Monday, July 11, 2011

Starter Strips Versus Foundation

In a tradional box hive you have removable frames within which the bees build the honeycomb. They use the comb for every function of the hive including storing pollen, egg laying and brood rearing, and the creation of honey. Commercial and convential beekeeping has adopted the practice of placing sheets of wax, or foundation, into the frame. The foundation has an imprint of the hexagonal pattern of the comb, and the bees then "draw out" this comb with their own wax, thus completeing the comb. Most wax foundation has some sort of support built into it, such as cross-wires of some kind. Some foundation isn't even wax at all, but plastic.
The use of these types of foundation came about as an attempt to reducing the amount of "work" bees had to do building their own comb, and instead concentrate their energies into honey production. It's strictly a one-sided expression of human greed when it comes down to it. Allowing the bees to build their own comb is a critical componet to supporting the vitality and health of the bees. We aren't doing them any favors by taking shortcuts in our beekeeping.
By using starter strips instead of foundation we allow the bees to act out and fufill their natural insticts and tendicies. A start strip can be many things, including wax, but using a stick of some kind is the best. Coating it with beeswax promotes the bees building their own comb down from the strip. Here's a good introduction to the use of starter strips from Kirk Anderson (AKA "Kirkobeeo") from Backwards Beekeepers:

I have never had any luck with stir sticks because the ones I find are always too think. Likewise, popsicle sticks or tounge depressors don't fit either, and balsam wood is to soft and wobbley. So, with the help of my knowledgeable father-in-law, we milled our own.
To make the strips you need some 1x12 wood stock, which is 3/4 inch wide. That width dimention will actually be the vertical demention of the strip as it hangs down from the top of the frame. Using a table saw you then cut the stock to a thickness (or "thin-ness" in this case) of roughly 3/16". Finish by triming to a length of 16 7/8in.
Unless you are very acurate in your cutting, each strip will have some minor variation to its thickness and length because of how small the measurements are. This is okay, because most wooden frames also have some degree of variation in them. One strip that might be slightly too thick or long for one frame might fit perfectly in another frame, just try more than one. Also, each strip should fit pretty snug; they should not be loose or pull out easily, and you shouldn't have to worry about using any glue. They should hold in place just fine. This setup was designed to work with grooved frames; it's not meant for frames with removable wedges, although they still might work. But, if you're not using foundation you won't want wedge or split frames anyway.

Here is what a homemade starter strip looks like installed into the top of a grooved frame...

And here is what beautiful, natural, bee-made wax and comb looks like, built off the starter strips...

This is a great frame because you can see the pollen (the darkish stuff in the cells), the nectar (the wet, glistening stuff in the cells) and capped honey towards the top. Fun!

This last picture shows a little better how the bees don't just build the comb off the starter strip, but actually incorporate the strip within the comb for greater strength.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Enter Varroa Destructor

Despite battling against small hive beetle for some time now, I have been thankful to have avoided dealing with perhaps what can be regarded as the honeybee's most devastating pest - the Varroa mite. Properly named varroa destructor (I know, charming isn't it?) this wee beastie of a tick is responsible for some of the greatest losses in honeybee colonies, and a full-blown infestation is often cited as a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder. Gone unchecked varroa can destroy a colony in as little as three years. The rise of varroa in the US has also given rise to some of the most pervasive chemical use in commercial and even small-scale beekeeping. In an all too typical approach, we have thrown chemical and miticides at the varroa with little positive benefit. Some even fear we are establishing mites who are tolerant of the toxins and continue to flourish.
A varroa mite on a honeybee larva. From Wikipedia.
When I pulled out the monitor tray in one of my hives I was looking for small hive beetle, which I did find a few dead ones of those. But amid the pollen and wax flakes were two or three reddish-brown specks - the unmistakable remains of the varroa mite. I must admit I was somewhat crestfallen when I saw them. I had been naively thinking I might get through my first year without the mite invading my hives. But, alas, it is not to be. The mite is here and now I must deal with it.

So what next? I shall continue to monitor the mite numbers within the hives and do all I can to learn what my options are, although I am unshakably committed to a noninvasive approach as much as possible.

I started my hives with 50% foundation in my frames and 50% with only starter strips. There is a lot of discussion out there about how the factory pressed wax foundation forces the bees to build cells that are larger than those that they would naturally build themselves. This can result in higher mite counts within a hive because the mites gestate within the cells. Larger cells allows for more time for even more mites to hatch. Subsequently, there is also a lot of talk of regressing the bees back down to a smaller cell size by letting them build their own comb. I am glad that in the second hive bodies of both of my initial hives I went with 90% foundationless frames - the bees have built their own comb beautifully. But it seems that I will have to start switching out the frames built on foundation for ones that are bee-made or give them starter strips to start from scratch with. This is one of those areas that I am still trying to educate myself in.

It saddens me that a creature as remarkable and gentle as the honeybee must endure such trials as pests and pesticides, but I think it is our responsibility, and indeed, our honor, to assist them in overcoming these hardships. The honeybee is a creature of pure devotion and love, and we are their consorts.