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Dear Janet Lowore and Nicola Bradbear of Bees for Development,
I recently became a member of Bees for Development. I have kept bees in top-bar hives as a commercial enterprise in central New Mexico for more than 25 years. The article "Modern Hives or Modern Ideas?" expresses a concept that I have thought and taught about for a while. I had langstroth hives, have worked for a large scale beekeeper (4000 + hives) and was a temporary honeybee inspector for the State of New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
For a while my top-bar hives were experimental hobby hives and my framed equipment was my main source of income. As the equipment aged and then Varroa mites arrived I was confronted with a difficult year with few bees alive, old worn-out equipment, little projected income for that year and three children to care for. I evaluated the cost of new framed equipment versus making more top-bar hives and decided that I would take the somewhat controversial step of selling my extractor to make money, building 60 or so very inexpensive top-bar hives, collecting wild bees and doing bee removals from homes in a nearby town, and trying a top-bar based business in New Mexico.
I already had a reputation for not using antibiotics, comb repellents and comb-fumigants (to protect supers from wax moths). I have found that the top-bar hive is superior to the langstroth hive in many ways, mainly in that it helps me make money. The honey production is a little less (20% -25%), the beeswax production is much higher (+600%). There are no supers to store and protect, the bees build their own sized combs of various cells, and with care in selecting brood-free combs to harvest and crush we have an excellent and dedicated customer base in the Santa Fe grower's market for our delicious natural honey. The down side of top-bar beekeeping is that my wife and I want moveable combs and manage the 200 or so hives so that the bees build the combs straight on the top-bars. This keeps the hive legal in the State of New Mexico and also makes looking through the bees and harvesting honey quick and easy.
My wife and I are able to make a good living and take care of our little farm and bees without hired help. We take our bees to California to pollinate organic almonds, raise queen bees, sell bottled and comb honey and beeswax, and I have taught beekeeping for more than 20 years. The key to our success is in the market development and slow growth with the local market. Get a few hives going inexpensively and start selling a little honey. If the quality is what the customer likes you can slowly expand the number of hives with a portion of the return. The customer can also be educated about the damage to enzymes that heat causes, the benefits of some pollen in honey, and beekeepers should know the dangers of brood protein or water in honey etc. At some point you may find that you have 200 or 300 hives like we do and more market than you can supply. I teach people to keep bees and some of them can help supply the market needs.
I agree with your concept that beekeeping should be done with small inputs and good market development. Beekeeping needs to make the beekeeper some relatively quick money. Three or four kilos of honey pay for our hives. The hive should make a profit the first year and for a good many years. There also needs to be enough hands on training with populated beehives so that the new beekeeper can confidently open a beehive and harvest honey. In my beekeeping classes we spend most of the time in the bee-yard and only 25% or so in a classroom. I have begun to feel that if there was a project that I could help with in your organization I would like to work with you. For now I continue to teach and spread beekeeping here in the southwestern USA.
I appreciate your cautious or sanguine approach to trying to help people help themselves with beekeeping. I have taught many students over the last twenty plus years and have seen many people with many different expectations. Some have now kept bees for many years and some tried it for a while and went on to other things. It seems to me that those that started with big plans along with high economic hopes were the ones who quit the soonest after the work, a few stings and a slow market that they had not taken the time to develop and which did not meet their hopes quickly enough. One has to have some joy of working with bees and seeing the beauty in the essence of flowers being distilled by these ingenious little creatures and be willing to let things grow slowly. The market will grow and good honey and beeswax is greatly appreciated by many people around the world so it does not take long. The wax can be sold to herbalist's to make lip balms and salves, candles, ornaments and many things.
I use top-bar hives for several reasons and one is the extra wax. Another is the ease and very low cost of renewing the brood combs. As a teenager I used to take a job now and then removing bees from hollow spaces in buildings and noticed that bees building comb in their own way often eventually abandoned the older black thick walled cocoon filled combs and let the wax moths eat them. The bees would then slowly remove the wax moth debris and build new combs in the space. This can be seen as a form of urban renewal. Dr. Elbert Jaycox of the university of Illinois studied the effect of old comb in the brood nest and found that it caused more disease (AFB, EFB, Chalkbrood) and that it darkened honey. He recommended that the combs be changed out of the brood nest at least every five years. Dr. Punchihewa used older combs in his comb management system in his book (Keeping Bees for Honey Production in Sri Lanka). Also here in the USA, older combs have been found to absorb high levels of oil soluble insecticides. This shows comb renewal is important. The investment of a small portion of the profits (5%-10%) to buy more boards or even a smoker is a discipline that makes the business thrive and expand. Please feel free to print any part you wish in your journal or website. Les Crowder
Les Crowder, PO Box 444, Dixon NM, 87527 firstname.lastname@example.org (575)587-2065