Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture. Dear listeners, this is going to be a real quick introduction today because I'm racing out the door to travel to Kamloops, British Columbia for the British Columbia Honey Producers Association's semiannual meeting.
And it's a fitting occasion because this episode I'm profiling and talking to British Columbia beekeeper of some renown, John Gates. Anybody in British Columbia or Western Canada knows John. He served as the apiculture specialist for the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and their apiculture program from 1975 to 2002, which incidentally was about the time that I first met John. After that, he went full time as a full-time beekeeper from 2002 to just recently in 2015 and he specialized in bee breeding, stock production, and pollination. Now, John knows all sorts of ways to make one colony into many colonies. So in this episode, we're going to be hearing from John on how you can become a self-sufficient beekeeper by learning to make nucleus colonies or nukes. Hope you enjoy the episode. Welcome to pollination, John. That's good to be here.
Yeah, it's great to see your face. We haven't talked in a while. For a while, yeah. Anyway, we had an episode just a few shows ago. We were talking with John Grushka from Saskatchewan. Now, British Columbia is not the same place as Saskatchewan for our US listeners. You're on the West Coast.
Speaker 2: That's for sure. Yeah, it's quite different.
Speaker 1: But there's something that is in common. One of the things that came up in the show was John talked about the power in Saskatchewan when they broke loose becoming entirely dependent on packages for the production of nucleus colonies or nukes. Can you, for our listeners, explain what... I hope we don't get... There's no wiretapping when we're talking about nukes. We're talking about... Tell us.
Speaker 2: So a nuke is essentially just a small colony of bees that would have a queen, workers, and some frames with brood in them. And it's a small colony of bees that you hope is going to grow into a large colony of bees.
Speaker 1: Okay, so basically a small colony.
Speaker 2: Yeah, you can make it up in various ways, different strengths. But the idea is eventually going to be a large colony.
Speaker 1: You know, one of the reasons I'm calling you is I do consider you as a nuke producer par excellence. You taught a lot of people in your time as an equivalent of an extension specialist in British Columbia in apiculture, but you also ran a business. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in making nukes and why it's something that you're really good at?
Speaker 2: Well, I guess probably the main reason I got interested in making nukes is I wanted to expand my beekeeping operation. And even back then, back in the late seventies, bees were an expense.
And I thought, well, maybe I can do that myself and cut out one of the expenses or at least send money somewhere else. I was also very interested in producing queens as well. And you can make nukes without actually rearing a queen. Or you can make nukes and put a queen in that you've purchased. Or you can raise your own queen for the nukes. And my idea was to eventually raise my queens.
Speaker 1: OK, so you started from a real practical standpoint. What were some of your inspirations in coming to, you know, the way that you make nukes? How did what were some of the formative experiences for you and into the way that you make these?
Speaker 2: Boy. It's a tough question. There's there's so many things. I guess one of the inspirations was from John Corner, who was the provincial apirist when I first started keeping bees. I met John and I was lucky enough to get some of his free time. And we had some interesting conversations about bees. And John was always willing to talk to anyone about bees. He's a tremendous man. And we got along really well.
And one day I asked him a stupid question. I said, John, why is it that we're buying our bees from California here in B.C.? Why aren't we producing our own? And he said, you know, that's something that I've been trying to get going for years, but I haven't been able to get the funding to try. You could have programmed going or support.
So it sort of went from there. You know, if this man who was kind of a beekeeping guru in British Columbia was really interested in us producing queens and nukes, then I thought that's something I should try.
Speaker 1: And John Corner is a real giant in Canadian beekeeping. He really at the time, I imagine provincial agriculturalists didn't have like research programs or didn't have, you know, that was quite an innovative program that came after him, you posing these questions to him and him taking it up.
Speaker 2: Well, he had been thinking of this for a long time, so it wasn't just me, but that sort of got me inspired. And eventually, we did have some research money. The British Columbia government had a program they called DATE, which stood for demonstration of agricultural technology and economics. It was money that they gave to their agricultural employees who wanted to experiment with something or other. And some horticulturalists took up the program and animal science people. And John Corner happened to write up a grant that worked. They liked it. And we started a small queening program with that.
Speaker 1: And what was the kind of focus of it? What were you trying to do, what were some of the problems with getting something up and running? And we're talking about the south central, sort of not the coast of BC, but the southern interior. What were some of the challenges with doing this?
