Which bees are the best?

Bees can develop rapidly in spring, or slowly, or in between. Carnica bees (Carniolans) are usually known to develop rapidly in spring, while black bees (A. m. mellifera, AMM) usually develops slowly. If the bees are developing quickly, they eat more food as they make more brood. It is brood that requires a lot of food, both for feeding the young and for keeping brood temperature in the hive.
Carnica bees usually start brooding early and strong. Mostly they react quickly to availability of fresh pollen, especially later in summer when chilly weather keep them inside the hive and brooding thus is greatly reduced. The AMM bees are often adapted to a late honey flow and weak early flows. The late heather flow in the Nordic countries has been involved in forming this bee. The yellow Italian bees come from a warmer climate where it may be smaller weaker honey flows during a long time of the season. They often tend to breed most of the time the whole year long. Therefore, there have been management methods of beekeepers in Sweden to handle this. For example, to hinder the bees brooding in winter by wintering them in one box only with ten frames of Swedish standard frames (366 x 222 mm). Then they let the bees fill the box with as much sugar solution that they can, thus leaving very little space left for brood. Such a small box full of Italian bees should not be well insulated. But if the colony is not very strong, a good insulation is necessary in our climate.
A cold spring like this in 2017 is a hard test for the bees and the beekeeper. It may not have been such a cold spring since temperatures began to be measured in Sweden, probably since the mid 18 hundreds.

Which bees are then the best?

For survival of the bees, they obviously should develop slowly in spring, and have no or very very little brood in winter. Thus they are more able to economize with the food so that it lasts until they can collect more fresh nectar from flowers in nature. They must also be resistant to diseases that can create difficulties when spring is cold and long, especially nosema.
But a beekeeper who wants a little better honeycrop than just 10-15 kg in average, and is trying to make a living from his bees must have a little different goal for his bees. This beekeeper needs a bee that can be wintered stronger than just on one box of smaller frames. It shouldn’t breed in winter. But it should develop strong in spring, if there is food enough.

I prefer the Langstroth length of the frame, to get strong colonies. The frame height can be anyone of the available options. The goal is as strong a colony as possible going into winter, with plenty of food. Preferably at least a box on top full of feed.
Large amounts of food are not needed for wintering, but for making brood coming spring. Where I live, with my bees, brooding begins in smaller amounts in late winter and increases at the beginning of March. Later in March the queen lays a lot, especially after the main cleansing flight that normally takes place later in March.
A year like this, the amount of brood will vary in line with the ability for the bees to fly out of the hive and get water for the brood. Bee types differ in ability of flying at lower temperatures. The beekeeper must ensure that there are always at least 2 frames with capped food so that the bees can make brood without risking running out of food. (Italian bees, unfortunately, often breed strongly with almost no food left, which is very risky for the bees, with starvation as the result.)

 A few days ago temperature was 8-10 °C. Many colonies was more or less packed in the first super above the queen excluder. They got two more supers if they were more packed, one more supers if they were less packed. Today 18 May it is summer. The picture shows colonies in an apiary before they were supered a few days ago.

In order to be able to get a crop from early honey flows, the bees must be strong enough to fill at least one super above the queen excluder (one box more than expected room for the broodnest of the queen) and a second for the development of the strength of the bees, when the first early flow begins, which usually is from winter rape.
A long cold spring like this means you have to check the bees frequently to ensure they have food enough. The best is to give the bees capped food combs. I get them from my stock of capped food combs which I established in November removing some outer food combs from heavy hives in which the bee strength was smaller. Those combs were replaced with insulation dummy combs. Food combs can also come from colonies that have died during winter. Combs that have been heavily defecated on and can not be cleaned are not used. A few spots of defecation a strong colony can handle. Another option when food combs are not available is sugar fondant. The last option is sugar solution. It will can cause the colonies to make too much brood.
Especially a spring like this you see a difference in the bee colonies. There are those who have bred too much and used up too much food. And there are those that responded too much to the cold periods and stopped brooding almost altogether. And then there are the perfect ones that did not need extra food but still developed continously and developed enough good strength, albeit not the very strongest. Then there are those which developed very well but needed some extra food combs. The two last types of bees are those that should be favored when selecting for breeders. First priority is though of course Varroa resistance.

7 thoughts on “Which bees are the best?

