ISO: Better Bees and Better Ways

In an effort to improve bee genetics in our apiary and our technique, we spent last Friday playing hooky from work and experiencing another beekeeper’s apiary.  We hit the road on a busy spring Friday and headed downstate.

We visited Mike Sautter, located in Romulus.  We pulled into the farm and were greeted by the friendly wave of a working farmer, a lone horse, and a herd of barn kitties.  Mike directed us around to the treeline at the edge of the property where his first group of hives were located.

Debbie suited up in her favorite beekeeping jacket, a veil, nitrile gloves, and sturdy hiking shoes.  Elly barely remembered to grab her veil, wearing toms, bare calves in capri pants, and bare hands was greeted by Mike with a warm welcome and a friendly reminder that there are ticks out here!  He smiled and said, “You must be the entomologist!”

As we approached Mike, he was searching through a hive for a queen. It’s been a chaotic beekeeping spring for many of us, and Mike reiterated to us just all the twists and turns that leads a beekeeper to being farther behind than he intended. Mike was late in getting his hives supered, and was working towards a goal of adding queen excluders and supers to each of his successful overwintered 1-story hives. But an exciting twist of events for us, we were in the midst of a particularly swarmy day and Mike just witnessed 2 hives swarm! One swarm twisted and flew off above his head, but as that queen had clipped wings the bees returned and he was hopeful we would find the queen in the grass approaching the hives or huddled under the box. The second swarmy hive Mike had found and marked the queen just as we called! Our poorly timed call disrupted his process and the queen flitted forward and seemingly re-entered the box. We started the morning by searching the 10 bustling frames for a queen. Unfortunately, the queen evaded us, but Elly found a 4-leaf clover at the foot of the hive!

Mike explained his system to us.  The old saying prevails, there are as many ways to keep bees as there are to make chili.  Mike definitely cooks from a different recipe than we do.  He has two different set ups: 10-frames in 1 story for honey production and 5-frame (or 6-frame) nucs he uses to grow his apiary.  So we started the morning looking at Mike’s mis-matched equipment, hives busting at the seam with strength and awaiting the supers Mike was planning to add.

Romulus is obviously more urban than Midland.  There was a large apartment complex nearby, along with a bustling highway alongside the farm.  But amidst the hustle and bustle of metro-Detroit, we found a quiet slice of paradise.  Mike had his grey pickup truck onsite, loaded to the gills with equipment stored under a topper.  He explained to us just how much he loved this farm environment.  Turkeys wandered by as we worked, great blue herons flew overhead en route to a nearby rookery, and Mike described a lopsided buck that laid himself down in the grass and watched as Mike tended hives.  I understand Mike’s perspective, as he shared with us his preference for assembling frames in the field amongst Mother nature, and not in a workshop back home.

We drove a short distance to a location where Mike staged his nucs.  He showed us a setup of 2 nucs pressed together side-by-side, entrances on opposite ends, sloped bottom boards, and a shared headspace for a queen excluder and honey supers.  He’s been selling nucs this spring already and preparing for a class that will utilize 20 nucs! 

We traveled towards the third location where bees were staged, and Mike announced, “Well if you’re here for swarms you’ve come to the right place!”  One hive at this location had just swarmed, only to find a queen with clipped wings.  The queen was in the grass in front of the hives with a cluster of 4 bees.  Mike scooped them up, Marked the queen and caged her, storing her at the nuc to return to later, as workers were returning and bearding on the box.

We also saw 2ish swarms in the shrubs to the side of the boxes.  One was hanging in an overgrown honeysuckle and a second cluster was clumped on tall plant material, last year’s goldenrod, near the ground.  I say “ish” because we had questions about whether there were 2 swarms or 1 huge swarm, but set to work collecting the lower swarm first.

Mike had a fair amount of equipment on site and in the back of his truck, and we assembled a nuc with new frames (plastic foundation).  We put the box in front of the cluster and gently encouraged them to march it.  It was a slow march, and we occasionally encouraged them with a tiny puff of smoke.  We were watching closely for the queen which we did ultimately confirm was present.  Swarm retrieved!

