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Rapid Expansion Model (REM)

 
Michael Cox
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Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Hi Folks,

I came across this the other day while reading up on treatment free techniques and thought it worth sharing. This is a high management method, so won't suit everyone, but might help people get to, and maintain, treatment free regimens.

The underlying problem with treatment free beekeeping is that the loss rate of bees is higher, and in the first few years it is substantially higher. When we opt for treatment free we are hoping to select over time for bees that are well adapted to our local conditions and can exist in balance with mites. The idea with REM is that you raise many more queens and colonies than you ultimately want to keep, pre-empting the effects of higher winter loss rates. For example if you want to keep 4 production hives you might raise as many as 12 nucleus colonies along side them. If your loss rate reaches 50% you still have 8 colonies the following spring - in a dreadful year you might get 75% losses but still have 4 colonies in spring.

Not only is this building massive resilience into your apiary, but it is also giving you many more chances at getting winning genetic combinations to select from.

This is the system I have ultimately drifted towards, without ever having a name for it.

As of today I have 4 production hives and 4 nucs, with a selection of mongrel queens from a mix of swarms, splits and purchased nucs. I will probably try and make some more splits and go into winter with another 4 nucs.

Uses for Nuc's
  • Banking spare queens for your production hives
  • Strengthening production hives by giving them extra capped brood ahead of honey flows
  • Drawing out comb for your other hives - especially useful if you are going for foundationless/natural comb
  • Raising new queens from your best stock
  • Overwintering for varroa/wintering selection


  • I know there has been a lot of discussion of STUN hives and the like - I think this offers a much faster and more reliable way to get where you need to be with your bees.
     
    tel jetson
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    Michael Cox wrote:The underlying problem with treatment free beekeeping is that the loss rate of bees is higher, and in the first few years it is substantially higher


    I haven't found this to be true. my loss rate started out roughly the same as local beekeepers who treat and has slowly improved. I understand that one datum doesn't make a trend, but I get the impression that there's a fair bit of accepted wisdom about low-intervention practices that might not reflect reality, at least not everywhere.

    on the other hand, doing things the way I have is certainly not fast. from my point of view, though, the slow increase of my apiaries has been an important advantage. I've learned an awful lot through observation without being overwhelmed by a quickly increasing work load. like much of the wider culture surrounding me, I'm baffled by what a hurry everyone seems to be in. so the rapid in your REM immediately gives me pause.

    I think I could accomplish the same thing you're after by simply keeping more whole colonies around for backup and to provide swarms to replace losses instead of swapping combs and queens. that doesn't, of course, mean that your rapid expansion model isn't a good idea, just pointing out that there are alternatives that don't involve dramatic interventions.
     
    Michael Cox
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    Tel - some good thoughts, and I suspected from your other posts you would be of a minimal intervention attitude.

    This is not my own idea (REM), but it aligns closely with my own thoughts. When breeding crops you plant large numbers of your hybrid seeds, hoping to spot that ideal genetic combination. The more seeds you plant, the better the odds.

    Regarding having more production colonies - this is a non starter for me. For various reasons I need to buy my equipment. A Nuc hive fully setup costs me £40, and production hive costs me nearer £150.

    Next - if I lose a production colony to disease it is a big hit, but nucs are cheap (in terms of bee resources) and renewable. I can make a viable split from just 3 frames of brood and have it ready and waiting in the wings in case of a problem. There is also always the option of selling nucs (£120 a pop here).

    Swarms - I catch swarms. It is one of my favourite beekeeping pastimes. However, it is time consuming and unreliable. Typically it takes me one to two hours to get all the bees in the box ready to pack up. I can split a hive in under 5 minutes and get 3 colonies for the effort. This year I've put maybe 20 hours into catching 7 swarms (including travel time). Only one of those swarms has built up sufficiently to give me a yield this year, while over wintered nucs are far more likely to build up properly.

    Actively propagating good genetics - swarming alone is hit and miss for getting the best genetics going in your apiary. Using splits I can make 5, 10 or 100 queens from my best survivors. If I design my system well I can then pick the best of those. Using Nuc boxes costs me 40 per colony to test vrs 150.

    (Ran out of time posting from my phone - I'll come back later and add/edit)
     
    tel jetson
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    Michael Cox wrote:When breeding crops you plant large numbers of your hybrid seeds, hoping to spot that ideal genetic combination. The more seeds you plant, the better the odds.


    it's an attractive metaphor, but I'm not sure it's entirely appropriate. bees aren't actually seeds, so there's some risk in applying lessons from the one to the other.

