Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Choosing A Bee Breed

My local homesteading community group has several sub groups and one of them is a Beekeepers Club. We've only had about 3 meetings, but I'm telling you... it's a blast to get together and talk bees! We get so excited at our meetings we could probably talk all night, so we remind ourselves that those rabbit trails we start to chase would be good fodder for another meeting!

At our last meeting we talked about various bee breeds. Of course this led to a discussion on which breed would be best in our geographical area and climate and before you know it, we were talking about what plants grow in our area that would appeal to bees and how we should get a speaker to come to our meeting to tell us what kinds of things to plant! Whew!

If you're thinking of adding bees to your homestead, you need to know what your options are and consider a breed that will be best for your situation. So here's the basics of what we learned about the four main breeds found in North America...

Photo Credit: UC Davis Department of Entomology
Information researched by fellow blogger and beekeeper Liz Wolfe

• Native to Italy
• Light yellow in color (see photo)
• Most popular breed and typically easy to find from suppliers.

• A very gentle bee and good for beginners
• Builds up comb and brood quickly in spring
• Excellent comb builders
• Only moderately prone to swarm
• Resistant to European Foul Brood
• Strong cleaning behavior
• Lower range propolis producer

• Continuous brood rearing continues after honey flow ceases
• More likely to starve during long winters as they tend to exhaust honey stores (may need to be supplemented)
• Poor flight orientation, highly prone to drifting
• Aggressive foragers and easily provoked to rob weaker neighboring colonies

Photo Credit: UC Davis Department of Entomology

• Native to Slovenia, Southern Austrian Alps, parts of Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and parts of former Yugoslavia
• Darker in color - a grayish brown with stripes

• Considered gentle and non-aggressive
• Less prone to rob honey than Italians
• Sense of orientation considered better than the Italians
• Very proficient in adjusting their worker bee population to the availability of nectar flow and can adjust with great speed
• Quite resistant to brood diseases
• Longer lifespan by about 12% compared to other bees
• Only need a small amount of propolis to seal unwanted open spaces or small gaps in hive
• more suitable for areas with long winters; can survive with a small number of worker bees while keeping their honey storage at its maximum
• useful in areas with strong nectar flow, foraging even on wet/cool mornings or evenings and able to quickly adapt to changes in the environment
• recommended for areas with strong spring nectar flow and early pollination

• Prone to swarm when overcrowded
• Less able to thrive during hot summer weather
• Brood nest strength depends on pollen availability
• It isn't easy to find the queen in the hive due to the darker color (but these usually come marked)

Photo Credit: The Daily Green


• Native to Eastern Russia
• Not as light as an Italians, nor as dark as a Carniolans

• Low propensity for robbing
• Usually builds brood only during times of pollen availability (like Carniolans)
• Pollination skills much like the Italians
• Highly resistant to Tracheal mites
• More resistant than other breeds to Varroa mites
• Naturally grooms often (thus resistance to mites)
• Good honey producer

• While some consider this a calm bee, most feel it is a bit more aggressive than the Italians or Carniolans
• Increased tendency to swarm
• Brood rearing is highly dependent on forage availability
• Tends to produce more propolis than Italians/Carniolans
• Very limited availability makes them expensive (although possible to find Queens)

Photo Credit: Sonoma County Beekeepers


• Feral bees are often well adapted to the local area (and thus are sometimes called Survival Bees)
• Good genetically diversity
• Free!

• Must be found and then captured when swarming
• Possibility of being Africanized
• Possibility of American Foulbrood Disease
• Temperament? May be more erratic
• Prone to swarm
• Typically less honey production (however, if you are not in production for a living, a feral swarm or two captured and producing in a hive box may be plenty for a family, so don't rule them out)
• May not be easiest for a beginner, but then again, if you don't know better, you will soon be accustomed to whatever bee you have, right?

There's a lot to learn when it comes to beekeeping and apiculturists are always learning more by observing these fascinating creatures. I seriously think you could study them for a lifetime. However, don't wait that long to get started with a hive of your own! Thankfully, a one day class is enough to get you started. And since you only check your hives about every 2 weeks, you have time in between to learn more.

Before you make a final decision on the bee that's right for you, check around in your area and ask beekeepers what breed they are using. They're likely to have some insight into the best choice for your climate. Also, you need to know what's available as close to your home as possible. Shipping for packaged bees is extremely high (typically sold in pounds of bees along with a queen in a box with some feed to last a couple of days). If you buy a nuc (typically about 5 frames from a hive that includes brood, honey, drones, workers, and a queen - bring your own box to put it in), you'll have to drive to pick them up.

If you plan on starting your beekeeping adventure in 2012, you'll need to contact a bee supplier right away. In California, most have already reserved all their bees for this year's customers. Free swarms are often available if you spread the word among your local friends, but be ready with your gear in your car. The bees won't wait long for you to get there! (Catching the swarm is a story for another day!)


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