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Beekeeping on the Fringe, with Ed & Dee Lusby

Bee Culture – January, 1998
Kim Flottum

Dee and Ed Lusby are fringe people. They live in Tucson, Arizona, but they keep bees in places most people wouldn’t; their management style works, but requires a lot of labor and attention; and they’ve taken on a biological puzzle that may or may not provide answers to a bunch of honey bee problems.

The Lusbys run a small commercial operation with about 250 colonies at the moment. . . . That rather low number is the result of strong culling, colony loss from mites, and a several-year significant drought.

“We used to run over 600 colonies, and if the weather breaks and our new management scheme (see below) works the way we think it will, we’ll be back to over 600 or 700 by the Fall of ’98,” Dee told me while we were bouncing down a washboard road heading to an isolated beeyard in the Kit Peak area outside Tucson. We’d gone down back roads, then back trails, through gates locked to keep out people not belonging on the King Ranch land we were on, and finally on wagon tracks and over riverbeds that only coyotes, lizards and honey bees could find.

The Lusbys produce honey, raise queens, and make splits in this by turns incredibly hostile and wonderfully abundant land. The extremes make or break anyone who takes on the natural order. The Lusbys, as stated above, live on this fringe.

Keeping bees in the Desert Southwest requires using a calendar different from the one followed by most beekeepers in the United States.

Early January is the beginning of the active time. By the end of the month, brooding up is in full swing, and comb whitening is taking place by the middle of February. When this starts, supers are added – the second or third brood chamber. For colonies with three supers, when the third is 50 percent full of brood, a piggyback split is made. So by the end of March, these strong colonies have been split, and by April, they have been requeened and separated to their own stand.

After April, all colonies are supered as needed. Beeyards are visited about once every three weeks, and supers are added all Summer. Colonies are evened out as needed during the Summer.

About the first of May, full honey supers are pulled to extract, but the flow is over by about mid-July. This dearth lasts until about mid-August in a good year, or early October in a bad year.

Supering starts again with the honey flow and continues until about Thanksgiving – supering, harvesting, and supering again. When the Fall flow is over, Fall divides are made, piggyback style, from the strongest colonies, and queens are raised from mid-October to about the first of December. From then until January, colonies are only maintained, and then the process starts all over.

Honey production in the area is modest by some standards, with, on average, 10 colonies producing a barrel of honey in a year. Drought years can mean that over 20 colonies are needed to produce that 600 plus pounds.

A piggyback split is made by separating the top box of a three-story colony (or a very strong two-story colony) with an excluder or division screen. Then the top is requeened, or the old queen is moved up and the bottom is requeened. Since a growing colony ‘tends’ to have a queen moving up, the queen is often in the top box – but not always. These splits are made about the middle of October and the middle of March, depending on the season, colony strength and honey flows.

Unlike the Hines operation (see article on page 33), Africanized Honey Bees seem not to have caused the management problems common to the region. Opening colonies in a couple of yards showed no apparent excessive defensiveness. Most were worked without veils. The Lusbys had no explanation for this, even considering the fact that the first yard we visited was alongside a mountain range that feral swarms followed north from Mexico into Arizona.

The Lusbys raise their own queens, and follow a fairly typical technique, though their selection criteria are unique to their operation and needs. Basically, they select breeder queens for honey production, no brace comb production, gentleness and ‘health.’

Once a breeder is selected, frames of day-old larvae are pulled and grafted into Kelley wax cell cups. “We use Kelleys because they tend to be smaller, about 5/16-inch rather than the larger 3/8-inch,” Dee said. “This ties in with our bee-size (see box) operation,” she added.

Cups are primed with royal jelly before grafting because of the arid climate, and grafts are done every three days. Bars containing 60 to 120 cells are moved into cell builders at the home yard right in town, then moved after four days into one of three incubators, which are in constant use during the season, to finish.

Finished queens emerge, and the virgins are captured in a bottle, the cell cup acting as the bottle top. Honey is added for food, and bottles are changed when soiled.

Queen selection begins by appearance only, even before introduction into a colony. In the first 12 hours after emergence, her color and banding appear. Size, too, is beginning to be obvious. The Lusbys select immediately for small, black queens, with long red legs and wings longer than the abdomen. “Average-sized queens tend to be more variable than the ones we select,” Ed pointed out, “and our experience has shown that those we choose at first tend to work best.”

Virgin queens are placed in mating nucs and open-mate with local drones – source pretty much unknown – which, it seems, has worked so far relative to progeny. But Tucson is pretty much Africanized, so this may change.

Once mated, new-queen nucs are evaluated for brood patterns before being introduced to a new colony. Half-moon patterns are not acceptable since the Lusbys want a wall-to-wall pattern, which produces more brood in a colony. “We need fast, fast buildup to react to a rapidly changing environment,” Dee says, “and the more brood the faster, the better.”

