Thursday, October 6, 2022

What makes a good bee?

 In the beekeeping world you'll see a lot of emphasis on pedigree bees. I suppose this is a lot like the dog world or the horse world or the British royalty.  The headlines didn't say "rich old lady dies" they said the Queen is dead. They said that Charles will succeed her, as if just showing up and claiming the riches is success. 

I've toyed around with pedigree bees having had most of the major lines, and even Buckfast bees, so rare they're bred on remote islands to preserve their genetics. You also hear a lot about 'northern queens' which is a more generic term for bees that come from the north, like New England or Idaho, I would imagine.  

I'm less skeptical of northern queens than I am of pedigree, because it just seems to mean bees that have survived the winter. That's good for us, because we have a winter. 

Over the years I've become more and more enamored of swarm queens. What this really comes down to is nature over nurture. Most queen bees that you can get commercially are raised in a kind of farming fashion. 

The bees are made to raise many queens at once in a small box called a nuc. They do all right and the queens from this process can be good. 

My problem with it is that it's not how the bees would go about doing it.  In an what I am going to call an 'abundance swarm' the bees have survived the winter and charge ahead raising queens and getting ready to swarm.  The hive is literally abuzz with activity.  In the preceding weeks before the swarm this hive and all the other strong hives locally have been launching drones into the air in preparation. 

A complex reaction of pheromones and activity mean the whole hive of tens of thousands of bees, maybe 40-50,000 bees kicks into gear to raise perhaps a dozen queens. Everything that happens is a result of surplus. 

Like a rich household everything is supplied to these queens in abundance.  The bees that supply the queen with royal jelly are young bees with special glands developed to this task. In an abundance swarm these bees will number in the thousands, they will be just the right age, they will be optimally fed. Every bee along the way in that queens development, and there are many hundreds, is primed and ready for the job. 

When that queen emerges to go on her mating flight she will first murder every possible usurper to the throne before she takes to the air. It's hard to overstate the savageness and power of a swarm raised queen. 

A swarm raised queen is by definition of northern queen that has survived the winter. She's got the lineage of a hive that was strong enough in spring to produce in abundance. This is before she even launches into the air. 

When she goes on her mating flight she takes to the air and flies into a sea of drones from all the most powerful neighboring hives.  The other hives that survived winter in enough abundance to make useless drones who do no work and gather no nectar. 

What's more these drones are rich and varied.  The queen will mate with many to get enough seamen to lay the hundreds of thousands of bees she'll lay in her life. Like a litter of multicolored kittens these bees will have many fathers.  In my own bees now I can see the variation, bees both dark and like, orange and yellow. 

It's said a swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.  This was because the later the swarm came the harder it would be for them to become strong enough to survive winter.  

I see that children's rhyme a bit different, linked to the value of a swarm queen.  That May swarm queen will fly into the densest population of drones from the strongest hives in the region. In June this is probably still mostly true. But those drones will be mixed with package bees that came in from the south.  By July she'll be mating with the results of disaster swarms too, were hives just pump put drones as a last chance cheap chance to procreate. These will mostly be package bees from the south that first year beekeepers got in killed straight away 

This genetic variance from successful mating is shown to keep the hive strong.  Like a town of people it takes all types. The variation probably helps the bees fight off disease because not every bee is the same.  They're not a monocrop. Yes, give me a swarm queen every time.

We started using a method called the Tranov method. This method does a lot of things but, in theory, it can cause the bees to swarm into the object of my choice.

This method is hard.  As shown here it's easy to mess up and not have a swarm queen but just have a swarm and lose half your bees, your best bees and have the whole hive set back weeks

The trickier part of Taranov is timing it right to prevent the swarm from happening. Someday I will be able to time this accurately and everyone will think I am a genius. Until then I will keep trying. 

I think that to large part people project onto bees their own prejudice. There's a broad divide between the survivalist, right wing beekeepers and the left wing hippies. They have their own take on what works and why. Not ever one for pedigree or respecting one's betters I think I am naturally predisposed to the wild, promiscuous mutt queens.  Honestly, how can you not be under the spell of the wild, promiscuous mutt queen? 

Monday, October 3, 2022

October bees, the start of winter.


Here's a video I took with a cheap endoscope of bees clustered inside the hive entrance on a cool day.  The left side of the hive is blocked off because the weather has turned colder and the bees don't need as much room to come and go.  This hive is strong but it's also peak robbing season and I have seen some fighting on the landing board so, just to keep things civil the entrance has been reduced by about half. 

I really hadn't expected to see this when I peered in there.  It's not like the weather is super cold, but it's cold enough to cause these bees to cluster or beard.  I can only guess that these bees are here to block drafts from entering the hive. 

I've spent a lot of time observing in both the conventional and unconventional ways with cameras, sensors and my own senses. This gives me some insight that maybe bees don't really require extreme temperatures to start thermoregulating in complex ways. 

It seems that right now the bees are well past producing summer bees and closing down on the production of winter bees.  These kinds of superbees will live many times as long as summer bees and be able to use fat as a fuel. This is required to raise the new bees in the darkest and coldest winter that will emerge into the spring to forage for nectar. 

In a week or two, by halloween for sure, the production of brood will stop completely. The bees will forage a bit but not for the most part they're closing down. They look good, largely pest free, and well set up to survive the winter.  The next big milestone is dandelions.  If this hive lives to see dandelions there spring experiment when they swarmed out of their hive will be successful.  This two year old queen who will have laid hundreds of thousands of eggs from a single mating flight will have won.

I love a swarm hive more than any other kind.  They're mutts, they're fighters, they're optimists. Who could not love that.