    Michael Cox wrote:Regarding having more production colonies - this is a non starter for me. For various reasons I need to buy my equipment. A Nuc hive fully setup costs me £40, and production hive costs me nearer £150.


    this might actually be at the heart of our differing approaches. I think a lot about language and how much control it has over our experience of the world. I wouldn't refer to any of my colonies as production colonies. not because they don't produce, but because that is not their purpose. the point is not the production for me, it's the interaction. bees get to be bees, and I get to be a human and we interact. of course I like honey and wax and propolis and I'm pleased when I'm able to harvest those things, but I recognize that those things are not the entirety of a colony. likewise, I don't believe my only purpose is to work to feed myself. I don't think I'm articulating this very well, so it probably sounds like splitting hairs or some obnoxious hippy dippy garbage. and maybe it is one or both of those things.

    but more to your point about needing to buy equipment: it's an issue. if for whatever reasons, a person can't build their own hives or buy used equipment, beekeeping can be expensive.

    Michael Cox wrote:Next - if I lose a production colony to disease it is a big hit, but nucs are cheap (in terms of bee resources) and renewable. I can make a viable split from just 3 frames of brood and have it ready and waiting in the wings in case of a problem. There is also always the option of selling nucs (£120 a pop here).


    I've got a different attitude about losing colonies. I certainly don't relish losing colonies, but I don't consider it a total loss, either. there's generally some honey left, and plenty of wax and propolis. if there's empty comb in any boxes, I leave the comb in place and use the boxes for bait hives. I don't have great success with new boxes for bait hives, but previously occupied boxes attract swarms pretty reliably during swarm season. I also recognize that a loss of a colony that isn't well-adapted to some local condition can be good for the general population.

    Michael Cox wrote:Swarms - I catch swarms. It is one of my favourite beekeeping pastimes. However, it is time consuming and unreliable. Typically it takes me one to two hours to get all the bees in the box ready to pack up. I can split a hive in under 5 minutes and get 3 colonies for the effort. This year I've put maybe 20 hours into catching 7 swarms (including travel time). Only one of those swarms has built up sufficiently to give me a yield this year, while over wintered nucs are far more likely to build up properly.


    I don't go chasing swarms much anymore. it's a lot of fun, but I don't feel like it's a great use of resources. I'll gladly bike across town for a swarm, but gone are the days when I would drive 30 miles to collect one. I rely a lot more on bait hives that I can collect or move at my leisure.

    Michael Cox wrote:Actively propagating good genetics - swarming alone is hit and miss for getting the best genetics going in your apiary. Using splits I can make 5, 10 or 100 queens from my best survivors. If I design my system well I can then pick the best of those. Using Nuc boxes costs me 40 per colony to test vrs 150.


    I'm not at all confident in my ability to know what good genetics are, much less recognize them. my main criterion is if a colony survives, but its ability to propagate successfully without my help is also important to me. artificial propagation would prevent that particular trait from being selected for.

    Michael Cox wrote:(Ran out of time posting from my phone - I'll come back later and add/edit)


    it's a good conversation. a lot of folks getting started might get the impression that there's only one right way to keep bees. unfortunately, a lot of folks who disseminate beekeeping knowledge seem to do their best to confirm that impression.
     
    Michael Cox
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    tel jetson wrote:
    it's an attractive metaphor, but I'm not sure it's entirely appropriate. bees aren't actually seeds, so there's some risk in applying lessons from the one to the other.


    Actually I think the metaphor is very apt - each mated queen is a single roll of the genetic dice. When you use what is called the Bond method (Live and Let Die) to select your colonies you are working at the colony level, but all the genetic action takes place at the queen/drone level. If you can plough through those cycles more quickly and in greater number you will progress your programme of selection enormously more rapidly.


    Production hives and language

    I get your point here, but I can't see a better/clearer way to phrase this. To me a production hive simply implies one that I have sufficient equipment for that I can stack it up with super boxes and possibly get a honey harvest from. My sole apiary site at present has space for 4 such hives (it is a garden used for other events so they hives need to be discrete) but I can squeeze nuc boxes in around them. Like you I think there is a lot more to bees than the ultimate yield, but I need to go into winter knowing that I have a good chance at still having bees in the spring. Making 4 hives treatment free is likely to lead to failure. Building up half a dozen strong nucs along side increases my chances.

    But more to your point about needing to buy equipment: it's an issue. if for whatever reasons, a person can't build their own hives or buy used equipment, beekeeping can be expensive.


    True, and perhaps this is a part of the reason I'm determined to get to a sustainable apiary as rapidly as possible. I can afford time spent messing with the bees and micro managing more than I can afford to drop £1000 on hives. Perhaps when I'm able to sell some honey and nucs I'll be able to justify more cash, but until then I need to focus on making sure I still have bees each spring.



