Argentine Beekeeping: Past, Present and Future
By Prof. Norberto García Girou (M. Sc.)
NEXCO S.A. and Universitad Nacional del sur Argentina
Between 1990 and 2005, Argentine beekeeping, traditionally focused on the production of honey for international markets, experienced a period of steep growth as a result of the following factors: i) rising international honey prices with a favorable internal exchange rate; ii) available land apt for beekeeping in the country; iii) a lack of other viable productive alternatives; and iv) above-average rainfall in large parts of the country.
In this context, the total number of beehives in the country grew from around 2 million to over 6 million. A typical Argentine commercial beekeeper owned approximately 1,000 beehives in operation. Such quantitative growth was accompanied with the development and/or adaptation of practical and efficient technical tools such as: i) one-box wintering of beehives to reduce honey consumption; ii) massive feeding of beehives with sugar syrup during the autumn and spring; iii) appropriate queen management with royal cells as an extended tool to replace old queens; iv) a rise in migratory beekeeping to exploit new floral sources; v) efficient methods of colony multiplication with an special emphasis on late season splits; and vi) adequate control of bee diseases.
However, those positive trends have definitively reversed in the past four years. The dramatic conversion of pasture lands to plantations of soybeans, corn and other grains, the ban on exports of beef products, the extended use of direct sowing, and an important increment in the use of pesticides markedly reduced the honey yields of many foraging areas. The aforementioned adverse factors, combined with four years of below-average rainfall in different parts of the country, have led to a deep crisis and the need for the reorganization of beekeeping operations. Currently, we expect a stabilization of our beekeeping industry in the order of 3 million hives with a total production of around 50 to 70,000 metric tons of high-quality honey.
Between 1990 and 2005, Argentine beekeeping, traditionally focused on the production of honey for international markets, experienced a period of steep growth. The total number of beehives in the country grew from around 2 million to over 6 million. This growing beekeeping industry coincided with a period of a rapid environmental change in the foraging areas due to growth in the agricultural sector.
Thus, Argentine beekeepers faced a double challenge: on the one hand, we had to select efficient management tools for generating competitive companies, and on the other hand, these management techniques had to be effective enough to make beekeeping viable in a less favourable agro-ecological environment.
The sustained growth in the agricultural sector gradually deprived our bees of appropriate spring conditions (in terms of available nectar and pollen). Until then, many traditional beekeeping practices were based on good spring conditions so, in light of the changing environment, the main conceptual change we made was to redefine our beekeeping calendar, with a special emphasis on the preparation of our beehives for wintering.
The beginning of the season: autumn or spring?
Traditionally, spring was considered the start of the beekeeping season in Argentina. At the end of the winter, beekeepers started controlling honey stores, colony health, and the quality of the queens. During the last two decades, many things have changed: many pasture lands have been converted to agricultural lands, new diseases affect our bees, and our activity has become increasingly professionalized. The combination of these factors have led to a change in our concept of how to properly manage our colonies of bees around the year with respect to feeding, queen replacement, sanity control, and wintering.
Changes in beekeeping flora and a convenient price relationship between honey and its substitutes influenced a generalized use of artificial feeding. Currently, all or most of the hive’s need of carbohydrates during the autumn-winter-spring period is covered through the use of substitutes such as sucrose syrup.
Experience gathered over the years has shown us the technical and economic advantages of an abundant distribution of sugar syrup during the autumn to cover not only autumn and winter needs but also part of the spring demand. Syrup that is distributed in the fall is syrup that will not need to be distributed in the spring.
In the fall, bees quickly remove all of the syrup from the feeders due to the abundance of unemployed foraging bees, which are in charge of this task. At the beginning of spring, after the winter bees die, the colony is mainly composed of young bees that find it more difficult to take syrup from the feeders. Additionally, in many bee regions of our country, climate conditions are more stable during autumn than in spring, providing better working conditions both for the bees and for the beekeeper.
There is no better spring stimulation of bee colonies than a good autumn feeding. As a result of the above considerations, much of the artificial feeding work has been transferred from spring to autumn. Autumn-winter-spring carbohydrate consumption of beehives in our country, depending on several factors, is approximately between 15 to 25 kg. In the recent years, wintering colonies in a single Langstroth box have gained many adherents in Argentina, it is a wintering colony size that combines a reduced consumption of reserves with a suitable volume of bees.