Speaker 2: Well, first of all, we had to prove that we could do it. Right. Because I guess there'd been some people producing queens in the past, but we didn't really know much about it. And so we just wanted to see, is it possible here?
Can we produce good quality queens that will, winter well, be productive, and gentle? So we just sort of started from nowhere, really. An interesting thing was that John Corner gave me a book by Dr. Harry Laidlaw called Contemporary Queenwring. And he gave me what he called a grafting needle back then. It was, that's what they called them. And he said I want you to rear me some queens. And that was it. He gave me the book and he gave me the needle and sent me a loop.
Speaker 1: What a way to learn. A great book though, at the very least. You didn't get a crummy book to start with.
Speaker 2: I still read it. It was a great book. But at the same time that we started doing that, Dr. Cam Jay from Winnipeg, Christine Peng was one of the students at the time. They were looking into raising queens in the lab. And he and John were talking. John knew most of the agriculturalists and, across Canada and in the United States, knew a lot of people and knew a lot of people overseas.
So he and Cam started talking about this program. And John said, well, I'm trying to raise some queens out here. You're trying to raise some queens there. Cam said I would like to send you my virgins we rear in the lab. You can put them in your nukes and see if we can get them mated. And John said, OK, well, we're going to send you some mated queens if we can get them produced and will you give them to your commercial beekeepers to evaluate for us? So we did both. We got their virgin queens mated in our nukes and we got our queen sent. They were evaluated. And at the end of the season, Cam Jay said, my people tell me that they'll buy all the queens you can produce if they're that quality.
Speaker 1: All right. So the program was validated. Whatever you guys were doing there, we're producing some queens and Winnipeg and Manitoba is not a very nice winter. So if you are able to produce bees that can make it through Manitoba winter, that's quite a remarkable thing. OK, so that was one of the genesiss. You know, one other thing I've heard you say lot. And one thing I remember is that you have this really great presentation on making nukes, there were producers who kind of picked up on this idea that have also been influential, that kind of took the idea of nuke making and, you know, pushed it forward. You know, one person I remember you were talking about was Kirk Webster, who you got me onto. But also Bill Rizuka was another person who really kind of pushed the nuke-making system into things that I didn't know were possible.
Speaker 2: Well, Bill did something totally different. He wasn't making what we would call a standard nuke, which includes frames with larvae in them. He was making what he called swarms, where he actually shook bees onto customers' equipment and put a queen in that he had raised. So it was a bit of a different thing using the customer's frames. But it worked quite nicely.
Speaker 1: OK, so you have, we've got different beekeepers that were involved and you also have this program that starts in British Columbia to rear queens and become more independent and actually demonstrate that you can run a propagation and breeding program in a place like Southern British Columbia as points of inspiration. How did this all kind of come together in your mind when you were thinking about your approach to both your business, but also in teaching people in NBC, how to tackle the question of making nukes?
Speaker 2: Well, I was, I was working for the Ministry of Agriculture and I had my own bees. I wanted to develop for myself a system that wouldn't require a lot of my time because I was already working. And basically, I thought, well, what I really want to do, I'm interested in producing queens and nukes.
I don't have a lot of time in the summertime. I'd be keeping it. So what I decided was I would forget about making honey. I would just try to make nukes with my bees at the appropriate time and around here may as a very good time. And in doing so, knocked my colonies back enough so that really all I had to do was introduce a queen cell and let those colonies grow. And hopefully, they would overwinter, and then the next spring I could do the same thing. So basically I was just thinking that I'll just run a nuclear production business. I won't try for honey and I can do this all in the spring.
I can take a couple of weeks off in the spring and do it. And then the bees are kind of on their own after that. I checked them a few times, put them in the boxes for honey, and put them away for winter. Okay.
Speaker 1: So the model here is something like you're selling a whole lot of bees. It's kind of like a calf cow operation, I guess you're, you're producing some excess. You sell when you talk about knocking them back, it's the knocking back that takes place because you're selling stock. Is that correct?
Okay. And then you restock them. You kind of get the numbers back up and then make it to them, make a little bit of honey, but get to the next year.
Speaker 2: That's right. So basically I was, the system was that in April before I took my bees to pollination, I would even up all the hives to a standard. And if I had something left over after evening up all the hives, that is by moving frames of bees and brood, if I had something left over, I would make small nukes with those and put queen cells in and raise some queens. So after the evening up process, after the bees came back from pollination in May, basically I just took my colonies down, my parent colonies down to the point where they were only about four frames of bees, three frames of brood, and put a queen cell in me. And that was the unit that was going to grow, produce some honey, hopefully, and they usually did actually. They produced about half of the normal crop around here, which was a great bonus, but the main income was from nuke sales.
