Jan. 19, 2023

Considering New Honey Bee Queens (109)

Considering New Honey Bee Queens (109)

This is the time of year to think seriously about the queens you have in your colonies, or the queens you had in your colonies last season. If replacement is on the table, what should you be looking for? The simple and probably best answer is… a...

This is the time of year to think seriously about the queens you have in your colonies, or the queens you had in your colonies last season. If replacement is on the table, what should you be looking for? The simple and probably best answer is… a good queen.

But what makes a good queen? Population production, mite resistance, gentle, the right color, honey production? All have some level of importance and it depends more on the beekeeper than what the books say, mostly, usually. It’s even more important when bees put food on your table.

Kim and Jim talk about these attributes in queens, how to measure how much of each is present in the colonies. There’s a lot about queens in this session. Listen closely.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 109 – Considering New Honey Bee Queens


Kim Flottum: Jim, I was looking out at my bees the other day. I haven't gone out there for a while, but I got to thinking about what a couple of them were doing last year. Are you going to buy any queens this year to replace or to get rid of a bad one and put something else in there or replace one that isn't there anymore?

Jim: Well, yes, you caught me off guard here, Kim. Yes to those things. I don't know yet what I have alive or not alive. I'm certain I'll be buying some queens, maybe queens in packages, maybe some extra queens to make splits, but another year more queens. Yes, I'll be buying queens.

Kim Tew: Well, of course, that leads to the big question. What kind of queens are you going to buy?

Jim: Not really a big question for me, Kim, I buy the kind of queens that I can get here in Northeast Ohio. Unless you really make a commitment, you buy whatever queens are at the local providers. Yes, I'll be getting good queens, but I'm not sure I'll be getting the best queens.

Kim: Yes, that's always the bugaboo about getting queens, if you can get one, A, if you can get one and is it alive? B, and if you can get one and it's alive, what kind is it supposed to be?

Jim: All those things are right.

Kim: Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: This is Honey Bee Obscura. Jim and I started talking something about queens and queens are always something to talk about. There's always something.

Jim: It never ends.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Kim: If you're going to buy some queens this year, generally, where do you look to go get queens? Where do you start?

Jim: I heard years ago that when you see a deer standing by the road and you're in a car, be careful because that deer will turn around and step back out in front of you because they tend to stay on a safe path. They just were that way and the path was okay, so they'll go back the way they just came where there's a car there now. Where do I get my queens? I get them from a safe path. I get them where I got them last year more often than not. Here, near me, within 20 miles, are a few providers that have queens, and I'll be going up there to get them from them when they have them.

Kim: Well, that makes sense, I guess, you get what you can close to home. I tend to basically be the same, but I experiment a little bit. Sometimes I like to try different or what are supposed to be different kinds of bees, the different races that are out there. There's Italians, Carniolans, Russians, and there's the ones out of the USCA called pollinators, there's the ankle-biters and there's all kinds of names on queens. I'll come back to what you just said, I'm looking for a good queen. What defines good? The first week, the first month, and the first year, how do you define good?

Jim: This is cheesy to say it this way, Kim, but you'll know bad when you see it, and more often than not, I know bad and I rank the bad queen based on what the other colonies are doing. If I've got 10 colonies and 8 of them good brood, calm on the comb, buzzing, working, good flight activity, hygienic activity going on, everything looks leveled and correct. Then here's two colonies that are just laggards. They're not producing the same thing and the brood is spotty, then I would say those are bad queens.

Now, bad is in the details, isn't it, Kim? How bad is it? Is it bad enough that I'm going to pay $35 or $40 more and make that 40-mile round-trip drive to go get another queen? Is there enough season left to do all this or will I live with what I have designated as a bad queen? I guess I'm playing with the word bad, there's degrees of badness. You ask a simple question, how do you decide what a bad queen is?

Well, it's not that simple, but I would say, Kim, that when you look inside a colony and there's almost no brood, spotty brood, too many drones, no population buildup, too much pollen accumulation, too much honey surrounding the brood nest because the bees aren't using it, that colony needs to be reviewed. It's not going to be ready for winter, even though winter is months and months away, it ain't going to be ready. That's a bad queen.

Kim: That makes perfect sense. Let me ask you this, those other eight that you had out there, they're good compared to the two you just described, but are they good compared to one of those $50 queens that you see out there that are supposed to be specialized in some sort of behavior, either mite resistant or honey production or gentleness or whatever? When you compare your eight to those other ones out there, you really can't do that. You know what's bad, so you try and get them all to be the same.

Jim: While you were talking, I was thinking that I'm doing this now the other way. Well, what's a good queen? Well, you'll know it when you see it. It's the opposite of a bad queen. When I see those eight that are functioning nicely, I wonder, well, if I really had some of those turbocharged queens that are advertised and you read about and there's articles about them, what would this colony look like right now? Since I don't have those queens, then I envision this beautiful colony, Kim, working, flowing over with honey, docile bees, not stinging my neighbors, not swarming. I don't know if they would work that way.

