A Blog post by Jim Masucci summarizing Ian Steppler’s Advanced Beekeeping Workshop presentation.
On Monday, February 1, Ian Steppler presented his method of beekeeping to the Three Rivers Intermediate Beekeeping Workshop. His presentation centered around how he taps into the biology of the honeybee to optimize honey production. He uses a carefully executed spring build-up strategy that identifies and builds strong colonies and repurposes struggling colonies. To optimize both honey yields and mite control, he maintains the brood nest in a single deep colony throughout the entire year except swarm season. Because of this strategy, late summer/early fall feedings are critical for preparing the colonies for winter. Throughout his presentation, a few themes were always present. 1. Proper nutrition and mite management are critical for healthy bees. 2. Manage the bees based on the season and what they are inclined to do. 3. Strong colonies are what makes you money, focus on them. I will attempt to summarize what Ian had to say below.
Ian lives in Miami MB, which is southwest of Winnipeg and about 30 miles north of North Dakota. He is President of Steppler Farms, which is known for their cattle genetics. They farm over 3000 acres and produce 245,000-300,000 pounds of honey per year. Ian is the apiarist of the farm, running around 1500 colonies and AVERAGING around 200 pounds of honey per colony (ranging from 125 pounds to 350 pounds per colony). He got his start in beekeeping by taking a beekeeping class at the University of Manitoba. After which, he bought 4 hives and the rest is history. He puts out several YouTube videos as A Canadian Beekeepers Blog which provides a wealth of beekeeping information.
Ian overwinters his bees indoors, in single boxes. Because the bees generate a lot of heat (someone once told me a colony is the equivalent of a 60-watt light bulb) and carbon dioxide, he has fans constantly blowing cold, outside air into his shed. His goal is to keep it at 4 degrees Celsius (39 F) and around 40-45% humidity. As with everything he does, he has a reason. Four degrees is the temperature that minimizes food consumption. The bees are loosely clustered, yet don’t have to struggle to generate heat. 40-45% humidity is low enough to prevent mold growth but still allows sufficient water production for the bees. The bees spend 5-6 months indoors (November-March/April) and each colony uses 8-10 pounds of honey per month.
Once spring hits and the bees start getting restless, he moves the bees (at night) outdoors to their yards. The first order of business is cleansing flights, which are quite amazing to see. After a few days to let the bees settle, he focuses on nutrition and assessment. Because the spring goal is population increase, he feeds protein supplement (i.e. Ultrabee) as both dry powder and patties (they do not have hive beetles up there). Protein and fats are needed by nurse bees to generate the glandular secretions of royal jelly and brood food and without incoming pollen, they will quickly burn through their winter stores. He also provides sugar syrup to provide carbohydrates. He likes to open feed when he can, using large, plastic storage boxes with holes drilled into the sides. He uses 1 box for every 10 colonies and each box is filled with floaters and straw to minimize bee drownings. If there are neighboring bees in the area, he uses 2.5 gallon plastic buckets on each hive (drip feeders). Because they have much colder weather and shorter seasons than we do, I asked him after the seminar what the lowest temperature that he would feed his bees with buckets. His reply was, “As long as they take it. We have pails out on -10C (14F) nights, temp breaks to 8C-10C (46F-50F) during the day which allows them up but those big colonies will be feeding all night long”
Spring Queen Assessments
His goal for his spring assessments is to cull out colonies with failing queens. He needs bees to make honey and needs high quality queens to make the bees. He does not go through the colony, rather he tracks colony population by tilting back the box and counting seams of bees on the bottom. A colony is labeled (he uses push pins and raffle tickets) strong if it has 8-10 frames of bees, medium if it has 4-6 frames of bees and weak if it has less than 3 frames of bees. He will assess the hives twice more after the original assessment, looking for strong population growth. Strong colonies have a second brood box placed on them. Medium colonies are kept in singles to grow into. Any colony identified as having a failing queen is removed (replaced by a nuc that he overwintered) and its resources are utilized to either generate splits or combined with a nuc to make a strong colony. For most of the year, including early spring, his strategy is to keep the bees tight and not give them too much space. They like to be crowded.
At this point, the bees are in expansion mode and it is time for splits. The bees need room to grow. He makes his brood boxes in the following configuration: 2 foundation, 1 honey, 4 empty, 1 honey, 2 foundation. The honey/empty frames tell the queens where to lay. The foundation frames buy him time, forcing the bees to draw out comb. Ian makes his splits off the strong colonies that are in 2 deeps. He is removing excess resources to generate nucs which he uses both in honey production and to overwinter as resources for the following year. To quickly make his splits, he does not find the queen. Instead, he removes the top box. He wants production colonies (the bottom box) to have 4 frames of brood at this time. He ensures the bottom box has 4 frames of brood by adding or removing brood frames as necessary. He then shakes ALL the bees from the top box into the bottom box using a plastic storage tote with the bottom cut out as a “funnel. By doing this, he is certain the queen is in the bottom box. He then puts on a queen excluder, replaces the top box and walks away. A few days later, he comes back and takes off the top box and replaces it with an empty honey super. At this point, the bottom box is set to grow to the right size for honey production without swarming. The top box can be used two ways: 1. a queen can be added to it to generate a new colony or, 2. its frames and bees can be used to make up nucs. (he didn’t talk about this but there was a slide that showed it. He uses 6-frame nucs. He puts 3 of these nucs on a pallet, which is the same size as two deeps. He puts on queen excluders and uses the 3 nucs to fill 2 honey supers.)
Supering and Harvest
He supers his hive at the rate of 1 super per week. When he is ready to harvest, he uses bee escapes to remove the bees from the supers (shown at left is one that I made based off the ones he uses). Because the receptor bees are constantly moving from the entrance up to the honey supers, the bee escapes “trap” them at the bottom of the hive. He provides a honey super underneath the bee escape so they still have room and a place to store nectar. He gives them three days to clear the supers before pulling them. They use a crew of 2-3 people (and an EZ Lift) to pull the supers. At the honey house, has the extractor going everyday with a crew of 3-4 people. They can extract 275-300 boxes a day which yields 18-22 drums of honey.
Once the nectar flow stops (mid-August to early September), he immediately starts preparing for winter. All bees are moved down to the single brood box and fed immediately. With the queen confined to a single box, that box is full of brood and pollen, so has no nectar stores. During the initial late summer feedings he has to be careful to NOT overfeed. The colonies are making their winter bees at this point so brood production is critical. Too much feed will shut the queen down. To facilitate brood production, he also feeds protein patties. As the queens start shutting down, he focuses his feeding on backfilling cells with a goal weight of each colony being 95 pounds before going into the winter shed.
Fall Mite Treatment
Post honey, he focusses on mite monitoring. When the hives are broodless, he treats for mites by oxalic acid vaporization. He does not dribble oxalic acid because he does not want the bees ingesting the oxalic acid, which he feels could cause problems over the long winter. Sometime in November the bees are brought back into the overwintering shed and the cycle starts all over again.
Contributed by Jim Masucci
Posted February 5, 2021