Michigan Sustainable Apiary Initiative
Michigan has struggled for many years with having a winter survival rate of bees that allows for beekeepers to maintain or grow their apiaries. It also has set up a scenario where new beekeepers can’t find local sources of bees to get started early in the season. This has caused a dependence on sourcing bees from the south and west in great numbers. This is becoming harder and more costly each year because other regions are also struggling to keep their bee populations viable and can’t afford to “share” their resources as readily with those of us in the north. This problem centers on two related issues: strong healthy hives during the beekeeping season that produce adequate honey for beekeepers use and for the bees to have for overwintering, and overwintering itself. We have found ourselves in a survival cycle where we are just trying to keep our hives alive all summer and then hope for the best over the winter. In the spring we are happy to have 50% survival which generally leads to a need to acquire some bees from outside to bring hive numbers back up. If we are able to do splits it does help us increase, but it seems we never actually get ahead because we lose hives in the summer as well as the winter.
Over a period of around seven years I operated a club apiary for the Kalamazoo Bee Club. Its purpose was mostly for educating new beekeepers on how to manage hives, but also served as a place to experiment with different factors to make beekeeping in our environment more viable. Starting in 2013 I began to think in earnest about this issue of sustainability in our club’s apiary. Our club welcomed over 100 new beekeepers each year to our annual bee school and they and others who lost hives in the winter suddenly all needed bees in the spring. It was too large a number for one local supplier to supply and most of the beekeepers nearby that do produce bees do it in small numbers. This leaves new beekeepers no options but to get bees from out of state, or to rely on large beekeepers to sell them nucleus hives that often have out of state queens in them anyway. At the club apiary we developed some methods that seemed to work to keep bees healthy in the summer and remain productive. We also seemed to turn the corner on overwintering. This however is only half the equation. I was always told you have to choose between producing honey or producing bees. If you make enough splits/nuclei to sell bees you will not produce surplus honey. I realized the first year we seriously tried to make increase, we were able to increase our hives in the apiary by 33% and still got plenty of honey. That was modest, we could probably have increased by around 50% and still have had a decent honey crop. This led me to understand that you can produce both honey and bees, but on a modest scale. If each beekeeper produces just a few nucleus hives, say two or three, maybe as many as five, and sells them to a neighboring beekeeper, the numbers would add up and eventually over time we could create a network that could supply bees locally.
The Michigan Sustainable Apiary Initiative is an independent program which will attempt to educate and promote sustainable methods of beekeeping and raising bees in a network of small producers throughout our entire state. This program will serve all beekeepers in the state and will focus on small scale sustainable honey and bee production. Field days will be held at the apiary on a monthly basis throughout the beekeeping season. Field days will be free and open to the public. The apiary will also attempt to begin a nucleus hive program in which nucleus hives produced at the apiary and among those coming to field days will be shared with others in the local region, especially new beekeepers.
It is hoped that over a period of years a network of sustainability will develop around the state. The apiary will only be a proto-type example to educate. It is hoped that others around the state will attempt to put the same type of principles into practice and also produce small numbers of nuclei to sell to those nearby and that will increase and grow over time. If this idea would catch on, theoretically a new beekeeper would be able to find someone nearby, say within five miles of where they live who could sell them at least one nuc to get started in the spring.
We are committed to helping new beekeepers (and experienced beekeepers) be successful this year. I am planning to have field days beginning in the spring here at my farm. Sign up for my email list if you have not already to get updates on what that schedule will be.