Animal Husbandry – Understanding Vigor

2012-09-27 Bee White Asters and Entrance Reducers 38 1211Being a TREATMENT-FREE / NON-FEEDING beekeeper is EASY when everything is going well. The gut-check comes when pests show up, weather conditions are poor, stores are low, or it’s apparent that something just isn’t right in one or more of your hives. I have seen this a lot in Facebook groups and e-mails over the years. It normally goes something like this: “I know you are treatment-free, but how do you TREAT <insert bee malady>?”

Beekeepers, particularly new ones, are always worried about their bees dying on them.  Oftentimes their worry leads them down the path of treatments.  I discussed this in Fear-Based Beekeeping.  Your anxiety can be alleviated by remembering one simple thing…. Nature’s got this $%^& covered! It doesn’t mean your bees won’t die at times.  It just means it’s NOT the end of the world.  You’re a human you were MADE to do this!

Snow-melt on top of un-insulated hives = Vigor

Snow-melt on top of un-insulated hives

TAKE A BREATH!  I advocate catching more LOCAL swarms than you plan on having for production, hiving them, and investing little else until they have proven themselves over the first Winter.  This one method solves a lot of my beekeeping problems.  Learning to assess vigor passively will help you to make sound animal husbandry decisions, free up time, and sleep at night instead of worrying.  

New beekeepers work against a VERY steep learning curve. Many aspects of beekeeping were not apparent to me until I’d been doing this for several years and frankly, I still make observations all the time I do not fully understand.  That’s what makes beekeeping so fascinating!  My first realization was that all colonies are NOT created equal! (SEE How it all began…..) Different colonies will display different behavioral traits because each colony IS AN INDIVIDUAL. When trying to explain this to NON-beekeepers I compare it to having employees. You never know how a new employee is going to work out on their first day. That is determined over time, and under ideal conditions, if it’s not going to work out, the employee realizes it and goes somewhere else. So it goes with bees in my operation.

My goal is to capture bees from good locations and allow colonies to prove themselves without sinking large amounts of time or capital in them. Assessing the vigor of individual colonies helps me predict which colonies will prove out, and make decisions on the best locations for traps to be located.  It’s not good for business to continue hiving LOW-VIGOR bees.  

charles-darwin-quotes 640Darwin observed that variation exists among individuals within a species. This is why many beekeepers are instructed to get more than 1 hive when they are staring out. It’s sound advice.  The normal rule-of-thumb is to start with 2 hives. I say… a more sustainable goal would be to begin with 3 colonies (or 5). This allows you to observe a broader distribution of activity-levels and absorb losses that are just a part of animal husbandry. If you only want 2 colonies to produce honey, keep FIVE and only super the best TWO. Allow the other 3 to exist unmolested in your bee yard. If they swarm… AGAIN take a breath, you’re doing your part to make sure the Feral Reserve of bees is maintained.Good for YOU and for bees!  Don’t let anyone tell you it’s irresponsible beekeeping.  



After you have had bees a while it is easy to spot a laggard especially when other colonies are in close proximity. If a bloom is occurring all colonies in the area should be working the same plants. Variations in vigor among colonies during bloom correlate amazingly well with winter-survival in my operation. What do you do with a laggard? Allow each colony to sort it out. Make records of where that colony came from and question sourcing bees from there again.  If a colony requires more in inputs than what it’s going to produce it is best to let it go the way of the DODO. This sounds harsh, but subconsciously you know this is true!  The Super-Bowl is NOT WON by the worst performing team in the NFL.  No one is gonna pay to see that!  To be successful you need winners!  Poor competitors get CUT.

Darwin was also aware that there are always WAY more offspring produced in any environment than can be supported, thus NOT ALL OFFSPRING CAN SURVIVE to reproduce. This is a major source of misconception for new beekeepers. It is illogical to have ONE or even TWO beehives and be reasonably assured of beekeeping success. Some hives MUST die. Let your employees (bees) figure out which colonies will be staying on for next year. Give your bees the freedom to focus on bee stuff so you can focus on the human aspects of beekeeping, building MORE woodenware and finding new places to trap bees.

Above is a video that shows a difference in vigor. These 2 colonies were trapped in the summer of 2015. They came from 2 different locations. The one on the LEFT, 1512, comes from a location that has been somewhat of a let-down. I have been catching bees from there since 2011, yet I have NO EXTANT PRODUCTION COLONIES from that location.   (So why do I keep trapping there?  It won’t happen in 2016)  The colony on the RIGHT 1514 on the other hand came from the same location as 1210 (The 10th colony trapped in 2012). 1210 has proven itself as a productive colony that is very hardy. Never treated.. never fed… Both 1210 and 1514 display a characteristic level of vigor that is noticeably different than colonies sourced from the 1512 location.

1512 comes from a location near me populated by a lot of Amish. Despite the marketing, the Amish in my area, 1) purchase package bees, 2) feed their bees sugar, 3) and use treatments. They may not use belts or zippers, but Amish beekeepers (here) utilize the typical playbook of modern beekeeping practices! I am becoming more and more convinced that the bees I catch from there are coming from Amish-kept hives. These bees are of little value to my operation. 1210 and 1514 come from a spot that is nothing but HARD CORE MONO-CROP AGRICULTURE. The trap hosts have lived on that farm for many years and know their neighbors. They are UNAWARE of anyone keeping bees near them, but they do know of several locations within 2 miles where bee trees are located as well as a barn, about a mile away, that has had an active colony in it for 20+ years.  That’s what I listen for when prospecting for SPOTS.  

Winter sign of Vigor

Winter sign of Vigor

So why am I telling you all of this? Be thinking of ways to assess vigor in your hives THROUGH OUTSIDE OBSERVATION.  Look for differences between hives, then see observe outcomes.  If you find VIGOR you will find colonies that overwinter and are productive. Colonies that lack vigor are a drain and are probably destined for failure so be careful where you source your bees and do not invest inputs into laggards! Within any species competition exists among individuals so be at peace knowing that in competition there are going to be losers.  Sound observation, sourcing bees from good locations, good decisions, and some hard work will make your beekeeping efforts successful.  A keen eye for vigor will make your colonies All-Star performers and their descendants as well.  

What do you think?
Do you have questions on how to assess vigor?  

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This one goes out to Bob!  I promise I haven’t been goofing off.  🙂  I will have another post up soon!

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2 Responses to Animal Husbandry – Understanding Vigor

  1. Jeff says:

    Great post! The little bit of feeding I did this past summer convinced me that I don’t want to ever do that again. It takes a lot of time and money. I really like the philosophy of catch swarms every year, hive them and let the strongest survive.

    • Jason says:

      I say let mother nature make your selections for you. I have been avoiding talking about permaculture in beekeeping since I have no accreditations, but it just goes right into the idea of setting up systems that can exist after I’m long gone. I’m gonna have to look at my notes and post something….

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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