Bringing the Girls Home – or: Which Bee For Me?

It’s hard to describe the level of nerves and excitement that you feel waiting to pick up your first box of honeybees. On the one hand, it’s an event that you think about from the moment you decide to “do it” to the day they arrive, but on the other hand, every day that passes is one closer to actually placing them into the hive you’ve built. During that period, you face numerous questions: Is the hive built well enough? Is the placement okay? Do I have all the right gear? What the heck was I thinking?

Basically normal stuff.

In my case, I had signed up for the nucleus colony from our educational guru at BANV. Originally my thought was to go with the two packages of bees we’d be allowed to buy from the money we’d paid for the class, but during a conversation before class one night, I changed my mind. Part of that was because I was intimidated to install a new package and the other part was because the breed was one more suited to me: New World Carniolans.

We could write several posts on the various types of bees, but suffice to say, there are many and each has it’s pros and cons. So far, my only exposure has been to Italians and Carniolans and each keeper tends to pick their first bee for a certain quality. I can’t say which is better or worse, per se, because the individual keeper has to choose the right bee for both their goals (i.e. honey production, education, hobby, etc) as well as their personality. You’d be surprised how much your personality will affect your choice in bee.

So which one is right for me, you ask?

I have no idea, but I can give you some basics on the more common/popular breeds to help narrow the process down.

1) Italians (Apis mellifera lingustica):

No writing about beekeing is complete without a tip of the hat to Italians. Italians have long been considered the most common among “hobby” beekeepers because of their gentle nature and subdued swarming tendancy. A lot of keepers I know, P included, have kept Italians and have been pleased as punch with them. Pros include decent honey production, very gentle when being worked by the keeper. They also tend to use less propolis than other varieties.

But the Bees From the Boot also have their downside, mostly, their large population over winter. This can be a bad thing for keepers in cooler climates since more bees means either a larger store of honey (i.e. less for you to extract for eating, selling, covering yourself in, etc) or the need to feed them more often in winter. But they are hard workers and are pretty dependable, so new keepers cannot go wrong if they purchase these little ladies.

Visuals:

Typically Yellow with black or dark-brown stripes.

Pros:
Gentle-ish (no bee is fully gentle, but these are less defensive).
Good honey production.
Kind of mite resistant
Minimal use of propolis
Can hook you up with a gondola ride through their cousin back in Venice.

Cons:
Large winter colony. This means more honey needed during the cold months and, possibly, less for you.

Tendancy to choose their wine over decent stuff from California.

2) Carniolans (Apis mellifera carnica):

Okay, I am biased in this category since my grils are Carnies, but I’ll do my best to be objective. Carnies originally came from the Carniolan Alps in Europe. Since the nectar flow is shorter in that zone (approx. 6 weeks), this breed learned to have a population explosion at the onset of Spring, forage ealier in the morning and later into the evening, and gather as much as possible during the “short” window that they could. And, becuase of all this, they learned how to survive with a smaller winter population. All this is good news for newer hobbyists since that means you feed less and they need fewer pounds of honey to survive. As an added bonus, they use a very small amount of propolis which makes everyone (bees and keepers) happy in the end.

Some more pros are that they are also excruciatingly gentle (I can attest to this personally), are fairly quiet on the comb, and seem to be more concerned about their honey gathering than whether a novice beekeeper is working the hive or not. Because of all this, the popularity of Carnies has increased over the years and many new keepers are drifting away from Italians in favor of these bees.

On a final pro-note, Carniolans tend to be very hygenic when it comes to mites, diseases, and general hive cleanliness. Essentially, they’re more inclined to clean out a cell infected with a pest (varroa mites, chaulkbood, etc) than “standard” bees. That’s not to say others won’t do they same, but some breeds are more aggressive about self-maintaining than others.

But the Carnies are not without faults. The primary one in their case is the tendancy to swarm. If you’re not careful, their population explosion in the Spring may mean they run out of space sonner than you think and to them, it means it’s time to swarm. Before you know it, the Carnies may hatch a new queen and then half your hive takes off to find space for their own. If honey production is your goal, or if you’re someone that procrastinates a whole lot, these may not be the bees for you.

