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Some Thoughts On Breeding Bees In The North

Jan 1, 2006 | 2006 Writings, View All Posts

I have a favorite book from the 1940’s: The Farming Ladder, by George Henderson. It’s a great story of two brothers from London, who set out at age 15 and 16—with no money—to learn farming and eventually have their own mixed livestock farm. Their rapid and substantial success was largely based on the excellent education they received by working on several really good farms, and then combining the best of what they had learned. By the time they were established and had pupils of their own, this was some of the advice they invariably handed out: “When you need to learn how to make hay in a wet climate, always go and learn in a place with more rain than you have at home.” And with livestock: “Always get your breeding stock from a place with a harsher climate than you will have on your farm.” In North American beekeeping we have largely been ignoring this sound advice and doing just the opposite for almost 100 years.

It was amazing how well southern bees often did in the northern states, even during the winter—until tracheal mites arrived. Now, with the added pressure from varroa and other pathogens—and Africanized bees encroaching on more of the southern bee producing territory—we really need to use the North’s great potential for selecting and breeding bees. When you bring animals, selected and bred in a harsh environment, to a more benign place, they sometimes exhibit a kind of “release” phenomenon, resembling hybrid vigor, which allows them to thrive better than the local stock in their new environment. Honeybees are no exception. When I first worked for Charlie Mraz here in 1972, I spent many a Sunday with him catching the queens which were enabling beekeepers in Mexico to restore vitality and productivity to their industry. And the queens and nucs I’ve produced here have had their greatest success in southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. It doesn’t always make for a better bee for making a living just by moving them south. In parts of Louisiana for example, where the main honey flow comes very early, they really need a bee that holds a big cluster over the “winter”, and broods up early in response to temperature rather than day length or pollen flows. In my environment, natural selection favors bees with great winter longevity and delayed spring build-up, rather than large cluster size and early build-up. So, mine may not be the best bees for the Gulf Coast; at least if you’re trying to produce honey with them. Where selection and breeding are continuous, year in and year out, each environment emphasizes certain characteristics. In the past, beekeepers of long experience knew that bees from a certain area did better than any others, in their particular management scheme. The skill and attentiveness of the beekeeper is a huge factor in all this, but once we have some really skillful beekeepers selecting, breeding and producing queens in the North, these queens are likely to be very useful all around the country. A couple of things are certain: we have a corner on winter hardiness, and the best chance of maintaining all-European stock in the future.

One of the reasons why it can be very easy to produce good queens in the North during summer is because the good beekeeping territory is full of honey producing colonies and drones are superabundant. If honey production and queen rearing are carried out in conjunction with each other, this will always be the case. I have no doubt that many of the problems beekeepers have been having with their purchased queens over the last decade come from overtaxing the supply of drones. The drone population is being maxed out by both the overproduction of queens, and the effects of mite control chemicals. Where a relatively small number of queens are being produced in a good honey producing area, the drones represent a huge, untapped resource.

But at the same time, these drones can be a serious problem. One of the most important reasons for raising queens now is to propagate varroa resistant stock. For this to occur, and for the resistance to improve, survivors must mate with other survivors. This can be impossible in crowded commercial beekeeping areas, with many beekeepers, and each one pursuing a different objective.

There are only three practical ways to achieve mating control with honeybees—Instrumental Insemination (I.I.); Natural Mating in Isolation; and Drone Saturation. I.I. creates absolute control over the breeding process; but it may not be practical when used alone, and is probably most valuable when used in conjunction with the other two methods. I’ve always been most interested in natural mating in isolation. (This is my only good option here, where the honey producing territory is crowded with bees, with many owners and all jumbled together.) At a good site, there’s very good control of the mating, the work is very exciting, and many controlled crosses can be made in a short time. The problem is finding a workable site. In addition to being truly isolated, a practical site must also be within a reasonable driving distance, and capable of sustaining mating nucs and drone rearing colonies for at least three rounds of queen mating. Such sites are, unfortunately, very rare.

Drone saturation is the most likely method of mating control available to commercial beekeepers. It doesn’t create the degree of control possible with the first two methods, but aside from that it has many advantages. The work is all done right in your own home territory, without the need to maintain new or distant locations. If you can surround your mating yard with your own honey and drone producing yards, then you should be able to make progress breeding your own bees. If you have a large area with only your own queens and drones in it, then you have something really solid and exciting to work on. With the depleted number of colonies and beekeepers, and the large size of many surviving apiaries, there should be several places like this in the northern states now. And when fuel prices start rising out of control, perhaps the old model will return; with smaller apiaries and yards clustered tightly around a home base—with a mating yard in the middle.