In the midst of capturing the lower cluster, the tone of the bees above us in the tree changed.  We could hear and sense a change.  A glance up and we were in the midst of the upper cluster, now confirmed to be a second swarm, swirling and flying off in the direction where scouts had found a new home!  Readers, if you never have experienced swarming bees, I can say that Winnie the Pooh cartoons captured the flight and experience accurately!

We also looked at his queen rearing hives.  He had started the process and had his first round of queens in capped cups waiting to be utilized for splits.  He shared with us he likes to work with the natural process, and reiterated the old saying in beekeeping that swarm queens are the best queens. 

Moving on to a small group of nucs where we would take the splits for the bees Debbie and I were purchasing, we were greeted by a very large swarm hanging in an apple tree.  “Those are your bees!” Mike exclaimed.  Upon further examination, we confirmed the swarm had come from 1 of the 2 hives we were splitting from.  We set to work inspecting the remaining hive and transferring 4 bustling frames, laid top to

bottom and side to side with eggs, and a frame of space for our transportation nucs.

The second hive we took home was a retrieved swarm.  The first hive we approached in this area, with the queen who was recovered from the ground was boxed up and sent home with us.

 At this location there was a pile of assorted equipment.  Most of it wooden, some polystyrene Bee max, and assorted other odds and ends Mike had acquired.  Mike held up a box, definitely old, bottom ajar and shared his opinion that good equipment isn’t necessary to successfully keep bees.  The most important factor is good healthy bees with good genetics.  And I am sold!  Mike’s bees were remarkable.  I, in general, am fairly light when using smoke.  We were taught by a good mentor, who minimizes smoke and listens to the bees.  Mike’s bees?  Well they didn’t even need smoke!  We had it with us, (it’s a rule, always light the smoker when going into hives!)  But the bees were so gentle and mild.  Every queen we looked at laid an awesome pattern.  Mike takes so much pride in his stock. 

He affectionately called his queens “the old ladies,” the mother queen that he raises his stock from bears a blue dot, indicating she was born in 2020.  He intentionally keeps his queens multiple seasons.  It’s important this time of the year to have good drone genetics and numbers as Mike works with their natural swarm cycles to grow and split his apiary.  As I studied entomology at MSU, I remember being taught queen bees live 3-5 years.  Now it is largely recommended to requeen a hive each season.  Mike challenged us as to why we beekeep in 2 deeps.  And because, “that’s how it’s always been done” didn’t seem like the best answer, we fumbled for a justification.  Mike challenged us to try managing bees in 1 story, it’s easier to inspect and find the queen and cheaper for mite products.  He encouraged us to add supers and harvest honey earlier, end of July.  Michigan has such a short summer season and goldenrod honey just doesn’t seem to pay off.  We are trying it!  This year we are setting up our hives in 1 story and then supers.  We are planning to harvest earlier and are so hopeful this improves our success.  Mike posed a question to ponder, if we have a queen and expect her to manage such a large 2-story hive and lay 60,000 eggs in a season, how can we be disappointed when she doesn’t have longevity?  Point taken, Mike!

Our day ended as we helped Mike retrieve the swarm from the high apple limb.  Debbie and I make pretty good anchors for other beekeepers precariously balancing atop ladders!  A couple trips on the ladder and we were successful getting the bees into a box!

Mike thanked us for the visit, and I genuinely felt he enjoyed the day as much as we did, three people passionate about bees, chasing swarms and discussing techniques.  Of our time there, we left with good stock bees to add to our apiaries.  We also left with a new recipe for beekeeping that we plan to use for the 2023 season. 

And as a follow-up, Mike was right to warn me about ticks!  I did check carefully and escape hitchhiking ticks, however a couple days later I discovered chiggers burrowed into my ankles!  Be careful out there, beekeepers!