Friday, February 26, 2010

Russian Honeybees

From reading some of the trade magazines, it seems that a lot of beekeepers are having a hard time with wintering over their honeybees.  Whether the hives are starving out, or some other problem, beekeepers have noticed that overwintering hives has been getting harder year after year.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
However, Russian honeybees do require some adjustments in management.  Once they start to build up their numbers, it happens fast, and they have a tendency to swarm.  They can be more curious, and have a tendency to buzz around the beekeeper a bit more than Italians.  This has given them a reputation of being more aggressive.  Aggressive, however, is not the same as curious.  It can be more challenging to requeen an Italian hive with a Russian queen, which is what we will have to do. 

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.


  1. honey only two frames away? Is their only a handfull or two of dead bees in the centre of the top super? I would have the bees tested for tracheal mites. I`ve had lots of trouble with them over the years. where did I come from??? You just joined me on twitter.

  2. Hi Kenneth,

    Thanks for checking out my blog! Actually, we weren't the ones who had that specific problem. It was another beekeeper in our area. Still heartbreakinbg to hear about though.

    Have you tried making grease patties with something like honey-b-healthy mixed in? You get a container of crisco, a pound of sugar, and 2-3 tablespoons of honey-b-healthy, then mix by hand in a mixing bowl. Form into patties. Some people make really big patties like dinner plates, but we made them about hamburger size and put in ziplock bags to store in the freezer.

    The idea is that as the grease melts, the bees will get a thin coating of honey-b-healthy and sugar on them and their frames, which they will clean off. In the process, the menthol from the essential oils will treat the tracheal mites and keep the bees calm, and the sugar will encourage them to keep ingesting it.

  3. You make some good points about Russian queens - it seemed that they were better than gold but a decade after being imported, it doesn't seem like they have really been worth the while and research money. There was a recent review that came out about them, using citations from the ARS lab in Baton Rouge -

    "in spite of nearly a decade's worth of selective breeding and availability, Russian honeybees have not found wide-spread acceptance in commercial apiculture. Their importation and study represent a substantial investment in taxpayer money, but to date no Russian stocks have been shown to resist other detrimental factors including Colony collapse disorder and infection with Nosema ceranae. As such, the relevance of Russian bees to commercial apiculture is limited.

    Russian bee enthusiasts claim that they are gentle (not prone to sting), use less propolis than typical Italian honey bees, show winter hardiness (they hibernate in small winter clusters), produce a high nectar haul per bee, are more apt to building queen cells throughout the brood season, and may have a higher tendency to swarm. However, few of these claims are supported by peer-reviewed studies that have been published in scientific journals.

    Despite innate resistance to mite infestation, treatment with miticides is still required (and practiced) with Russian or Russian-hybrid stocks [7], [8]. [9]. A different USDA-ARS strain produced by the Baton Rouge Honey Bee Laboratory, "VSH" (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene), was shown to need far less chemical treatments for mites than Russians (1% of VSH colonies vs. 24% of Russian colonies) [10]. Therefore, 'VSH' strains may actually be superior to Russian bees.

    The claim of superior Russian bee winter hardiness (at least in US apiaries) is touted as a beneficial trait [11]. However, Danka and Beaman (2009) of the Baton Rouge laboratory found that un-fed Russian colonies actually lost bees (-16%) whereas un-fed Italian stocks gained them (4%) during winter months [12]. DeGuzman et al. 2005 [13] found no significant difference between winter mortality between Russian and Italian stocks. It is possible that the Russian bee's tendency to hoard food during winter months leads to smaller size [14] but also reduced health, resulting in mortality.

    Pollination ability by Russians or russian hybrids has not exceeded any other commercial bee strain [15], [16]. This is not surprising, however, as studies have revealed that non-genetic factors determined foraging ability during a comparison of Russian-hybrids and Italians [17].

    It should be noted that "genetic certification" of Russian Queens for commercial bee breeders is performed as a service by the Baton Rouge Laboratory at the expense of taxpayers [18], [19], [20], [21]. "

    I hope that either Russians improve or that better strains emerge.