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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I am a beekeeper for over 40 years both in France and now Wales UK.
In France I kept bees in the Vosges Mountains in the local traditional skep way and then Layens hives (eventually with supers on top). In Wales my bees are in the Hafren Forest on the Cambrian Mountains in 14x12 British Nationals with shallow supers. The similarities? Neither locations are true mountains (but don't tell the locals!). The local bees? Very similar.
When Varroa hit us in France we had very bad losses, not just in the apiaries, but in the wild as well.
We had no choice when we were hit. There was no medication available. The bigger the hive, the worse the problems, so we went back to skeps, we increased the number of colonies we captured and removed as many stresses from the bees as possible. This seemed to work to the extent that we had far less losses than when the bees were in hives.
In the wild the bees recovered within 10 years or so and as we only took our bees from the forest, we found we survived at home as well.
We started keeping the bees in the skeps till they got to the 2nd year. This showed us which swarms would be worth keeping and once transferred was a better line that seemed to prolong the colony till at least a new queen was reared and the hive became what we called 'honey production'. With the addition of the supers on top of the Layens, we stopped interfering with the 'nest' and the bees did even better.
When treatment became available we gambled and we did not change. We found we did not need to.
So the process was: Capture swarm, house in skep for one winter, transfer to hive in 2nd year (bees kept in forest some way from production areas.).
In the end we had almost twice the number of hives than before varroa to collect the same amount of product. But this was of little consequence as the bees were free!
When we moved to the UK we were worried. 'No wild bees!' seemed to be the accepted belief. What could we do if this was the case? We did not want 'lost' swarms from people that had imported non-local bees. These would die as they had not survived in the wild and would at least require treatment and feeding.
So before we moved we set up skeps in trees in the Hafren Forest in Wales. VERY worried! We did not go back for 3 weeks as we were dreading the worst. But on our very first check of the skeps, we had bees! They looked so similar to the ones we were used to in France that we just knew they were not lost bees. These were local bees.
2 years later we started our production hives. All the while filling skeps for future expansion. This year we have 40+ collectors in the trees. I have no reason to think they will not be filled again.
Beeks I talk to have one question - what about swarms? My answer is the same - what about them? You can not prevent a colony in a tree from swarming, why attempt to stop it from a skep? Yes, I do 'tip checks' on hives and move QCs to keep numbers up, but never think I can change the nature of a bee! And without the brood breaks, varroa takes its toll.
Yes, each individual hive makes far less honey than a commercial, treating, swarm preventing operation BUT we spend NO money on replacing dead colonies, buying queens, packages, treatment, feeding etc. So for the same amount of product, you just need more hive boxes - the one thing that lasts a lifetime (unless you move country!). Financially we think we have something that works for us and certainly takes very little 'management' time.
In short, we have spent time building equipment, putting up swarm boxes and collecting product etc. But we have almost zero on-costs.
Many people seem to think that making money from bees is a hard thing to do. Maybe this is because they are spending money with one aim - getting large honey crops from each hive. This is akin to intensive farming of all kinds. You get to the stage where you have to support the animal with medication, feed and management to enable them to survive. Even with this 'support' (or because of it), many die and then people spend large amounts of money replacing them - no wonder there is little profit. We find that bees will survive without this input if left to their own devices and left to expand at their own rate.
Last thing for this long introduction. We make more actual money pound for pound from wax than honey, so the more hives we have the more wax. Also our wax is far more valuable when turned into something - candles being the lowest profit but a good outlet for anything not sold in other ways. I now own a cosmetics company that supplies high end fasion brands in Paris and London. This was started by my father-in-law, before I was even born. When he handed it over to me he said "just don't let the bees die". So far, so good!
 

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I would love to see some photos of your skeps etc. In my area, skeps are not legal, all hives must have removeable frames for inspection by the state.
 

