Races of Honeybees

Beekeeping is one of those endeavors where we beekeepers commonly distinguish the different races that make up the world of honeybees.  As human beings, we are quite familiar with the concept of race.  However, it is not often that we consider race as a component of other species.

Race is typically defined as a grouping of similar physical traits and ancestry.  Honeybees, being social creatures from around the globe, have evolved into various races, each of which contain their own distinct physical and ancestral characteristics.  Often, these races show apparent behavioral characteristics as well.  For example, the Italian honeybees are known for their light color and generally docile behavior; whereas Russian honeybees are known for their dark color and their ability to winter in cold climates.

The most familiar races of honeybees, along with their common characteristics are:

– Italian:  known for light color, gentle behavior, rapid buildup and high brood production
– Carniolan:  known for dark color, gentle behavior, and ability to conserve their food stores
– African:  known for their aggressive temperament and high propensity to swarm
– Caucasian:  known for their grey color, low propensity to swarm, and high propolis production
– Russian:  known for their black color, natural mite resistance, and overwintering prowess

Lucky for us beekeepers, honeybees are seemingly unaffected by having multiple races within a hive.  For example, when an Carniolan colony is requeened with an Italian queen bee, the beehive will gradually become lighter and more golden as more of the Italian bees take the place of their Carniolan sisters.  The colony never seems to mind the disparity of the races within it, and temporarily becomes a mixed-race bee society.  The Italian honeybees work right alongside their Carniolan sisters, yellow and black together in harmony, seemingly with no strife or even the slightest concern over racial differences.  It just goes to show that, once again, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from honeybees and Mother Nature!

Selecting Colonies For Early Season Buildup

During the first week of January, most beekeepers are recovering from the holiday season, watching football, and making plans and resolutions for the new year.  However, the majority of beehives throughout the northern hemisphere are doing far much less.  At this time of year, most bees remain huddled in their winter clusters, preserving heat and waiting out the remainder of the harsh winter.

At Wildflower Meadows, the majority of our bee colonies have their lowest populations at this time of year.  Even in our relatively temperate setting, bees go through their normal annual cycle, albeit with a milder winter shutdown than in most colder climates.  Throughout November and December, our queens typically lay a much lower than normal amount of eggs than in the remainder of the year because of the shorter days, long and colder nights, and general lack of forage.  As a result, bee populations decline throughout the fall and winter, reaching their lowest point at the beginning of January.  This is normal and healthy, as a smaller winter population is more efficient for a typical beehive, with less mouths to feed and less brood to manage.

Here in California, something changes, however, around the first week of January.  By some means, the bees get a sense that the winter solstice has passed.  Somehow, they get the idea that the January acacia bloom is right around the corner.  And, somehow or other, the bees get wind that the almond bloom is now only a month away, with mustard bloom soon to follow.  It’s time to get busy!

We notice that it is right around the first week of the new year that many of the Wildflower Meadows’ queens wake up from their winter slumber and launch headstrong into egg laying.  All of a sudden, the queens begin laying frames of brood – sometimes entire frames at a time, and as much brood as the population will allow.  This is a sign to us that a queen is serious about early season buildup.

Early season buildup is an important and valuable behavioral trait in honeybees.  It is important not only for commercial beekeepers who need strong colonies to pollinate early season crops such as almonds and cherries, but also for smaller scale beekeepers who are typically more focused on honey production.

High honey production almost always correlates with early season buildup for two reasons:  First, early buildup means that the colony will be strong and lively enough to take advantage of the very earliest portion of the honey flow.  This is in comparison to a slow-developing colony that needs to wait for the population to build up before it can fully exploit the earliest blossoms.  A slow-building colony might miss the entire early season flow.  Secondly, a rapid early season buildup will typically correlate to a larger and more mature foraging population during the later peak portion of spring.  A larger population during a honey flow is almost always a key factor in the overall honey totals of a given season.

Most importantly, an early season buildup indicates that the queen is lively.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is what we like to see.  So, beginning around the first week of January, we head out to our apiaries with pens and pencils, our queen records, and our trusty clipboards to begin taking notes.  We grade each and every colony on bee and brood strength.  The purpose of this first grade is to establish a baseline of overwintering quality, as well as to detect the first signs of early brood laying.  Then we come back a few weeks later and grade the same colonies again to see how seriously the individual queens are taking early season buildup.  We take note of the colonies that scored well on both accounts, particularly noting the colonies that rapidly gained in population.  These colonies then become candidates for breeding and drone rearing colonies.  Of course, these colonies still need to pass other important criteria, such as testing for temperament and mite resistance, but their display of early season buildup is duly noted.  Thus, these colonies are leading candidates for continued Wildflower Meadows’ breeding.

Family Ties

Sometimes, here at Wildflower Meadows, we run across a colony that appears superior in all respects.  As a queen breeder, finding a special colony is always a promising affair.  So, of course, we wonder, perhaps we have discovered some sort of “super colony”; the honeybee equivalent to a superhero, like Wonder Woman.  Maybe if we could breed from this colony we could create a “Super Bee” or some other sort of legendary strain of bee.

However, not so fast . . .

It is tempting to think that the daughter of a superstar will be a superstar herself, but this is an oversimplification.  First of all, we have no idea what made the original colony perform so well.  Might it have been environmental factors rather than genetics?  Perhaps the bees found a pollen source that no other colony in the apiary found.  Or, what if they are situated in such a spot in the apiary that they are the recipient of drifting bees?  Maybe the reason that they are mite-free is not that they are resistant, but simply lucky enough to never have encountered them in large numbers.  In short, what if it is simply good luck that is making this colony appear so special?

Far more importantly, we need first consider whether the superstar colony itself is one of Wildflower Meadows’ pure and known bee lines, or instead a first-or-second-generation hybrid.  If the queen is a hybrid, her offspring are almost certainly going to be unpredictable.  The queen could be carrying many different latent or recessive genes that are not now visible, but could become apparent in next generations.  In general, it is best to breed from pure and known bee lines so that the offspring has a predictability in the immediate generation to follow.  As we described in a previous post, Hybrid Vigor, the most vigorous queens are the result of F1 (first-generation) hybrid bees.  The only way to create this vigor is by starting with pure lines, not with existing hybrids.  Therefore, it is important to remember that one beehive is not a proven line of bees!

This is why when Wildflower Meadows evaluates colonies for breeding potential, we need to consider more than one colony.  We really need to look at the queen’s entire family, and her family ties.  Ideally, we attempt to examine at least six of the sisters of the queen we are considering.  Are they too performing as well?  Are they too uniform?  In any breeding effort, the goal is consistency, and the only way to ensure consistency is to prove that the breeder herself is producing steady results.  The daughters should perform at least as well as the mothers, and should do so time and time again.

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.