Visual:

Typically Gray-ish with black or dark-brown stripes.

Pros:
Very, very gentle.
Hard workers (the entrance will look like the skies over JFK).
Minimal use of propolis.
Very self-hygenic/mite tolerant.
Smaller winter population (i.e. more honey for you!).

Cons:
Rapid population grown means greater chance to swarm.
Have to repeatedly tell people that you “keep Carnies” at your place. Because of that, some people may look at you funny.

Variant (s):

New World Carniolans – Credited to Susan Cobey, a geneticists out of the University of California who bred the line, these are rapidly becoming the “variant” of choice for Carnies. They combine a lot of the positives of the breed. My girls are a mixed breed of these and Minnesota Hygenic.

3) Russians

Da, Commrades, the Ruskies have made their way to the shores of the US and many beekeepers are seeing red. Who says we won the Cold War?!

Seriously. the Russians are a breed that, like the Carnies, have become increasingly popular with keepers (backyard and commercial).

Visual:
Pros:
Cons:
Significant amount of consonats.
Tendancy to name every queen “Natasha.”

4) Buckfast

5) German

Actung baby! Germans (aka the Black Bee) were the very first bees brought over to the New World for beekeeping and they are historically some of the worst. Ill-tempered and nasty, German bees are nearly defunct as an Americain bee for either the hobbyist or commercial keeper and you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot dedicated to them. Even Webster’s Dictionary only has a single sentence written about them and that does little to make a person actually want to keep Germans. Still, they are worth nothing since they started the whole fad years ago.

Visual:

Typically black.

Pros:
Great engineering of their cars.

Cons:
World domination.

5) Africainized

The Africainized Honey Bee (AHB) was actually an accident that has turned out to be a North Americain pandemic and that, more than anything, has been the cause for concern among beekeepers. Created during some breeding experiements in South America during the XXX, scientists were seeking to create a productive bee that was tolerant and domiant while also being agressive against mites and disease. The result was the current AHB strain and unfortunately, several AHB queens escaped into the wild. Several years later, swarms of wild AHB were found all over the southern continent and in the years since, have moved as far north as Georgia and as far West as California. There have been cases of AHB reported as far north as Maine, however to date those have been wild, migrant swarms that have not been able to survive the harsh winters. The latest information seems to list that so far they have not been able to survive any farther north that the Carolinas, but given their frighteningly quick ability to adapt, who knows what may happen down the road.

What makes AHB so unattractive for most hobbyists is that they have dominate genes. That means if a smooth-talking AHB Drone (male) hooks up with a sweet, passive-natured European queen, all of the eggs she lays will take on the AHB gene of being uber-defensive. Given no time at all, the hobbyist beekeeper can suddenly find him or herself with a hive of AHB and dealing with some exciting personalities.

The AHB is also known as the Killer Bee, however it should be noted that this title is a complete misnomer. I’ll say it again, the Africainized Honey Bee is NOT a killer bee! Despite what you may read, hear, or watch in terrible B-movies, the AHB is not aggressive and will not kill a person out of spite. What they are is extremely defensive which means they will sting you if riled and will chase you farther than their European counterpart (evey bee listed above). And while thier tendancy is to be painfully defensive, AHB are also one of the top honey producers in the world and many third-world countries use them as a source of income. But AHB can be hard to work and are nowhere near as tolerant as Europeans, the combination of which have tagged them for early termination in the US. In fact, many states have a law that any swarm caught in wild must be destroyed on the off chance it could be AHB.

Visual:

XXXX. Plus they have this swagger because their genes are so dominant.

Pros:
Massive honey production. Many third world nations use them for a huge source of income.
They can be managed and kept. It takes a little skill, but the end result can be some amazing hard workers.

