Wednesday, March 31, 2010

UF Bee College

It has been a few weeks since the University of Florida Bee College and being delinquent with the updates, I figure I'm over due.

The bullet points of the Bee College that caught my attention:

Moving Bees
Dark overalls are a must for moving bees at night, along with a headlight using red light.

Practical Experience with Cordovans in Florida
David Westervelt was reporting Cordovan queens would lay upwards of 2,000 eggs a day even in a dearth so keep 15 frames of honey on so they will successfully over winter in Florida.

New Beekeeping Supply Company
There is brand new company that's producing locally (North Florida) milled pine boxes at list prices well below Dadant and superior quality to Groeb. The North American Bee Hive Company has price breaks at 5, 100, 250, and 500 allowing for a small operation to get more for their money. In speaking with the representative, he says their shipping rates are the best they can get and are pretty accurate on the site. Below is a list of their prices for Commercial Mediums:

1 to 4$9.00
5 to 99$7.25
100 to 249$6.75
250 to 499$6.50

Come fall of this year, I'll be making my way up to see them.

Trick for Installing Packages
Something I hadn't seen before was that it's a good idea to use powdered sugar on a new package. The recommendation was to turn the package on a screened side a couple of inches off the ground, so that enough powdered sugar can be sifted over the bees to make them "ghost bees". The bees should then bee left to clean themselves up for a couple hours, which will help remove any varroa mites. The space between the package and the ground is to prevent the mites from crawling back up into the package.

Sugar Markets Improving

After I predicted the price sugar (50 pound bags) would reach $30, I'm pleased to see that India and Brazil are looking at better weather and will have better production this year.

$29.99 Costco (2010-04-06) [EDIT: Updated sugar price; don't expect improvements until June/July, in my opinion]

$29.69 Costco (2010-03-31)
$27.99 Restaurant Depot (2010-03-28)

I didn't check Sanwa International or Sam's Club but I heard from a guy that runs an ice cream business that Sam's was up to $30.

Sanwa Reviews can be read here. It's a well kept, little known market that I don't get to visit all that often but highly recommend a visit.

The 400 pounds of sugar I have is going unused since I'm still waiting on my 10 packages from Mark Lally, which were delayed by the chilly winter we had. Since the winter extended well into January it caused delays in a lot nectar producing plants.

This cold was a problem for others as well, seeing as how some strawberry farmers aren't going to be picking, because it delayed some strawberry crops until California was in season at the same time. I know I was able to buy a $6 flat this last weekend, which was the price I was paying back in the early to mid-1990s. I can feel for the farmers but after all the snarled traffic on I-4 from pumping induced sinkholes and stories of people going without water, and sometimes homes, I'd hope they develop a better sense of charity.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Costs of Beekeeping: the Feed

Before we get started let's get the disclaimer out of the way


Beekeepers are starting to feel the pinch when thinking about increasing their colony numbers. There are a few ways to increase your counts; splits from successful hives, buying a package of bees, or collecting feral colonies. Buying packages is how I'll be growing my apiary until my girls are established, which means I need to supplement them with feed. The other reason to feed is to trick the queen into becoming more productive prior to a desired pollination period, or contract.

Feed Options: the Syrup
The Basics: In beekeeping, the concentrations are often discussed in ratios and the assumption is that everyone is talking in ratios of sugar to water. When most say, "2:1 syrup", it's 2 units of volume sugar to 1 unit of volume water. In smaller quantities, measuring by weight or volume is negligible. Sugar has a density of about 849 kg/cubic meter and water is 1000 kg/cubic meter, or 1.77 pounds per quart and 2.00 pounds per quart.

1. Granulated sugar syrup, or glucose syrup, is a simple syrup commonly used in cooking.
water + granular white sugar + heat = syrup

Some may want to talk about the benefits of eating less processed foods or raw foods, which doesn't apply to bees. Brown sugar and molasses (byproduct of sugar production) contain compounds which are not good for bees so avoid them. Keep in mind that all living creatures and all cells can absorb and use glucose for energy. As for the preparation, I recommend heating the water to no more than roughly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, I microwave the water for about 20-30 seconds per cup. The hotter the water the more time is needed to let the syrup cool. Never put hot syrup on, or near, a bee hive as the bees will find it and kill themselves while trying to feed.

