What is Project „Fort Knox” and how has it worked since 2015
How has it started?
Some years ago, in 2014, group of amateur beekeepers from all over Poland started to talk on different internet platforms. In the discussions we wanted to present some other aproach to beekeeping and to the bees themselves. We wanted to discuss the need to put aside constant use of chemical substances in the apiaries, and how to do it, although we knew from the start, that it would not be easy to keep bees like that. People have written us: „It can't be done with that little number of colonies”, „It's no use to start all over every year, or every other year, it's just senseless”, „you won't manage to do that, because you can't preserve the genetics”, „it does not make sense at all to rebuild after collapse every year after year”. People tried to discourage and dishearten us. We all remembered those words that have been written to us, but we would not agree just to give up that easily. During that process we started to recognize and know each other, and started common discussion. I was in that group just from the beginning. We have decided to create an organization, with its webpage and internet forum to support our ideas, and not to be dishearten every time the discussion starts.We have decided that our organization should promote different models of natural ways of keeping bees, including treatment free beekeeping, because most of us believed, that this must be the future of beekeeping. If bees should be healthy, they have to learn to keep that health by themselves. But all of us knew that as amateur beekeepers with limited resources we are no match for Varroa mite. Maybe some of our biggest apiaries, then with the numbers of 40 – 50 hives, had some little chance. And in one apiary of Łukasz Łapka it proved to work for now, as he has been self sufficient from the start. Łukasz spent some years preparing to be treatment free and doing some preliminary selection using natural mineral oils to treat bees. But the odds still were agaist us, and we knew that all the words we have heard or read earlier, no matter if they were spoken in bad will, or good will and concern, might have been just true. That is why just from the begining we were thinking of and discussing the means to help those, who try to be treatment free and provide some system solution for the selection. At first, some ideas of using the membership dues to help in rebuilding apiaries have appeared. As there has not been any beter idea at that time, I was for it. But some people did not want to use that small amounts of money we had gathered for that purpose. And that was too little money anyway to restore the loss. Besides, some people who needed help in selection did not want to take any money from common pool. During that „brain storm” one of our friends, Marcin Zarek, proposed a simple but engenious solution, to have a „common bank” of bees in our apiaries, from which we would compensate for the loss. We liked the idea from the start, because it was simple, solved many of the problems we encountered, and answered all the allegations to amateur selection of surviving bees we have previously heard. And besides there has been no money involved! That was quite important since we had very little resources, and we have known that money can sometimes spoil every cooperation. We've decided to call that Project „Fort Knox”. That is the name of United States federal gold reserve and military base. We found that name appealing because we wanted to create our reserve of treatment free bees, that we considered our „gold”. This is how our Project was born in 2015.
Having the general idea we started the discussion about specific rules of the cooperation. Irrespectively of finding the “Fort Knox” idea very attractive, we knew that we might meet many problems in the future, that we might have not been aware of at that time. So we have decided that the first year of the cooperation would be the year of debate about more formal “Regulations” and we would proceed with the cooperation without any written rules – on the basis of trust and good will – and then we would work out how it should be done to be fair and just to work well. During this mentioned year we observed our cooperation and thought of the best solutions to the problems we run across. All the decisions were discussed, but we left the final word to our friend Marcin Zarek, who invented the base idea, and who was chosen to be the Coordinator of the Project. After that year we created more formal “Regulations”. This was written as a formal law, and it may sound like it when you read it, but to tell the truth it is not a strict law at all in the real life. It is just a system of guidence and advice to make the best decisions – as by the participants of the Project of how to manage the bees that were “given” to the „common apiary”, as by the Coordinator how to make the decisions of transfering bees and solving the arising problems.
But what exactly is Project „Fort Knox”?
„Fort Knox” is the system of selecting bees using natural selection (or so called sometimes: „Bond” method) and the system of guarantees for the participants that they will not be left without bees if they die. We knew that the worse thing to selection is starting over every time the apiary collapses. And if You do not treat bees than in our Polish conditions (and in most of the European countries conditions as well) most probably will mean that your apiary will collapse in some time. Most of us believe that collapse of the apiary (hopefully not “full” collapse) is in fact quite inevitable but using natural selection it is the only way of selecting bees in treatment free apiary, because in that process nature can „choose” survivors. And as a beekeeper your job is just to rebuild the apiary from those survivors – Kirk Webster has written the perfect text about the process of collapse and recovery and how important it is in achieving treatment free fully sustainable apiary (http://kirkwebster.com/index.php/collapse-and-recovery-the-gateway-to-treatment-free-beekeeping). But the problem is when the collapse of the apiary is absolute, so all the bees die, and there are no survivors. In that case you have to start over, and then all the previous years in getting the surviving genetics are almost lost („almost”, because there are other important aspects than just genetics – You still have the hives with probably better balanced microflora than on the start). If you have (probably) 100 or more bee colonies, you may count on having survivors, but if you have 30 or 40 colonies, than your chances of having them are much lower, and if you have 5 or 10 than they are very slim if not nonexisting. This is why, as amateur backyard beekeepers, we knew that we have to add up all our colonies to get the proper number. We had to build a system of exchanging bees, and help in rebuilding apiaries to those of us, who did not have the luck of surviving bees. We knew that each of us have some potential of selection, so we could use this potential for the sake of us all, but if we leave a person wihtout surviving genetics, then all of us loose this potential. We found out that in the best interest of each one of us is to help each other. Moreover we knew, that if somebody works alone and have 1 to 10 (or so) hives his selection potential is miniamal or nonexisting. But this apiary builds joint potential if added to other apiaries.
