The pressures on pollinators from environmental degradation, unsustainable agricultural practices, pests and diseases all require innovative practices on the part of the modern beekeeper. At Odd Acres Apiary we use technology to help us sustain agricultural productivity on the one hand and the welfare of bees on the other. Every year the challenge grows to stay in business and keep our bees healthy.
Dr Thomas D. Seeley is a proponent of a beekeeping philosophy that encourages the husbandry of bees to be as close to their evolutionary circumstances as possible. This means that honeybees will produce less honey than if farmed using more industrial techniques, but – hopefully – honeybees will be less susceptible to pests and diseases and costs from colony losses and ongoing chemical treatments. The following are a collection of principles to which Odd Acres Apiary aspires to improve the welfare of bees in our managed colonies:
Work with bees that are adapted to your location.
Space your hives as widely as possible.
House your colonies in small hives.
Roughen the inner wall surfaces of your hives.
Use hives where the walls offer thick insulation.
Position hives high off the ground.
Allow colonies to maintain 10%-20% drone comb.
Minimise disruptions to nest structure.
Locate colonies in areas with diverse pollen sources.
We provide further details about how we implement these principles in the following sections.
Work With Bees that Are Adapted To Your Location
All of Odd Acres' bees are raised by us or acquired from suppliers and queen bee breeders in the southern regions of NSW. Our apiary queens are reared from our most highly performing colonies and mated with locally adapted drones in the surrounding areas. Sometimes this results in the odd undesirable trait such as a heightened degree of aggression (not often a concern given the remote location of our apiaries) or reduced honey production, but this is readily offset by the improved hardiness and vigour of the colony. We do not typically lose colonies over winter and are able to supply well adapted cool-climate bees important for early season pollination.
Space Your Hives As Widely As Possible
This principle is always a major challenge for commercial beekeepers. Limits of 30 colonies per apiary and spacing between our pallets within the apiary reduce competition for forage and puts some control over robbing behavior and drifting of bees. We disperse our apiaries to areas around Yass, Murrumbateman, Carwoola and Braidwood - down as far as the NSW South Coast. This dispersal provides some protection against transmissible diseases.
House Your Colonies in Small Hives
Generally we house our colonies in single brood boxes coupled with a single Ideal honey super for surplus honey storage - a guarantee to ensure our colonies have enough reserves to overwinter. This single brood box configuration more closely approximates the typical nest cavities encountered by bees in nature (about 30 - 40 litres in volume) and is of a size that can be maintained by a natural sized colony of bees (typically 10000-20000 individuals). Commercially this makes sense as a smaller hive is easier to manage with less disruption when undertaking brood inspections. The accompanying picture shows our typical single brood box configuration with its single Ideal super. The closest hive in this photo also has an additional brood box as we are in the process of splitting a strong hive.
Oh - and check out those bees washboarding!!!!!
Rough Inner Surfaces
With expanded polystyrene (EPS) hives, its difficult to roughen them as you might with timber hives. So we add an extra surface (a propolis mat) that provides the bees an opportunity to include more propolis around the brood nest. The lateral gaps between the propolis mats you see in the accompanying photo is to provide a path for the bees to get around the inside of the brood box.
Use Hives With Thick Walls
We use "BeeBox" expanded polystyrene (EPS) hives produced by Paradise Honey in Finland. The EPS walls ensure that there is very little heat loss and would be the equivalent of a wooden beehive with walls about 10cm thick! As you can see in the attached thermal image, only a tiny bit of heat enters or escapes the hive where the lifting handles are. To get an idea of the thickness and construction of an EPS hive, have a look at this video series on youtube.
Position Hives High Off the Ground
Most of us will have seen wild bee colonies living high up in tree hollows or maybe the roof-spaces or walls of a house. Hives that are very high of the ground are impractical for commercial beekeeping, but we try to find a compromise. We don't place our bees on the ground except when they are being transported for pollination services. In our apiaries we try to keep them at least 30-40cm off the ground. It also helps our aching backs....
Allow Colonies To Maintain Drone Brood
We don't regulate the drone proportion in our brood nest. The bees produce as many or as few drones as they feel they need to. Typically 20 percent of our brood frames will be drones. This is aided by the fact that we use very little foundation in the brood boxes (no more than 2-3 frames per box) giving the bees a lot of freedom in how they want to arrange the brood nest. Drones are important also from the perspective of local mating and likely improve the genetic stock in our area.
Minimise Disruption To The Brood Nest
We use innovative techniques and technology to minimize disruption within the brood nest. For example, one of the techniques we employ is the simple power of observation. Watching the hive entrance carefully can tell you a great deal about what is going on inside. We recommend reading "At the Hive Entrance" by Heinrich Storch which provides an example of the wealth of information available with this simple technique. Coupled with technology we only open the brood nest when we must or to do our two annual brood disease inspections as required under the Bee Biosecurity Code of Practice. In the accompanying image you can see how we have used a thermal camera to determine the size of a wintering colony without opening the hive. From experience we know that there are at least six frames of healthy brood and bees in this nine frame brood box. This coupled with internal sensors and hive scales greatly aids in understanding the health of a colony without disturbing it.
Opportunities for Diverse Forage
We keep our apiaries in locations where there are a diverse mix of rural land use and where farmers and landholders don't use pesticides and limit the use of herbicides. Our apiaries are located near small towns benefiting from diverse plants and gardens, on farms where modern farming practices encourage floral diversity, rural residential areas with lots of small acreages (10 - 50 hectares) and properties adjacent to state forests. If we keep the density of hives per apiary to about thirty, we find we don't have to move them due to competition among the colonies. Our apiaries are located across Southern NSW in locations such as Yass, Murrumbateman, Carwoola, Braidwood and the South Coast to make sure our bees have access to as much pesticide free forage as possible.