Speaker 1: Okay. So that's really remarkable. And it kind of, so you're getting kind of, you've got multiple sources of revenue, you've got that pollination event, which would be for you orchard crops, right?
That's right. So you'd get your pollination fee, but you'd get this big source of revenue selling off excess and then you'd restock them. So this is going to grow into a full-size colony at that, you know, in May with a queen cell, four frames of bees, and you'd even make a little bit of honey. So you get a little bit of revenue in there, but you're really, what's remarkable is it's the productivity of the bees that becomes the main source of income for the operation.
Speaker 2: Yeah. The interesting thing was when I started, I didn't know how many bees I had to leave in a hive so that it would come back, and grow to be a full-size colony in winter. Well, so I, at first didn't take too many bees away from the hive. I wasn't sure what I could do, but eventually, I realized I could get down to that four frames of bees, three frames of brood, and a queen cell on the 24th of May. That was kind of my cutoff date.
And then it worked. It would work very nicely and give me some honey and the bees would be ready for next year. Everything had been requeened, of course, using a queen cell. So I had nice young queens going into winter and good winter survival. And then I could evaluate them. There was enough honey that I could evaluate them for honey production over the summer and I could evaluate them for overwintering ability as well.
Speaker 1: Oh, so you could retain the good stuff. The really prime breeder queens could stay there and then you could sell the rest off and then gradually bring the population higher and higher every generation.
Speaker 2: No, actually, I sold off all the queens. Everything got requeened. I didn't keep a queen from one year to the next. Oh, you just grafted off them. I evaluated the young queens that came from the cells that went in every colony. I evaluated them over the summer. And in the next spring, I made my breeder choices from those. I didn't want to get into the business of keeping over my breeder queens and getting into inbreeding.
If I start using the breeder queens more than once in my own operation, you know, you can do that too many times, you can get into inbreeding. I wanted to get away from that entirely by requeening everything every year.
Speaker 1: What a great system. So you've got the stock improvement. You're propagating these bees. You're really making extra bees and selling them off. OK, so let's take a quick break. I want to come back and talk a little bit more about the timing of this. The thing I think is astounding. I'm thinking from the position of someone, you know, in Oregon, who's like, I mean, these packages are expensive and these queens are expensive.
And there you are. A thousand miles north of us. And you're able to get enough productivity out of your colonies to be able to make up, make back what you've sold. It really seems like maybe there's a way that even this far south one can really become a lot more independent of packages or buying nukes than you think.
Speaker 2: Yeah, well, I wound up averaging between two and three nukes per colony plus keeping that nukes, nukes size for myself. And also produces about half a crop of honey, being able to pollinate because the nuke-making happens after pollination. Sometimes I guess I should back up a little bit. You asked me if I kept the Breeder Queens on. I said, no, I didn't want to get into inbreeding, but that's actually not true. I did for a few years once I left the Ministry of Agriculture. I did rear queens all summer long and the Breeder Queens I used for my Queen Mothers. Okay. But then I didn't use them the next year for my operation, for my bees, or anybody else's. Okay.
Speaker 1: Thanks for the clarification. Hey, let's take a quick break and then we'll come back and talk a little bit more about how this all fits together in an operation. I'm also really, I know you did a little bit of work kind of costing this out and you're tipping the cards a little bit. You've got, I've already sort of talked about how this could become a successful business model. Well, let's get more into that after the break.
Okay. We're back with John. Now, John, the thing that I was really impressed with before the break when we were talking about is how you're really balancing, you know, the nuke making is this way of increasing the, increasing the operation and making access for sale. But it's also integrated into all the steps of pollination and honey production. Can you tell us a little bit about sort of how one might think about the timing of nuke, maybe using your, your business as an example of, you know, how does one, when do you start making the queen cells? Imagine from pollination to nuke making, it's a kind of tight turnaround. Walk us through that a little bit. Well, I described.
Speaker 2: Evening the colonies out and that's done here. Usually by the middle of April because.
Speaker 1: So this is, you're, you're coming back from pollination at that point. No. Sorry.
