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Cell Building And Overwintering Nucs – The Key To Stability And Resilence In A Northern, Non-Migratory Apiary

Jan 1, 2006 | 2006 Writings, View All Posts



I have to admit, I don’t understand why all beekeepers don’t raise their own queens, or at least let the bees do this for them. Whether you have one or 10,000 colonies, this is one of the most interesting, satisfying, and profitable things you can do with your bees. People with just a few colonies say: “Even at fifteen or twenty dollars apiece, how can I possibly produce them cheaper?” But when you add up all the time and trouble involved in waiting for the mail, feeding them drops of water until the weather breaks, making up nucs, finding the old queens, fiddling with the cages, watching your new queens disappear or get superceded; or finally cleaning up a dead colony when your new bees proved poorly adapted to cold weather or tracheal mites—you’d be much better off just making up a couple of small, but populous nucs from your best colonies during a spring or early summer honey flow. Be sure they have brood in all stages, and let them raise their own queens. Then, in late summer you can use the resulting nucs to requeen large colonies, with almost no risk of queen loss, by removing the old queen and inserting the whole nuc into the brood nest. Or just let the nucs grow into one box, and overwinter them that way. My beekeeping neighbors, the Mraz family, actually maintain over 1,000 colonies something like this, and have for more than half a century. It’s resulted in a great strain of locally adapted bees, quite resistant to tracheal mites, and requiring very little attention.

Queen rearing on a larger scale—raising queen cells and getting the virgins mated in small nucs—has been a rural industry in the South and California for a long time. Now the list of reasons why northern beekeepers should take up this enterprise is getting longer every day. What seemed like a crazy idea just a few years ago may now be on the verge of coming true: With the Africanized bees colonizing more and more of the southern queen rearing areas, it’s possible that the entire axis of producing and shipping surplus bees and queens could turn upside down. The Africanized bees may well turn out to be very valuable to us in the long run—because of their ability to resist varroa mites. But gentle bees are always going to be desirable and necessary as the U.S. becomes more and more crowded. With all the migratory bee movement we have today, it’s easy for northern apiaries to become contaminated with Africanized genes as well. But once there are more colonies staying in the northern states all year, the long cold winters will help to weed them out and act as a natural counterbalance.

When Nevin Weaver (of the B Weaver and R Weaver Apiaries family in Texas) was still with us, I used to ask him: “Aren’t your brothers looking for a nice place in Michigan or Wisconsin to raise bees in the future?” He always laughed and answered, “No, they like Texas too much.” Well, I can’t argue with that. But I keep wondering if the business they might lose over the next few years—through people being afraid to buy from an Africanized area—might have been made up by bees and queens produced in the upper Midwest…

After 20 years of experience producing surplus bees and queens here, and speaking about it in a few other northern states, my vision remains the same as at the beginning: As far as I can tell, there is no biological or economic reason why the northern states couldn’t supply the whole country with surplus bees and queens, if necessary. If the demand is there, then only one basic change in northern beekeeping practice is necessary for a whole new industry to grow up; and it’s a change in the beekeeper’s mind only: Forget about queen cells and new queens available in March, April and May; and learn what you can do with cells and queens produced in June, July and August. This is the key to everything. It’s the starting point of real bee breeding in our region, self-sufficiency, the ability to produce surplus bees, and the way to make beekeeping really profitable and enjoyable once again. And now, after 4—8 years of letting varroa run loose on the apiary, I’m convinced it’s the key to a healthy solution to our pest and disease problems as well.

There are many advantages in producing bees and queens in the North. Parts of the southern states have ideal conditions for producing surplus bees and queens at a time when they can be very useful further north. But after the middle of May, the South becomes too hot, and for the remainder of the season the North is a much better place to produce bees and queens. In the Deep South you see the distinct pattern of two separate time periods (spring and fall) when temperatures and food resources are optimal for honeybees to thrive and raise brood. The summer is often characterized by excess heat, and a dearth of nectar and pollen. Moving north, these spring and fall periods move closer together until, in the areas with very cold winters, the good conditions for foraging and brood rearing can become continuous throughout the entire spring, summer and fall. Along the Canadian border, this makes about four months of continuous good conditions for raising queens, drones, and brood. The winters here are severe, but they provide an important test of our future breeding stock—ensuring that future generations of bees will be hardy and long-lived. The winter is also very valuable as a period of “cold storage”, when surplus bees and queens (in the form of nucleus colonies) can be “banked” for several months with little attention or expense. With covered trucks, these nucs could now be sold and transported from here any month of the year. In the past I’ve sent them to Pennsylvania two weeks before any packages were available, and now I’m starting to get requests to buy them in the fall.