For most beekeepers, breeding against varroa means bringing some new stock into the apiary—often with behaviors we are not accustomed to. This was certainly the case with the Russian bees. Like many other beekeepers, at first I found them very frustrating to work with. They had such small clusters in the fall and spring; were slow to build up early in the season; and packed too much honey in the brood nest. They also didn’t draw foundation very well, compared to my old bees; were susceptible to chalkbrood; and could throw off a swarm at the most ridiculous times. But from the beginning it was clear they had real resistance to varroa, and many other valuable traits, so I stuck with them. After five years I am finally getting the hang of it. Once I stopped trying to make them fit in with my idea of how a honeybee colony should behave, and let them be themselves, everything started falling into place. Last fall, at the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers meeting someone asked if I would stick with Russian bees if a safe, cheap and effective varroa control came on the scene. The answer is an unqualified yes. I now think these bees will eventually be even more productive and profitable than my old bees were in the days before varroa troubles. Their small clusters, frugality, and great winter hardiness make them already well adapted to overwintering in nucleus colonies. They are very gentle, and have an amazing capacity to gather nectar. But for this nectar gathering to result in a honey crop, they must be managed differently than Italian-type bees.

Many of the queens being sold now as “Russians” are heavily hybridized, and so their behavior can vary all over the map. But here are a few suggestions to start off with if you want to work primarily with Russian bees. This is based on my experience here in Vermont, where we have a very strong dandelion flow from about May 10—25 followed by a dearth of sorts until clover starts yielding around June 20. (Honeysuckle is starting to fill this gap in some spots.) Clover and alfalfa can yield surplus anytime (or not at all) between June 20 and September 10; after that, any fall honey stays in the brood nest.

First of all, these bees consume very little honey over the winter, and two deep boxes is way more room than they need for the winter cluster and stores. One and a half boxes is probably the ideal size—even this far north. April is the only month when they seem to lose any appreciable weight. They are very slow to get started on the main build-up—but once they do, watch out! If they become anywhere close to being crowded during the dandelion flow, they are almost certain to plug up the brood nest, build cells, and throw off a swarm. In addition to being slow starters, I’m now convinced they should be held back even further, by taking some brood and bees out in early May. I try to have the queens just starting to lay in a second hive body during the last few days of the dandelion flow. This is literally half the size I used to consider optimum at this time of year, with my old bees. If possible, Russian bees should have only drawn combs for the spring build-up. If you must draw foundation at this time, it’s best to draw just one or two frames at a time, right in the brood nest during a honey flow. Much better is to draw the foundations up in the supers after July 4 or, best of all, in the summer nucs.

After the spring build-up, it’s largely a matter of giving them more room before they need it. The individual bees live a very long time, and a large colony can gather an amazing amount of honey in a short time—so keep an eye on them! I use excluders and shallow supers, but it might work better to have all deep combs and a free ranging brood nest. You can strip the honey way down in the late summer, and I’ve never yet had to feed any bees that were at least 75% Russian.

If you still long for a bee that’s more like an Italian, don’t worry! If you keep selecting them yourself, they will eventually move in that direction. If you only breed from colonies without chalkbrood, then chalkbrood gradually diminishes. By the same process, we could eventually have Russian bees with less swarming, larger clusters, and better at drawing foundation. But only if many of us keep making our own selections year after year. I’d like to make some more progress on these fronts myself, but I have to admit that after selecting my own breeders for a few years, and letting the bees tell me what they need, I’ve been won over. They have everything I most want and need in a strain of bee—gentleness, high productivity, hardiness, and requiring very little attention.

Now, a few nuts and bolts things about breeding and record keeping: I’ve looked at Brother Adam’s pedigrees and methods of record keeping. They are extremely interesting, and anyone seriously interested in bee breeding should study them closely. But this type of record keeping is very time consuming, and there is a whole long list of unforeseen circumstances that can come along and make reams of such records completely worthless. In my own apiary I do only just enough record keeping to help identify the best queens in each generation, know their age and families for certain, and prevent inbreeding depression. I’m afraid my entire arsenal of high-tech tools for record keeping consists of a lumber crayon, thumb tacks, a pair of queen-clipping scissors, and a few pages in my notebook.

