God Save the Queens
Saturday, 24 March 2012
We monitor many things to make sure our queen and worker bees are as healthy as they can be. We aim to have healthy bees because they need energy, just like we do, to collect nectar from flowers, bring it back to the hive and turn it into award winning honey.
Part of our work as beekeepers is to watch over our bees water supply (from rivers or dams) and the quality of their food stores. Many people don’t realize bees wings become tattered and their little bodies get skinny if they aren’t healthy. Unhealthy bees with tattered wings wont be able to collect nectar to make honey, so we use these clues to tell us about the overall health of the hive. We like our bees to be fat and furry.
We watch the activity of our queens closely. A healthy queen protects the hive by continually laying eggs to make baby worker bees. Each year we improve the health of our hives by improving the bees genetic stock. We do this by selecting queens from our best hives for breeder queens. Sometimes we purchase and breed from a new stud queen. We do this because each year we aim to breed high performance queens. This maintains or improves the health of our hives and the quality of our honey.
Usually, our family breeds our own queens. We do this in an attempt to keep the blood-line from the queens our first generation beekeeper, Frank, imported from Canada in the 1960’s. In reality though, the genetics of those first beautiful black queens is becoming more difficult to find.
In our family, when our Master Beekeeper (Len) teases that he will take one of our hives for breeding, it means some of the Canadian genes have become dominant again, in that particular hive, and this makes it a good candidate for queen breeding. It’s one of those family jokes that others could miss but it refers to how fortunate we are to have good genetics in our bee blood-line.
When choosing a queen as a breeder we look for a particular pattern in the way the queen lays her eggs in the frame, the temperament of the hive, the colour of the bee and of course the hive has to be disease free. We prefer the Black Hastings bee because it tends to have a quiet temperament. Another way to describe a good bee temperament is to say they are less cranky and easier to work with.
Choosing which queen (or queens) to breed from is only the first part of the queen breeding process. The knowledge and skills to undertake this work have been developed in our family over many generations. Our master beekeeper, Len, is pictured below. This picture was taken in the 1970‘s when he is at the beginning of his queen breeding training.
We always do queen breeding work in spring and summer, but our work is always dependant on the weather. Some years mother-nature isn’t favourable to us. The wind is a problem because it can affect the way a bee flies. For queens, strong winds create havoc when they return to the hive after their mating flight (with the drone). The wind can push the bees to the point where they don’t return to their original hive. Instead, they fly into a nearby hive. The result is that some hives have no queen.
The rain is a problem when we are trying to do our queen breeding work because it affects the queens’ ability to fly out and mate with the drone. Wet weather can delay mating, which delays the queens’ ability to lay new eggs. The time delay means new bees aren’t being laid. The risk is that without a continual renewal of the worker bees with younger bees, the hive becomes weak. Weak hives are more prone to disease and pests.
Sometimes we have problems with the weather, and it means we had to buy queens from another breeder. When choosing which breeder to buy from, we use our understanding of the history of the queen breeder, their blood-line, the type of bees they offer, and the likely nutritional state of the queen. Queen breeders advertise on the internet, in beekeeping journals and there is also queen breeder association. Once an order is placed, the queens are delivered by mail. They arrive in small cages with four or five “attendant” bees. Queens need attendants because the young “attendant” bees make the royal jelly to feed to the queens.
Occasionally, we purchase a “stud” queen to supplement our breeding program. They usually arrive with their wings clipped and marked for easy identification. We use the stud queen to make many more queens. In the photos below you can see the normal bee with normal wings and the queen bee with clipped wings. We like to see the “attendant” bees facing the queen. If they fuss over her, they like her, they are feeding her royal jelly and it is a clue that she is a good queen who is laying lots of eggs! The second photo is a different stud queen. The second photo shows how the queens are marked and numbered.