You can easily keep honeybees to help pollinate garden and orchard plants. The Top-bar Beekeeping Method allows you to keep bees without a large investment in equipment. But honeybees are under a lot of stress. In addition to pesticides, mites and diseases are common problems.
Varroa mites and two diseases (American foulbrood and chalkbrood) can be significantly reduced by keeping bees that are bred for “hygienic” behavior. We recently read about hygienic bees in a new publication, Managing Alternative Pollinators. Dr. Marla Spivak, Professor of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Minnesota, developed the strain of bees by carefully selecting for hygienic behavior over several years. Here’s what Dr. Spivak told us:
If someone wants to keep bees primarily to assist with pollination in a home garden or small orchard, without concern for how much honey the bees will produce and with the colony having as much genetic disease resistance as possible, what type of bees would you recommend they purchase?
There are two lines of bees in the U.S. that are bred to resist the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor — the Russian bees and a line called Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) — and one line bred to resist two diseases (American foulbrood and chalkbrood) and Varroa destructor — the Minnesota Hygienic line, bred at the University of Minnesota.
Beekeepers should know that none of these lines survive forever without treatment. The resistance lowers the mite loads but does not eliminate the mites entirely. Also, these three lines are not immune from Colony Collapse Disorder, the cause of which is undetermined.
Is there any other advice or encouragement you would offer to backyard beekeepers?
All bee colonies need to be well cared for. It is not realistic to purchase bees for pollination and expect them to survive without care and management. I recommend that all beekeepers use as few chemical treatments as possible, but at times some intervention is necessary. Beekeepers might want to take our online course called Healthy Bees, which shows how to promote bee health using treatments only as a very last resort.
I highly recommend that all new beekeepers join a local beekeeping association and find an experienced mentor through the association. I also recommend that all new beekeepers read the trade journals, Bee Culture and American Bee Journal. There are advertisements in the journals from producers that sell these lines of bees. Beekeeping is an art and a science. It is a lifelong learning experience, well worth the effort. You can find more information on our website, The Bee Lab.
If you’d like to purchase the Minnesota Hygienic bees, one source is Mark Sundberg. You can contact him at 218-731-5942. He has queens available for 2010, and will take reservations for orders for nucs for 2011. Nucs must be picked up in Minnesota or Mississppi, depending on the season. Queens are shipped via USPS or UPS.