Hanging with the Blondes
October 16, 2013
The snowstorm last Wednesday came as expected, just as I was finishing last week's column. I spent the day in the Honey House doing a candle run with duck-feather snowflakes sifting down through the air outside the windows. I knew that the next day would be sunny but cold so I did a second candle run and now I have a good supply on hand for those unexpected customers who show up and want a dozen pair or two.
We got about an inch of water out of 10-inches of heavy wet snow and now the landscape is greening up beautifully. Just a few weeks ago we were staring at a spring we expected to be a drought, but these recent snows have just about caught us up and spring promises to be exceptional. It is my favorite time of year and I plan to do my best to savor every minute I can.
I've made a round of all the packages to see if the queens are laying and with the exception of two that flew they are all queenright and off to a good start.
For the past 150 years beekeepers have tried to select their stock to develop certain traits and behaviors. Most recently there has been a lot of work trying to find a strain of bee that could deal more effectively with the varroa mite, with some success. Selection revolves mainly around "hygienic" behavior, a colony's tendency to remove larvae the mites are preying on and in some cases the mites themselves.
I tried most of the available strains early in my beekeeping career and finally settled on the Caucasians. Caucasian bees were brought over to the U.S. in the early 1900s from Georgia, Russia, before importations were prohibited in 1922. I decided on the Caucasians for several reasons: they were gentle; they were conservative with their winter stores, reducing brood rearing in the fall when resources started to decline; they were reputed to fly at slightly cooler temperatures and were supposed to have longer tongues.
I reasoned that at 5,000 feet where summer nights are cool, a bee that gets out a little earlier in the morning and works a little longer in the evening can't hurt, those few minutes a day might make a difference when added up over the course of a season. I'm not so sure about the "long tongue" part, but many of the native flowers evolved with bumblebees and have deep corollas so a little longer tongue wouldn't hurt either.
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Of course I was trying to compare the performance of the different strains, but my sample size was pretty small. I kept very close records for the first 25 years though, so at that point I thought I might have sufficient data that the differences in performance, primarily honey production, would show up. I ran the numbers, compared all those records to see if one strain stood out above the others, and the result? At least based on my records there was no significant difference in honey production across all these queen types over all those years.
Granted this was an amateur approach, but you would think that over all that time the better performers would show up, but they didn't. My conclusion at that point was that while certain strains might have distinct characteristics, for honey production at least success depends on many other factors; the weather, the region, the season, the ability of the beekeeper and finally just plain luck.
We lost the Caucasians in the U.S. several years ago. I had been getting my Caucasian queens from Morris Weaver of the famous Weaver beekeeping family in Texas (I didn't have to get packages then, but needed a lot of queens every spring for double queening). Morris got out of the queen rearing business and I tracked the Caucasians back to his supplier of breeder queens, Bill Gafford in Alabama, Bill's grandfather had brought the original Caucasians to the U.S.. Bill supplied me for several years, but retired and sold the business to a beekeeper who promptly ran the business into the ground and that was the end of the Caucasians.
That led me to the Carniolans, another grey bee and a close cousin to the Caucasians. This has been my main bee for the past several years and the Koehnen's have been my supplier. The Koehnen's are also famous for their Golden Italians and I started getting a few of those while I was still running Caucasians.
It was the Italians that originally drew me to Koehnen's, where Miles and I have gotten packages for the past several years. Koehnens started in bees in 1907 and when I got my first Italian queens from them they were promoting their "Golden Italians." The Caucasians are a grey bee, in fact are often called "Mountain Grey Caucasians," and I was looking for a golden bee, not for any practical reasons but simply because I think they are beautiful. And they are.
I remember talking with beekeeping friend Lyle Johnston about the Koehnen Italian queens when I was thinking about getting my first. Lyle is a third generation Colorado beekeeper and he's kept bees since he could walk. At his peak he ran several thousand colonies, but more recently has moved to California where he brokers bees for the almonds, and most of the bee work has been handed down to his kids. Anyway, Lyle called those Koehnen Italians "The Blondes, the eatinest queens I've ever seen." The Italians are indeed prolific, unlike the Caucasians or Carniolans they carry a large brood nest far into the fall and unless given supplemental feeding they are inclined to eat themselves out of house and home by mid-winter and starve out.
I get the Italians almost purely for aesthetic reasons, I think they are beautiful and I like having them around and seeing them. Oh, I tell myself that I have some practical reasons; they are prolific brood rearers and I'll use them as donors of brood for colonies that need a boost, but the reality is that I just like them, and since I'm a one man operation and I'm the boss I can do just about anything I want.
Three of the packages I got have Italian queens and I put one in each of three beeyards. While I was making the rounds checking queens I saw the Italian queen at Table Mountain (I don't always look long enough to actually see the new queens, seeing new brood is enough) and she is a bright yellow beauty. It will be interesting to see what her offspring look like.
We had a third of an inch of rain yesterday evening with more forecast for today and tomorrow. It is about as green here along the Front Range as we will ever see it and the dandelions are coming into full bloom. We face some serious challenges in the bee world and may not survive, but for the moment it's springtime, the new queens are out and laying, the world is filled with promise and I get to hang out with the blondes. ❖