Speaker 2: We're, the, the colonies have come out of winter. Yep. And we've been feeding them and maybe boosting some that needed boosting. But at some point, I like to even the colonies out in strength because it makes it a lot easier managing an operation if you can basically do the same thing to every colony. Explain how you do that. Basically, it's just a matter of moving bees and brood. Let me just say the easiest way is to move frames brood between colonies.
Okay. Of course, you have to be sure that you're not moving diseased broods from one colony to another. So as any commercial beekeeper will do, they'll check their colonies to see the spring for disease and treat it if necessary.
Okay. So yeah, we're moving brood between colonies, the colonies that need more strength. We'll get some brood. The colonies that are big and booming and may swarm, you're taking the brood away from them.
Speaker 1: So you're basically shaking the bees off. You don't have to find the queen and you're moving a. Okay. Gotcha.
Speaker 2: But we do keep a few colonies large. By the middle of April, because those are going to be the colonies we've selected for our cell builders and our breeder colonies.
Speaker 1: So these just for listeners who don't know what is a cell builder?
Speaker 2: It's a colony that you encourage to build queen cells. Okay. Great. Basically, you're making part of that colony queen list or you're making a whole colony queen list and then grafting young larvae the right age.
Speaker 1: So they think they've got no queen and they're really desperate to rear a queen. Okay. Gotcha. So they make a whole lot of queen cells in this cell builder. And meanwhile, in these other colonies, what you don't hold back goes into pollination.
Speaker 2: That's right. And we try to time it so that either we have nukes made already, small mating nukes made from those colonies that we've taken brood away from. We make small mating nukes that we put the queen cells in while the colonies are away in pollination, or we'll time it so that the queen cells are ready to go into colonies once the colonies are back from pollination and we can split them and makeup queen mating nukes.
Speaker 1: Gotcha. So you've got, you're making like really small little, little colonies the size of a Nerf ball or something.
Speaker 2: They're not quite that small up here because it gets pretty cold at night up here.
Speaker 1: Okay. So how, how big are these little mating nukes?
Speaker 2: The frames are the length that would fit crossways in a normal colony. Okay. Okay. That's the length and the depth are, the frames are about five and three-quarter inches deep. Okay.
Speaker 1: It's kind of a smaller than a five-frame nuked box. Yeah. Kind of. And in that goes a queen cell. And by the time you're big, your colonies are going to get pretty big in pollination, they come back, they should have mated queens or be ready to pull the queen out and then you can put it into your nuke. But you don't have a lot, you don't have tons of those. So a lot of them are going to just get a queen cell.
Speaker 2: The nukes that we sell and we'll get mated queens will be ready to go by the 24th of May. So we will make a bunch of queens for those sales nukes.
Speaker 1: Gotcha. Okay. Okay. And so the colonies, the remaining kind of all those bulk because you don't, at this point, you got a job, you're working full time. So you break these down, you put a queen cell in and you're kind of done for a little while.
Speaker 2: That's right. Yeah. The colonies that I'm saving for my colonies just get a queen cell. Okay. Great. The ones that are sold get queens I've already had mated. They go in the nukes for sale. And then we, once we've queened up those nukes, we keep them for a week to check that the queens are accepted and laying, and then we can sell them. Okay.
Speaker 1: A while back I found an economic analysis for nuke production from the BC Ministry of Agriculture, whatever it was at the time. And I think you were involved with that. You have a background in business, you have a business background.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I got our next degree in commerce and finance from the University of Toronto. Okay.
Speaker 1: So tell us a little bit about how this works, how this cashed out as a business model, if someone was going to take, could you make money doing this?
Speaker 2: Yeah, we examined a number of different ways of operating beekeeping operations. These things are called enterprise budgets where you look at an operation and say, how much money can I make doing this?
How much money can I make doing this? And which one do I like best? And also which one is giving me the best return? So we looked at different honey production models. We looked at queen rearing. We looked at nuke production in various parts of the province and different sizes. And it came out that nuke production was the best way to make money.
Speaker 1: It was, eh? Okay, I can see why. This is a very productive system you're describing. I mean, you're starting with four frames a cell and you've got a full-size colony the next year.
You know, the other thing that strikes me listening to you, many things are getting accomplished at once. All your bees have new queens every year. You don't have old queens and some of the problems that beekeepers experience with a two-year-old queen, you've eliminated a lot of those problems.
