This year overwintered colonies seem to reaffirm conclusions that I have suspected for a long period of time. Not all bees are created equal!
This is two colonies from feral stock Easter weekend 2013. 1005 (Left) is one from 2010 and 1208 (right) is one caught last summer at my next door neighbor’s. They saw it come from the woods south of their home. This video is from Easter weekend 2013.
I am going to preface this post with the following declarations: 1) The number of records I am reviewing here are small. Therefore the power of my observations may not be great enough to classify them as anything. 2) I haven’t done any genetic testing on any of these bees, just caught them, hived them, and made records of how things have progressed over time.
In agreement with the party line, keeping detailed records is very important. I have posted about this previously SEE Records Revisted Post 1 of ??. You never know what information will be valuable. I not only keep records on the progress of hives. It’s becoming more important to my operation to keep track of the source locations of the colonies that are trapped every year.
I have not bought bees since 2010, favoring local ferals. Now that I have been trapping for several years I have made note of consistencies in both behavior and survivability of colonies trapped from different locations in my region. I liken these differences to something similar to a personality of the hives. For example one location provides consistently small swarms of noticeably smaller bees that tend to overwinter even if confined to only one hive deep. They haven’t proven themselves as heavy honey producers, but they survive year to year. Another location produces very large swarms that have bees of many different phenotypes. They overwinter strong and begin working earnestly in the Spring, but their honey production also remains to be proven as they tend to prefer swarming to storing up supers full of honey. Sadly there are locations that consistently provide me with colonies that seem to be of little value to the operation. From those locations I source bees that have repeatedly been unable to cope, and fail to overwinter year after year. So guess what…. those locations didn’t get traps this year.
A review of my records has led me to believe that some of these dud colonies are swarming from hives managed by other beekeepers. The longer I keep bees the more I discover locations of current managed hives as well as stories of apiaries from long ago. This information is helping me to determine the more valuable trapping locations. Given the time constraints this year I was forced to only trap in prime locations where proven survivors have been sourced. These locations tend to be in spots where there are NO managed hives. The genetics persisting without management are of more value to me than duds (welfare bees) that fail to overwinter. I value quality over quantity.
I have found 8 or 9 locations thus far that have provided me with hard working survivor colonies. One location in particular seems to be providing bees that overwinter well, build up steadily in the Spring, AND tend to provide surplus honey with regularity. This awesome location just happens to be where my house is located. I have known for some time that there are a lot of bee trees in this unlikely area. In fact I have found 2 new trees this Spring as well as a house in the area with bees living under the porch. It is unlikely that any bee would chose this spot for a home willingly since it is smack dab in the middle of mono-crop hell, BUT THEY ARE HERE!!! Just the fact that bees persist in this area where it is hard to make a living is a testament to their hardiness and work ethic.
These colonies tend to build up strong the first year after being caught in a trap. They fill two deep boxes with drawn comb on foundationless frames. They typically overwinter strong and during their second year they have filled their third deep and make enough surplus honey to justify the hive equipment. A couple of downsides… They can be grumpy and will let you know when are taking too long on a hive inspection especially on windy days. Also if you place a one of these colonies in an apiary with a weak hive they will rob it to death during dearth conditions. So should I re-queen with inferior docile genetics….?? Convention and all of the bee journals say YES…….., but I THINK NOT!
So…. Why are these bees here? There was a man that kept bees for 50-60 years that lived on the farm just East of me until sometime in the 80’s. After his death a neighbor bought his remaining 8 colonies and kept them for a while. Finally varroa took these managed hives and he hung it up. No one else had bees in the area until I installed 2 packages in 2010. Those ended up failing to overwinter and I seriously doubt that the high population in the area has anything to do with me getting into bees.
I theorize that the lasting legacy of survivor bees in the area is a result of my long deceased neighbor. Over the years swarms must have made it out of his apiary and gained a foothold in what little suitable habitat they could find. They set up shop in trees among the patchworks of small woods that dot the otherwise barren farm ground and in uninterrupted drainage areas where trees remain. They somehow figured out a way to persist despite varroa taking out virtually all of the beekeepers around here.
This has given me further reason to OPPOSE SWARM SUPPRESSION. If you truly want survivor genetics you are shooting yourself in the foot when you go through destroying natural solutions to bee problems. Mother Nature will assist us in finding solutions…. And her genetic experimentation is FREE! Sure you may see it as an initial loss watching your honey and a viable colony fly away, but remember, WHEN those bees get established and are reproducing you will get free SURVIVOR genetics on subsequent years. So don’t view it as a total loss like every beekeeping instruction manual would have you believe. View it as an investment in your future and the future of Apis mellifera. Enough on that… I will devote an entire post on that sometime in the future.
Back to records…. While pouring back through things several questions have been brewing in my mind.
If I see this much variability in colony survival in my relatively small geographic location how well suited could a package of Wal-Mart Bees sourced from hundreds of miles away be for this particular location?
We know that bees form different races when they exist in a location for long periods of time each being WELL suited to that geography. Would it not be expected that the different climatic regions of the United States would select for bees suited for those regions?
How far away could bees realistically be transported and still be considered suited to the region they find themselves?
How many other locations have a secret population of hardy bees that are persisting? Virtually everywhere I have placed traps I have caught bees. I know where other beekeepers have hives. Are bees out there doing their thing unnoticed?
If there are locations harboring survivor bees are Wal-Mart Bee’s diluting the gene pool?
Finally the heretical questions that is going to get me flaming comments and e-mails……. Is the current media campaign about CCD and bees “dying off” legitimate? OR is it just that, a campaign to focus attention and subsidies on a failing model of agriculture and apiculture to a public that is astonishingly ignorant about the natural world? Is CCD something pathological or is it a syndrome that has resulted from shipping bees around the country feeding them high fructose corn syrup expecting them to act as machines instead of living creatures? Is there a genetic component? Is CCD a bee problem or is it a problem of beekeepers in the current model?
I don’t claim to know the answers to any of these questions, but they are the questions that I ponder when I should be sleeping at night. Eventually we all will find out. It would not be the first time in human history that humans have fingered bogus causes for things we didn’t understand. One thing must be acknowledged first and that is there is a good chance that humans have played a part in bee declines. Finding out the cause of CCD will only take us so far. Time will tell if we have the stomachs to remedy what is determined to be the ultimate cause or causes.
In my area I believe the two primary obstacles to bees are herbicides and habitat destruction. Herbicides kill the flowering weeds that bees need for sustenance AND DETOXIFICATION due to the rest of the crap we introduce into the environment. It is very fashionable to blame neonicotinoids for bee losses and CCD. Where are neonicotinoids on my list? My best trapping location is neonic heaven! Yet I have a thriving feral bee population here….
In the mean time if you have read this far you need to get some traps built and begin sourcing bees from where you live. They will not all survive, but it is my belief that they have a better chance than a 3-pound package that comes in the mail from who knows where with no guarantee of survival. Also with each trapped swarm you can think about the money you saved. Tell you what when you become proficient at catching free swarms if you feel guilty about not sending money to someone for bees you can send me some money…
What do you think? Leave me a comment, but no name calling… 🙂
P.S. – I caught 5 swarms last week in traps, two of which came from neonicotinioid heaven and I have no established colonies here this year.