Biology, mentors, veterans, bees and honey
by Jack Blackford
When stepping into the cavernous beekeeping workshop of Ed Forney you must be prepared for a big KISS. A big wet Keep It Simple Stupid kiss planted right into your brain. The driving philosophy behind Geezer Ridge Farm is “you are just putting bees in a wooden box.” Don’t show up here saying someone told you that your supers had to be off July 4th week, there is no beekeeping by the calendar up here on the side of the mountains. Instead Ed will ask you what your bees are doing, if they are still bringing in plenty of nectar put on another super instead of taking them off because someone set an arbitrary date about when they should be taken off. Ed doesn’t allow his bees to keep calendars in the hive, they tell him what they need and he obeys their every wish no matter what time of year it is. Bee biology is what drives Ed’s decision making, and he makes sure you know why you are doing something to support the bee biology, not just doing something you don’t understand because someone told you its the day to do it. One of Ed’s biggest challenges is getting new beekeepers who absorb so much from the internet gurus into separating facts from opinions.
It all started with Cheryl, Ed’s wife, who wanted a peaceful stress relieving hobby. Her only wish for Ed’s involvement was for him to lift her heavy supers off when they were full. Ed thought about this arrangement for a while and figured out that by the time you get your bee jack on, get your smoker fired up, find all the bits and pieces you need for a trip to the apiary you might as well start with six beehives. So Cheryl dragged Ed to our group’s beginners beekeeping class, she cleared out a spot for six hives, they purchased their woodenware and bees and started to be beekeepers. Ed was a cabinet maker, he soon found that playing with bee boxes came naturally to him and he began making sure all their boxes were perfectly square and flat with no gaps between boxes. They found a good mentor, James Copenhaven, who works with everyone in our beekeepers group, the West Virginia Eastern Pandhandle Beekeepers Association. James helped them keep their first six hives alive. Ed got excited about beekeeping and expanded another 15 hives the next year making splits. Ed soon learned he had a natural drawing towards bees, not so much making honey as Cheryl wishes, but for growing lots and lots of bees.
They added another mentor, the WV apiary inspector Paul Poling who along with inspecting hives is also a commercial beekeeper. Paul taught Ed about making a Bee Engine. A lot of people say to keep your hives equal all year and to take resources from your strong hives to knock them back and give to the weaker hives. The problem with this method is that is doesn’t let the strong hives get very strong and so it doesn’t reach its true potential of creating the maximum number of bees possible since its always being weakened. By making a Bee Engine, you first make sure that the strong hives stay strong, don’t try to equalize the hives but keep the strong hive strong and then take from it to boost other hives. By keeping strong hives strong there is always a supply of resources to make nucs. The Bee Engines job is to build foundation and make bees.
Paul taught Ed how to manipulate frames to expand production hives, combining the resources of two strong Bee Engines to create an instant new production hive. Ed has adopted the eight-frame nuc and 10-frame production hives. He likes using eight-frame hives as nucs as the bees grow faster in an eight-frame over a five-frame nuc. They also overwinter better and you can knock an eight-frame hive back to three frames with a good queen and have it build up fast again. Ed starts with two strong eight-frame hives, hive A and B, each with eight deep and eight medium frames, full of bees and brood. The new hive gets 5 frames from each A and B deep and medium boxes. The deep gets bees shaken out of hive A, newspaper gets put over the deep, the medium box added and bees are shaken from hive B. Drop in a new queen, either leave the new hive in place or move it to a new apiary. Ed quickly expanded to 130 hives by their 3rd year and then soon it was starting to get hard to count the number of hives Ed was running.
Another Geezer Ridge Farm philosophy is that smart people at MAAREC, Penn State, University of Maryland and Cornell and the USDA among others have all dedicated themselves to helping beekeepers not only keep their bees alive but to help them expand their colonies. One of Ed’s passions is scientific beekeeping, getting rid of a lot of the voodoo and myths that keep killing backyard beekeepers bees. Anyone with a camera who successfully installs a package and films it and posts it to yutube just became another bee expert spouting their newly developed beekeeping philosophy witchcraft, even before they have overwintered a single colony. In contributing to educating beekeepers Ed offers many free workshops and hands-on opportunities at Geezer Ridge Farm. These workshops are guided by people’s questions rather than a predetermined presentation, though they do start off with a timely seasonal topic. Ed is also a natural easygoing patient teacher, just like his mentor James, and more and more people are coming to Geezer Ridge Farm to learn about keeping their bees alive. One of the high quality indicators about Geezer Ridge Farm is that there is never a sales pitch, the shop is full of whatever you could possibly need to care for your bees, Ed is an independent salesmen for many different bee companies, you have to ask for something, the classes are not set up like some businesses to tell you what you need and then sell to a captive audience. This is one of the strongest points you should look for in a mentor, if they also sell beekeeping hardware or bees, are they teaching you to just follow their philosophy and herding you into buying their stuff or are they trying to make you think and can help you get what you need versus filling your truck up with only what they tell you that you want? At Geezer Ridge Farm you are not given a hard sell which makes the new beekeepers much more comfortable in asking questions.
