Artificial queen raising over the past 120 years has selected from the “best” – the same queens that take risks and make brood at an opportune time before a honey flow who would starve the following year when that honey flow never arrives. The result is queens that lay eggs all the time to grow hives that can be constantly split – this is needed today to support a farming system that demands so much from our bees. (note how I was able to blame it on the farming, NOT the beekeepers.) Exposed to pesticides and malnourished, individual bees do not live long and must be replaced. These hives go backwards without a flow, either nectar or artificial stimulation – usually corn syrup for carbs and soy flour for protein. Many individuals makes for parasites and diseases, and the need for chemical treatments. Welfare bees. Somebody sunk their battleship.
The overwhelming majority of bee breeding occurs in the southern states or Hawaii, where late and early flows allow more time for queen mating and hive growth. The queen bees in this country come from perhaps a dozen large queen producing companies, who all exchange their genetic information in a pool of about 500 breeder queens. These production line queens are then shipped up north to hobbyist or commercial beekeepers who requeen all their hives (to keep at peak production). Local feral hives breed with the imported drones and the wild gene pool is compromised. Decades of this practice has lead to a terrifyingly shallow gene pool. This is best discussed in the work of Steve Sheppard and Deb Delauney.
It makes a lot of sense for EVERY beekeeper to let the hives raise their own queens. Time tells whether this is viable in any and every particular beeyard.
It is very simple. Strong bees want to raise queens. By letting them do this, by letting them swarm or the standard commercial way of grafting - transferring larvae from the breeder queen to a strong queenless cellraising colony. This practice provides the most control over timing for commercial queen production, but it takes choice away from the bees, overall quality is suspect, and it is a lot of work for humans in a task that bees have always done by themselves. That said, grafting if a very useful tool to speed up an apiary's development and make the jump from 20 to 50 or more hives.
The beekeeping literature of 100 years ago is full of observations of disease and prophesies for the bees to come. Perhaps the earliest prediction of the collapse we are seeing saw by early queen-raiser Henry Alley in the 1880s when he said one day inbreeding will cause all breeding of bees to cease.
Today, breeding bees is big business. Artificial insemination of virgin queen bees, under microscope, with semen from select drones, provides a tool used for a totally controlled mating. This is used to augment research of testing for things like hygienic behavior or resistance to certain diseases. All the knowledge we have faces up against the infinite variables of the hive. I think we flounder. It's all over the place. Winniethe Pooh said it: You never can tell with bees. Winnie the Pooh has thus helped me understand bees better than any scientist.
FOLLOWING THE HIVE’S LIFECYCLE
Letting the hive swarm. That's not a bad approach, expecially if you put up bait hives. I let quite a few swarm or supercede - some yards I'm trying to only visiting a few times a year. But you can quicken genetic election by making some simple splits.
If you have a hive that overwintered well, carefully check them every week during swarm season (here in the Hudson Valley that’s anywhere from mid May to the end of June, though I’ve caught em in October). When you see that drone production is full on, the hive is getting closer to swarming. On a nice afternoon, before or as they begin swarm cells, find the queen and move her with a frame (or bar) of brood and a frame of honey to a new location. Add two shakes of bees (literally shake the bees off the comb, they don’t get upset!) if you will seal this split and move it three miles to a new apiary site, OR leave this split in the same apiary and add three to four shakes to bees. (Many of the bees will gradually fly back to their original home.) I find the latter the least energy intensive and usually do not move my splits, though the methods of splitting bees are numerous and each has its advantages. Look at bushfarms.com.
The now queenless hive in the mother position will begin to raise cells. You can let the best cell hatch and this queen will kill the others and go mate, or you can inspect a week later, cut out extra cells and use them for other splits. I find the bees chew down the inferior cells before hatching and the resulting queens are the highest quality. The main thing is this bulk of bees has perhaps almost three weeks of no open brood, so the mites are not reproducing as well. A period of queenlessness is like fasting for the hive. Certain organs are resting and being cleansed. The broodnest is backfilled, and when the new queen mates and lays eggs, the hive is inspired like you would not believe, soon catching up and surpassing hives that did not interrupt their cycle. If the new queen fails to mate after three weeks, the old queen can be reintroduced with her own entourage, some smoke, and exposure to light.