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I found your post to be extremely interesting and would offer my considerations of your impressive program. One of the most important take away's is your reliance on wild (feral) swarms. In the US, according to the most recent reports that I have seen is that our winter losses, primarily due to Varroa, averaged almost 40% in managed hives and 90% in feral populations during the 2019-20 winter season (USDA). The paper I refer to goes further with feral losses in the second year are almost 100% with very few exceptions (I'm just the messenger here). In some cases, this was due to mismanagement (starvation) or weather (extremes) but we do have a differing set of circumstances over here. One has to keep in mind, our biggest difference is that honeybees are NOT native to the America's and were introduced in the 1600's by colonist. A more interesting point is that while almost 100% of European native agricultural vegetation (forage) is dependent on pollination from honeybees, in the America's that percentage is less than a third and traditionally were plants normally pollinated by our native bumbles and other insects. Our feral colonies are not native and will always be the results of swarms from managed colonies. I believe that a great part of our problem with survival rates is that here, the honeybee was industrialized very early on and specific genetic traits were bred out of our bees in favor of honey production and later, higher growth (population) rates to support a migratory pollinator industry (no disrespect toward commercial guys) in increase number of hives. I also feel that our commercial industry (say almonds) breed bees for short term gain utilizing small 6-8-10 frame migratory hives and higher losses are acceptable to them as can be witnessed to the post almond/blueberry/whatever fruit packaged bee sales after their flows. These small colonies were never allowed to develop into a full, large colony and long term, were weaker for it. Honey I would think is a secondary thought for large commercial operations (again, no disrespect from a hobbyist) as the farm gate barrel level price is actually quite low here. While someone here with 5 or 10 or 100 hives in a fixed location is focused on survivability, honey wax and other product sales to supplement their operations, the commercial guys are just cycling through a season to restart the following winter. Though these cycles we continue to breed inferior bees and when Varroa hit our shores in the 1990's (from what I've read) devastated an unprepared industry just ripe for a pathogen (think humans and COVID).
As the USDA and many dedicated apiarist and scientist, are developing better hygienic bees to deal with out various problems. I think long term, this is our best option however, it is difficult when only a small percentage of hives are stocked with these bees. Costs and other factor delay increasing our population and the continued use of inferior bees (apologies) in diluting these stock hampers its expansion. I am of the opinion that the current VSH genetic traits being (re)bred into these selective stocks are not recessive but rather genetic traits that were bred out of our bees by a 150 years of industrialization. While I don't think that were have your advantage of traditional historic stock, I think as small bee keeper we should be looking to re-introduce a more sustainable, less chemical reliant breed.

Sorry for my rant and apologies to everyone I've offended.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
I found your post to be extremely interesting and would offer my considerations of your impressive program. One of the most important take away's is your reliance on wild (feral) swarms. In the US, according to the most recent reports that I have seen is that our winter losses, primarily due to Varroa, averaged almost 40% in managed hives and 90% in feral populations during the 2019-20 winter season (USDA). The paper I refer to goes further with feral losses in the second year are almost 100% with very few exceptions (I'm just the messenger here). ..................
I am surprised by what you say about bees in the wild in the USA. From what I have read (Seeley, Life of Bees), he seemed to find that (as I have), bees in the wild recovered in numbers from pre-verroa to post-verroa without human intervention.
He talks about his studies here:
At 25min
1978 - 10 colonies (pre-verroa)
2002 - 8 colonies (post-verroa)
2011 - 9 colonies
I guess he is looking at a very special place in the wild; large forest. But that is what I have found in large forests as well.
At 34min he talks about something I have seem evedence of with my bees. Bees opening cells with mites in to keep the numbers down. I also suspect they maybe recapping cells that are OK.
I also think that propolis is very inportant to hive cleanliness. I don't use smooth hive wood. I use very rough timber on the inside. The bees will cover this with propolis. This does involve a bit of out of the book thinking with bee space (in practice I use a few layers of paper tape on the edges of frames in a new hive. Result, the bee space is reduced at about the same time as the propolis builds up).
And this is why the skeps are so successful. See the build up of propolis below:
62638
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
I would love to see some photos of your skeps etc. In my area, skeps are not legal, all hives must have removeable frames for inspection by the state.
I am sure they are not legal in many places. I would like to see the 'state' inspect the tree colonies (and mine for that matter - they would a. never find them and b. never know whose they were if they dod find them!) Unless I dropped myself in it by posing an image of them!!
 

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Financially we think we have something that works for us and certainly takes very little 'management' time.
EuroBee:

Welcome to Beesource- glad to read about your TF experience.

Your general ethos reminds me of something I heard as a part of one of the recent BIBBA presentations.

Specifically, Peter Jenkins was discussing Beowulf Cooper's concept that success might best be defined as, "the weight of honey produced per man hour of labour input."

It sounds as you have been able to successfully carry out this approach, and I for one look forward to reading more about your approach and methods.

Again, welcome to the forum.

Russ
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
EuroBee:

Welcome to Beesource- glad to read about your TF experience.

Your general ethos reminds me of something I heard as a part of one of the recent BIBBA presentations.

Specifically, Peter Jenkins was discussing Beowulf Cooper's concept that success might best be defined as, "the weight of honey produced per man hour of labour input."

It sounds as you have been able to successfully carry out this approach, and I for one look forward to reading more about your approach and methods.

Again, welcome to the forum.

Russ
He is a relatively local bee keeper to me. Very respected. Doesn't hold back about 'snake oil exotic bee sellers' etc.
TBH I think some companies see fellow beekeepers as their main income streem rather than the bees. And to do this, they have to be 'economical' with a few facts.
Ask a 30+ year bee keeper how much he spends on 200 colonies and I bet it is less than an under 5 year keeper with 5 hives.
 

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EuroBee:

I do hope you'll hang around and share your perspectives. We have a 'Treatment Free' sub-forum that would be an ideal venue for you to share your history, lessons learned, management, etc.

Again, welcome to the forum-

Russ
 
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