriculture. They point out the thread what the gene flow from domesticated apples poses on wild apple trees.
The resistance work in France inspired people at Cornell University to start something similar.
Aimak Dzangaliev was a legendary apple scientist in Kazakhstan. Starting In 1989 Professor Herbert Aldwinckle in Cornell arranged 4 trips to Kazakhstan to meet Dzangaliev and study the Malus sieversi forests. Philip Forsline was one of the scientists participating. They brought back home vast amount of apple seeds and stems. About 2000 trees have been growing since then in Cornell University gardens. Some of them are totally resistant to apple scab, some less. The Cornell University team has for instance started gene mapping and so far, found out 20 different genes involved in scab resistance.
The resistance gene has been bred out from domesticated apples in 2000 years apple breeding. Resistance was not a breeding goal, but instead crop, sweetness and other factors what consumers preferred.
This story of apple scap is so close to what we have in honeybees and varroa resistance. Hopefully we can learn something.
When reading the pages of Packagebee Europe it is very satisfying to see my name mentioned.
”For years we have been cooperating with the most committed breeders in this difficult search, among them our finnish friend Juhani Lunden.”
I am the only breeder mentioned by name.
Especially meaningful their statement becomes after these lines from the same post: ”In Europe there are hundreds of beekeepers who pretend to be selectors and they also have the title, but this does not mean that all of these have effectively achieved good results…We can proudly boast of having ”selected”, the best breeders, from which we go to reproduce queens, helping them in their selection with our feedback but also with custumers ones.”
But not selling them any breeder queens for numerous years, it raises the question how valid this kind of advertisement is? For me it is good, although zero income, but how about the average beekeeper wanting to try my stock?