2. Corn syrup, or High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), is used most often because it is cheap and readily available by the tanker load. Fructose is found in nectar but this simple sugar is found in some nectars but it is not as easily digested. Tupelo honey is an example of flower nectar which bees will collect that is high in fructose. The only consideration with corn syrup is dilution methods, no heating is necessary. While this sounds like an easy solution, it is not recommended by any beekeeper I have ever met and is only used by large operations for its simplicity.

3. Honey from extraction is another option and comes with the most cautionary warnings. While honey that has been extracted is what bees will gravitate to the most, it is also the most likely to transmit disease. Unless you absolutely know the source of the honey, never feed it to your bees. It is a vector for spore forming bacterial and fungal diseases among bees, including the devastating American Foulbrood.

Between refills, I sterilize/sanitize as best as possible to minimize bacterial and fungal growth on the containers themselves.

Pollen Substitute
Pollen substitutes are commonly available from any of the major beekeeping supply companies and there are a number of brands to chose from, including recipes to make your own. Often these powders are mixed with syrup, or melter honey (byproduct of melting wax cappings), and formed into patties which are then put on the top of the frames. The patties are typically wrapped in wax paper to prevent them from sticking together and from falling to the bottom of the hive. When feeding syrup during a dearth of nectar, it is a good idea to include a pollen substitute to balance the sugar with protein and fats. Putting a patty on a bee hive is like giving them an MRE, meal ready to eat. It isn't desirable as a food source but it will supply the bees with essential proteins and strength the hive may need to increase brood prior to a particular bloom or to help out a new package of bees.

I've only had experience with Megabee and it was my substitute of choice because of David Miksa. He is a scientist by nature, has been experimenting with all the variables of brood rearing and queen rearing, and lives within 150 miles of Tampa Bay. If he found that he gets better results from using a particular product and is willing to be quoted as such, I'll trust it.

The Pinch
The inspiration behind this blog is the increased pressure on the sugar market. Sugar prices are going to get to nearly 50% more than they were last year. I'm predicting $30 for a 50 pound bag of sugar by the summer. It's not a huge leap given that the price has risen $3.80 in the last 6 months and is now ~$27.80 at Costco. I have heard that the Super Walmarts were selling 25 pound bags for about $12 early in February, but my lack of faith in Walmart's suppliers (the Chinese produce sugar now?) keeps me from giving them my money. When I check Restaurant Depot, I'll post their prices. [Edit: $25.99 as of 2010-02-26; so I bought an extra 200 lbs]

The Reasons for the increase: The major sugar produces have suffered from weather. India had drought, Brazil was water logged, and Florida had a 2 week cold snap. Beekeeping this year will be expensive and citrus will be paltry because of the same freeze. Add to it, increased demand for sugar to replace HFCS in foods. I applaud our food processors for making the change.

Another Feed Reference, it's a wiki

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Preserving Equipment

I'd like to apologize to my minor reading public regarding the neglect and delinquency, but I'm getting ready for spring.

Do you know how much I hate painting?
This is where I'll begin to present two angles in discussing the most common beekeepers, small operations (hobbyists/sideliners who aren't spending a thousand, or more, dollars on one order), and commercial operations (the guys buying stuff in the 100's of units). There are some options when it comes to preserving your investments in beekeeping; the hive bodies, bottom boards, and tops/lids. Before I go into the ways that woodenware can be preserved, let's discuss the options of wood itself.

Wood density is the best determination for applications and the denser it is, the stronger it is. When it comes to wood types used in beekeeping, there is a lot of debate because every region has different weather conditions and the quality of products varies as well. I'm going to stick to discussing the most common options.

Your Investment
Weather hearty woods:
PROS: Cedar and cypress naturally resist the effects of being outdoors. I'm not an expert in the details but I know anecdotally that both can be effectively used for woodenware without preservation, though cedar is much softer than cypress. I should caution that preserving these woods is still advised as it will prolong their service life.
CONS: Upfront costs could be greater (with volumes less than 10), availability, and the potential that preservation techniques may still need to be used for prolong service life. Cedar likes to split.

PROS: Availability, bulk pricing is better, and relatively hard wood
CONS: No natural resistance to the elements

Preservation Techniques
1. Painting is the most common and cheapest means to preserve woodenware. One of cheapest sources of paint is to check out the "mistakes" and returns in the paint department of hardware stores. I've also heard that partially used paint cans can be found in thrift stores but I've never tried looking for thrift store paint. If you don't care about the color you can get away with a lot but avoid any dark colors especially black, red, and dark blue, as they will increase the heat absorption.

