I have a soft spot for certain wise personalities from the past, such as R.O.B Manley. It’s with this in mind that I wanted to write something in praise of the great C.L. Farrar, who died on 2nd October 1970 in Wisconsin, USA. Yes, Varroa mites have changed the face of beekeeping, but much of the wisdom of the past still applies. The great challenge for one such as I, who is writing a book on apiculture, is to add some value to the mountain of words already written by others. It is a tall order.
USDA and Bee Research
Born on 22nd February 1904, Dickinson County, Kansas, Clayton Leon Farrar followed an academic route, with entomology as his chosen wheelhouse. His undergraduate degree was followed by a PhD, and he first taught at the University of Wyoming. Straight away, he plunged into honey bee research, which he continued right until his retirement in 1963. I’m not particularly knowledgable about the history of beekeeping in the USA, not the various structures and institutions that support its research, but I’m aware that Farrar played his part.
In 1860 William Bruckisch, a German immigrant, suggested that the U.S. Government should conduct investigations in beekeeping. Money was set aside to start research in 1885. The US Department of Agriculture has continued to fund such research, which supports what has become an enormous industry. Farrar rose to the top, becoming responsible for guiding the program from 1958 to 1961.
That’s all well and good, but what I care about is beekeeping, the nitty-gritty practical things which set apart the good beekeeper from the novices. Much of my focus recently has been on modern migratory beekeeping in the UK, but I re-read a paper by Farrar from 1944 called Productive Management of Honeybee Colonies in the Northern States which is a cracker. What follows are some of the things that stand out from that paper for me.
Farrar was a big proponent of increasing the honey yield per colony. Many of us are familiar with the situation where a couple of hives in an apiary are enormous, providing most of the crop from that site, while other hives languish behind, relatively small and unproductive. To increase your crop, you could set up more hives at more sites, but surely the most obvious productivity gain is from improving those smaller colonies, so that all the hives at a site are monsters. The problem in that area at that time was not that there were too many bees for too few flowers, far from it. What was needed was management practices that ensured that hives were strong in time for the honey flow. They have to grow before the flow rather than on it, to make the most of the available potential.
Getting the timing right
As Farrar put it, “Sufficient time must be allowed for building maximum populations for any honey flow. From 5 to 6 weeks are usually required for strong overwintered colonies, consisting of 25,000 to 30,000 bees and 5 to 8 frames of brood, to reach maximum strength, whereas colonies developed from package bees require 10 to 12 weeks. Too often, colonies are developed during the honey flow rather than for the flow.”
Here in the UK, our weather is hardly reliable; nectar flows will come, but their timing is unpredictable. However, beekeepers will learn through experience the typical patterns of flowering on their patch; the conditions in which they thrive and how weather can accelerate or delay flowering. Things change too, such as the arrival of oilseed rape (canola), varroa mites, large-scale growing of cereal crops and so forth. We know roughly when to expect a flow, and we therefore also know when our colonies need to be getting to peak strength. Occasional feeding may be needed for when things don’t quite go to plan, so that colonies stay strong rather than fall back.
Prolific Queens and Big Hives
It comes as no surprise to me that Farrar stressed the importance of prolific queens because only they can produce the monster colonies needed to take advantage of the flow. So, the queen should be capable of laying a great many eggs per day, in a good solid brood pattern. The important thing is being able to identify when a queen is not so good, and to have the fortitude to get rid of her so that a better queen can take her place. These are traits which Farrar says should not be tolerated: non-prolific (small brood nest), spotty brood, bees that sting a lot, or are not quiet on the comb, and those prone to disease (chalk brood springs to mind).
He recommended using double Langstroth brood boxes for the brood space, with ‘supers’ of at least 3 more deep boxes on top, so 5 deeps (or equivalent). That’s a big hive. “The most productive colonies are those that have a good queen and ample pollen, honey, and hive space at all times. The beekeeper should use a year-round plan of management favourable to the colony, rather than a program of arbitrary seasonal management. Normal queen-right colonies consume more pollen and honey than subnormal colonies, but they also gather more from minor sources to offset the greater consumption. Such colonies are stronger during surplus flows and yield maximum crops.”
Farrar stated that the amount of nectar collected by a colony falls if they have been queenless for more than two weeks. There was no evidence, he said, to support the idea that going queenless on a flow would increase honey crops (less brood to tend to). He also considered 1st August to be the ‘New Year’ for the beekeeper. Hives must have a good laying queen in early August so that she can lay plenty of winter bees by October. These timings will depend on where you are, of course.
As he was writing a paper on beekeeping in the north, Farrar was keen to stress the importance of taking large clusters of bees into winter, with plenty of stored honey and pollen. He suggested at least 60lbs of capped honey stores, split 40/20 between top and bottom brood boxes. He also said 3 to 6 frames of pollen should sit in the middle of the lower box. I have heard about honey stores countless times, but not many people mention frames of pollen when preparing for winter, or maybe I’ve missed something.
Farrar says, “Colonies provided with ample pollen begin rearing brood in January, and so replace their fall population with young bees by the time new pollen is available in the spring. This brood rearing prevents spring dwindling and often provides colonies strong enough to replace the stores consumed during the winter with nectar produced by willows, dandelions, and fruit bloom.” Perhaps the modern equivalent is adding pollen supplements in spring, although in my area we usually get loads of willow pollen early on. Not as early as January, though. Farrar states that supplements are not as good as real pollen, and even proposes making some hives queenless in summer, which leads to numerous frames of pollen, while sacrificing some honey crop. The pollen frames can then be used in other hives as part of winter preparation.
I could go on, but if this has piqued your interest, why not download the paper and read the whole thing. It’s great.