Honeybee Biology

Crossing Bees Instead of Peas

When is a honey bee like a Greyhound? When it’s a Buckfast. Get it? I didn’t think so. It’s a dumb joke anyway. Besides, a Buckfast is more like a Labradoodle – both are recognized hybrids or crossbreeds. A Carniolan or an Italian honey bee is more like a Greyhound. Purebred. See, there are strains of bees just like there are breeds of dogs. It all comes down to genetics, as Gregor Mendel discovered in the 1800s.

The sunrise surrounds my hives these mornings with an artist’s palette of reds and yellows, nestled as they are in the recent snow. All is quiet. They’re in for the winter and I’m keeping my fingers crossed they make it through. I’m also already planning ahead. If beekeepers are adding to their apiaries in the spring, this is the time of year when they need to order bees. Which strain to bring into my apiary is one of my top considerations. The choice can be tricky because there are so many factors. Italians or Carniolans? Or a strain I haven’t tried yet? Maybe this year I’ll order a variety, giving me a bee yard of United Nations out back.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia and Africa, and were first brought to North America by colonists at Jamestown in 1622. Over the years, humans have tweaked these first honey bees to enhance certain characteristics. Today there are several strains of bees, akin to breeds of dogs. All dogs are of the genus and species Canis familiaris, originating from the first wolf-like canid in Europe more than 30,000 years ago. Poodles, labs, and greyhounds are breeds, their genes tweaked for specific purposes such as hunting, retrieving or racing. All honey bees are Apis mellifera. The most popular strains of honeybees are Italians, Carniolans, and Russians, as well as a few hybrids of these strains.
Which is best? Well, that depends. Here’s a brief summary of the different strains.

Italian honey bees

The most popular strain of honey bee in the U.S. is the golden colored Italian Apis mellifera ligustica. The Italian strain’s popularity is mostly due to its relatively gentle nature and high productivity, two characteristics that beekeepers appreciate. They begin brood rearing early and keep it up all season long, supplying the hive with a constant flow of new workers. Unfortunately, they are somewhat susceptible to the numerous pests that plague honey bees. They also have a tendency to rob weaker colonies of their honey stores, classifying them as kleptoparasites, stealing from the rich but not-so-hardy. It sounds like a mean-spirited word, but I suppose they were just doing what nature does best, practicing survival of the fittest.

The German strain, Apis mellifera mellifera, never really got a foothold in America, despite the fact that it was here first. It tends to be more aggressive and is prone to American foulbrood, the most serious of all the bee diseases. Beekeepers that encounter American foulbrood must burn all their equipment and start from scratch. It’s enough to sway many beekeepers from this susceptible strain.

Carniolan honey bees

The darker colored Carniolan strain, Apis mellifera carnica, was developed in the area of the Carniolan Alps. This makes them hardy stock, able to survive cold winters and fickle weather patterns; the latter seems to be more common these days. They are the gentlest of all the honey bees, a plus. But with a tendency to build up brood quickly, they also swarm more frequently, a definite minus.

Russian honey bees are growing in popularity in the U.S. because they’re resistant to the varroa mite, the pest that all beekeepers live with but would rather live without. They seem to also have the measured spring buildup of Italians that keeps swarming to a minimum. Considering that I’ve witnessed two swarms in two years, these Russians might make good additions to my apiary. And coming from eastern Russia, they must be winter hardy.

The gray-black Apis mellifera caucasia strain of honey bee originated between the Black and Caspian Seas and was first brought to North America in 1882. They are gentle and they are homebodies, meaning they don’t tend to swarm, two very desirable traits. But if honey production is high on a beekeeper’s list of priorities, Caucasians are usually passed over. They’re also heavy producers of propolis, that sticky resin that protects them from nest invaders and chemicals seeping in between cracks in their home. Beekeepers don’t like this so much but the bees certainly have good reason to produce it.

Can there be more than 2 strains in a honey bee colony? The equivalent of a Labradoodle? Sure, if you consider how queens mate and whose genes they bring home. When you buy a package of honey bees, the queen comes already mated to your order specifications. This first season of workers and drones will be what you expect. But, if the queen is replaced naturally by the workers the next season, the new queen will populate your colony with workers of all nationalities, depending on the neighboring colonies and the strain of the drones at the drone congregating areas where she flies to mate. Those DCA’s are like any all-American meeting place for people looking to find their mate – a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities.