2. Dipping in preservatives such as copper naphthenate is an option to consider because it will preserve the inside and outside of the woodenware. During the cooler months, moisture will condense on the inside of the hive unless there is a vent near the lid. SEE More information on preservatives and applications here.

3. Hot wax dipping is an old technique which involves boiling a wax/pine gum rosin mixture and submerging the woodenware. This method causes the wax/rosin to be wicked into the wood and creates a barrier to moisture. The wax is typically paraffin or beeswax, one is a petroleum product and the other is a byproduct of extraction. Hot wax dipping has also been shown to sterilize equipment, which is valuable when buying used equipment.

With the last two options, you can still paint the boxes and painting is recommended, by me and others, with the second option.

Let's run through the drawbacks
Painting: requires 3-4 coats of paint and repeated drying periods and does nothing to prevent moisture damage from the inside. While bees will eventually propilize the inside, it's not immediate or complete. Most paint jobs need to be redone within 3-7 years.

Dipping in preservatives: the compounds found in wood preservatives will make their way into the wax and not all are food safe. Copper-8-quinolinolate, aka Oxine Copper, is listed as food safe for incidental contact, but not prolonged contact. Copper naphthenate is recommended to be kept away from food. Once the wood has been dipped, painting is recommended.

Hot wax dipping: this is the most dangerous and costly of the three. The hazard is apparent when you are standing next to a tank, or pot, full of boiling wax and rosin. With an open flame, combustion is more likely. Once the wood is dipped, there is no long term concerns regarding chemical leaching or weather issues. The common approach to hot wax dipping is to have a tank (typically custom made), a mixture of wax to rosin of either 3:1, 2:1, or 1:1, and a heat source (electric is preferred for better temperature control and reduced flame risk). Some have gotten away with using an oven and a roasting pan, which in my mind is risky and tedious. When using a heated tank/pot it's advantageous to do a large volume because there is a warm up period counted in the hours.

Example: Assuming we need 50 medium (6 5/8 inch) boxes (the only regional supplier of cypress hive bodies in the Southeast is Rossman Apiaries) and we are willing to use commercial grade.

Rossman Cypress
$8.84 per body X 15 = $132.60 (~$63 for shipping to Tampa Bay via UPS)
$8.40 per body X 50 = $420 (~$200)
$7.98 per body X 100 = $798 (~$400)
$7.98 per body X 250 = $1995 (~$1000)

Compared to Dadant Pine (shipping is roughly the same; UPS)
$9.60 per body X 15 = $144
$7.80 per body X 50 = $390
$7.80 per body X 100 = $780
$7.65 per body X 250 = $1912.50

Compared to Mann Lake Pine (can't buy commercial in volumes less than 50)
$6.85 per body X 50 = $342.50 (~$350 shipping)
$6.85 per body X 100 = $685 (~$700 shipping)
$5.50 per body X 250 = $1375 (~$1755 shipping)

When you get into 250+ boxes, shipping would be better organized via a trucking company.

Painting (~ 170 sq ft) will require about one gallon of primer for 2 coats and one gallon of exterior grade paint: $40 + lots of time

Dipping in preservatives: $190+ for 5 gallons and $40 paint

Wax Dipping: $2-$3 per pound of wax (buy from your local beekeepers), $1.90 per pound rosin (220 pounds for roughly $1.87 per pound shipped from J.H. Calo); $280 tank with legs and spigot, and $90 propane burner and propane tank: roughly $800

Did I mention how much I hate painting?
When I decided to wax dip, the points that made the decision easy were these:
No petroleum based chemicals or compounds using -cide as a suffix
Speed at which the equipment would be treated
Ability to sterilize used equipment
And most importantly, I hate painting

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Early Considerations

Before I decided to start the company, I had to take some issues into consideration. I focused on the three primary expenses associated with starting up a beekeeping operation; the equipment, the bees, and the feed for the bees. The costs associated with the transport and location of the bees was omitted solely because I have access to about an acre of land. The first step was finding a supplier for the woodenware for the bee equipment, I chose Dadant because I could use my recently purchased truck to avoid shipping costs. A trip to their branch in High Springs was only going to cost me about 5 hours and 306 miles (or 22.3 gallons of fuel).

