Honey Bee Queens

(written Jan 7, 2005) With the warm start to the new year I finally got around to removing the mite strips from the hives on January 1st (should have been done a month or two ago). I had been reading in the bee magazines about how heavy mite losses (that is, bees lost to mites) were expected this winter. A beekeeping friend in PA - after bragging how much honey he had gotten this summer, and how he hadn’t treated his hives for mites in 5 years - wrote in his Christmas card that his hive was dead by November. So I was happy to find that all the hives under my care (4 of my own, and 3 for a neighbor lady) were all doing well. What was really surprising to me was that in 4 of the 7 hives the queens had already started laying eggs again. According to Conventional Wisdom, that does not start until late January, although I’m sure there is a wide range of regional differences.

Fall is the preferred re-queening time, with a healthy young queen to over winter. Supposedly it also helps reduce swarming in the spring, although the bees generally seem to have their own minds on that one. I have been experimenting with different breeds of bees with two considerations in mind: mites, and gentleness (considering the hives are being kept in a residential area). The normal yellow/orange/banded honey bee most often seen is the “Italian” breed. Reasonably docile, although the individual genetics and other factors can range from extremely gentle to Don’t Mess With That Hive. Other bees are better known for gentleness, although most of them are not as good at honey production. I’ve tried “Caucasian” bees before, and this year I decided to try “New World Carniolans” - brown bees described as mite resistant and very gentle, although they supposedly like to swarm.

Generally, the feistier a hive is, the less likely it is to accept a new queen, especially one of a different breed. So I started out by introducing my new queens into small “nucleus” colonies, which were less likely to have an attitude about new things. After being accepted there, I moved those nucs, intact, into sections of the full hives, separated by newspaper. That way the queen is with established friendly bees, and it takes awhile for the bees to eat through the newspaper, by which time they should all be friends. The tricky part of all that is finding and removing the old queen first. Of course, the feistier the hive, the harder she can be to find. Sometimes you just have to work in the middle of an angry bee cloud, and hope you didn’t leave any openings in your suit…
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