Sucrose from sugar cane is the most commonly used honey substitute in Argentine beekeeping. This sugar is highly attractive and easily digestible for bees. Concentrated syrup of sugar (66%) can, in principle, be used throughout the year. High Fructose Corn Syrup is also used by many beekeepers.
Artificial feeding around the year
Autumn distribution of sugar syrup containing 10kg of sucrose per colony is generally enough to feed the bees until the beginning of the next spring. However, sometimes it is necessary to distribute an additional amount of syrup in order to achieve a significant reduction of the brood area. Our experience shows that those beekeepers that practice this autumn stop of oviposition generally improve the health of their beehives. American foulbrood gradually disappears, Varroa control methods are more effective when little or no brood is present, and the body protein economy of winter bees is improved, which is essential to prevent Nosema attacks.
The use of syrups made of brown sugar, invert sugar, fermented honey or dark honeys must be avoided in autumn because they are not well digested by the bees. Those syrups cause the accumulation of toxic substances in the digestive tract of the bees when they do not perform frequent evacuation flights.
In areas where the bees gather honeydew in autumn, the beekeepers should harvest that honeydew and then feed colonies with artificial syrup. Honeydews have a high mineral content, especially potassium, which may double bee mortality.
After the nectar flow is concluded, the artificial feed must be distributed as soon as possible, when the climate is still temperate, so that bees can rapidly process the syrup and transform it into stocks. The colonies fed early in the fall have a better spring development. Every beekeeper knows that the best way to winter populous colonies, or those that develop early in the spring, is to leave abundant reserves of honey or a good honey substitute. We have not found any difference in wintering and later spring development between colonies wintered with abundant honey reserves and those whose honey was harvested and substituted with a proper substitute in equivalent amounts.
If possible, all of the necessary syrup must be provided in two o three feeding rounds. If the syrup is distributed in small doses, the egg-laying of the queen may be stimulated. Syrup processing by bees requires approximately 23% of the sugar supplied. The remaining 77% is stored as reserves. Concentrated syrup generates more reserves than diluted syrup.
In areas where the advancement of agriculture is not as prevalent, we do not get positive results through the distribution of pollen substitutes in autumn. On the contrary, since pollen substitutes normally do not possess the nutritional balance of a good mix of natural pollens, the result of its distribution before winter is generally negative.
On the other hand, there are other areas or situations where the use of pollen substitutes in autumn may be recommended:
- in areas with little or scarce autumn pollen
- during very dry autumns where pollen may be insufficient;
- in areas where the last pollen before wintering is of poor quality, which may be the case when the autumn pollen comes mainly from eucalyptus or sunflower.
Colony feeding during winter is usually not recommended. Nevertheless, if the autumn feeding could not be made on time or was insufficient, winter feeding may be necessary. In these cases, winter food must have a low water content since excess moisture in the hive is harmful for bees in winter. Winter feeding must be done with candy or corn syrup with at least 80% of solids content. The feeder must be placed as close as possible to the winter cluster of bees to facilitate consumption. The distribution of pollen substitutes in winter makes no sense because of the reduction or absence of brood.
During spring, the distribution of 66% sucrose syrup is recommended. When feeding is performed with cold weather in late winter or early spring, we do not recommend a volume of syrup disproportionately large in relation to the size of the colony of bees. Syrup not withdrawn from the feeder after some days usually ferments and becomes waste. At that time, strong hives can receive about 5-6 kg of syrup and nuclei half that quantity.
By mid to late spring, when nectar flow is still incipient and variable, the acceptance of the first super is facilitated by the provision of syrup. This prevents a possible stress to the bees and speeds up comb building from foundation wax.
The distribution of sucrose syrup, besides providing sugar and water to the colonies, also increases pollen gathering by foragers. This is important for spring breeding development as well as for increasing the pollination efficiency of beehives.
Spring brood development generates a strong demand for pollen that sometimes cannot be satisfied by natural income. If the deficiency is not severe, the distribution of a liquid pollen substitute may be adequate. If the deficiency is severe, a more concentrated substitute in the form of patty is required.
Professional beekeepers in Argentina have mechanical systems for the preparation and distribution of sucrose syrup in order to reduce the costs of staff and vehicles.
The type of feeder preferred in Argentina is a plastic container with two frames that can be placed either in the brood chamber or in the super. The frames inside the feeder prevent the drowning of bees.