The Equipment:

The primary cost of equipment is the hive itself. The hive is going to be one or more hive bodies full of frames. Typically there will be one or two hive bodies that are part of the brood chamber or box, and numerous supers or honey boxes on top of the brood chamber. While calculating the costs, the economies of scale were more effective when all of the hive bodies were the same size. I’ve heard from a number of regarded beekeepers, David Miksa of Groveland, FL in particular, that they use Mediums (6 5/8” tall).

To quickly cover the tops and bottoms, I determined it was too expensive to buy screened bottom boards and I'd never need a telescoping cover (which requires an inner cover, noted in the link) and would give small hive beetles a safe haven. So I decided to look into buying cedar lumber and assembling screened bottom boards myself with hardware cloth. The tops are even easier, any 3/4 4x8 sheet of plywood that can be used outside will produce 10 tops per sheet. The big box, and most good lumber yards, will cut the plywood for free, so I have them cut the sheets into 5 16 1/4" widths and take them home where I cut them to 21" lengths. Avoid "treated" lumber as the chemicals can harm bees in the long run. In the meantime, paint the tops as you would the hive bodies.

Why Mediums?

1. Economy of scale when buying new (easier to get quantity discounts)

2. Initial cost of woodenware is much less (Deeps start at $12.70, and Mediums start at $9.30)

3. When the older commercial beekeepers go to sell out their business, there will be more mediums than deeps, as medium is the most common honey super/box. More importantly, you can expect your average commercial beekeeper to have directly applied chemicals to the brood chamber and few, if any, chemicals were ever used in the honey suppers.

Next, I had to consider the foundation for the bees. There are plenty of advantages to using the plastic foundations; the plastic is resistant to wax moths and only the drawn wax would be lost, the cell size will be uniform to potentially regulate varroa mite populations, and is less susceptible to being blown out during extraction, unless using a radial extractor. Radial extraction prevents the risk of blowing out wax foundation. After all those considerations and some experience with the plastic, I decided to go with bulk wax foundation.

Why Wax Foundation?

1. The estimated price per sheet is $0.5545 (25lbs at ~11 sheets per pound) with wax and the plasticell requires you buy over a thousand to get to $0.59 per sheet, unless you want it coated with a little wax to promote its use by the bees, then it’s $0.69 on 1,000+.

2. The bees will be able to chew down the wax to suit their needs; after all, no comb in a feral hive is rectangular. And, if they have problems with diseased brood, they will be more apt to deal with the bad cells. I’ve seen anecdotal evidence that my Carniolan queen won’t lay on plasticell foundation after there was a diseased brood in it but lays in the wax cells I have from the initial split.

3. I don’t have to worry about what’s in the wax when it comes to plastic stabilizers like Bisphenol A (BPA). I know that the chance of leaching is low but it reminds me of something my Biochemistry professor said, “there is no greater chemist than Mother Nature”.

4. You can choose to skip buying wax foundation and just turn the wedge, of the wedge top frame, 90 degrees so it hangs down like a starter strip and tack it into place. The bees will take it from there so you don't even need to spend the money or worry about where this bees wax came from.

The Bees:

I’m not going to defend or extol the various lines of bees, simply, I know a local queen rearer who uses Carniolans. By the time I have more than 60+ hives, I will probably, and purposefully, have multiple lines in my apiary. It takes only a basic course in genetics to promote the idea of hybridization. Mutts have the genetic diversity and increased resilience because of it. The real consideration was how to grow the apiary and quickly. What I know is that there are beekeepers that sell by the package, by the queen, and by the Nuc.

Mated Queens: The advantage is that I’ll be able to keep costs down given that I’ll be splitting off my own hives and a mated queen runs about $15 to $25. If I split my own hives, I’ll have to be aggressively splitting and feeding. And have to make nucleus hives which is a little more hassle than I’d like for my weekend beekeeping.

Packages: These are bees that are shaken into a cage and have a mated queen, each package costs $65 to $80. The advantage is that they can be put into a hive with a couple of frames of drawn comb and that will speed their progress, in combination with feeding. Also, they can be dropped into any size hive body, remember, I’m targeting Mediums. The drawback is that I’ve heard from numerous people that the queen may be superseded. Here in Hillsborough, we have Africanize honey bees (AHB) which would almost assure the virgin will be producing F1 hybrid Africans.

