Pure North Carolina Honey – The Journey in Treatment Free Beekeeping

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I started a permanent treatment free apiary in Wake County, NC in 2018.  Now a few years into it, this post catalogs the journey of creating a treatment free apiary in central North Carolina.  I think that keeping honey bees without any form of treatment produces the purest form of North Carolina honey products.  If your looking for raw North Carolina honey you check out the order form.

9.18.20 – The Fall Nectar Flow

Bloom Report – False Sunflower, Goldenrod, Aster, Ironweed, Clover, Wild Sunflower, Spotted Bee Balm, Blue Sage, Southern Crownbeard

False Sunflower – Wake County, NC

The Fall nectar flow is mainly made up of golden rod and aster blooms, though there are a number of other flowers that contribute as well.  Right now there are hordes of false sunflower in the easement, power, and road right of ways.  This nectar flow basically starts around the first of September and lasts till about mid-October.  The weather can paly havoc though, its not unheard of for a hurricane or string of them to come in and wreck the entire nectar flow.
This is a really important time for honey bee colonies as it’s the last push to pack nectar and pollen for the winter.  Hives typically push out drones beginning in August and the colony will begin filling up the brood areas with nectar.  It’s a good idea to removed extra space on a hive, honeybees generally will not draw out comb this time of year.  Thus, its important to give a hive drawn comb frames if any are required right now.  Reducing the space congests a hive and helps them focus on getting their hive set up for winter. 

Planting for Summer/Fall Nectar flow

I have mentioned a few times that the summers are hard in this part of the state, in terms of nectar flow.  To improve this situation I have been planting and managing the borders of my bee yard.  In this bee yard I have been removing small understory trees to improve light and clearing the woodline edges.  If it is a plant that doesn’t produce nectar for bees in the June-October time frame its got to go.  Any beneficial plant is promoted to encourage greater growth and spread. 

First year growth on Shining Sumac to be transplanted

In practice this means about 8 ft or so of tree line edges are left unmowed from March till Thanksgiving.  Thanks to some volunteer Shining Sumac I am working to spread Sumac on back edge of this wildflower buffer.  The idea is that I have taller Sumac or other large shrubs growing behind a mix of wildflowers.  Sumac spreads by rhizome so all of the first year shoots are easily chopped out as the roots are only about an inch or two deep.  Last fall I chopped about 50 first year shoots out and plugged them in in other spots around the property.  About half survived that transplanting, some grew out of the top and others grew back out from the roots this year.  
The mix of wildflowers varies depending on sunlight and soil moisture conditions.  Most of my borders are full sun with medium to dry soils.  I am developing a wildflower mix of plants that are native to North Carolina.  For these locations I am planting Butterfly weed, Downy Wood Mint, Coneflower, Blazing Star, Mountain Mint, Hoary Vervain, Nodding Onion, Rattlesnake Master, False Sunflower, Blue Sage, Spotted Bee Balm, Golden Rod, Smooth Blue Aster, and Southern Crownbeard.  I collect native seeds and use them to spread on my property to reduce the cost.  Goldenrod, Asters, Wild Sunflowers, and Southern Crownbeard are easy to find this time of year to collect.  I have purchased seeds from both Prairemoon Nursery, American Meadows, and Park Seed Co., they are reputable sources of seed. 

Stand of Ironweed – Wake County, NC

I found a couple small patches of Ironweed this year, which is coming up in some ditch lines nearby.  It’s a really pretty flower, so I am collecting those seed heads this year too.  Given that I am looking to propogate Ironweed along with some Mountain Mint, Wild Golden Glow, and Sweet Joe Pye Weed in a couple wetter spots.  Lastly, I have a border on the south side of a field that gets a lot of shade, but isn’t wet.  For those shady spots I am going to see if I can get some Hairy Wood Mint, Shorts Aster, and Late Figwort to grow.  I am targeting wildflower bloom periods primarily from June to September as the dearth is hardest in this area during this period. 

Get Wildflower Seeds where you can

Goldenrod bloom getting close to peak

There are a lot of wildflowers that come up in ditch lines, field edges, and rite of ways.  I have been collecting seeds from those plants and scattering then all around my bee yard for the last few years.  The wildflower spread hasn’t been wildly successful yet, mostly some expansion of Goldenrod and some Milkweed.  Given the milder winters the last couple of years I suspect that a number of those seeds haven’t broken their dormancy period.  As it turns out most perennial wildflower require a period of cold temperatures to break the seeds dormancy.  These cold periods are usually one to two months, but some plants require longer than that.  

