Installing a New Queen Bee to Change Genetics
Requeening Italian Package Bees for Greater Success in Northern Climates
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Starvation, moisture, temperature fluctuations, wind, pests, disease, and failure or inability to check on a hive are some of the many factors for winter hive failure. But what if the bee races you choose to raise and the overall genetics of a colony play a role as well? And what if installing a new queen bee to increase hive strength and survivability can contribute to success in overwintering bees, especially in colder climates.
The Right Race for Your Climate
Something else to consider is whether or not particular races of bees are best suited for you and your area. Traits like environmental resistance, production, temperament, disease resistance — to things like tracheal and varroa mites — and swarm rates can all impact success and/or lead to failure overwintering bees in cold climates. While all honey bees have similar traits and are all classified as the same genus and species, there are many different “races” of bees available: Buckfast, Carniolan, Caucasian, Cordovan, German, Italian, Russian, etc. Geographic races of bees were/are developed over time in their home environment through natural selection and each possesses characteristics that make them different from each other. These differences are important when choosing your bees.
Here in New England, you will find that nearly all package and nucleus bee colonies readily available are Italian honey bees transported from southern states. They are the most popular and common bees available in the United States. Packages are available much earlier than 5-frame nucleus colonies, and they are usually $120-160. In comparison, 5-frame nucleus colonies are very limited, are not available until mid to late May, and are $175-225. While I have only bought 5-frame northern survivor hybrid “nucs” bred for this particular climate, nearly everyone I have chatted with this past winter who lost bees keeps Italian honey bees. These same beekeepers were all having poor and sometimes absolutely no success with overwintering their bees in the Northeast.
Are Italians the Best Option for a Colder Climate?
This ultimately made me question whether or not Italian honey bees are an appropriate race for colder climates. What are the main reasons many beekeepers lose bees in New England in particular? The cold and an observed inability to effectively form a winter cluster. The bees starve because they eat honey stores too quickly or their winter bee cluster was too small, causing the inability to move to food sources within the hive in colder temperatures.
Based on what I have learned, Italians are not the best for overwintering in colder climates. While they are easy to handle and are good honey producers, transported Italian package bees sometimes arrive stressed with parasites and mites, and they have characteristic tendency to go into winter with an average population. This population size may be fine in warmer climates, but a larger winter bee cluster is needed during cold winter months to survive in the Northeast.
After searching, the only bees I could find available locally in early April were 3-pound Italian Honey Bee packages; not the kind of bees I’m used to and not the genetics I particularly wanted. So, I started thinking again and researching a way to work with availability and the Italian bees.
Changing the Genetics of the Colony
How do colony genetics work beyond races? Is it possible to buy one kind of bee package, and somehow change the genetics of the hive to another race of bees?
After reading research by Erin Forbes of Portland, Maine, my questions were answered.
Requeening for Colder Climates
Changing genetics (and achieving diversity) can be achieved by installing a new queen bee or “requeening.” Throughout her 2 year study through NESARE (Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program), Erin found that Italian packages requeened in June with a northern survivor queen resulted in increased colony strength and survivability.
In order to the change the genetics of the hive by requeening, I will be installing a new queen bee in each Italian honey bee hive with a Northern Survivor Hybrid (a mix of Russian, Carniolan, Purvis Golden, and Canadian Buckfast) and Carniolan Hybrids. If you’re interested in requeening, you can research techniques as well as honey bee characteristics that are best for your area. Queens can be purchased locally or a new queen can be shipped to you from an apiary. Since the hybrid queens I’ve chosen are already mated with a diverse gene pool of drones, all eggs laid — queen bee fact: a queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day — and brood hatched will also be Northern Survivor or Carniolan hybrids. Going into winter, all bees in the hive will be the selectively bred hybrids appropriate and successful in Northeast climates.
With this knowledge, I purchased two 3-pound Italian packages on April 1st. Of course, spring in New England hasn’t been favorable this year and nearly everything has gotten a late start. However, the bees are healthy, have been foraging and building up their hives with brood and drawn comb for the last 45 days. I plan on installing a new queen — when queens become available — and I’ll be documenting the process, successes and failures throughout summer and into the colder seasons!