There are two versions of this design: a disposable and a durable type. Disposable feeders are 200 micron thick low-density polyethylene or 100 micron thick high-density polyethylene bags prepared to contain two frames. They have a very good capacity (7-8 L.) and a low cost. Their major disadvantage is the ease with which they can be perforated, for example by moths and rodents. If used in the supers or in the brood chamber with a reduced hive entrance, the durability of these disposable feeders significantly increases.
There is also a durable version of these feeders manufactured with injected plastic. They require an initial investment by the beekeeper but its durability, ease of use, and efficiency make them the preferred choice of most beekeepers.
II) The Replacement of Queens
The changes in spring conditions that affect beekeeping (in terms of flora and meteorology) have also instigated a switch of much of the tasks of colony multiplication and the replacement of low quality queens from spring to the end of the honey flow.
If queen replacement is made under poor spring conditions the colony will not be able to build a good population of bees for the honey flow. The same applies to nuclei made in spring.
When the honey flow is finishing, on numerous occasions, beekeepers are found in the dilemma of whether to start with the task of queen replacement and colony increases, or to attempt to harvest a surplus honey during an eventual lengthening of the season.
The experience of previous seasons is of paramount importance to make a good decision. In general, it is rare to observe an extension of the honey flow. Unfortunately, it is much more common to face a shortening of the honey season due to adverse weather conditions. Every beekeeper must posses a clear knowledge of the average date for the completion of the honey season and unhesitatingly begin preparing the hives for the next season. Otherwise, the beekeeper runs the risk of missing a good opportunity to establish new colonies.
The formation of nuclei or splits is typically done with the goal of multiplication, but as mentioned above, in some cases the beekeeper may make the new colonies with the objective of replacing old or undesirable queens. Whatever the objective may be, the following sections describe the preferred methods for making late summer nuclei and splits in Argentina.
Procedure for making nuclei
Each nucleus consists of three or four brood combs with the adhering bees (taking care of the absence of the queen) and a honeycomb or an empty comb.
We give no importance to the amount of honey in the nucleus at the time of its formation since, one or two days later when we introduce the new queen, we feed each new colony abundantly with 3-4 kg of sucrose syrup.
The nucleus is placed in a new standard beehive provided with a frame feeder at the middle of the chamber to limit the available space for the new colony. With the subsequent growth of the new colony during the next spring, the feeder is displaced towards the border of the brood chamber.
In order to prevent the loss of foraging bees from the nuclei, they must be transported to another site more than two miles away.
It is very important that the brood combs of the nucleus are well covered with bees so that they can properly assist breeding.
One or two days after nucleus formation, a mated queen or, more usually, a royal cell is introduced. Three weeks later, when the fecundation of the new queen is checked, the nucleus is abundantly fed with sugar syrup.
Procedure for making splits
At the end of the honey season, the beehives, harvested during the previous days, normally comprise two bodies (brood chamber and a standard super) fully covered with bees.
Behind each hive we place, in an empty brood chamber, five or six combs of sealed brood with the adhering bees (being careful not to carry the queen), a comb of honey, and the necessary empty combs to complete the box. When necessary for the completion of the split, brood combs from different hives may be used.
The mother hive, reduced to a brood chamber, is then moved to another location in the apiary. The new split, placed in the original place of the mother hive, will also receive all the foraging bees.
An empty super, without frames, is finally placed on the roof of the new split to avoid drifting of the bees to neighbouring hives. This empty box will be removed on the next visit to the apiary when the new queen is introduced.
The objective in this method is to achieve two similar colonies that properly cover the nine frames of the brood chamber. To do this, and given that the new splits will receive most of the foragers, preference should be given to mother hives in the distribution of bees adhered to boxes, empty combs, and the roof at the time of making the division.
Argentine commercial beekeepers usually prefer the use of royal cells to give a queen to the new colony.
III) Sanitary Management
With regard to bee health, three diseases are of frequent appearance in our apiaries in recent years: Varroa mites, American foulbrood and Nosema disease. In all cases, an appropriate autumn control prevents winter or spring damages. Spring time is too late to solve inefficacious sanitary control methods made during the autumn or winter.
In the case of Varroa mites, and due to the risk of significant winter damages, the need for an optimal autumn control is imperative.
Assuming that honey robbing from diseased hives is one of the main ways to spread American foulbrood, an appropriate autumn control of brood health is essential.
Focusing on Nosema, autumn diagnosis through spore count prevents spring outbreaks which, once detected, have already caused a more or less significant damage. Counting Nosema spores during the autumn, as well as appropriate autumn hive management to make a proper economy of the body protein of winter bees, are the main control strategies for this disease.
