Bug Out Shelter – Part 1

Inside baseball warning: the following post contains in-depth beekeep info that may interest only the nerdiest among us.  Mucho jargon ahead.
“This isn’t sustainable,” I thought waddling from car to garage with a deep filled w/ 80lbs of honey.   I was lugging home heavy leftovers from an enormous hive who died mid-winter with no good excuse.  This was dumb and simply unmanageable.

I started out beekeeping with all medium equipment.  My research showed advantages to this nontraditional approach: mediums weigh about 40lbs less when honey-full, the single frame size is handy, and “the bees overwinter better” it was said.  All very sensible.  Then the experts got to me with their advice: “Deeps are better”. “Everyone uses this set up”.  “They overwinter better”.  Not wanting to disappoint the experts, I adopted some deeps.  But after a couple of years of having these huge hives in my yards, I’ve noticed 2 things: they are crazy heavy & the bees die more.  Keywords here are “I’ve noticed” and “in my yard”.  Not in your yard experts – mine.  (I fully trust that your stacks of deeps are just perfect.)


Noteworthy that these tall hives are in NZ – no varroa  Photo by Beesource

What follows here is no scientific analysis, merely my anecdotal evaluation.  Your mileage (and mine) may vary.  My assessment is that my hives run with 2-deep brood chambers seem to peak within 2 years.  Flash in the pan.  1 hit wonders.   Amazing production for 1-2 years then dead out in winter.  This with all other factors roughly equal: stored honey, mite treatments, location, forage, and some genetics. WTH?

In the course of spring swarm research I noted the reoccurring theme of cavity size.  Real research has proven that bees naturally choose a ~45L cavity (essentially 1 deep).  Goldilocks size – just right.  So if bees are looking for 1500 sq ft home, why do I keep enticing them into 3000 sq ft?  People do this and we call it foreclosure.  There was a huge scandal right?  They hock everything (including health & longevity) to fill the castle.  But it isn’t sustainable, even with intervention.  They poop out and the whole house of cards collapses.


This is just cool, but unstable.  Photo by BBC

This isn’t ground breaking, beekeepers long ago tinkered with hive configurations to achieve the perfect size.  But in 1887 agricultural industrialism hadn’t hit yet.  I could name drop all the cool bee pioneers but their moms are already very proud and long gone.  Modern beekeepers now call it “Natural Beekeeping” and pair it with “treatment-free beekeeping” which is a misnomer since many are less keeping bees as replacing them.  Note that I claim no experience with top bars, Warre hives, long hives, treatment free etc.  This is my yard and I’m after a modern hybrid of sustainability & production.  Experts go fish.

More investigation struck a chord.  Chickens have a similar poop-out phenomenon.  Modern production layers crank out eggs at a surprising rate lasting 1-2 years before they simply keel over or they are culled/ replaced.  Typical industrial model, selecting a natural tendency for hyper production.  It’s known that hens (humans too) start life with all the tiny eggs they will ever produce.  So if they lay 80-90% in the first 2 years, they are sold out.  Remember this is something we selected for – not purely their nature.  One effect of hyper production is less broodiness (momminess).


Are hygienics and momminess the same?

My question is, can the production hen effect be true of bees?  Could breeding/forcing super laying queens reduce ‘broodiness’ in nurse bees?  Either in their nature or in their availability of time?

Meaning that they either don’t care or have time to intensively tend brood for hygiene/disease.  Or are they so exhausted/stressed out by all the kiddos to feed that their best is short shrift?  Conventional wisdom is that queens pass on a hygienic genetic trait  which makes for good care-taking workers.  But could it come down to a ratio of babes/nurse bee?  Or is it both?  We certainly have a sliding scale of good chicken mommies – mostly the aptly named “Bad Mama Buff” who tried to off her offspring last year.  So maybe some bees are naturally better babysitters and given the time with a smaller brood nest, do a better job keeping little ones healthy.  Perhaps VSH queens + smaller hives?

One of the most unheralded parts of the colony are nurse bees.  These <1 week old bees are the gatekeepers of queen production, brood hygenics, and hive cleanliness.  We want a perky Mary Poppins or energetic Fraulein Maria, not the hot-flashed Mrs. Doubtfire.  Does having too many kiddos stress out the nurse bees to the point that their quality of care declines?


I’m not the one to soundly answer those questions.  I’m going on gut & logic paired with trial & error.  Dangerous personal favorites which lead to inconclusive, unsubstantiated findings.  My kind of science.  (former science teachers collectively cringe).

Old model:

Huge brood nest = huge field force = tons honey = exhaustion = death by disease =  buying new bees

Equally bad model: 

Small brood nest = few foragers = few resources = weak hives = robbing/disease = death = buying new bees

Desirable model:

Medium brood nest = moderate # foragers = less honey? = bee peace = better survival?

All of this reminds me that bees are preppers.  They zealously hoard for rainy days and defend against invaders.   The first rule of a preppers bug-out place is size – Can’t ward off zombies on a huge property, can’t produce enough on a small one.  Prepper 101.


Maybe too extreme.  Photo by Amy’s Robot

But I don’t want to sacrifice my honey harvest!  So if each hive produces less honey (in theory – we shall see if this bears out), how to get the same amount of honey as big hives?  Algebra lovers unite!

If we call a single deep (x) then 2x = 2(1x).  (Identity property, thank you Sauce)  The answer is more algebra hives.  Boom.

If you are still awake, stay tuned for Part 2.  My treatise on swarming and plan of action in 2018.