First year planting of Spotted Bee Balm

This year I am going to artificially cold stratify my seeds before I sow them.  In years passed I like to sow after Thanksgiving, though germination has been limited.  A portion of those seeds will probably come up at some point in time, though it may take another year or so for the seed to be viable.  I am looking to sow a portion of my seeds in February following cold stratifying and reserve others to germinate and plug in after the date of last frost in the spring.  Hopefully I will have more luck next year.

9.1.20 – Finishing out the Summer

Unidentified Wildflower Bloom

In these parts the summer is very tough.  Unless you happen to be in some areas with a few specific nectar flows there is very little for the bees to forage on.  There are a plethora of wildflowers around that honeybees forage on but often those wildflower stands aren’t large.  Much of the time you would probably not even know those wildflowers are there, they are that nondescript.  
In North Carolina, if you can put bees on cotton then you are in good shape.  Cotton planting has been late and staggered the last few years so what was usually a 4-5 week bloom period can now stretch into 6-7 weeks.  Traditionally, cotton blooms around the 4th of July, though in recent years the start has generally be about two weeks after that.  Cotton fields frequently have borders of fall wildflowers, usually goldenrod, false sunflower, aster, and crownbeard.  Those wildflower stands benefit from fertilizer runoff and full sun.  I have seen cotton blooms continue right into September right when all the fall wildflowers are starting to turn on.  

How are my Bee hives?

I started this year with five surviving hives, one of which was the last treated hive I brought up to Wake County.  That hive barely had any bees left but managed to hold on for most of the year.  It finally broke down, and got robbed out, which wasn’t any surprise to me.  Through swarm catching and splitting I have about twenty hives in Wake County. 
I split all the hives this year using the OTS (on the spot) method.  Doing this I basically divide a box of bees into two boxes, using a Langstroth hive.  Splitting a double deep hive I opted to use at least four frames (8 deep frames) to make a split.  Make sure that both boxes have eggs in them, no need trying to find the queen.  The box without a queen will raise a new queen, taking around 28 days to get a mated queen.  I let a hive build up to two deep boxes and then split them evenly.  The larger number of bees and congesting the bees helped a lot to raise a new queen in the first few days of being queenless.  In years passed, using this method with only a few frames (2-3 frames) of bees resulted in several failed attempts at raising new queens.  I think I only had one hive not raise a queen on the first attempt this year. 
This year I split aggressively so most of the hives are small, most will finish off the year in the 8-14 (deep) frames range.  That has made resource collecting difficult in the summer, since smaller hives have smaller foraging forces.  I started feeding in mid-August to stimulate laying.  It’s typical for laying in the summer to slow down due to the heat and lack of resources.  There was also very little honey stored away since most of the hives were made or caught after the spring flow.

Feeding of Honey Bees

Eventually I would like to get the apiary to a point where feeding is not necessary.  Feeding (simple syrup) I believe is not desirable for overall be health, but it is better than letting a small hive starve.  Larger hives that starve out in the summer probably don’t have the desired genetics that I am looking for.  Either way, I am feeding for now though I try to limit the amount that I do feed, mostly to small hives. 

Top Feeder on a Double Deep Horizontal Hive

I believe there are a few shifts in management style required to have a hive that doesn’t need feeding in this area.  Locally, the spring flow represents the bulk of honey put on a hive.  In order for the honey bees to thrive in the summer I believe the bees should keep the first honey.  Its fairly common for beekeepers to take too much honey off a hive after the spring flow.  That usually has them feeding later in the year.  
Leaving the first honey on a hive may result in hives that don’t produce excess yield.  So its quite possible that more hives and larger hives may be required in order to have honey for sale.  I would also like to split a hive only once per year.  Making a split or even taking resources from one hive to support another is very taxing on a hive.  This likely requires some hives just for honey production and others for breeding. 
In a treatment free apiary this is difficult as the heavy mortality rates the first few years puts a lot of pressure to expand numbers.  There are a few practices that aren’t ideal(feeding), that likely are required the first few years while developing survivor genetics.  In my case I would be thrilled with a 50% survivor rate this winter (the second winter without chemicals).  That would mean 10 hives to build up off of next year.  Ten hives is still not a lot to expand off of and have dedicated honey hives.  Though it certainly is better than starting with five hives.

