I became concerned when our first daffodils budded in March. I both rejoiced and sighed at every blossoming cherry tree I spied. I begged roadside dandelions not to bloom until the middle of April, telling them that they will be able rewarded for the patience. I remind them that the Russians are coming. If they just wait a few days, the Russians will relish in the floral beauty, sip their nectar, and carry their pollen.
I tell the budding flowers that if all goes well, my twin packages of Russian honey bees will be arrive Sunday April 10. Their spring time glory will not be in want of a pollinators, if only they wait until my packages arrive.
Creating New Hives
The idea of a package of bees might sound odd to you. It did to me a year ago.
Beekeepers can create new hives of bees in three ways. They can order bees from a breeder, capture a wild hive, or split one of their current hives.
If you chose to order bees, as I have, you can either purchase your bees in a package or nucleus. A package is simply a screened box full of bees with a queen packaged separately. A nucleus is a mini colony, complete with frames of comb filled with eggs and developing larvae.
In gardening terms, it’s similar to buying a packet of seeds or buying more mature transplants. Bee packages, like a packet of seeds, are a little cheaper but more risky than nuclei or transplants, which has already put down roots and shows signs of health.
A nucleus contains eggs and larvae — new workers ready to replace the old. The presence of these eggs confirms that the queen is a good layer and the presence of already-drawn comb means that more of the worker bees can focus on collecting honey than building honey comb.
I had hoped to buy a nucleus or two, but when I called the breeder in late January, he was not accepting any more orders for nuclei. Thus I settled for packages.
Races of Honey Bees
My package will be full of Russian hybrid bees. Races exist among bees as they do in the human world; however unlike the human world, beekeepers have no qualms discriminating. Some keepers adamantly swear by the Italians. Others are fans of the Russians. (I think there might be those who prefer Caucasian as well, but I haven’t heard any beek gush over this race recently.)
A good comparison of Russian and Italian bees can be found here.
Of the five major honey bee races, most commercial beekeepers use Italians. Italian bees originate from Italy (surprise!). They are prized as passionate honey gathers and are usually very gentle. However, they love large family gatherings and maintain a full house throughout the winter. I’m sure the company is nice, but the multitude of mouths can rapidly consume winter honey stores. Thus these bees may or may not survive long snowy winters. Another disadvantage to Italian bees is that they are prone to mites, parasites that weaken bees.
For many years, American beekeepers cared very little about mites. Sure, a few mite infestations appeared here and there, but most of the mite problems were across the big ocean in Europe and Russian.
But these mites immigrated to the United States. Since the 1990s, mites that attach to the bees’ backs, called varroa, and trachea mites that lodge in the bee’s throats threatened bee colonies. They severely weaken bees and reduce their immune responses. Hives infested with mites are very susceptible to bacterial and viral diseases. The poor Italians had little experience with mites in Italy or on this continent, and many died out.
Beekeepers have had to adjust their management practices to address the mite advantage. I describe one of those methods here.
Unlike their Italian relatives, Russian bees have faced mites for years in Russian. Over time, these bees have developed behavior to reduce mite infestation. Those that didn’t died. The Russians that survived groom frequently and have other traits that deter large scale mite infestations.
Russians have another trait that attracted me. The race originated in frosty Russia and can tolerate cold weather. While they might not don the tradition Russian fur hat, they have another way of coping with chilly, flowerless weather. They reduce their hive size. An Italian hive will have many bees overwintering, but a Russian will have much less. Then, when the flowers bloom and nectar flows, Russian bees multiply rapidly.
For the beekeeper, this trait is a mixed blessing. They will have enough bees to collect excess honey, but if the beekeeper does not increase the hive space quickly, the bees could feel overcrowded and swarm. I can control for this easily by frequently checking on the bees and expanding the hive when necessary.
I can’t wait to start.
My bees will come from a local breeder, Bjorn Apiaries.
I ordered supplies through Walter T. Kelly Co.
The How-To-Do-It Book of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor
The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden by Kim Flottum
I love the detailed pictures and clear writing in this book.
Classic Beekeeping Texts for the Confirmed Beek
ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia of Beekeeping by Roger Morse
While not exactly ideal bedtime reading (unless you are an insomniac in need of repose) I found this book great for troubleshooting problems in the hive.
The Hive and the Honey Bee Edited by Dadant & Sons
This large book is a collection of papers giving the reader a scientific introduction the honey bee and the hive.
For the Honey-Lover and Curious By-Stander
A Book of Bees and How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell
I loved this sweet book retelling one year in a beekeeper’s life.
Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey and Humankind by Stephan Buchmann