  1. Wow ! What challenges you have, and such dedication! I will be interested to see what you discover. I am a relatively new beekeeper, we have always rented bees for our kiwi pollination until I decided to start keeping our own bees 5 years ago. One of my challenges is dampness. This winter we had so much rain, (very needed). I am told that bees can handle cold and dry, but not cold and wet very well. We do freeze here and for those colonies that shrunk down to 1 box for winter, I did insulate them and I think it helped. That may not be practical for a beekeeper with a lot of hives.
    I started with purchasing NUCs from a local treatment free beekeeper that had established his stock from over 10 years. For the last 2 years, I have caught swarms. The combination of those 2 sources seems to be doing well.
    Keep writing about your experiences and challenges. Very interesting to read.

      • Lovely animals on your farm! You are doing well and your bees are back to normal, concerning Varroa. That is they are of no concern. This year it seems I will be almost in the same position. It’s lovely to concentrate on just keeping bees and doing normal beekeeping as it was before the mite, some 30 years ago.

  2. Ok.
    There are two goals.
    Having bees who can survive on their own is the first.
    They might not give you a big honey crop but the survivability rate will save your money.
    Then there are those who are selected for productivity.
    The correlations between those traits might not be what beekeepers of today want to have.
    Local adapted bees coming from foreign stock will probably give a good harvest after some years. No matter which race you start with, but I believe, those races, which are not bred for your climate, will need more time to adapt to all the circumstances and will need some generations of descendants to achieve this.
    Since beekeepers don´t give them this time, wanting a result immediately, the results and claims don´t mirror the reality.
    In my eyes, if you introduce queens from a northern climate zone, you will likely have more success than introducing the southern stock.
    But in the end, who ever tested this under natural circumstances?
    Honeybees are used as livestock from the keeper`s start of using them and nobody ever tested races shifted from their natural habitat to livestock habitat and compared this, if we see “livestock” bees as “natural bees”.
    So, in the end, we are ignorant of how the races would perform under natural circumstances.
    And the result of this is, we really don´t know how the races perform under our artificial managing methods compared with their real character.
    We don´t let them because we bred them to out advantage.

    • Glad to see there are beekeepers that get going in thinking through my postings!
      Yes, there are many angels here. My observation point is in a northern climate, with experiences from here.
      For the record I imported breeding material from Africa (very southern, but high altitude). Bees had no winters there but could handle cold and fly at low temperatures. Those bees were also low in swarming, contrary to bees from the lowlands (scutellata). It took about 5-6 years to get the stock with quite high percentage of Monticola heritage to stop making brood in winter. It took some more years so they didn’t get fooled by the sunlight on the snow to come out of the hive. Today the stock winter better than the Buckfast I had before I started to make a combination bee with the Monticola.
      The important thing here is to have stock good enough with the traits wanted and make selection for the wanted traits in the combination work and identify the least good colonies and replace the queens in those.
      So in your selection work which traits do you go for? That’s a good thing to make clear. And do you have enough colonies to make progress? Well in a way you don’t consider that because if you want better bees you go for selection even if you only have a few colonies. You need at least two colonies to be able to make selection.

  3. Yes, Erik, you need at least two colonies to be a beekeeper or you don´t have reserve if one is queenless. 🙂

    To evaluate a queen or a race or the hybrids I believe very difficult.

    That, first because of nature`s impact. Flow can be good but weather is unpredictable. Matings can go wrong or the queen can be not prolific.

    Second the man made impact. Drifting of mites from migrating beekeepers, spraying, harvesting with killing many foragers, beekeepers managements which weaken a hive.

    So without some years of keeping records of your hives you must rely on survivability in winter, not crashing with a mite load, brood brakes, brood productivity and so on.
    With integrated pest managements like treating with thymol for example or the taking out of brood combs, it could be even need a longer time, but you might have less losses.

    Honey productivity and gentleness are luxury traits you might get as sideline advantage, but since this traits are very important to most beekeepers, yes, most important, it´s really hard to develop a resistant line which stays resistant without the bees being isolated.
    Work on that will never stop but will become hopefully a little easier after years.

    • Yes, you need an enough isolated place, not totally isolated, to develop a resistant line/stock. It seems though that if the bees, not only a queen bred from resistant bees (since a number of years without chemicals, how many I don’t know, maybe 5 to start such a discussion), but queen plus a nuc/split/swarm can stay resistant even in an environment where the colony will pick up mites from colonies with higher varroa level in the neighbourhood. In spite of that they can stay resistant. That is they rid themselves of mites, grooming effectively, besides cleaning infested brood. There are such experiences for example in Munich. But if hey stay that way after supersedure on that place I don’t know. Maybe new queens must be mated on enough isolated places. There will be a break even point somewhere how big apiary (apiaries) you need and the drone pressure from other neighbour colonies.

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