6.15.20 – The start of the June dearth

Bloom Report – Ligustrum, Sourwood, Chaste Tree, Clover, Basswood, Buttonbush, Crape myrtle, Queen Anne’s Lace

Ligustrum Lucidium

The spring nectar flow wraps up quickly moving into the end of may and beginning of June.  In Raleigh the most prevalent blooming bee plant (right now) appears to be Ligustrum (Privet).  It’s not a terrific nectary but there certainly is a lot of it around here.  Sourwood is also easily seen along the highways.  In the piedmont there is actually a lot of sourwood but most of it is in the understory.  I don’t think that it gets enough sunlight to bloom strongly.  Basswood and Buttonbush are really nice blooming plants starting right about now, but those are typically localized to the mountains and waterways respectively.  Lucky is the beehive that has them nearby right now.  There are various other blooming flowers that you can see honeybees working, though there usually aren’t large stands of them. 
June ushers in the dearth period in North Carolina.  I.e. a time of limited or no major nectar flows.  There are still plants blooming right now but the choices become much more limited.  As such robbing is more prevalent.  Meaning bees from one hive will rob honey from another.  A really strong hive can actually overrun a smaller one.  I had a mass of bees get in my garage a week or so ago as I had some juicy frames hanging around that some nearby bees found.  That lasted for a day or so till they cleaned out all those frames.  Honeybees really get in a frenzy this time of year if they find really abundant sugar sources.  Click the image to see the video.

Clary Sage 2020

We had 24 hives on Clary Sage this year in Chowan County, NC.  I would consider this year rather mediocre to poor in terms of honey production.  There were two weeks of prolonged rain during the peak of the bloom.  Many beekeepers across the state reported a similar outcome.  Given that most of the honey produced for market is spring honey I would wager that the availability of local honey is going to be down this year.
When bees are inside the hive they consume their stored honey.  A double hit as they aren’t foraging for new nectar as well.  We went from extremely dry at this time last year to extremely wet this year.  Around six of my hives swarmed out or crashed during this time.  Its prime time for swarming so some of that was expected.  Either way I am thankful for what we were able to harvest.  We yielded around 300lbs of Clary Sage honey this year.

Clary Sage Bloom – Salvia Sclarea

If you are not familiar with Clary Sage Honey (click link for some history), I would consider it as one of the top tier variety honeys.  It is lite in color/tone, slow to crystalize, and has some floral accents.  In our region I would put it on par with Tupelo and Sourwood Honey.  Unfortunately, this may be the last year that Clary Sage Honey will be available as there are rumblings that Avoca is shifting away from Clary Sage processing.  The most recent rumor that I have heard is that Avoca is going to convert to hemp processing.  Presumably they are looking to process hemp for CBD oil.  The extraction process I think is similar to extracting the sclareol in Clary Sage.  Clary Sage is planted in the fall so we will know then if Avoca issues contracts for next year or not.

June Swarm Update

The flood gates were opened In Wake county the first week of May.  I caught five swarms that first week and have caught a small handful since then.  All told I am currently at eight swarms this season in Wake County, and one in Halifax County.  I have even caught a few swarms in my double deep swarm boxes.  One in particular was one of the largest swarms I have ever caught, close to seven frames of bees.  I am loading this swarm into the last bay of my swarm casting box. 
Now that I have seen these double deep swarm boxes in action, I have some answers to my initial questions.  They are indeed attractive to swarms, and the extra weight isn’t terrible.  Though, I tend to hang the double deep boxes lower in a tree.  Usually somewhere between four and six feet. 
That being said the dark color on them makes them much hotter than my other hives.  I had to shim the top to vent the box, mitigating the bearding on the front of the hive.  The opening size also appears to be restrictive, contributing to my heat issues.  Venting is counterproductive to maintaining a high humid environment.  Though it has lessened the bearding substantially, and the hive seems happier.  A box with a high humidity environment is thought to hinder varroa reproduction rates.  While that is good, the 90+ degree days in full sun don’t help the hive thermodynamics.  I am considering moving the opening to the bottom of the box.  There is a little bit of open space below the frames so I think that will help air and bee flow.