A hive naturally wants to swarm or raise a supercedure queen when their current queen is in her second season. At this time the hive is at its most vigorous and can raise the best queens.
It is wonderful to induce the cells just as the breeder queen has laid eggs in brand new comb. It is important to only use combs made from either your own clean wax foundation or what the bees make. Wax foundations bought from companies contain detrimental miticide residues. I wouldn’t want this wax to be close to developing queens or drones.
During the flow, this system provides abundant young bees, plenty of feed, and other open larvae to draw mites away from the queen cells, which does happen often in a system where no other larvae are present. Though not a huge amount of cells are obtained, since I am shuffling 20 breeder queens every week, the genetic diversity is maintained in each batch of queens with less work than grafting from 20 separate combs. In using the number of high quality cells each family of bees wants to build, I am promoting the bees that make more cells well this way. Full sized hives are not taken out of production to become the cellraisers. Ideally each nuc becomes a cellraiser during the season and gets a long queenless period which dramatically breaks up the mite reproduction cycle. Knowledge of the flow in your particular area can help predict when the nucs benefit from the greatest field force. This method can be fine for larger-scale queen production as long as many nucs are used. It takes less than a minute and requires only one trip to the cellraiser per batch of cells.
At times I still graft larvae to quickly incorporate new genetics into the program or get numbers up. I’m good at it after years of practice, it is a relatively easy method for the quantity produced, and it can provide excellent queens if the cellraisers are strong. The thing is, I can’t justify it when the bees do it so well themselves.
Genetic makeup is a key for hive health throughout the year, and fundamental for bees to survive winter and times of dearth. A queen is believed to mate with twenty or more drones, on one or more mating flights in her first week of emerging from a queen cell. These drones are from hives within miles all over and congregate in certain mating areas. Because of this great amount of uncontrolled genetic diversity, the mass breeding of bees was not organized until about 100 years ago when someone, you guessed it, realized they could make a buck from first generation hybrid vigor.
Putting our commercial interests aside and not going beyond our methodology being in tune with the hive’s life cycle, how well the bees do is a matter of their adaptation to our area. The goal is to have hives that can survive without chemical treatments or artificial feed, deal with New York winters, be easy to work without a veil, and also at times make serious honey.
All bees are good, and I am not a fanatic about any particular breed of bee. I generally stay away from “Italians,” as they have often been overbred for commercial pollination. The darker Russian bees do well in the cold. Really, there are black bees, striped bees, tan bees, red bees, yellow bees, these are honey bees we are talking about here. The names are just political. Every hive is different. I keep track of my 18+ bee families with colored pushpins. Though I do saturate the mating areas with my own desirable drones, I am not as interested in controlling the genetic makeup of the drone pool as much as I want to ensure the drones were raised on healthy, chemical free comb.
- Bloodlines –
I spent a few years keeping track of 18 different families, some in New York and Vermont of Russian, Canialon, and Buckfast origin and slowly incorporating "wild" stock as I obtained it from removals, and also southern stock of the wonderful wild bees. I had contributions from some great bee breeders whom I would hope to consider my friends and recommended sources:
Treatment free Russian queens from Kirk Webster of the champlain Valley, VT. Hardy and gentle Carniolans from Mike Palmer, St Albans, VT. Mixed genetic queens from John Jaco The Ontario Buckfast project. Bjorn Apiaries, PA.
- abandoned mamas- I have obtained several abandoned Langstroth hives, one that I tracked down the estranged owner, it was from a Russian package 5 years prior, surviving without any human intrusions in Tivoli, NY, on regular foundations, and another in Red Hook that has gone 6 years without a human there messing with it.
If you think you have met the REAL DEAL in one of your hives, I’d be happy to invite her family into the program. Getting these genetics out there is the core of our current work. It's not about control but cultivation.