Summarizing, Project „Fort Knox” is a system of joint potential that uses many apiaries as one – even if the bees are distributed in many places all over the country. It is also a system of giving us all guarantees that we are not left without bees if they die. If – unfortulately – the apiary collapses, than other beekeepers make nucleus colonies to build up the potential of this fallen apiary again, by transfering surviving bees to it. Thanks to that system of cooperation our common selection is lasting even if one or more apiaries collapse, and none of us has to start over from the beginging.
What is important, this system is completly free of charge and is based on free will and trust. There is no fee for joining the Project, and no charge for the splits transfered between beekeepers. We all trust that each of the participants is doing everything following his best knowledge of management methods, and doing all the best to serve the common good. It is important to understand, that this Project is not the whole of our potential and not the whole selection we are doing here. All of us have apiaries, and many of them are treatment free. Some of them have several dozens of colonies and only a few of them are in the “Fort Knox” Project. So even the numbers of the Project are not big, our potential is much bigger. But it embodies itself in the Cooperation. Being in the “Fort Knox” initiative means that even if you have huge losses of dozens of bee colonies, the selection will go on every year, even if your apiary would collapse. It also means that genetic diversity will evolve and expand, even if an individual apiary will have much trouble of going through collapse. So alltogether we have probably over 150 maybe even 200 colonies (and more and more every year), but the “Fort Knox” common apiary is the guarantee, that our joint progress in selection will not end up with a very bad year or local disaster.
And how has it been working in practice throughout the years?
2015 and 2016
In the first year (2015) five participants introduced 15 colonies to the Project to see how would it work. As we have suspected not all of the colonies survived. After the 2015/2016 winter 4 colonies died and we had to make some nucs to compensate for the loss. Then the first problem arose: logistics! Even though we were fully aware of it, when it came to be, then You just face it, and You know the problem is real. If You have to go couple of hundred kilometers for the bees – even if they are for free – You have a lot of trouble with it. And we still have other responsibilities. But it just turned out, that if You want to have treatment-free bees, You just have to have logistics. The first idea of “Fort Knox” was to compensate for the winter losses. But then “surprised us” another thing that actually we were aware of just from the beginning: treatment free bees die not only in winter, but also in the spring and summer. Then we decided that “Fort Knox” will compensate for all the loss – no matter when they will occur, and what will be the reason of it. So from that moment on we have decided to give a split to everyone who losses bees, even if that is a beekeepers fault. We just have to trust that everybody does what he or she thinks is best for the bees and for the cooperation. And if an accident happens or somebody makes mistake, we just have to live with it. So in 2016 during the summer some of the survivors started to have some problems, and rebuilding was not as easy as we thought at first, but finally we managed to do what was needed.
So during 2016 we made 4 nucs to compensate for the loss, but from those 11 winter survivors 3 died in the summer. In this year 3 more colonies were introduced to the Common Bank and it consisted of 18 colonies. Only 15 went into winter because of the summer loss. We had one more new participant so from 2016 there were 6 of us working in the Project.
Year 2017 started with a huge loss not only in the Common Bank of “Fort Knox” Project, but also in apiaries of many of us. For example I lost 40 out of 41 hives that went to previous winter. Many of us lost all the apiaries. From over 150 treatment free hives only about 30 survived, and most of them were in apiary of one person: Łukasz Łapka. Other then at his apiary only a few or single colonies survived. This was the moment that we feared of and many people who started to keep bees without treatments, then decided they want to treat at least some of the hives. We lost 10 colonies in the Project that winter and had a loss of 3 colonies to rebuild from 2016. So only 5 colonies were alive, and 2 of those were only just introduced to the Project (and they were with commercial genetics). So in the Project we had only 3 colonies that lived over 2 years without treatments (last treatment in autumn 2014) – and they all were in the apiary of Łukasz. He actually saved the Project and most of our selection that terrible year. So the Project Bank was to be rebuild. The positive thing was there were at least some Łukasz's colonies that proved to be “promissing”. Because Jola (participant) who had the two other survivors was just a beginner beekeeper, we have decided to go to her apiary, make the split there, and bring them to Łukasz who was to make more splits of them, and make specific nucs. This was a succes and he has done all the work perfectly: 13 new colonies were made out of the survivors. In this year 2 more “old” colonies died, but 5 new were introduced to the Project Bank and one new participant joined our cooperation (so there were 7 of us from that moment on). We prepared 21 colonies for wintering that year out of 23 which was the full Project Bank at that time.