The basic idea is very simple: The full potential of a year-round northern apiary can only be tapped by raising cells from your best colonies each summer, and mating them in nucleus colonies made up at the same time. There’s a growing number of beekeepers working on this seriously now, and reporting on their results. All the work involved here is completely straightforward, and has been part of standard beekeeping practices since the 1890’s. The difficult part is getting it to fit in with pollination, honey production, and the other things going on in the apiary during the busy summer months. This has to be worked out anew in each unique location and set of circumstances. I’m afraid there really is no free lunch, and the time required for a new scheme has to come from somewhere. (In the long run, the only really sound economic reason for migratory beekeeping in this country has not been extra honey production or pollination, but rather just in gaining more time for producing queens and surplus bees.) I think the main reason why the production of northern queens and nucs has not been more generally pursued before this is because most established beekeepers were already maxed out time-wise, and had very little extra income to invest in new projects. And there have been very few young commercial beekeepers starting out from scratch—who could have incorporated it from the beginning, as I did. But now, with the industry in various stages of collapse, new beginnings have been forced upon everyone, and this is an idea whose time has definitely arrived. It takes a lot of work and thought to produce good queens and nucs; but these products are more valuable now than honey or pollination. Making time for them really makes sense.

My own solution to this time problem is to try to keep the apiary balanced between honey production and raising nucs and queens. I think this is the best way to preserve and enhance the real basis of health in beekeeping. The different apiary departments support one another, and when one of them becomes weak and vulnerable, the others can fill in the gaps, and provide a basis for recovery. I also think this is the best way to produce better bees in the long run—productive bees that are pleasant to work with, and can thrive on their own. This is the passion that unifies everything for me and makes all the different jobs interesting and exciting.

Now it is also becoming clear that this is the way to solve the varroa problem. By raising queens and nucs from your own overwintered colonies, you can establish in the apiary many of the processes insects naturally use to recover from serious challenges or declining numbers. Making nucs in the summer and wintering them on 4-10 combs enables your colony count to expand faster than any other way. This rapid reproduction in itself is one of the principle ways insects recover and fill an empty niche. By starting these new colonies with queens raised from your best survivors, you’ve got selection pressure working with you all the time. When you have losses, the nucs provide a means of recovering quickly. The more severe the losses become, the more quickly you can capitalize on selection pressure. In a place with a short spring and summer, this is the fastest and easiest way to get new, tested stock established in the whole apiary. With this system, it’s an advantage to have a 20-30% winter loss; because this helps with getting the new queens established at the right time. With a very low winter loss, there’s not enough time to requeen enough colonies, and get the full benefit from your new crop of queens. The really elegant thing here is that the system producing new queens is also testing them at the same time. By spending their first winter in nucs, the queens are weeded out while they are on 10 combs or less, and only tested queens are risked on 20 combs and honey production.

There are things about the mechanics of this process that discourage varroa as well. Bees that are “resistant” to varroa mites don’t yet have the ability to fend off mites under any circumstances. They have mechanisms for reducing mite populations or co-existing with them somehow, but other factors have to be favorable if the colony is to survive and thrive without treatments. At least with the Russian bees I’ve worked with, there’s something about a small colony that allows the resistance factors to work and get a handle on the mite situation. Interrupting the brood cycle—by breaking up large colonies into nucs and putting in cells—also interrupts mite reproduction and gives the bees some leverage. Removing sealed brood from full-sized colonies in spring (and using it to make up new colonies with cells) is another way of lowering mite populations at a critical time. All of these factors are at work in an apiary that overwinters a large number of nucleus colonies, and uses this as the basis for selection. I have to stress: none of these factors by itself can be of much help in solving the varroa problem—only by using them all together can good results be achieved in the long run.

Realistically speaking, it will take several years for an industry producing queens and nucs in the northern states to get started, grow, and take on a stable form. As always, it’s best to start on a small scale, and gradually expand as you gain knowledge and experience. There’s so much potential here. After nearly 20 years of working along these lines, I’m painfully aware that I have only just scratched the surface. During 2007, I’m hoping to publish a sort of monthly diary of the seasonal work in the kind of apiary I’ve been writing about. Eventually I hope there will be more of you who don’t need to buy queens any more—or travel long distances in order to make up your losses. It’s so much nicer to do these things at home, “in the backyard”.

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