We've had a few losses over the years, but have been relatively lucky. That doesn't make it any less heartbreaking to open a hive in the spring only to find a cluster of dead bees, when just two frames away there is plenty of honey. After some research and discussion, we've decided to switch from raising Italian to Russian honeybees.
For most types of honeybees, when the temperature starts to warm up, the hive comes alive. The queen increases laying eggs, and workers get busy cleaning out the hive from the winter, as well as searching for pollen and nectar sources.
But, what happens when, after a warming trend, you get a late frost? What happens if, like last year, we get a long, cold, wet spring? Not only did it cause a blight that attacked potatoes and tomatoes, but bees cannot fly in rain. The bees will have increased their numbers when their honey stores are at the lowest point of the year, and will not have access to forage to replace what they consumed over the winter.
These conditions put honeybees at great risk for starvation, increasing the need for the beekeeper to provide supplement feed, commonly in the form of sugar syrup, sugar candy, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup. Pollen packs (usually a pollen-like supplement, not true pollen) are another form of supplementation, but they stimulate a hive to increase its numbers- not something you want if the weather isn't cooperating and/or there are no natural forage sources available.
While these supplements can keep a hive from starving, none of them are their ideal winter food, honey. A steady diet of such supplements will result in nutritionally-deficient bees. Weaker bees are less able to fight off disease and pests, like varroa and small hive beetle. It also results in more work and more expense for the beekeeper.
In addition to spring food sources, honeybees are still struggling to cope with mites- tracheal mites and varroa mites. Many tracheal mite problems can be handled with the application of natural remedies, like menthol. But varroa mites are still the number one problem facing honeybee populations in the US.
We didn't have a bad varroa problem last year. We used a method that encouraged the bees to build wax comb for drone brood (varroa grow in drone brood chambers, not worker bee chambers) by replacing a deep frame with a medium frame. The bees built comb downward from the underside of the frame. We were then able to remove it from the hive, removing both the drone brood and the varroa mites. However, it takes three pounds of honey to provide the energy to make one pound of wax. While it cut down on varroa, and we got quite a bit of extra beeswax, it also cut into our honey production.
Wintering over may not be such a problem in the south where weather is warmer and the winters milder. The northeast, however, faces cold, wet winters, often with heavy snow and winds. So, what is a beekeeper in the Northeast to do in order to cut down on the starve-outs and mite infestations?
This year, we're going to try keeping Russian honeybees. According to the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association, Russians have excellent wintering-over abilities, are much less susceptable to tracheal mites, and significantly lower varroa populations combined with greater varroa tolerance. It is possible that they are genetically disposed to more hygenic behavior and clean the mites off better than other other types of honeybees. They have a similar honey production and pollination abilities to Italians, the standard for many beekeepers, both professional and hobbiest.
There are two primary differences that accounts for the Russian honeybee's ability to better handle a long, cold winter as compared to the Italian honeybee:
- Because they are more cold-hardy, Russians are able to reduce their numbers more so than Italians before the winter. During the winter, honeybees form a cluster around the queen and flap their wings to keep the hive warm. The more bees, the more wings to flap, the warmer the hive. However, the more honey is required to keep the cluster alive all winter. Since Russians can get by with fewer bees in a smaller cluster, their honey stores last longer.
- Instead of looking for a temperature cue to build up numbers in the spring, Russians begin building up the size of their colony when pollen sources indicate there is enough pollen available to support a larger colony. This further extends the honey reserves into the spring, one of the most dangerous times of years for bees to starve.
We will also have to keep track of our queens carefully. If a hive makes a new queen for any reason, she may well be a hybrid, and not a true Russian. The problem with a Russian hybrid is that they tend to lose their beneficial traits against varroa in a few generations.
As long as it goes well with the requeening and management of the Russian bees, especially wintering over next year, this may be the better choice for us as colder region, sustainable beekeepers.
Live better, a little every day.