When selecting your own breeders, and closely controlling the mating of virgins and drones; you very soon have to consider the possibility of inbreeding depression—especially when you’re working with a small number of varroa survivors. A certain amount of inbreeding is almost certainly necessary to fix and develop the varroa resisting qualities—whatever they happen to be. But Nature’s design for honeybee mating is to maximize outcrossing by every possible means. Too much inbreeding results in a loss of vigor; and for practical beekeeping, once you’ve lost vigor, you’ve lost everything. So how can we walk this fine line between fixing new characteristics in a strain, and at the same time prevent loss of vigor? Here’s my attempt at a workable solution:

My bees now represent 15 different families. Each family originated from one outstanding survivor queen. At the beginning (1999—2003) these queens were almost completely unrelated to each other. The majority of these families came from the various lines of Russian bees released by the USDA; but there were 3 other, completely unrelated sources as well—SMR stock, survivors from my original bees, and survivors sent to me by other beekeepers. Because it takes 2 years in my system for a queen to qualify as a breeder, I only need to graft from half of my families each year, (though in practice I usually graft from most of the families each summer). In the isolated mating area the majority of drones represent just 4 of the 7—12 queens that were used as grafting mothers the year before. I use 24 drone rearing colonies for 200—225 mating nucs. These drone rearing colonies are overwintered nucs, and with summertime matings they have plenty of time to build up in the valley before being taken up into the isolation area. Drone combs can be easily added at the optimum time for the 3 mating cycles. I like to use old combs for this, only partly covered by drone cells; and I add only the equivalent of ½ frame of drone comb each time. In anything less than ideal conditions, I think those full frames of drone comb are too much to give the colonies all at once, especially if you want those colonies to produce drones for 2 or 3 rounds of mating.

Because my original families were unrelated, my new queens were quite hybridized for the first couple of years. Now they are calming down and the families are more like one another. Over the years a couple of families have dropped out (though they are still theoretically present because they were used as drone mothers at some point), and stronger families have been split in two. Through ruthless selection by mites and weather, the Russian characteristics are now dominating in all the families. It may not be scientifically accurate, but I now think of my gene pool as a tub full of water, with a few slow leaks in the bottom. To compensate for the leaks, I try to start a new family every year or so, from a promising, unrelated queen brought in from outside. This way new blood is constantly trickling in, but very slowly. The great majority of my bees come from stocks selected and propagated here for several years, but there are at the same time a few new families coming along that can be amplified quickly if any of the old families start to show inbreeding depression.

Reliably keeping track of all these families would seem like an onerous task in a busy commercial beekeeping summer, but I think I’ve reduced it to the simplest possible procedure. This is where my high-tech record keeping equipment comes in. First, all nucs are numbered with a lumber crayon, when the loads are first set out. Inside the queen cell carrying box is a sheet of paper recording the pedigree of each row of cells, and also which nucs they went into. When queens are caught in the isolation apiary, their wings are clipped, and they are transported in a special carrying box where the families can be kept separate. When introduced into nucs, the numbers are recorded in my notebook. After extracting is finished in early October, I spend a day marking all the various nuc boxes with colored tacks; using the information from my notebook and the card from the queen cell box. The color and position of the tack shows the mother of the queen(s) inside, where she was mated, and the date the nuc was made up. After this, the lumber crayon numbers are all forgotten, and the nucs can be moved if necessary into other locations for winter. The following spring, in the honey producing yards, any nucs used to replace winter losses carry their tacks with them; and on the surviving colonies tacks are added or removed if requeening is done. The tacks always show the last time a queen was actively changed (by me) in any colony. The only other information recorded in the honey producing yards (by lumber crayon) is the number of honey supers removed. In early spring, a list can be drawn up of potential breeder queens in each yard. Later, a search is mounted for the right number of breeders from the right families; and this can be done in conjunction with reversing, equalizing, and requeening. The clipped wings ensure that no swarm or supercedure queen is selected by mistake. If no queens from a key family can be found here, I go back to the nucs, and use one that has only been partially tested. In theory I only need 8 queens to graft from each year, but I always try to bring at least 12 back to the cell-building yard.

I always have a big smile when I read letters from my Scandinavian friends describing how they breed their bees. After a carefully drawn schematic showing a certain queen’s pedigree, they always have in parenthesis: (theoretical). My program is theoretical too. Anyone who takes care of a large number of honeybee colonies knows perfectly well that plans are really just ideas that circumstances love to wreak havoc upon. I have drones of unknown origin in some of my mating nucs; or maybe this year I will find another hobby beekeeper in my mating area, who buys packages from the South every year—because they never survive the winter. How many nice days will there be during May? Some years we’ve had 25; in others only 3. Clipped queens sometimes crawl into other hives when they try to fly out with a swarm . And skunks can be worse than computer hackers when they come at night and scratch the tacks off my nuc boxes. The key is to find a system that is flexible and resilient—able to keep functioning through all sorts of large and small disasters. I’m just trying to gently lean on the bees and get them to move in a certain direction, without compromising their health or natural instincts. It seems to be working.

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