That year there were some problems with our 2 survivors at Jola's apiary that were just introduced last year, that were with commercial genetics. They were having huge loads of varroa and showed many problems with DWV cripled bees. They died that year, but one of the split survived for almost 2 more years. From that moment we knew that introducing new commercial genetics to the Project might not always mean a step forward. Sometimes that might be also a step back if we brought “mite bombs” to our apiaries that were only just building their resistance. We started to talk about that problem and thought at that time, that sharing our genetics with the ones that wanted to join was would be the best idea. This way we would make some extra splits for the ones that declared to join us. But we saw later, that people did not like to ask us for the bees. The Project is about giving, not taking, as many people thought.
All the cooperation up to that time brought us to another conclusion concerning logistics. We saw that we have to focus more on local cooperation, because we do not always have time to drive long distances to get bees and the longer distance we transport them, the less local they are. We found that if bees survive in our own apiaries they are much better for us than any bees we can get from others. So if one had surviving bees in the apiary, getting bees from elswhere might be more problematic, than making one's own new nucs. But still the cooperation is more than just giving guarantees for having bees and going on with selection – it is about genetic diversity too, so exchanging this genetics, even if it costs trouble, may be worth it in the long run.
We found that a “recipient” (the one that is given bees) should prepare transport box for the bees, to make it as easy for the “donor” (this is how we call a person who gives the splits away). This should be done with an extraordinary care. If it is prepared without care, then it sometimes means more trouble for the “donor”, and we want to avoid that.
In 2018 we went into spring with 11 and into summer with 10 living colonies out of 23 that were introduced into the Project. But those numbers looked quite good and promissing, because we saw that these colonies had their vigor and developed nicely throughout the year. We managed to compensate for all the loss in the Project Bank. Spring and summer were very good for the bees – very warm and with nice blooming. Maybe it was a little bit too dry, but still the bees made as much as they could out of them. During that year we also maneged to do some extra colonies that were given to people who wanted to join our cooperation. Even we had some loss, that year seemed like a beginning of stability in the “Fort Knox” initiative. That was because the bees that survived looked as they looked before all the varroa problems have came on to them. So we hope that since that time we would be able to compensate for all the loss with much less problems than in the first years of cooperation. We are fully aware that the Project Bank will have its loss every year, but hopefully every year they would be lower, and the health of the bees would improve and we would be able to split survivors so that everyone would get their bees. In that year we decided that we cannot keep the Project only with the survivor genetics, because it would slow us or even stop the development of “Fort Knox” initiative. Even though we may meet some other problems caused by introducing commercial genetics, still the Project was invented so everybody who kept bees might introduce one's colonies to the Common Bank. That is why we thought of dividing the Bank into the “core” and the “buffer”. The “core” are the colonies that have already survived the “bottleneck”, so they live for at least 2 full years without any treatments. The “buffer” are the colonies that are freshly introduced to the Project, that have not showed the ability to survive varroa yet. If the “core” colonies die, they are compensated only from that group, and the “buffer” is compensated either from “core” or from the “buffer” - depanding on the current abilities of the Project Bank. Of course that means more work of those participants who keep the “core” colonies – but also this allows the project to grow without restrictions, and so the “core” group will grow faster, and more and more participants will take responsibilities and obligations in the Project instead of just waiting for their loss to be compensated. We believe this is a good choice and a good system. And we hope it will also work in practice in the upcoming years.
In 2018 our Project grew. During the year some new participants introduced their bees to the “Fort Knox” community. In autumn there were eleven of us, having altogether 42 colonies in the Project. 28 of them were the “core” and 14 were the “buffer”.
This year has just started. As far as we know for now (but the spring is just starting yet) 21 colonies have survived (including 16 out of “core” and 5 of the “buffer”) and the same number have died (12 from the “core” and 9 from the “buffer”). We look into the future with optimism, because the survivors seem to be in good health and they started the new spring with vigor.
In the spring of 2019 we have decided that the Project should be an independent one, to grow more rapidly and without restrictions of some organization. Future will show if that will come to be the truth or not. We have decided that we should take the Project out of the Natural Beekeeping Association “Free Bees” (http://wolnepszczoly.org/about-us/) where it was invented, so that more beekeeping communities could join it, and that individual beekeepers who do not want to be part of any organization, but still want to cooperate, could join it freely and have all the rights to decide about the Project's future and rules. The members of the Group “Bee Brotherhood” (http://bractwopszczele.pl/eng/eng.html), which I represent now, have started to develop the Project to make it grow. We have started a webpage of “Fort Knox” to promote it widely in Poland and abroad (http://bees-fortknox.pl/eng.html). Taking the Project out of “Free Bees” Association was a controversial decision for some, and not everybody liked it. Two participants withdrew from the Project. We met their decision with sadness, but we all hope that this is just a temporary step back in the Cooperation.
A new time in “Fort Knox” Cooperation has started. We hope the “Fort Knox” idea will spread not only in Poland, but also abroad. Our experience show that this Project is unique and it showed its potential even though it has not outgrew the borders of an amateur project, yet. We should cooperate in selecting bees, because we can do even more by working together!
Bartłomiej Maleta / Bee Brotherhood