    I've got a different attitude about losing colonies. I certainly don't relish losing colonies, but I don't consider it a total loss, either. there's generally some honey left, and plenty of wax and propolis. if there's empty comb in any boxes, I leave the comb in place and use the boxes for bait hives. I don't have great success with new boxes for bait hives, but previously occupied boxes attract swarms pretty reliably during swarm season. I also recognize that a loss of a colony that isn't well-adapted to some local condition can be good for the general population.


    Actually I think we are working on a similar wavelength here - the loss of bees per-se is not the problem (I am, after all, planning on going into winter and losing half my colonies!). More if you are fully invested in a few large hives, as I used to be 15 years ago when I kept bees, then you feel those losses more acutely. The ability to rapidly restock from your own resources means you can bounce back both in terms of colonies but also emotionally. How many people try treatment free, lose a couple of colonies then go back to treating out of sense of guilt/remorse for losing them?

    A while back on here I read about different attitudes to keeping hens. One person had a flock of 10, had named them all and was distraught when one sickened and spent money on medical bills. Another person had flock with a rooster and they kept making more chicks every year. Some died, but each time they did the overall flock improved. You could say that one was keeping some hens while the other was keeping a flock.

    I like to think of my apiary as a flock and as long as the apiary as a whole is in good health and improving year on year then individual losses are fine. The different mindset is easy when you know you already have your "chicks" waiting in the wings.



    I rely a lot more on bait hives that I can collect or move at my leisure.
    We are back to having the means to build your own kit again aren't we? I've had some bait hives setup but no joy, and I'm limited by my construction resources. I live in a tiny flat with no work space or garden.


    My main criterion is if a colony survives, but its ability to propagate successfully without my help is also important to me. artificial propagation would prevent that particular trait from being selected for.

    I wrote previously that "I" would select the best queens - there are ways to select for various traits such as hygenic behaviours, but they are fiddly and time consuming. You can of course just let your 6 frame nuc over winter and see which ones come through. I do understand your concern about self propagation, but I have never known a hive that was unable to swarm successfully.
     
    John Master
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    For what it's worth, one of my attractions to the Russian breed was disease resistance. I also aim for treatment free-natural as possible and everything I have read about them I have liked. Only my second yr keeping bees and 1st year keeping Russians but so far so good as far as bee health goes. Also being in Wisconsin climate I am trying to get a breed that overwinters as well as possible and it sounds like Russians are well adapted to these cold winters. If I was in the south it might be a different story but either way if Russians aren't prone to many of the common bee ailments I would probably try them anyway.
     
    Cj Sloane
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    Solomon Parker has a great podcast on this very topic:
    http://tfb.podbean.com/e/treatment-free-beekeeping-podcast-episode-23-expansion-model-beekeeping/

    I started with a nuc this spring and now have 3 hives. It makes so much sense! Basically if you want 2 hives (what many consider the minimum) then you should go into winter with 4. If you have a 50% loss your exactly where you want to be. If you have no losses, sell your extras or combine in spring.
     
    Cj Sloane
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    I bought 2 unassembled hives but now I've found that it's pretty easy to make a super if you have a router. Costs me about $12 to build a 10 frame deep, maybe $9 for an 8 frame medium (I plan on trying this size out next year). I think it's worth it to purchase frames but I am going to try to build a few of my own, just to check it out. Cost of hives shouldn't stop you from expanding.

    Also, by making splits to increase your hives, there seems to be some benefit in disrupting the brood cycle, to keep varroa at bay. Maybe not a big deal if you've already built up your genetics, but for a new beek with new bees that can be helpful.
     
    Michael Cox
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    CJ - I've watched strings of videos on hive and frame construction and I agree, if you have a reasonable workshop space and the tools then making your own is very viable. This is particularly true if you can make up a bunch of permanent jigs and have a very efficient production line system going.

    At the point when I have a decent workshop I certainly intend to go down this route. My small scale experiment - without the production line arrangement - resulted in 3 wonky super boxes that wouldn't sit flat, and about 8 hours invested. It just doesn't make sense for me at the moment to follow that route as I am pretty time poor and don't have the facilities.

    I'd love to hear about your setup though if you start mass producing.
     
    Cj Sloane
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    I've had great success with a cross-cut saw and a table router. You could use a regular circular saw but the cut might not be as clean and so might not sit as flat. I pre-drill holes before nailing them together.

    The 2 box hive is from scratch except for the telescoping cover. My latest preference is for an eco-floor with no entrance and upper entrances on each deep.

     
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