Some of the best colonies I've ever had were defensive, stingy. It's really hard for me to say that if I had eight queens that are functioning nicely, I felt good with them, they look secure for the season, do I want to get a queen that's even better and have more of that? Probably I'm not going to do it, but having said that, a bit ago you said you like to experiment. I love doing that too. Through the years, I've tried as many queens as I could find looking for that magic bug that just makes this hive from heaven. Haven't found it yet, Kim, I'm still looking.

Kim: Yes, I think you're probably closer. One of the things to think about is, what are you doing with these bees? Why do you have them out in the back? You just have them to look at? It doesn't make much difference what they are, but if bees are putting food on your table because of the honey they're producing, or if bees are putting food on your table because you've got a colony of bees with a queen in it that's just making brood like mad and that you can use to make nucs to sell to put food on your table, or you got a colony out there that you could dump in a cup full of varroa mites and they'd be dead by lunch because the bees are going to take care of them, so you're not going to have varroa.

Those are some goals. When you say is it good enough? Well, maybe it's good enough, but are they putting food on your table? Are they, like you said, not harassing your neighbors, those sorts of things. I'm thinking, the books all say, the ones you and I wrote both say, "If you want honey production and gentle, think Italian." Am I right?

Jim: I think you're right, but I don't want to offend all the other people who produce the other races of bees. I tend to use Italians, but I would change in a heartbeat if a better deal came along. If my providers here locally suddenly said, "Well, we're not going to have Italians this year. We got all Carniolans," and suddenly had to be a Carniolan man, Kim. Each of those races has their own things, don't they? We should all strive to do the best we can, because I've got eight queens now that I think are okay, that doesn't mean that I would not mind if I had the opportunity of even being more okay and getting better queens in there.

Kim: One of the attributes I left out of that list besides honey production and lots of brood and bees was overwintering-

Jim: Oh, yes.

Kim: -and mite resistance. You take two steps back and all those attributes tend to be tied together. A colony that overwinters well probably is doing okay with mites, probably produced enough food that it can make it through the winter, probably produced enough bees to make it through the winter. Do we spend time, money, and energy singling out any one of those? I think it comes back to, you're just looking for a good queen that does enough of all of those things to make it worth your time to take care of her.

Jim: Caught me off guard. Give me just a minute to think about all these attributes, pick out the ones I think are important. We'll take a break to hear from our commercial sponsor.

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Jim: Kim, I think that I can't pick out a single attribute. There are some minor things, but the beekeeping management scheme overall and the way the queens relate is all one big package. I can have the finest queen in the world doing the best job she can do, but if I'm a marginal beekeeper, and I'm not controlling mites, and I'm allowing them to become crowded, and to build up swarming tendencies, then my failed attributes offset the positive attributes of the queen. If you're going to have a good queen, you need a good management system.

Overall, all those attributes you discussed should be included to make that a successful program. I said that very poorly. If you're going to have a good queen, you need to be a good manager, or otherwise the good queen characteristics are going to be lost.

Kim: Let's make an assumption here, well, assumptions, but let's say you're a pretty good management person. You want to produce bees to make nucs. You want a lot of bees to produce nucs because that's what puts money or puts food on your table, selling nucs to local beekeepers, 20, 30, 40 a year, whatever. Would you start by looking for a particular race of bees that might contribute to producing enough bees to sell nucs?

Jim: Well, Italians are known for producing brood pretty much right through the summer, and they'll also maintain high output right up late into winter. If I had to make a living growing bees, not producing honey, but making splits and selling packages and whatever, I would want probably those bees that just produce brood all the time. The Carniolans are more in tune with the seasonal times. If I had to raise bees, I'd probably go with Italian just because we've been doing that for what, 150, 200 years now?

Kim: Well, then there's the other thing. To raise bees, you've got to have a lot of bees in those boxes to take care of that brood, and to do that you've got to have hardly any mites. Here's the trade off in my book. Here's the trade off about having mites. I can spend a lot of time and energy taking care of mites in my box, but I'm putting a lot of stuff in that box that I just assumed not have my bees exposed to all the time. You know what I mean?

Jim: Right. I do know what you mean.

Kim: If I want bees, I've got to not have mites. I'm going to be looking for some kind of bee that probably isn't a race, right? It's probably not an Italian or a Caucasian or Carniolan. It's probably some sort of hybrid floating around out there.

Jim: Yes. Perfect wording, Kim, is floating around out there for right now. May not be here next year, wasn't here last year, but right now someone has made this particular type of bee that's got this attribute, is floating around, keep going, Kim.

Kim: The two I'm thinking about primarily are Russians and what they call the ankle-biters. The Russians tend not to have as many mites, and ankle-biters tend to get rid of them physically dislodging them from other bees. Have you had any experience with either of those?