Cons:
Negative publicity thanks to movies, stereotypes, etc.
Tend to defend in greater numbers and for farther if “angered”.
Tend to go after dark objectes (i.e. a beekeeper’s veil).
Dominant genes. One male AHB drone knocking up your European queen can ruin your hive of Italians, Carnies, etc cause they take over.
Overall cocky attitude because of their dominant gene.

Diving into the Deep End

For anyone that has ever thought of facing their worst nightmare, may I suggest two things:

1) Have a mentor of some sort.

2) Make sure you actually want to go through with it.

I was lucky to have half of that going for me. Thanks to the wonderful folks at BANV, I was assigned a fantastic mentor who is about the best you can ask for. P, for short, has been keeping bees for over 30 years and lives about 10 minutes from my apiary (aka bee yard). She’s smart, funny, and can zip through a “brass tacks” inspection in record time. (Brass Tacks, by the way, refers to going all the way to the bottom of something, in this case the hive, where the “brass tacks” would be located. Don’t worry, we’ll scrabble a glossary together at some point).

The main reason why P is such a great mentor, however, is her willingness to allow me to baby-step along the way. Soon after being assigned to her, she asked if I wanted to help her inspect the three dead-out hives which, as we discovered, had died due to a combination of varroa mites (evil incarnate) and starvation. Apparently a lot of keepers lost hives this past winter to starvation because during the sudden cold snaps, the bees refused to move off the comb where the brood (babies) were to get more food. It’s like a catch-22 where if they’d moved, the brood would have died, yet not going into the upper stories of the hive where the honey was meant death. It was quite a site to see thousands of dead bees on the bottom of a hive and hundreds of corpses more head-first in a honey cell especially since it meant they had chosen to starve rather than leave the larvae to freeze.

As morose as inspecting a dead-out hive may sound, it’s actually a perfect first step for a near-phobia-wanna-be-beekeeper. After the initial uneasiness of approaching and opening the hive, I became fascinated with how it was put together and all the inner workings that made it tick. Since the inhabitants were dead, there was little threat and, sick as it sounds, that put me at ease. P let me practice pulling out frames (individual wooden slats with beeswax foundations that the bees use for babies, honey, pollen storage, etc) and practice cleaning beeswax and propolis (the bee’s version of caulk) off the wooden ware.

By the time we got to her live hive, I was feeling a little better about things. We did a brass tacks inspection, weighed it (it was on an industrial sized scale), and boogied out. I may have smoked them a few dozen times too many, but I was pretty proud of myself for not screaming. P then asked if I wanted to help her install the new bees whenever they arrived. Without thinking, I said yes.

A few weeks later, she invited me over to help her install two new packages of Italians. At that point, I was enjoying the beginner beekeeping course, but still unsure about whether or not I was going to pull the trigger on becoming a keeper myself. Since I was waffling, it made sense to assist her. If there was ever a test to see if it was something doable, this was it. Better to jump into the deep end and sink or swim than never jump at all.

I’ll say this now, The Girlfriend surprised the heck out of me when I told her what my plans were for that Saturday. Not only did she encourage such a hair-brained idea, but begged to come along and watch. It took several times of me asking, “Are you suuuuure?” before I realized she really was. And so it was on a bright, chilly March morning (my birthday, in fact) that The Girlfriend and I headed to P’s to play with her B’s.

(see previous post regarding puns)

When we arrived, P had a bunch of her spare hive parts around her garage which we were able to inspect and tinker with. Then P pulled out her spare gear and The Girlfriend asked to suit up as well. What’s great is that even though she only had a veil, she was fine with it. So there we were, P in her bee-Kevlar, me in a half-jacket, and the GF with only her “going out” outfit and a veil. Without missing a step we sauntered out into P’s apiary.