One of the interesting adaptions driven by bee biology is seen in Ed’s hive top feeders. The typical plastic two well feeder with a divide in the middle allows plenty of room for bees to build comb between the wells. Ed knows that light inhibits comb formation and modified his hive top feeders so that they have a large circular vents in the ends. These large mesh-covered vents allow in enough light to inhibit the bees from building combs in the gap between the wells. It’s just a simple bee biology observation that makes keeping bees easier, no more scraping comb from feeders, no more accidentally cutting a hole in the plastic! Another bee biology observation is that you can drop a frame of foundation into the middle of the brood area when its warm enough and the bees will quickly pull the comb and the queen will fill it up with eggs. Splitting the brood is not something the common mantra allows, yet observing simple bee biology has allowed Ed to quickly get a freshly pulled frame with new wax filled with brood allowing him to keep his Bee Engines going at full speed.
Ed was now growing so many bees by keeping strong hives strong and by manipulating frames he began to sell bees to us locals. Ed has an interesting adopt-a-hive program. Here, beginners who are thinking about getting into beekeeping, start by making a nuc from Ed’s hives and go through the whole process of tending to the hive and expanding it into a full production hive under Ed’s guidance. This patient hands-on approach gives people the experience to see if they are really cut out to be beekeepers without buying all the equipment. Ed gladly points out that not everyone who has come through the adopt-the-hive program ended up getting bees, some were not cut out for it, but they all enjoyed the experience. The successful beginner then makes a nuc from the hive they have been tending and takes it home to establish their own colony.
Geezer Ridge Farm has a Build-Your-Own-Nuc program that is growing in popularity, this idea is unheard of in most places. You take your nuc box, go through Ed’s hives and hand pick out the queen and brood frames you want and shake off some extra bees from his strong Bee Engines. If you don’t shake in enough bees Ed shakes a few more in for you, he wants everyone to succeed. Ed also supplies frames of honey and pollen so you leave with a nuc you put together, with a queen you picked out, with the combination of frames you choose. What a great system more apiaries should setup to give their local customers a great boost of confidence. Ed also sells queens, all year for those who suddenly find themselves queenless off season and who are trying to save their hives.
Ed so impressed his mentor Paul Poling that Paul recruited Ed to become an official WV state apiary inspector. One of the job responsibilities is to help administer the West Virginia Vetrans & Warriors to Agriculture Project. Ed is an official state certified beekeeping trainer for veterans through his state apiary inspectors position in the Department of Agriculture. This is a free program for veterans, initial funding is through a WV reeducation grant for honorably discharged veterans. James McCormick, Director of WV Veterans and Warriors to Ag, who was just awarded the Silver Star, works hard to help support the WV program sending Ed out to recruit veterans into the program and setting up teaching opportunities state wide. Ed points out that these legitimate programs are free, there is no charge for participating in state sponsored programs, the veteran has control over where they want to keep their hive, there is no contract that controls where they do their beekeeping at. The goal, depending on funding, is to set up each new beekeeper with two beehives. If you have any questions about who can provide free legitimate state funded training contact Ed or the head of the program, James McCormick at 304-558-3200 and email at jmccormick@WVDA.US. There is also a Facebook page for help for veterans in joining the free programs.
Full disclosure, Ed is also one of my several mentors, he encourages people to learn versus preaching about beekeeping voodoo. When visiting Ed be prepared for a hands-on opportunity at any time and make sure to take good notes. Geezer Ridge Farm is located at 173 Rooney Road in Hedgesville West Virginia 25427. They can be reached at 304-702-3848.
Jack and Toni live on a small farm in WV growing bees and apple trees and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.