4.22.20 – Tracking the Nectar Flow for NC Honey

honeybee foraging on collard bloom for North Carolina honey

Honeybee on Collard Bloom

We all like North Carolina honey, and that honey comes from plant nectar.  Honeybees don’t make honey, or at least less of it, when there isn’t much blooming.  So, keeping bees really makes you pay attention to what is blooming at all times of the year.  Before I kept bees, the native plant bloom was taking place but it was all in the background for me.  In the past few weeks – Hollies, Black Cherry, Willow, Elm, and Wisteria have already bloomed.  Blackberry, Tupelo and Poplar are currently in bloom. 
Now in the fourth week of April, the Tulip Poplar flow is just starting here in the piedmont.  I have seen some very mature poplars blooming for a little bit now.  Though by and large the bloom hasn’t come into full swing.  Back home, in the northeast part of the state, plants seem to bloom about 7-10 days behind the piedmont.  As nectar flows go, the poplar bloom is strong as it typically lasts around three weeks.  This lumps it in the category of major nectar flow.  Most plants don’t bloom this long or produce as much nectar.
photinia serrulata in eastern NC

Large Photinia Serrulata

Generally speaking, plants that produce a major nectar flow tend to be trees, shrubs of decent size, or plants that grow in large swaths.  Either a plant is large enough to push a lot of nectar or there are smaller plants that are more numerous.  The majority of these plants tend to bloom in the spring time.  As such, in our state, the spring is a good time for nectar flows.  Many places however don’t see much nectar flow passed June.  There is a summer dearth in most parts of the state.  Dearth meaning a time of little nectar flow.  This is also when robbing is the most abundant. 
Most spots, especially rural areas, do have some fall flow.  Primarily this is made up of Goldenrod, Aster, and a species of native Sunflower.  That being said, location is everything.  I find urban areas to have more limited nectar flows outside of the spring flow.  Unsurprisingly, development has led to the depletion of a lot of forage.  Nice weed free lawns in abundance don’t make things any better.
creek abundant with plants to produce North Carolina honeyBack on the idea of location, it is possible to find areas that very localized honey flows take place.  Keeping bees near lakes, or large waterways, can be beneficial as its possible to pick up nectar flows from Gallberry and ButtonbushSourwood in the mountains also comes to mind.  Looking at this aerial near my hometown you can see the creek running up the center of the image.  The area immediately surrounding the creek is low and swampy filled with very large Tupelo and Poplar trees.  The cultivated areas adjacent to the tree lines are all usually filled with Sage, Cotton, and Soybeans.  Additionally, the cultivated areas typically have stands of fall blooming plants that receive fertilizer runoff and strong daylight.  Those fall blooming stands can be large, dense, and are located around most fields.  It’s quite possible in many parts of eastern North Carolina to hit 3-5 major nectar flows.  That’s alot of NC honey.
Clary sage field in early April

Clary Sage Field early April

This year the sage field where we moved bees happens to be near this creek area.  Clary Sage typically blooms around the beginning of May and tends to last the whole month.  At the time we moved the hives we are likely to pick up the Tupelo bloom first.  Tulip poplar and Clary Sage will follow in the coming weeks.  All told there should be strong nectar flow for seven to eight weeks.  Last year we had about sixteen hives for the sage flow.  It was very dry and hot during the sage season last year, so not ideal conditions.  The honey was very thick coming out of the comb.  This year we have around 30 colonies so we will see what happens.
Langstroth hives set up for North Carolina honey production

Hives set up on Sage – April 2020

The piedmont bee yard is located near a lake, so in addition to the strong spring bloom I know there is some buttonbush growing around the lake.  This helps produce a nectar flow in the June time frame.  Outside of the sumac that blooms in late July, the summer dearth is pretty heavy.  There is a fall flow, though honeybees are mysterious; at times it’s obvious what plants they are working and most other times it’s not.  Currently it’s hard to gauge the strength of the smaller summer flows and the fall flow in the piedmont. 