Once a queen is selected, she’s introduced to a colony. Introduction works like this: A colony, recently made queenless, or a split without a queen, is smoked at the bottom until smoke comes out the top. The queen is then direct-released into the center of the colony. Supers are lifted, and she’s popped out of her cage. Or, she’s released right on top. This technique results in an 80 to 90 percent take, which is enough, so far, for the operation.

Until mites came on the scene, this management program worked for the Lusbys. But mites, and the problems associated with them, changed all that. And, even though the techniques haven’t changed, the fundamentals of traditional management have been questioned by Dee and Ed, and found wanting.

The basic change in their philosophy has been the assumption made on the cell size of traditionally sold foundation. That, plus their ‘natural’ treatment extender patties (propolis, sugar and vegetable shortening), have set them on a path of their own choosing. Varroa, some disease and tracheal mites have taken a heavy toll on their stock. But those left are thriving, and queens selected from these are thriving, too.

Traditional management schedules and non-traditional equipment seem to be making a difference in this operation. No chemicals what-soever and selective breeding, along with some good luck with the weather, promise a bright future for the Lusbys and their on-the-fringe operation in the Desert Southwest.


NATURAL COMB

The Lusbys have, for several years, been investigating the ramifications of the cell size honey bees use. Their extensive research has turned up some interesting, and intriguing information.

Historically, man-made foundation started the same size as the size bees naturally produced. However, the cell size bees naturally produce is to some degree dependent on where in the world they are. Like many animals, those closer to the equator tend to be smaller than those closer to the poles. That is, honey bees in the southern U.S. naturally build cells a tiny bit smaller than bees in Canada. This discovery has complicated what is ‘natural,’ but not the fact that natural is still, well, natural.

Years ago beekeepers believed that larger bees would be better able to take advantage of flowers with the nectar deep within, normally out of reach of the bees’ tongues. Long tongues were selected for, and some advantages were gained. However, larger bees were deemed the answer to even longer tongues, and to produce larger bees foundation with slightly larger cell base size, hence slightly larger (eventual) cells. It was believed bigger was better. Well, maybe, maybe not.

The Lusby’s theorized that this larger cell size, and larger bee, produced an environmental stress on both individual bees, and the entire colony. Generally, colonies handle this subtle but persistent pressure with indiscernible outward signs. It is, however, difficult to measure because essentially all comb produced now is artificially large, at least to some degree.

Measuring cells produced by feral colonies in their part of Arizona, coupled with the results of their research led the Lusbys to initially produce foundation with a smaller-sized cell base on an experimental basis. Their first attempt was a cell base with a parallel-side-to-parallel-side measurement of 5.0 mm. (see diagram).

Since most foundation produced now is in the 5.22 mm to 5.55 mm range, reducing cell base size to 5.0, (a 4.3 – 10% reduction) seemed significant. But after a few trials the differences seemed minimal. Their time spent, however, continued to uncover more information supporting their belief that ‘natural’ cell size was better for bee stress reduction.

The 5.0 mm cell size did show promise, however. The Lusbys noted some reduction in parasite infestation and less incidence of disease. But not enough to be commercially economical, and colony losses continued.

It should be noted here that along with the inclusion of smaller cell-sized foundation in their management scheme, the Lusbys discontinued the use of all drugs, medications and acaricides, except a propolis, sugar and vegetable shortening combination in a patty. The early results were predictable – colony losses mounted, but not as rapidly as other, untreated colonies. Something was going on.

Further research indicated that, at their latitude, a cell size of 5.0 mm may have been 0.1 mm too large, and they found a cell size of 4.9 mm may be better. Precise measurements of feral comb supported the 4.9 mm size, so they began to search for a foundation mill to produce this size cell base. This wasn’t an easy task. Not only were current manufacturers not using mills that small, most were reluctant to make a switch without some hard evidence the cost would be worthwhile.

One did, however. Tom Industries, in El Cajon, CA agreed to make a few small-sized mills, for a price, to see if they worked.

Lusby’s make their foundation the old fashioned way, one sheet at a time. They dip a board in melted wax, let the wax cool and peel it off. One dip is enough. Then they run this through the hand powered mill. Result – eight sheets to the pound.

So far they’ve found that colonies on their new natural comb seem to swarm less (There is more space for brood – about 1250 more cells in a two-story chamber than using Duragilt.) and have fewer mites.

The few-mites thing, along with less disease incidence, has been aided by continual selection for tolerant colonies. But the two have worked. Independent sampling by USDA researchers have confirmed that, indeed, fewer mites than normal are present in these small-cell colonies.

So far the Lusbys have changed over most of their colonies. Their early observations indicate faster build up, healthier colonies and more honey production. But these are early results.

They are passionate in their belief that this management scheme is the answer to the stresses of desert beekeeping, both mites and whatever diseases their bees encounter. Others have changed, too, in their belief, but for the most part the jury is still out. Two, or better three seasons of continued success, without medications, will tell.

But for now, the Lusbys are busy switching from their old, too-big combs to the new, just-right foundation.