The Need for Experimentation

The first book I ever read about bees.

Even after growing up on a farm having experience with rabbits, cattle and hogs I was intimidated by the concept of keeping bees. I began by reading a couple of books and ordering some hive equipment. The books were from the 80’s and later.  They all laid out a similar plan for beekeeping which was very rigid.  It was not until I began reading older books (pre 1930) that I felt less apprehensive about beekeeping. Many of the old sources speak of several possible solutions for similar situations. The results of the experimentation of many different beekeepers over hundreds of years. It got me excited about this new endeavor.

Our current lack of experimentation is something that needs to change. For as much as we know about bees we are only scratching the surface. From my reading of bee forums it appears that most people only have a hive or two and therefore are too afraid to experiment for fear of losing their solitary hive.  You cannot let that stop you as long as you are experimenting within reason.

The top box is a Warre quilt box. (In spring it also transforms into a Swarm Trap)

For example there are many methods for overwintering bees.  I chose to experiment with quilt boxes similar to what Abbé Émile Warré used atop his hives.  I have been very pleased with the results.  I’ve written a little about the top entrances I’ve been experimenting with this spring. Those are only two of the many different trials going on around here.  How can we hope to improve the future for bees or our bee operations if we never try anything new?

The use of foundationless frames started out as an experiment.  I wanted to have 20-30  hives, but all that foundation really starts to add up when you consider each using three deeps.  That adds up to hundreds of dollars.  Not only is foundationless a cost savings, I also believe it is good to let bees build comb on their own.  That way they can construct the cell size they desire, just as they have done since the beginning of their species.  Swarm trapping?  OH YEAH, experiment.  Now it has become a way of life for me.  I didn’t’ come up with the idea, but I’m a true fan.

Some experiments will not work out the way you hope, but they are still valuable additions to your beekeeping knowledge.  I was near catatonic after seeing my first varroa mite.  I was unhappy with the available forms of treatment form the get go, but decided on sugar dusting as my method.  At the time I was still locked into the paradigm of, “If my bees have a problem — I need to deal with it because my bees are helpless”.   At the time I had 5 hives.  Three were sugar dusted, two were not. The next spring started and the hives that didn’t have sugar dusting fared about the same as the poor miserable sugar dusted girls.  Some would say that the experiment failed, because it did not show a difference….  I wouldn’t.   I just learned that I can expect similar mortality from both dusted and un-dusted hives.  So why put my girls through it?  If I was

Experiments only “fail” if the experimenter has a vested interest in the outcome.  It is only a test.  If the goal of your experiments is to make things better for your bees none of them can fail.  I had a great idea for this year.  Follower boards!!!  I have a vested interest in them working since I put the time into making them.  The hives using them aren’t having problems, but they sure are building a bunch of wacky comb on the sides of the follower boards.  I will continue to use them this year to see if they help with overwintering.  Though the boards have not worked out the way I had hoped they are still not a failure.  With a little design tweaking the boards may work better.  Experimenting can be humbling, because they know what they are going to do in a given situation and they will repeat results consistently.

Don’t get discouraged if you float your idea past another beekeeper and they say, “That’ll never work!”.  Swarm trapping and foundationless frame experimentation got that response from several crotchety-set in their ways-beekeepers.  You cannot lose heart.  If everything was known why are there countless documentaries and articles about vanishing bees?  There is still a lot of room for improvement in beekeeping.  Experimentation is the only way that this can happen.  So if you observe something you think you can improve upon EXPERIMENT!!!

Do you have anything you are experimenting with? Leave me a comment.

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6 Responses to The Need for Experimentation

  1. Randy says:

    Enjoyed this post. I’m experimenting with a top bar hive, not going really great, 6 weeks out the queen failed. I really like the ease of handling it though. Thanks for the lesson in sugar treatment, it is a lot of work, did you do 3-4 treatments on those hives?

    • Jason says:

      On the sugar it was three treatments, I think I did them roughly 7 days apart, but cannot remember. By the last session I was getting to the point I just didn’t want to do it anymore. They looked like thousands and thousands of small (white) wet dogs walking around. I know that chemically it probably is not harmful, and I just heard on the Beekeper’s Corner podcast that current studies think it is OK….. It just feels wrong to me. I think stress is a killer of bees, and it seems stressful to me.

      I did nothing for varroa in 2011 and things were just fine. That is the plan for 2012. Don’t worry you will get the straight answer if that was the wrong decision to make. You’ll want to read what I am cooking up for Friday. I would like to start a top bar hive someday. I need to get my current endeavors all mastered first…. hope I get there someday.

  2. Sam says:

    I did have 12 top bar hives, but my wintering rates were atrocious, something like 4 got through very small, I didn’t get much honey and they tended to swarm a lot, they did make a lot of bees though. I feel tbh has a very poor ventilation profile they tend to stay much to wet. This could all be from the particular design I was using though.

    I think that excessive uniformity is a very bad practice, you never learn anything and one threat can take down everyone.

    • Jason says:

      Very true on the uniformity. I think there is probably some things to learn with TBHs. I was sooooo close to starting out with them. I will build one some day. Just not yet. I have enough irons in the fire.

  3. Mil says:

    When I think about how we were when we first started keeping bees…it was like go with the conventional wisdom, rinse and repeat. I didn’t even really observe the bees. I was just tied to some chart or timetable or something.

    Taking Serge’s classes really turned me around as I can tell all the stuff he learned was from observing the bees. It was really different from the stuff I read. What I really liked what that he emphasized that his beekeeping was “for Sonoma County” and not a one size fits all beekeeping as a lot of these books try to make you think.

    What really made me sit up and notice that what Serge was teaching was really different was a disdainful comment from an employee from one of those big box beekeeping supply stores. Her rancor ran deep; it was amazing.

    Anyway, I remember that first year dusting the bees with powdered sugar. I didn’t even really look for mites. The folks that sold the hive to us just told us to do it. I learned not to do that ever again as the bees were MAD, and I don’t think it really helped.

    • Jason says:

      I am with you. On it making them mad. Sooner or later the bees must deal with them. I am giving them that chance now.

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