Packages of bees tend to come in wooden boxes nearly double the size of a shoebox. There are screens on either side, a large can of food (generally a sugar syrup mix), and a small, separate box with the queen and her attendants. In the middle of all this is approximately 11,000 buzzing, hungry bees.
Some people have packages mailed to their local post office, which I’m sure is a lot of fun for the postal clerks, but the majority pick them up from bee wranglers. These ladies and gents drive down to places like Georgia with large trailers and pick up hundreds of packages to bring back to beekeepers in their area. The sight, and sound, of a truck full of bees is pretty amazing.
There’s plenty of literature out there for how to install a package of bees, so I won’t bore you with the details. I do, however, highly encourage anyone interested to either help or, at the least, watch. You’d be surprised how easy it is and how gentle the bees really are.
You’ll also be surprised at how quickly your heart can beat, especially when your mentor tells you to bang the corner of the package of bees on the ground in order to “knock all the girls to one end.”
Me: “I’m sorry. What?”
P: “Bang the corner. It’ll knock them all to one end so you can shake them into the hive.”
Me: “You want me to slam a box of 11,000 bees, with stingers, on the ground and then shake them into the hive like I’m sifting sand?”
P: “Yup.”
Long story short, I did as directed. It was not only a whole lot of fun, but also a gigantic eye-opener to the personality of bees. One thing I learned is that once you spray them with sugar syrup, it’s a whole lot easier to shake them into the hive. And yes, shaking 11,000 bees into a hive was probably the best part.

What’s interesting is that it took us a lot less time than I thought and before we knew it, we were done and headed back to P’s garage. The GF had participated in a lot of the evolution, had taken some photos, and generally enjoyed an afternoon of laughing at me while I whimpered and cursed trying to get bees into the hive. P, for her part, had been great with her advice and guidance, always offering help but allowing me to slowly complete a task.

Below are a number of important lessons I learned which are worth noting:

1) Packages of bees are easy to install, but take longer to “grow” than a nucleus colony. Beginners may want to think about a nuc for their first hive(s) since it is essentially a mini-hive worth of bees and queen already hard at work. I wound up choosing a nuc and have had zero hiccups. And it was even easier than a package.

2) Packages tend to consist of a queen and 10,000-12,000 bees, many times from different hives. Bees are shaken into the box from hives and a queen box with attendants added. Because of that, sometimes the bees refuse to accept the queen since she doesn’t smell like “mom”. They may kill or roll her (kick her out), in which case you have to get a new one in asap. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with package bees, though, because most times they accept her, but the chance exists that they may not. Just keep it in mind.

3) Bees are the most gentle when you’re installing them. Since they don’t know the hive is home yet, they are less interested in defending it. That’s not to say they still won’t sting you if you crush one (like P did), but they are very passive and easy to handle. And, if you spray them with sugar syrup before shaking them, there will be less bees flying around you. Just don’t over do it.

4) Packaged bees tend to take “cleansing flights”. This is because they have been “holding it” for several days and really need to “go”. If it’s chilly, they will land, and subsequently defecate, on your nice, clean, bee suit.

5) Bee poop stains.

6) Bees are not aggressive nor do they want to sting anyone. Although they can sting another insect multiple times with no adverse affect, stinging a mammal is fatal. Because of this, honeybees will run from you in the wild and will normally only sting while defending the hive (i.e. during a major honey flow) or if you crush them. Be careful and watch where your hands are while handling them to avoid this.

7) Bees willingly die trying to protect their young. Ask almost anyone who lost hives this last winter and they’ll tell you about it. There is something awe-inspiring about an insect that is willing to starve to death in order to keep the babies warm.

8) Beekeepers are odd. They fall in love with bugs that carry weapons, swoon over and care for them like babies, and cry when they leave or die. They talk incessantly about their passion to anyone who will listen and worry constantly about their “girls”. Given the short period of time I’ve had with a hive of my own, I completely understand.

9) Girlfriends that support you even though you are one of those odd beekeeper types are worth their weight in gold.
10) Childhood phobias are both debilitating and 100% worth getting over.

In then end, I had a lot of fun, learned a ton about bees, and felt a lot better about tackling the backyard science of beekeeping.

It was one of the best birthday presents ever.

(Author left, GF right)

(Author about to pull the food can out of the package)

(The GF and Author with the package fully installed. Victory!)

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