Nucleus Hives: With a nucleus hive, there is no question about the viability of the queen, they have brood, and drawn comb. Drawback is the initial cost for 3-5 frames is about $80 or more (typically more) and the frame sizes are typically Deep. Finally, there is added transportation and financial overhead with the nucleus hive bodies. There is usually a deposit that will be required up front.

The Feed:

There are two contenders for syrups and numerous ways to feed pollen substitute. I'm not even going to consider corn syrup as I don't see it as any kind of substitute for nectar which is both fructose and glucose. The big warehouse stores will sell 50 pounds for $20 to $24 a bag and if you have the space, buy it when it's $20 and store it in buckets with tight lids. As for the delivery, there are only a few options; frame feeder, hive top feeders, entrance feeders, and a derivative of the entrance feeder is the pail that is inverted over a hole in the hive top. I've had experience with all 4

Entrance Feeder:
The entrance feeder is an excellent feeder for the quick feed; it doesn't require any modifications to an existing Langstroth hive (the standard) or intrusion into the hive. The con is the 1 quart capacity and may require multiple refills a week, which isn't a problem unless you don't live near your apiary. I would a regular job so the hour round trip isn't appealing.

Frame Feeder:
These have a great capacity in comparison to the entrance feeders, typically 1 gallon, which means fewer refills and less disruption to the hive. The largest negative is that unless you buy one with mesh ladders you will drown a few hundred bees. The frame feeder also requires the hive be opened and a frame removed. I don't recommend filling the feeder in place unless you want to risk washing your bees in syrup. I've only every been able to safely fill a 1 gallon frame feeder about 3/4 full. NOTE: In a weaker hive that is in an apiary with an active ant population, the ants will find this feeder, especially in hives with a screened bottom.

Hive Top Feeder:
These have one of the greatest capacities (off the shelf), typically have protections to prevent drowning, and are the most easily refilled while in place. Capacities range from 1 to 4 gallons. There appear to be no drawbacks until you discover ants have found the feeder. Ants are a big problem because most feeders prevent the bees from propilizing the gap between the cover and lip of the feeder. Hive top feeders that utilize the floats to prevent drown are probably better than the once that have the mesh ladders, as they allow the bees to move around.

Pail Feeder:
There are a few ways to set these up and essentially they are all the same in principle. Like the entrance feeder, they are all inverted containers with a screen or lid with holes punched in it and the syrup remains in the container from the vacuum. I've seen unused gallon paint cans, quart jars, and buckets of various sizes. All of the containers require a hole in the top cover or an inner cover. My "pail" feeder is a plywood top with a hole cut in it with a hole saw. This hole was cut to the exact diameter of the lid from a frame feeder. Exact construction will follow in another post. The tight fit and gravity/vacuum feeding prevents the ants from robbing. I'm planning on graduating to using buckets obtained from local bakeries, delis, and doughnut shops.

I think that buying 50 pounds of sugar at a time and getting packages will be the best option. The bulk rate for buying package bees could be less than $65 and 50 pounds of sugar ($20-$24; Prices have increased as high as $28) will make 56 quarts of 1:1 sugar syrup (1 cup of sugar to 1 cup of water) and a 1/2 cup (~5oz) pollen patty costs me about $0.35. The estimate is about 2.5 gallons of sugar syrup per hive, and a couple of patties, totaling $4.27 a hive in feed, round up to $5 for any extras I’ve missed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Start of the Business

After working with bees and doing some hobbyist beekeeping, I realized there were a lot of benefits to starting a company dedicated to my interests. On October 1st 2009, Woolheater Farms, LLC was born with idea that one day I'd have hundreds of hives in my apiary and I'd be able to transition over to beekeeping as my retirement profession.

Once the decision was made, it was simple to start up an LLC using And I have to say the fees were the only negative to the entire experience, not that they were high. After $195, I had all the online paperwork filled out and the extras (Certificate of Status and Certified Copy). The very next day, I had all the paperwork necessary to conduct business. First I needed a bank account and a company truck. I drive a sedan so it was difficult to imagine putting 1300 unassembled frames in my car. The bank account was quickly setup at the bank where I keep my personal accounts, I found this appealing as I would be able to easily direct money from my personal account into the company account.

In the first month, I've started a bank account, bought a truck, enough frames and foundation for 1300 frames, and begun my efforts to expand my colonies. The current business plan is to grow the number of colonies at my apiary to about 75 over the next few years. My next post is going to have more thoughts on the actual business plan and cost analysis.