Exactly. Now, with such a tightly wound system, I'm just thinking about the timing of it is very, getting those queen cells ready and when the colonies are coming out of pollination, the stock improvement seems like a very tricky thing. Stock improvement on its own seems like a very difficult thing. How does stock improvement get efficiently integrated into a system where queen production is not the only aim? You're making nukes, you're making honey, you're making, tell us a little bit about that.
Speaker 2: Even when we were running our breeding program, the Ministry of Agriculture, we realized talking to many experts that you don't try to improve too many characteristics all at once because the more things you look for in a colony, the more difficult it is to find a colony or a bunch of colonies that will give you a breeding population that will have everything you want.
So try to keep it simple. We decided that for our projects, the main things we're interested in were bees that overwintered well in our climate and bees that were productive, in other words, produce honey just as well as any other bee we could find. And we wanted bees that were reasonably gentle. So those were really the three things we looked at. And then we did kind of what I call a negative selection for disease. Anything that turned up with any kind of disease at all was out of the program. We didn't tolerate anything.
Speaker 1: Got you. Okay, so presumably a lot of things are getting pulled out at that point. You don't know what they are, but you're just... Yeah.
Speaker 2: Anything that seemed to be wrong with the bees and any brood diseases, that was it. The colony just didn't make it.
Speaker 1: And from your experience, which one of those seemed to really pay off? What characteristics selections seemed to really kind of move on?
Speaker 2: Well, those are the three things we've looked at. And those are the three things I continue to look at in my own operation. I haven't imported bees, or brought bees into the operation for a good 20 years, maybe 25 years. And from my customers, I get good reports. They say they're as good a bee as we've ever had any time. And I really like the gentleness. I like the fact that they overwinter well and they are very productive. They just seem to roar right ahead in the spring and build big colonies in the summer. So...
Speaker 1: How long do you think it takes to kind of see results? We were talking with John Grushka a couple of episodes ago and he was saying, he said something very similar. He said, don't anticipate big results. Like 2% of one thing over time is a lot of stuff. He asked, how long did it take before you started to see the results of your breeding efforts?
Speaker 2: Well, we ran our, the date program I told you about. We ran that for two years and then we got another grant for a three-year project. So we were doing things for five years. We collected stock, the best stock we could find from Canada, the US, and New Zealand. At that time we could bring these in from New Zealand. And there were some problems with some of it. And by the end of five years, we had a very, a stock that was very homogeneous in characteristics we wanted and we'd gotten rid of the stuff we didn't like. Some of the stock didn't seem to shut down in the fall for us. It just kept on brooding. Eating stores would die out in the spring.
A real big problem. Some of the stock was susceptible to certain things like chalkbrood. But at the end of the five years, we had a stock that we really liked and we didn't have any of those disease problems and it was easy to winter.
Speaker 1: Okay, so five years. And the other thing I heard you say is really kind of when you're starting assembling a kind of broad base to work from. Okay. I know you've been to Oregon before and you've been to, we were talking previously, you've been to the Western Apoculture Society meeting here in Corvallis. When you look, you look across the border, we do have access to packages. What are some of the lessons we might learn from the experience from Southern British Columbia terms of, because it strikes me that a lot of people have a model very similar to what you're describing in Southern BC. What are some of the kind of first steps that could be taken to become a little bit more independent, from imports?
Speaker 2: Well, I think you're gonna have to learn how to rear queens for sure. And, you know, start on a small scale. It'll take a while until you're proficient. If the university or somewhere could run some Queen Ring seminars and get people going. When we finished our project, when we had some stock that we really liked, our next goal was to run a whole bunch of seminars. We attracted commercial beekeepers from all over the province who took our queen ring seminars. And that was the basis of our stock producers and the British Columbia Honey Producers Association, sorry, the British Columbia Beekeepers Association. Those people came over to those seminars. You know, to learn and it took off.
Speaker 1: It seems that John had the same thing when he was trying in Saskatchewan, he talked about really kind of going to, right across the province and offering courses. And then also my own experience in Northern Alberta with graduates of the Fairview College Program, who also, you know, picked up a lot of skills by going into California queen-rearing operations and seeing how it was done. Okay, so education is the first thing, try and get some training and be a little persistent, but don't be over-ambitious is what I heard. Exactly.
Speaker 2: Okay. Well, I was describing how I started with Dr. Laidlaw's book in one hand and a grafting needle in the other hand and trying to figure out what the heck am I doing.
