Beekeepers innovate better care for bees

Doug Huttenstine, of the Village of Osceola Hills, moves bees to a horizontal Layens beehive while checking hives at Riverview Apiaries in Lake Panasoffkee.

Doug Huttenstine lost most of his beehives in two years of beekeeping in Florida.

This year, he wanted things to be different. So he decided to keep bees the opposite way — in horizontal hives instead of vertical hives. It’s one of many innovative ways beekeepers in the tri-county area and Central Florida are using to reduce labor and improve the health of their bee colonies. Taken together, they’re better for the bees because it reduces their stress and improves their guard against deadly pests such as varroa mites and hive beetles. For Huttenstine, of the Village of Osceola Hills, it’s reduced the fatality rate of his hives. Only three of his nine hives suffered losses this season, an improvement from losing seven out of nine in 2018 and six out of nine in 2019. “It kills your heart when you lose a hive, because you worked really hard to see that,” he said. Huttenstine spent this season working with Lake Panasoffkee beekeeper Scott Irving, owner of Riverview Apiaries, which is a vendor at the Brownwood Farmers Market and local artisan with The Villages Grown. Irving hadn’t tried using horizontal hives before Huttenstine suggested the method.

Trying this means of beekeeping was a learning experience for Irving.

“It’s an experimental farm now,” Irving said about his and Huttenstine’s trials with horizontal hives.

Horizontal hives put less stress on the bees because opening a horizontal hive does not require taking apart the entire house where the bees are kept, which can anger the bees, he said. He noticed a difference in the demeanor between the bees in the horizontal hives versus the bees in the vertical hives as he watched Huttenstine pull honey.

They’re also easier to work with than vertical hives because they require less frequent maintenance, Irving said.

In concert with the horizontal hives’ introduction, the beekeepers are trying new strategies to keep their bees happy, healthy and productive.

For example, they’re experimenting with not feeding bees in the horizontal hives to see if they will survive solely on their natural food source, nectar and pollen from wildflowers.

“I always say, ‘Let the bees be bees,’” Huttenstine said.

Typically, Irving feeds sugar water to his bees when wildflowers aren’t plentiful to prevent hive failure caused by malnutrition. On a recent morning at his apiary, he had containers of sugar water attached to his vertical hives. These containers were nowhere to be seen on the horizontal hives.

Irving and Huttenstine also are using natural means to ward off pests from the horizontal hives. They’re using gauze to trap varroa mites, a pest that kills bees by spreading diseases and sucking the blood of adult bees and their larvae.

A salad oil mixture they’re using proved helpful in trapping small hive beetles, which can threaten the bees’ eggs and larvae, honeycombs, pollen and the honey itself. Inside the horizontal hives, they place a container with the mixture using kombucha as an attractant. The hive beetles then become trapped and drown in the mixture.

But it’s horizontal hives that are the latest beekeeping innovation that’s catching on among beekeepers, said Matt Rensberry, president of the Orange Blossom Beekeepers Association in Orlando.

They’ve been considered ideal for hobbyists but not easy for professionals because they’re difficult to move around for pollination purposes, he said.

And one of the common types of horizontal hives, known as top bar hives, can be disadvantageous because there’s no standard size or design, meaning each hive can be different, Rensberry said.

But horizontal hives like the ones Huttenstine and Irving are experimenting with share commonalities with traditional models of hives used in professional beekeeping like the Langstroth, which are defined by stacked rectangular boxes with removable frames, he said.

Rensberry, who also is working with a horizontal hive he built, described horizontal hives as a “fascinating take on an old idea” that reduces maintenance and bee stress.

“The goal is to have calm honeybees that are just happy to produce honey and are not aggressive to the general population,” Rensberry said.

That, coupled with a greater ability to take an all-natural approach to managing pests, has helped the local appeal of horizontal hives.

Irving plans to add another one to his apiary in the winter.

Eventually, he’d like all his hives to be horizontal.

“It’s going to cut down on costs, and it’s going to cut down on wear and tear to me,” he said. “When you’re my age, that’s a lot.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.