IV) Wintering - One box wintering
During the last two decades, we have also changed our wintering methodologies due to technical and financial reasons.
From a technical point of view, we suffered the partial or total loss of many spring floral sources due to the advancement of agriculture in Argentina and the consequent use of agrochemicals. This brought a worsening of floral conditions for the formation of nuclei in spring in many apiculture regions of the country. Under these conditions, the optimal wintering population size of colonies was reduced. Wintering very populous colonies has no benefit when poor spring conditions are expected with the aggravation of an increased consumption of carbohydrates during winter.
Focusing on financial considerations, during the last two decades, we have had a very convenient honey/sugar price ratio for the replacement of honey by a substitute. One-box wintering allows the total harvest of honey from the supers and minimizes winter consumption of a less expensive honey substitute.
In conclusion, the aforementioned reasons have led to the prevalence of one-box wintering of beehives in Argentina.
One-box wintering has the following characteristics:
- The wintering population is sufficient enough to ensure a proper spring development of the colony and is fairly small to minimize food consumption.
- The volume of honey for consumption by bees is minimized since this type of wintering is normally associated with an increase of artificial feeding with substitutes.
- The exposure of hive materials to weather inclemency is minimized, increasing the useful life of hive materials. In addition, the tumbling or damage of beehives by animals is decreased by reducing the height of the beehives.
- If the final honey harvest round is combined with the preparation of nuclei or splits, the preparation of one-box wintering is automatically done without the need of any additional tasks.
- The entry of mice to the beehive is prevented since the box is fully occupied by bees and thus well controlled.
- Most acaricides used for Varroa control are more effective when the hives are reduced to a single brood chamber.
The preparation of this type of wintering can be done at any time after completing the honey flow. Some beekeepers wait for a reduction of brood area observed with the arrival of cooler days in autumn. This option has the disadvantage of requiring a complete and specific work round, increasing labour and costs.
Beekeepers who make late summer splits avoid this specific wintering preparatory work. At the end of the honey flow, beehives have an average of 10-12 brood combs. Thus, if an increase in the number of beehives is desired, the formation of late summer splits of 5-6 brood combs conjugates multiplication with the preparation of one-box wintering. Other beekeepers prefer to use only the brood combs present in the second box to prepare new colonies at the time of reducing the “mother” colony to one box.
Finally, beekeepers that use queen excluders do not find any difficulty in reducing the colonies to a single box.
Each beekeeper should analyze floral and climatic features in his area prior to choosing the most appropriate wintering system. Furthermore, it may be common to find that two nearby apiaries may require a different wintering strategy.
As a generalization, it can be stated that in those scarce regions (or apiaries) where good spring conditions can be expected, wintering of populous hives consisting of a brood chamber and a super with food reserves may have some advantage for the formation of early spring nuclei compared to hives wintered in one box.
On the contrary, much of Argentine beekeeping area has rather poor and irregular spring conditions. In those regions, one-box wintering in conjunction with the formation of late summer splits has increasingly more followers.
In sum, the changes that have taken place in recent years in Argentine apiculture increasingly point to a new trend where the beginning of the beekeeping season coincides with the completion of the previous season: late summer or autumn.
When the nectar flow is finishing, organized beekeepers must take actions to plan ahead for the coming season. At this time, they must review the quality of the queens, monitor the health status of beehives before it is too late and, finally, ensure a good level of carbohydrate reserves in order to postpone as much as possible the need for the first round of feeding in the spring.
The conversion of pasture lands to plantations of soybeans, corn and other grains still continues. More recently, a ban on exports of beef products aggravated our situation. We have already suffered an important reduction of the honey yields in many foraging areas. One or two decades ago, we expected a honey yield of 60-70 kg per colony. Nowadays, colony yields have been reduced more by than 50%.
The aforementioned adverse factors, combined with four years of below-average rainfall in different parts of the country, have led to a new crisis and the need for the reorganization of beekeeping operations. An increase of migratory beekeeping exploring new and scarce foraging areas is the latest attempt to maintain honey production. Currently, we expect a stabilization of our beekeeping industry in the order of 3 million hives with a total production of around 50 to 70,000 metric tons of high-quality honey. We hope this new crisis will finally give us another good opportunity to grow...
Norberto García Girou (M. Sc.)
NEXCO S.A. and Universidad Nacional del sur Argentina