The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden (Quarry Press, 2018), by Kim Flottum gives expert advice to beekeepers of all skill levels, including those just beginning to participate in this increasingly popular hobby. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "Rules of Modern Beekeeping."
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1) Your bees should be adapted to your location.
2) Your bees should be selected to match your management style and technique.
3) Your bees should be resistant to pests and diseases.
4) Your bees should be well behaved.
Most of the queens in the United States are raised in the Southeast, South, or far West from early spring to midsummer so that you can get them around the time of fruit and dandelion bloom and in time to requeen. This used to work.
Obtain or raise a queen from stock that's been surviving and thriving where you live. A third- or fourth-generation stock that produces a virgin queen where you live has managed to figure out bloom timing, the weather, and the peculiarities of your region. This usually will take some hunting. Start now. Of course, you need her to mate with drones with the same experience. If this is possible, you will produce queens that produce bees that thrive where they live. Resistance to Varroa and other pests may or may not be part of the package, but adaptation is high on the list. Once you have a line that likes where they live, you can begin selecting for other traits you want. But first, they have to stay alive.
If you pollinate for a living, your bees need to wake up early to take advantage of the first nectar flows of the year (or your early-season feeding) to be ready for those early crops. If they sleep in and wait until spring has settled and life is easy (no matter how much you feed or stimulate them), you are going to have a problem. However, if you are always late in getting started in the spring, they would be just the thing.
If honey production is your goal, you want a colony that has a very high population of bees just before the main honey flow so they can take advantage of the large number of foragers available to gather nectar. If you want a line of bees that can survive Arctic winters, they must have small overwintering populations that eat much less food that a larger colony and do not begin raising brood until there is ample food coming in.
Choose wisely when deciding on a stock to ensure that it matches your style of keeping bees.
Developing a breeding program when you are just starting out, or have only a very few colonies, is unrealistic. So your second choice is to seek locally produced queens who produce stock that suggests some resistance to the common problems or to find more distant sources that have the traits you want. However you obtain such stock, resistance or tolerance to Varroa and other pests and diseases is definitely important to have. Make this a priority.
There are several avenues of resistance to pests and diseases that breeders work with; however, most of them use some form of the honey bee's natural hygienic behavior. This can include simple grooming: removing adult Varroa mites from each other or vigorous removal of infested larva or pupae from cells, either sealed or still open. There are other mechanisms you can select for, but these are the most common to find, measure, and incorporate into a breeding program. The choices become complex when looking for the best stock to raise — local, resistant, productive, and gentle — and choosing the right one depends mostly on what your operation needs and doesn't have, and what level and kind of IPM or chemical treatments your program calls for, all the way from none to very disciplined.
There's an argument for not selecting for hygienic behavior because it can become detrimental to the colony if the behavior is too aggressive. Rather, some breeders are selecting for different pest- and disease-resistance traits and at the same time selecting for longevity of the queen. A queen that meets and maintains your metric of productivity is necessary, of course, but if her line demonstrates very low swarming behavior (so she stays around), and she maintains her productivity level for three or even five years, you will be far ahead of the game. Long lived and resistant — to date, those queens are rare, but they can be found if you look for them.
There are obvious reasons to keep gentle bees: If they sting you a lot, they are not easy to work with, and if they are not easy to work with, you won't take care of them. And, aggressive bees in your backyard are a danger to your family and your neighbors.
That should be the end of the story. But nature happens. Sometimes a colony is a kitten one week and a tiger three weeks later. Several things can produce this. Population increase simply means there are more bees around. A dearth could initiate very protective behavior from robbing. Skunks and other creatures could be harassing your colonies, keeping them defensive.
A gentle colony is easier to work, is less troublesome in a crowded setting, is less prone to rob other colonies, will not follow you, or will only follow you for a few feet (about 1 m), and will not fly in your face. The bees tend to not run on the comb, fewer or none fly when a colony is opened, and they react dramatically submissive when smoked. All this makes it easier and faster to get into a colony, do what needs doing, and be done. This is the way it should be.
But all bets are off when the carefully selected queen in this colony is lost and the colony raises a new queen that mates with any number of unknown drones. A too-common belief is that mean bees make more honey. True or false? Often, it's true because the colony superseded the gentle queen and the replacement mated with a few of the local boys. Some are from gentle, distant colonies, but some will be from feral colonies that have survived because they are definitely not gentle. Plus a local colony knows the local environment — weather, forage, timing, wintering — better than a colony that is spending its first summer in the same location. These bees almost always produce more honey than those imports from balmy climates. But will they be gentle? Probably not.
So a colony that was a kitten a couple of weeks ago may turn on you the next time you visit. And these new traits tend toward survival rather than beekeeper-friendly behavior. And productivity is definitely a survival trait. Perhaps now you can see even more the value of marking a queen.
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Excerpted from The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. Used with permission from Quarry Press, © 2018.
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