The honeybee hive is an amazing community. Most of the population, about 99%, are worker bees who are all female. They have many jobs to do from cleaning the hive, building honeycomb, feeding the larvae and foraging for nectar and pollen. Some will live only a few weeks, others will live several months to carry the hive through the winter until spring allows bees to forage once again.
There are a few drones, male bees, whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen bee on her single flight outside the hive.
And, of course, there is the queen bee. All bees get a ration of the amazing bee food, royal jelly, made by the nurse worker bees, but a queen bee is created by being fed only royal jelly during her entire larval life stage. The worker bees can sense when a queen’s vitality may be waning. After laying as many as 3,000 eggsa day for five years or so, the queen can understandably be getting tired. Knowing they need a vital queen, the workers will start feeding several larval cells with royal jelly. The first queen to emerge will then kill the other queen larva in their cells, and go on to reign. Or, it may actually come to a battle between new queens.
I knew these basic facts about bees because many years ago we attended workshops given by the Franklin County Beekeeper’s Association before we set up our first bee hives. However, I never gave much thought to the breeding of bees, or to the necessity of queen bee production for new bee keepers.
When I met with Dan Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary in Deerfield recently, I was amazed to find that an important part of his business is the production of queen bees. And not only queen bees, but Russian queens.
Russian queens sound very exotic, but Conlon explained that the practical interest in, and need for Russian queens is in the kind of bees they will create. About 16 years ago the first USDA researcher started negotiating with Russia to acquire some of their disease resistant bees from the far eastern regions.
When my husband and I started with bees we were given all kinds of information about medicating our bees to protect them from varroa mites which can dangerously weaken a hive. Russian bees do have mites, but somehow those bees have learned to groom each other to remove the mites, and so do not need medication, which can bring its own problems.
Dan Conlon attended a bee convention about ten years ago and heard one California bee scientist, Tom Glenn, tell how he had stopped using chemicals and found it did not negatively affect his hives. “We already knew the chemicals weren’t working, and we weren’t making any gains. So we (Warm Colors Apiary) went cold turkey. We used no treatments – and lost fewer bees than we did while using medication. Tom told us we could, and it was true. This experiment required no expense, and we didn’t have to worry about the quality of our honey,” Conlon said.
Conlon now raises Russian queens that he sells to beekeepers who want to go back to older, organic ways of working with bees. His own breeding practices involve watching for the most docile queens to breed the gentlest next generation of queens. He explained that the many many Texas bee producers have gone out of business because their bees have become Africanized, and are too aggressive. Russian queens are gentle, and disease resistant. The bees he raises are also acclimatized to our weather, giving beekeepers greater probability of success.
Conlon said one of his goals is to educate people about bees. Many school groups from Williston, Smith College and Umass, come to visit. “Second grade teachers seem to be doing a really good job of teaching about bees,” Conlon said. “The more removed we are from bees, and other insects critical to our survival, the more important it is to learn about them in school.”
More than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops depend on pollination by honey bees. And that is just in the United States. If it were not for bees we humans would find it very difficult to find enough to eat.
Dan Conlon and his wife Bonita, will hold their annual Honeybee Festival today, Saturday, June 11, from10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the apiary on South Mill Road in Deerfield. . There will be bee talks and demonstrations all day, a great time to get your questions about bees answered while you enjoy honey ice cream, mead, and honey snacks. Warm Colors Apiary will be selling be products from honey to beeswax candles. There is no charge for this event which will intrigue every member of the family. Conlon says the bees are always well behaved.
Conlon also gives workshops for those who are considering keeping bees. He said there are more and more teams signing up for these classes, fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. Classes begin in late winter and continue through the honey season. Logon to www.warmcolorsapiary.com for more information about classes and other bee resources.
Beetween the Rows September 11, 2010