“Thoughts and Ideas”

Taking Advice...Playing the Odds

By | October 14, 2011

I’ve given much thought to losing both hives last year, and to the reasons.  I think the main reason was not treating, as late in the season I clearly remember seeing deformed wing.  By the time you see that, you’ve got a mighty mite load.  But I also reflected on the advice I received last year, mostly online since that’s how most of us connect these days, but the advice probably would have been the same if received locally and face-to-face.

The advice was given by those with many hives, and by many I don’t mean 50 or 100, but 10-20.  When asked if this action or that action should be taken, the result was by and large the same, “It doesn’t make a difference.”  Insulating, closing off bottom boards, etc.

The point of this is that those with 7 hives, 10 hives, 20 hives, giving advice to new beekeepers with 1-2 hives is a tricky business.  First, because the new beekeepers is just that, new, which means the hives, too, are new.  Second because decisions about performing labor for the bees are made based on return, and it’s a matter of odds. 

Let’s say the chance of a first year untreated hive dying over the winter is 40%.  This sounds high, but first year + untreated means a tough first winter.  The experienced 10 hive beekeeper probably doesn’t have many first year hives, so his odds of loss are automatically lower.  But even if they were the same, he’s making his labor decisions based on what he thinks will happen and what he can do next spring.  With 10 hives, he’ll have more than a few surviving hives, probably make splits to cover the losses, and maybe even get some honey if the flows are good.  I know I’m simplifying the math and the world doesn’t necessarily work this way, but if we look at each hive as its own independent trial, we can work this like a binomial distribution.  With 10 hives, his odds of being completely wiped out are 1/100th of 1%…that’s losing all 10 hives when each hive has a 40% chance of dying.  To lose even 7 or more hives, his chances are only about 5 1/2%.  This means he has over a 94% chance of coming through winter with at least 3 hives.  A terrible loss to be sure, but he still has bees.  Remember, his labor decisions are made with this in mind.  Spending hard earned cash along with the time required on medication, treatment, insulation, etc, is weighed against these odds.  And as we’ll see these probably are not the new beekeepers odds.

New beekeepers generally start with one hive, maybe two.  Now lets look at that first year beekeeper with two hives and the same chance of failure at 40%.  His chance of losing both his hives and being completely wiped out is 16%  16% chance of having no bees vs 0.0001% chance for the 10-hive beekeeper.  This new beekeeper’s chance of losing at least one hive is a whopping 64%

As you can see, it’s a numbers game, and with respect to the grain of salt needed when small, first year beekeepers take advice from experienced beekeepers with many more hives…well, that grain of salt should probably be a lot bigger.  My advice to a new beekeeper with one or two hives?  If you’re thinking about doing something to help your bees through the winter and you ask experienced beekeepers with many hives and they reply, “You can, but I don’t.”, then do it.

Permalink »

Buying a Queen

By | September 13, 2011

Every time I look at the Russell Apiaries web site I want to buy a queen.  I mean every single time.  His off-the-beaten-path offerings (like the MMAs) just look so neat.  I have to completely control myself to not start adding queens to a shopping cart.  It’s just in my nature to want to experiment and tinker, and doing so with the hives just seems natural.  This year though I need to remind myself that even though I’m feeding at the end of this season, four of my seven queens are locally mated.  All of those (except the swarm queen) are only first generation, so the parents of those queens are southern bees, but the bees they are now producing hopefully have some good survivor genetics.

Maybe next year I’ll buy a queen or two in order to start a new hive or a nuc, but whenever I want to buy a queen in order to requeen what I’ve got just for the sake of having a neat new queen, I have to keep reminding myself that all my colonies are queenright with seemingly good layers, many of them mated here, and there’s no good reason for me to be screwing around with that.

Permalink »

Winter Weather

By | April 12, 2011

This is post #3 which compounds on thoughts around hive survival in the winter.  Many times beekeepers will say how bees survive in this configuration or that with respect to box sizes and counts….Two deeps, a deep and a medium, a double stacked nuc, etc.  This is really just based on previous experience of survival.  Two years ago maybe the bees wintered fine in a nuc, the year before that they did great in a single deep, and so on.

As beekeepers, we often use past experience as our guide.  This is only natural.  Unfortunately when it comes to winter survival, I don’t think a “survivable” box configuration can be garnered in this way.  There is one variable that renders past experience nearly useless, and that’s weather.

We can’t control it or predict it.  All we can do is measure it as it happens.  As for the winter losses this year, the temperature data at my house, which I record 24×7 every minute, show that January, when my hives died, was 4° F colder on average than last year.  There were 4 days above 40° this January, while last January saw 14 days above 40°.  This long duration of cold weather has to give at least some semblence of an explanation for the losses this year.

And for those that think 4 degrees just isn’t that much….

I’m starting to think that Lancaster, PA is in a weird place, winter-weather-wise that is.  In researching average temperatures, I began looking north and south of my home.  Just 95 miles south (as the crow flies) in Washington DC, the average daily high in January is 7 degrees warmer than it is here.  Yet going north, I can go 324 miles, 240% more distance, to Concord, NH, and that is only 6° colder.

So let’s lay this out with respect to January highs:

~325 miles north: -6 degrees
~95 miles south: +7 degrees
~325 miles south: +14 degrees

So somehow if I go 325 miles north, I only lose 6 degrees, but if I go the same distance south, I gain 14 degrees. We seem to be the southern limit of the cold north, there’s not much of a transition.  I think we need to start treating our hives like they’re in the cold north.

At some point this year I hope to have a decent weather station at the house recording data.  I already have temperature data, but wind and precipitation are in the works. I’d like to get a feed of the current data onto this site.

Permalink »

More on Winter

By | March 26, 2011

This post will probably grow, morph, and be edited as time goes on, but in looking through some old texts on Google Books yesterday I ran across something that expanded my theory on wintering hives. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve heard so often that insulating hives doesn’t matter, closing them off doesn’t matter, […]

Read more »

Bees in the Winter

By | March 7, 2011

Although I’ve written about this in the main bee diary post on my two lost hives, I felt like rewriting it here because it’s solidifying itself in my head as a general theory, not just something specific to this past winter. A cluster of bees in the winter is made up of the central core […]

Read more »