3.27.20 – Double Deep Swarm Box

double deep swarm casting box

The Sunflower “Swarm Caster” painted by my daughter

Last year I started to experiment with insulated double deep frame hives, i.e. Lazutin hive.  The idea is this hive style promises to be superior to stacking (Langstroth) hives, but I’ll save that for another time.  If interested, read Beekeeping with a Smile.  Building on this concept, I made a double deep insulated hive that is split into three 6 frame sections just for the purpose of casting swarms.  I am looking to develop this idea to help automate the breeding process as swarms don’t require any beekeeper manipulation and they ramp up more quickly than splits.  “Ramp up” meaning the queen is already laying and the swarm comes with the right number of bees/resources to build out quickly.
North Carolina Honey and brood in a double deep frame - side by side configurationA double deep frame is basically two standard deep frames joined together.  Most people join the two frames top to bottom.  I opted to go side to side and fashion them with a new top bar as this still allows me to use my deep frames without modifying them.  Additionally, I can still use my extraction equipment.  The bottom frame in the top to bottom method usually requires cutting the ears off the bottom frame.  
This year I made several swarm boxes that utilize a double deep frame and I decided to insulate them.  A standard 40 liter swarm box usually holds five frames and has several inches of space below the frames.  To accommodate a double deep frame it only requires the swarm box to be a touch deeper.  Using approximately the same volume I can fill that box with the equivalent of 8 deep frames.  This is a plus for me as I have had swarms move in and build right on the bottom of the frames and not in the frames themselves.
insulated double deep swarm boxesThe main drawback in this build was the weight.  Since I made a double wall box with insulation in between it increased the width of the box and its weight.  The first set of boxes I made actually hold 6 double frames and those boxes really are heavy.  I suspect they will be used more for making splits in the future.  Originally I was thinking that i needed larger hives to overwinter more successfully, thus the 6 frame boxes.  I have since learned (reading Kirk Webster) that there are lots of people that over winter nucs in a 4 over 4 configuration very well.  Even in more northern climates.  So ideally a 4 double frame box is a better choice, and is what I made on my last build run.
double deep swarm box in a beech treeSo… why insulate the swarm box at all, basically no one does this?  What I would like to achieve is a condition where I can catch a swarm and have them overwinter in that box.  This minimizes the amount of beekeeper intervention.  In the future, it also allows me to sell overwintered colonies more easily as the whole colony and box could be sold together.  The insulation also helps the colony thrive during the season and overwintering.

Advantages of double frame swarm box as I see them…

  1. More frames so greater flexibility in recovering a swarm before it fills up the box or builds comb in places you don’t want.
  2. Due to the space more flexibility in placing swarm boxes in more distant locations.
  3. Insulation and frame style better for overwintering.
  4. May not be necessary to move the hive out of the box (or split), especially for mid to late season swarms.

The questions/problems I am looking to have answered this year are…

  1.  Is this box style attractive to a swarm?  I don’t see why it wouldn’t be… but if a swarm won’t move in then its a moot point.
  2. Will early swarms build up enough so that they run out of room?  Will they need to be split mid summer?
  3. Is the weight of the box too big of an issue?

3.24.20 – Gearing up for Swarm Catching

honey bee with a varroa mite

varroa mite from sciencemag.org

Treatment free beekeeping is basically a management style.  One that decides there will be no treatments of any kind applied to a honey bee hive.  In its strictest form, some consider feeding bees a treatment as well.  The majority of bee keepers put pesticides or other “organic” compounds on their hives mainly for the management of varroa destructor.  The varroa mite is a parasite that feeds and reproduces on honey bees/larva and can overrun a hive.  A hive or apiary run in a treatment free style relies upon developing survivor genetics, and as such most are very active in breeding and swarm catching. 
It is common for an apiary to take many years to develop in a treatment free style as hive mortality rates are usually pretty high in the first couple of years.  Its been reported by many that first year mortality is 70-90% of colonies and then gradually improves as the beekeeper splits and breeds from the surviving hives.   I personally am expecting around 3/4 loss the first year, 1/2 the second, 1/3, 1/4, and so on… This passed winter was the first season where I haven’t moved the hives during the year and at the peak I had 16 colonies during the summer of 2019.  I overwintered 13 colonies with 5 surviving the winter.  My mortality percentages look to be right in line with expectation.  Of the survivor colonies, two were swarms caught in Wake county, two were colonies I raised, and the last a treated colony that I split in the summer.  The formerly treated colony looks to have barely held on so we will see if there are survivor genetics there.
eastern NC swarm

Eastern NC Honeybee Swarm

Spring is about to set in and I am back into expansion mode, which means splitting of surviving hives and swarm catching.  So what is swarm catching?  Honeybees make two things, honey and more bees.  A colony feels cramped when it fills up all the space in its cavity with said bees and honey.  A cavity in this case is void in a tree (most common), rock face, ground, house/structure, or a hive box.  When that happens a colony raises a new queen to take over and the old queen leaves with a portion of the colony to go find another space to fill up.  In our area (March-September) there are swarms flying around that most of us never even realize are there.
Catching a swarm is fairly simplistic.  The idea is to create an attractive home for the swarm to move in.  In practice this is making a box and hanging it in a tree.  Scout bees find the new location and if it is attractive then a swarm can move in.  A swarm box typically has a 40 liters volume.  Usually holds 5 frames, and is baited with lemongrass oil.  Lemongrass oil mimics the queen pheromone which is attractive to scout bees.  The idea is to make the box smell like bees have lived there before.  Adding old brood comb, facing the box opening to the south, and locating the swarm box near a water source increase the odds of catching a swarm.  Some advocate hanging the box high in a tree, although there are lots of people that have caught swarms low to the ground and even baiting old hives in their apiary.