Sustainable Honey Bee Breeding

Reader Contribution by Staff
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In my previous post, I briefly addressed the problems with commercial beekeeping, and promised to dive more in-depth on each item so …

The first item I will tackle is: buying packaged bees from mega producers usually in the southern states.

The main issue I have with importing bees is that we are getting bees that are too closely related. There are too many kissing cousins and not enough diverse genetics to maintain a healthy gene pool.

The mega producers usually have a breeder queen with the traits they are trying to maintain. With artificial insemination, they will breed her with select drones, and her offspring will be the breeders creating the queens they sell to you and I. 

Even local beekeepers selling bees, usually have them trucked in from the mega companies and sell them individually to you. What if the supplier lost all their bees to whatever the latest bee disease is? This is not a sustainable model for the beekeepers relying on these mega companies.

So what is sustainable? We have to go back and look at nature. Nature needs diversity in order to survive drought, disease, etc. The feral bees in any given area have acclimated to the particular reign, and have learned how to deal with the particular pests as well. So it seems to me, the first step is to allow nature the opportunity to introduce the strongest genes in the area.

Let’s discuss how nature handles the whole breeding thing, In nature, when a virgin queen emerges and prepares for her mating flight, there is a general gathering of local drones from all the colonies within a large radius of the hive preparing to breed. (Drones do a lot of drifting to other colonies and will even travel long distances drifting into whatever colonies they can find along the way. This is nature’s way of collecting the best genetics to pass on.)

When the queen is ready to take the mating flight, there is a drove of hopeful drones that will follow her straight up in the air approximately 50 feet. This is nature’s way of weeding out the weaker drones who for whatever reason are not the finest specimen of health. Maybe they sat on the sofa eating potato chips and watched mindless shows on TV and just let themselves go, or maybe the drones were hanging out with the local bad boys smoking pot, and simply missed the flight. I mean you wouldn’t want that kind of genetics to enter your gene pool would you?

The queen will be bred, in flight, by a number of the finest drones (from 10 to 30 of them). She will store the sperm to be used when she is laying eggs for up to 5 years. An interesting aside, I think drones have gotten bad press over the years. In our culture, mindless office workers are called drones. But in nature, the finest and best drones die an honorable death in the process of creating life, so no more bad press about the drones. They are the ones with the right stuff!

Keeping these ideas of finding diversity in mind, I have some suggestions on how to populate your colony with the finest local genetics you can find.

One of the best ways to get survivor stock is to catch swarms. Swarms are nature’s way of splitting one colony into two. When they get the swarming instinct, they will create new queens, and the old one will depart with approximately half of the bees to find a new home. This generally takes place in the spring. There are several ways you can obtain these swarms:

  • You can call your local exterminators, police station, etc. and get on their list to help with frantic homeowners who don’t know what to do with the large ball of bees in their yard. The bees can be moved directly to a hive.
  • You can set out a swarm trap or a bee hive, with some lure and entice a swarm into your hive.
  • Contact your local commercial beekeeper who has been led to believe that swarms are inferior to buying package bees, and he or she will often get calls about swarms or there bees may swarm, and they don’t want to bother with it.

Another way you can obtain bees is to buy/barter 4 frames of comb from another local beekeeper. However the comb must have some eggs younger than 3 days (you can tell the eggs from the larva, as they look like little white specs in the cell).  Ideally the frames will have eggs, capped brood, honey, pollen, and the nurse bees that accompany the brood. Also it is good to shake the nurse bees from another frame into the new hive also. I have set up a news group to help connect local natural beekeepers with people wanting starts or swarms, and mentoring as well.

Yet another way to increase your genetics is to rescue a colony that has taken up residence in someone’s house or barn. When people tell me with frustration that they have been trying to get rid of that colony for several years; that is when I get excited. These older colonies contain survivor genetics that I want in my apiary. However I don’t recommend this for new beekeepers as it can be a time consuming and complicated operation. It might even border on crazy, especially if it involves ladders and harnesses and such. That, my wife informs me, is dangerous.

If you find yourself needing bees and you are unable to obtain them any other way, then go ahead and buy them from wherever you can, and then let them acclimate to your area, and you can use them to create your own local genetics and breed with the locals.

Finding and catching swarms is a lot of fun. Despite the current madness of Colony Collapse Disorder, there are still feral bees to be found with good genes due to the fact that they have been surviving out in nature.