April 08, 2015

Bear Creek Organic Farm Awarded Over $10,000 to Research Honeybee Overwintering Strategies!

It is with great excitement and optimism that Bear Creek Organic Farm (Petoskey, MI) announces their award of a fully funded research opportunity, focusing on honeybee overwintering strategies in the far north.

After back-to-back winters of devastating hive losses, Anne & Brian Bates of Bear Creek Organic Farm decided the time was right to step up their casual on-farm research, and apply for a USDA-funded, on-farm research project. 

Through a research grant from USDA - SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), Bear Creek Organic Farm will receive $10,752 to explore their project - "Exploring Shelter-Based Options for Over-wintering Honeybee Colonies in Northern Climates to Reduce Winter Loss." 

One of four separate honeybee-research grants approved in four different states across the Midwest, Bear Creek's project intends to test the opportunities present in utilizing existing farm structures as potential enclosures to increase the chances of honeybee colony survival through the long, harsh, winters found in North Central United States. 

In partnership with fellow farmer and beekeeper Jonathan Scheel of Scheel Family Farm (Petoskey, MI), the joint-farm research project will evaluate the cost, success, and management considerations (labor, equipment, scalability) for each of five different shelter options with a two-part control.

The shelters were selected based on likelihood of on farm availability and degree of protection. To derive meaningful results and account for hive variability, four colonies will be placed in each of the five shelters. The five shelters include: 1) straw-bale enclosure, 2) calf hutch, 3) unheated hoophouse, 4) standard shed, and 5) an unheated pole barn. The two-part control consists of four hives with no protection whatsoever, as well as four hives wrapped as one unit in a roofing paper-style pallet wrap – the most commonly suggested over wintering technique.

Overwintered colonies at Bear Creek Organic Farm, Winter 2015.

Each shelter option plus control will have wireless data-loggers embedded within the hive that will record the temperature and humidity inside the hives every hour from November through April. These data-sets will be analyzed in conjunction with an on-farm weather station recording the same environmental data (plus wind speed, direction, and precipitation) to compare how hives in different shelters respond to harsh-winter weather conditions. 

This project acknowledges the tremendous importance of managed honeybee colonies as part of our agricultural system and aims to provide concrete data and accessible conclusions to be shared with beekeepers of all sizes interested in ecologically sound, ethical opportunities to achieve and/or enhance profitability.

According to Bates, "after we lost 60% of our colonies in 2012-13 and 90% in 2013-14 – customers and beekeepers began asking us the same questions we were asking ourselves – isn’t there somewhere we could put the hives that would protect them from the elements? We were not content losing this many bees. Not for our business, and certainly not for the bees!" 

Bates was especially intrigued following a conversation with friend and beekeeper, Jonathan Scheel - "he put three of his hives inside his hoophouse last fall and while they seemed weaker than some of our outdoor colonies in the fall, all three survived. Was this dumb luck? Or is there a significant opportunity here? Those are the questions we need to answer."

While the data-recording does not formally commence until Fall 2015, Scheel and Bates are starting 28 new hives this May to be able to use for research over the winter. "This is only the beginning" says Bates, who also has plans to construct a 1,200 sq. feet "Honeybee Hotel" this summer to test indoor overwintering with his regular hives.

Following the the findings of this research project, there are plans to host a Northern Beekeeping Strategies Summit in late summer 2016 featuring speakers and beekeepers for an on-farm field day at Bear Creek Organic Farm, in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Brian Bates shows a successfully over-wintered hive to members of the Little Traverse Bay Beekeepers Guild.

Bates does't know whether the work will ever be "done," but the goal of this research, "is to focus on the majority of beekeepers, those who keep their bees locally, maintain small to medium apiaries, and are therefore faced with the long, harsh winters typical of our region. If we can mitigate this problem with some ingenuity and existing infrastructure, then we can boost winter survival, reduce operating costs, increase business viability, and demonstrate a model of beekeeping that does not depend as heavily on massive transportation costs, and southern bee factory farms.

Approximately 95% of all beekeepers maintain fewer than 25 hives, with many managing only a couple hives - this research project is for those beekeepers. Beekeepers with 10,000 to 80,000 hives don't need to over-winter hives up north, they can afford to load them on semi-trucks and take them south for the winter. We want to bring the research home for the majority of beekeepers in an accessible, low-cost, and innovative fashion. That's our goal."

 

For more information on Bear Creek Organic Farm, their bees, and their research, visit www.bearcreekorganicfarm.com and follow them on Facebook by clicking here.