Like for a while, I'll tell you until I was successful grafting those first few larvae. But if you have someone to show you, got someone there that's doing it or someone giving a seminar or if you can travel somewhere else, it's doable, that's for sure.
Speaker 1: That's great advice. And I do think there is a doing good, they're often two and a half day courses or two-day courses on queen rearing, really kind of getting some practice and knowing what to do when you go home to learn what you need to know to practice. Okay, John, let's take another break and I'm gonna come back. We have a couple of questions we wanna ask you about books and other such things.
Speaker 2: Okay, and there's one other thing I'd like to talk about and that is making nukes without finding gleams.
Speaker 1: Oh, okay, okay. Hold on, hold on, guess, hold on, guess. Hold on listeners, we got an extra here. John, how do you do it?
Speaker 2: Oh, you want me to do it now? Okay. Yeah. Something that New Zealand beekeepers do a lot and they call it making tops. And when I first was making nukes, a lot of nukes in a very short period of time, I had a couple of helpers and I had one helper go ahead and find the queens and the colonies. And then a couple of us would come behind and tear the colonies apart and make nukes.
Speaker 1: Right, you had to get the queen out because you didn't want it to take down your queen cell and all those things. Yeah. Okay, gotcha.
Speaker 2: And I wanted to requeen my parent colony as well. So I wanted to find that queen or at least, no, I won't say anymore. Okay. We're talking about making nukes without finding queens. Very simple process. Basically, you're just going into the top box if you're in a two-box colony, pulling frames of brood out, shaking the bees off, putting them in a box you've got sitting beside you, beside the colony. Yeah. And you're pulling out as many frames as you want. So you may be doing it for swarm control. If so, maybe you're taking a lot of frames out.
Yeah. If you're doing it just to make a nuk, maybe you're just going to take three frames of brood out. If it's a giant colony, you may take six frames of brood out, and make two nukes, let's say. So you'll decide how many frames of brood you want to take out, but you've shaken the bees off. You might have a quick look on the frame for the queen, but if you don't see her, just gently shake the bees back down into the parent colony. Look at those frames of brood aside in a box. Put some empty comb in the colony because you've got to fill the space now where you've taken those frames out. Put a queen excluder on the top, put the box with the brood, put no bees on it on top of the queen excluder, and shut the colony.
Speaker 1: Oh, I see.
Speaker 2: So the queen's going to be stuck down. In half an hour or less, the bees will have come up through the excluder to take care of the brood.
Speaker 1: Because they want to incubate the brood, they want to keep it warm. And so the queen is down below and you've saved yourself a whole lot of time. You've got frames of brood and bees with no queens.
Speaker 2: So usually we would do that, usually I did that when I was alone, I didn't have help. So I would come back the next day and I could just pull those frames of brood that now are covered with bees out and put them in my nuke boxes.
Speaker 1: Slick system. The top, what would you call them again?
Speaker 2: We call them tops in New Zealand because they were actually not necessarily doing that process to move frames of brood away from the colony. They were moving frames of brood up into that, let's say third box. The next day when they came back when the bees were covering the frames of the brood, they would slide a divider board in on top of the excluder to actually divide the brood in the top from the bees in the bottom. And they had an entrance at the back and they put a queen cell in those bees and those frames that they'd taken from down below. They put the queen cell in that top unit. That's why they call it tops. The queen would go off, and get mated. Within three weeks or so, they had a young mated queen in the top.
Speaker 1: I got you. So they're doing essentially what you were doing except without on top.
Speaker 2: And the idea was they could do it at a certain time when they could take a lot of bees out of that bottom unit to prevent forming. It helps swarm prevention. They could rear a nice young queen in the top and then they could, if they wanted to, if they didn't have a lot of time to find the queen in the bottom, they would slide out the excluder in the divider board and put in some newspaper and let the bees unite. And the idea was that most of the time that young queen would take over. So they essentially would take over as well. And we tried that during our project for a number of years and we found that about 80% of the time the young queen took over.
So it was a fairly quick and easy process. You weren't using a queen to requeen. You were using a queen cell.
Queen cells are cheap and easy to produce once you know how to do it. So they were doing swarm control and requeening. And also they were running a two queen colony for a certain point before they put them back together so they had nice big colonies for honey production.