Jim: I've got to tell you right up and the listeners, I don't have, I do not have experience with either one of those bees. I've talked, all I've done was, what many other beekeepers had done is heard innumerable talks and articles and talked to people who are producing them over at Purdue about how beekeepers are involved in the program, and they are completely devoted to it, but I don't yet have ready access to those queens.

Kim: I haven't either. That may be a way I go this year, is to look at those two. They're not a race, what do you call them? Those two groups of bees, those two--

Jim: Let's just call them a variety. I'm not sure if they're races or whatever, types.

Kim: I get two newspapers a day, and every day, both of them have something in there about climate change. It's getting warmer, or maybe it's getting hotter, or maybe it's getting wetter. It's changing. We're getting here in Ohio, our weather is supposed to be changing. If you're following that and looking down the road, can I expect a warmer summer or a colder summer? That's one thing, and whichever one it is, do I make a decision on what kind of bees to have based on what the weather's going to be come September and January next year? What do you think?

Jim: Oh, wow, Kim, you're better read than I am. I don't know that I have the background to base queen selection on something as monumental as climate change. I tend to be a firefighter, Kim, I tend to be worried about what's happening in my bee yard right now and next week, more than next year. I want to go back to where you've started. Yes, I would be intrigued to do whatever it takes to order in some of these queens and have them here, not for research, and not for an honest evaluation, but just to see if I can look at one or two of these queens and my 8 to 10 to 15 colonies and say, "Boy, that really stands out. Nice job here," or whatever, at least to have some contact with them.

Kim: Well, I think I'm going to look in that direction this year and look at my populations more. I'm going to assume less, and by that, I mean I'm just not going to treat when the calendar says it's time to treat and watch more of what the bees are doing to protect themselves, take care of themselves. If everything that we hear, the mite biters and the Russians and the other ones that are floating around out there, if what we hear we should have lots of bees next spring.

Jim: Lots of bees available to us or lots of bees in our hive? I can't tell exactly what you mean there.

Kim: Lots of bees in our hives. That's what I'm-

Jim: Okay. Got you. All right.

Kim: Then their contribution is putting food on your table two ways. One, you're spending less on the poison we have to put in a beehive, and two, we're going to be spending less because we're not buying as many, because the bees are surviving longer. There's another way that bees can put food on your table is by taking better care of themselves.

Jim: Ultimately, it's the bees who have to do it themselves anyway, I think, ultimately. Kim, to simplify this as we wind down, I want to tell you something that's just absolutely beginning beekeeper that I still am impressed by. I tend to use the orange queens for no other reason, Kim, than they're easier to see on the comb. When I get those nice, black Carniolan queens, now I know I'm stepping on someone's toes here and I'll try to get off those toes as soon as I can. I have a more difficult time seeing that dark queen against my dark combs.

For beginning beekeepers, the more brightly colored queens are just easier to see, they're easier to find while you're learning what you're doing, but the other thing that's of critical importance is that these bees are not crazy. I'm in an urban suburban neighborhood and I just can't have bees rushing out attacking people running a rototiller a couple of houses down for who knows what reason. My bees have to be gentle. I do tend to keep up with all the different varieties.

Kim, I'd like to say, in all my 50 years of beekeeping, there's always been remarkable numbers of queen choices. Now is no different. It's just classic. Do you want vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate? Ultimately, it's the beekeeper's decision, isn't it, which flavor they want and why they want it. Was the season supportive of that particular stock of bees this season? It's never an easy answer. It's always, I had strawberry last time, I think I'll try chocolate this time. It's as simple as that for most of us.

Kim: I think you're right, but I'm going to go with strawberry this year, I think. [laugh]

Jim: I would too. Good pollinated crop plant, but this time a year from now, later this season, Kim, we can talk about queens again. You can never talk about queens too much. They get all the credit and they get all the blame for everything that goes on inside the colony. The discussion, the goal, the pursuing queen perfection is never-ending.

Kim: Yes. There's one more bugaboo in this, if you'll pardon the pun, is that if the queens that you're getting are coming in the packages you're getting, and the packages are coming to the guy up the road 10 miles and he's the only one you can get them from, then pretty much you don't have a choice. You take what you can get and see how it works out.

Jim: That's it. More often than not, Kim, the queen you get is the queen you can get.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: Not necessarily the queen you wanted.

Kim: I just mentioned packages. I think we need to chat about those because packages are a whole different aspect of keeping bees than running bees in the hive. I think if not next time or the time after, we should take a look at packages installation, care [crosstalk]

Jim: I would enjoy that.

Kim: Okay.

Jim: It's that time of the year.

Kim: All right.

Jim: I enjoyed talking to you. We didn't solve anything, but I had a nice time talking about it. Yes, I'll try different queens just because you told me to.

Kim: [laughs] Okay. See you next time.

Jim: All right. Bye-bye.

[00:22:35] [END OF AUDIO]