Speaker 1: Okay, that was a long detour, but a worthwhile one. And the only thing I wanna add is a queen excluder for those of you who don't know is this thing that allows worker bees to pass through but the queen is just too fat. Okay, with that let's take a break. We'll come back and I have these questions to ask you. ["The Queen's Song"] Okay, we're back with John. Now, John, we ask all our guests the same three questions and I know someday I'm gonna compile them all but the first one and I can see we're doing this over Skype and I can see behind you there's like a bunch of books. And so like you're like sitting behind a bookshelf so I'm gonna ask you, is there a book that, and you've talked about maybe it's gonna be Laidlaw's Queen Waring book, but is there a book that you really wanna recommend to people? It's a really great book for getting started. Maybe have a few.
Speaker 2: Yeah, and before I do that, the books you see behind me are actually my wife's art book. I'm sitting in her office using her computer. A lot of them are beekeeping books. They look really impressive. But the beekeeping book that I always think of and what I'm talking to people that are interested in keeping bees is a book called The Joys of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor. And it's not a how-to book. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to read you what he says at the beginning of the book.
I'd love that. So this is the preface to his book. Books on apoculture describe how to produce honey, but they neglect to note how beautiful it is. They claim how to tend bees, but they do not say how joyous this can be. They describe swarms but say nothing of how inspiring it is to behold one.
It is emissions like these that I have tried to rectify. I have tried to give an intimation of the sources of happiness that beekeepers have discovered and to convey my own philosophy that is so closely interwoven with my beekeeping. I have also described how I do certain things connected with bees. So that's what this book is about. And I read this book shortly after I got my hands on the first beehive. A friend of mine showed me the inside of a beehive. I read the book shortly after that and it really inspired me to keep bees.
Speaker 1: That was not the book I was expecting. I've never heard of it. And that was not the book I was expecting. That is a great book suggestion. Okay, well, that you're the first one to recommend it.
And you're also the first guest after 30-something episodes to do a reading. Great suggestion. And we don't, you know, often we're really, we have episodes where thinking about building pollinator habitat or, you know, how to clean mason bees were real practical. That's really one of the first recommendations for something that, because beekeeping really is an amazing activity, it's really enriching. Okay, our next question for you is, is there a go-to tool, a tool that you find indispensable for working with bees?
Speaker 2: There are so many very good indispensable tools in beekeeping, but I don't know if you're gonna like this answer or not, but it's my brain. Your brain is your go-to tool. Because in beekeeping, you have to be thinking all the time. You have to be observing. That's, I think one of the most important things in beekeeping is to observe.
What's going on inside the hive, what's going on outside the hive, observe the weather. You learn so many things by being observant and keeping an open mind. Don't assume you know everything. Don't assume what someone's telling you is the only way to do something. I mean, that's first and foremost. I don't know any successful beekeepers who aren't very observant people.
Speaker 1: I think that's a great way to sort of cap also this show because I think in some ways, you know, John painted a picture of, you know, many people didn't think that wintering bees or rearing queens in a northern place like, you know, Scatch and a British Columbia are possible. And I guess the only way you ever figure that out is by testing, observing, seeing what works. I mean, it seems like the only way you can make progress with some of these things is by keeping your eyes open.
Speaker 2: And I, you know, I'm pretty sure every year I've kept bees and it's 40 years now, I've seen something, at least one thing every year that I've never seen before. And I can't remember what it was last year, but I can remember last year saying, I've never seen that before, that's amazing.
Speaker 1: I hear you. I totally, that's totally my experience as well. Okay, our last question for you is, it's a, you can interpret it as broadly as you like, but do you have a favorite kind of bee?
Speaker 2: It's gotta be my own bees because I've been breeding them, since the late 1970s. So as far as the honeybee goes and the bee I like to keep or beekeeping versus, it's my stock, I guess. But I have seen some really interesting bees in various places. And two that come to mind are a stingless bee colony in Guyana and Northern South America. Dr. David DuJeong and I were with a group of people looking at African bees and we'd been taken to a jungle, a very dark dense jungle setting and there were a whole bunch of little hives of African bees. And we looked at them and we didn't find them all that exciting. They were pretty mild and mellow because they were small colonies. And we kind of wandered off until we came to a tree that had this big funnel coming out of it.
And it was a colony of stingless bees. So we were pretty excited to see these. And we started, you know, we got very close and started moving things around so we could see it a little bit better. And David said, yeah, these are stingless bees.
You know, he wanted to take some samples. And they're called stingless because they don't sting, but they bite. Oh. And we're messing around these bees and pretty soon we're kind of twitching and they like to crawl and they were getting it into our bee suits. The African bees hadn't got in, these bees got in and they started biting us all over our chests and arms and everything. And we took off and they're like crazy.
Speaker 1: And I guess the other thing with them is those turrets, those, they construct them. Like they have these really amazing entrances. They do, yeah. You said two though, you said two.
Speaker 2: There was a little colony in Bali. Uh-huh. About, I don't know, five or six years ago, I guess, we were in Bali, my wife and I, and we had been looking for bees. We're asking people, where are the bees? And they'd say, oh, we know where there's a bee. And they take us and they look up in the tree and there'd be a box hanging in a tree. No bees, just a box.
Uh-huh. We spent two weeks off and on asking people about bees and never did see a bee coming from these hives. So we thought, oh, some kind of a disaster here. I wonder what it is. We went up into the mountains and made contact with a man who had a few hives hanging off his hut in the mountains. And he said, yeah, I do have bees.
And he took us around and opened up this tube, bark tube, pulled off the little door. And there was a beautiful little colony of bees. They're small bees.
I would imagine they might be Apocerana, but I'm not sure. It had built the most beautiful white combs. And they were completely gentle. He could move them around and pull out a comb for us to look at. And they were just this gorgeous little bee building these most beautiful combs. Yeah.
Speaker 1: And I guess for listeners, the thing that we may not realize, you know that honeybees generally come from Europe and we have an African population in some of the southern states, but that's not the diversity of the bees. All the apis species are really in Southeast Asia. As you know, Dr. Mike Bergat is currently in Indonesia and has been doing, no, sorry, in Thailand. And he's been doing research in Thailand.
We have to get him on the show. He had this picture of it was a huge Buddha statue with an apistor sata nest. There were like four of them lined under the arm. They are amazing. Yeah.
Speaker 2: But I want to share one thing. Now, I had an interpreter along with me because I couldn't understand what the fellow was saying. But it occurred to me. No, sorry, it didn't occur to me, but I asked him why he had bees. And when I didn't see bees down south in the lowlands, he told the interpreter, to tell me that his bees leave and he said they go to the North Coast at that time of the year.
And that was really what was in. January or February. So it seems that the bees are migratory. They go to where they live, right?
And I was thinking, well, you know, I've heard that people have experimented with keeping the bees from migrating by feeding them sugar syrup to keep them home because they're leaving. After all, there's nothing for them. Right. Yeah. Yeah.
Yeah. So I said, well, have you ever thought of feeding them some sugar syrup to keep them here? And he thought about it for a while and he said this amazing thing to me. He said, but if I keep the bees here, my neighboring beekeepers at the coast won't have them. Oh, wow.
And he said, they move back every year, not necessarily the same colony, but he gets bees in his boxes every year when they move back from the coast up into the mountains. Wow. And that's why the Balinese people have this real sense of community. And it just, you know, amazed me.
Speaker 1: That is a really remarkable story. Well, John, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today on pollination. And I hope we'll get to see you again down here in Oregon sometime soon.
Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that can be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU Pollinator Health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.
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John Gates has been a beekeeper for 43 years. He served as the Apiculture Specialist British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Apiculture Program 1975-2002. He was a full-time commercial beekeeper from 2002-2015, specializing in bee breeding, stock production and pollination. He has lectured widely in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. Today, John joined us to talk about how you can build your own stock and offset colony losses by making nucleus colonies (nucs).
Listen in to learn about how John got started with nucleus colonies, how he has influenced other beekeepers, and what he saw change in his bees over time.
And be sure to leave us a Rating and Review!
“I started with Dr. Laidlaw’s book in one hand and a grafting needle in the other, trying to figure out what the heck I was doing. It took a while until I was successful grafting those first few larvae.“ – John Gates
- What a “nuc” or nucleus colony is
- What got John into making nucs
- Reflection on John’s time working with British Columbia beekeeping legend John Corner
- Why John’s operation of developing nucs brought in even more income than expected
- The timeline of a nuc-making operation
- How queen rearing fits into nuc production
- John’s work with the British Columbia government revealed the importance of nuc-making to a profitable business
- How stock improvement integrates into John’s beekeeping system
- The importance of queen rearing workshops in getting the ball rolling
“I guess there had been some people producing queens in the past, but we didn’t really know much about it, so we just wanted to see if it was possible here. Can we produce good quality queens that will winter well, will be productive and gentle?“ – John Gates