There are also intentionally crossed strains, developed by humans. The most well-known are the Africanized honey bee and the Buckfast bee.

Africanized honey bee

The Africanized honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, is the strain of honey bee NOT to get. It’s also known as the killer bee and it lives up to its name. Only experienced beekeepers in Brazil seem to be able to manage these hot headed little ladies.

Buckfast honey bee

The Buckfast bees are certainly tempting, though. They’re crosses not unlike my dog Wally who is a blend of black lab, pit bull terrier, maybe boxer and probably something else. These bees are a mix of the Italian and German strains, intentionally crossed by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom back in 1914. He’s the Gregor Mendel of beekeeping, crossing bees instead of peas. Over time, other strains were added to the cross, highlighting their desirable characteristics and diminishing the less desirable. These gentle bees have a high resistance to disease, overwinter well, and are great honey producers.

I play with possibilities in my brain. I could stick with Italians and I like Carniolans. Russians are hardier . . . but those Buckfast bees look more and more enticing as I research them, though they’re not as easy to find this side of the Atlantic. With the exception of the Africanized bees, I really could see a United Nations of honey bees in my backyard some year. Italians for their productivity, Russians for their resistance to varroa mites, Caucasians for their stay-at-home attitude, Carniolans for their gentle nature. And Buckfast bees.

A melting pot, because isn’t America one anyway?


Finding Gold in a Dirty Pot

In my previous post, my basement was edging toward organized. We all cycle through rounds of order and messiness – bees, beekeeping chores, and even humans just living life. Where we arrive is, at best, better than where we began. The beekeeper in me is ready to unravel one neat area; this time to turn a pile of messy leftovers from a season of beekeeping into a golden disc of wax.

Alchemy was chemistry before the advent of the Periodic Table in the 1800s. Back in Medieval times, it was believed that the four basic properties of the universe – earth, fire, water and air – when combined in certain ratios could transform everyday compounds into gold, booze, even life itself.

Today we know otherwise. Mix ordinary ingredients like eggs, flour, chocolate, and oil together, each with their own unique chemical and physical properties, add energy in the form of heat, and soon the scent of brownies wafts from your oven. Bite into a warm square and chemistry starts all over again, as enzymes break down the molecules, enhancing the flavor. Craving chocolate yet?

Rendering a bucket of raw wax scraped from hive equipment is basically chemistry too, though the end result is magical enough to earn it the honorary title of alchemy. Raw beeswax starts out as a conglomeration of products from the hive: wax, pollen, honey, propolis, bee wings and other appendages. Toss it all in a pot, add heat, and soon a golden liquid rises to the top. Cooling, it becomes a disc of pure gold. To me, this process is magic. But just a bit more complicated than waving a magic wand.

Beekeeping books and the internet offer advice on rendering beeswax to its purest state. Feel free to peruse and combine methods. That’s what I did and this is what works for me. First, a trip to the Goodwill Store is in order. Among the plates and teacups, waffle irons and bric-a-brac (the very things you may have contributed from your messy basement), you need to find a misfit pot as the perfect melting vessel. It needs to be big enough (6-8 quarts), have enough dents to lend it some character, and a handle that a potholdered hand can fit through. A bargain at $2. Christen this one the “dirty pot.” Its insides will forever be smeared with the first renderings of beeswax – brown and lumpy with just a hint of gold shining through. Don’t ever think of cleaning it. You will also need a larger pan that can serve as a double boiler to this one.

Set up shop in your kitchen and watch the alchemy unfold. Cover counters and the floor with newspaper to make cleanup easier as beeswax is notoriously tenacious. Set your dirty pot inside your double boiler. A note of caution: Wax is flammable! Always use this double boiler method when melting wax. Keep the heat at a simmer, never stray too far, and practice patience. When silver bubbles rise along the outside edges of your dirty pot, the temperature is about right. Carefully lower a few fistfuls of raw honeycomb into its belly. The heat makes this fluffy mixture collapse on itself and you can easily add more before adding an equal volume of water. It will begin to look like an agitated mud puddle. With the gentle heat and an occasional stir, bonds soften their molecular grip, and liquid gold rises to the surface as pure molten beeswax. The chunks of detritus slowly descend into the water. Turn off the heat and walk away. Practice patience.

Within an hour or so, the sheen of melted wax is transformed to a soft translucent amber disc floating above the debris-laden water. This is only step one. Wax is less dense than water but so is much of the debris. This is caught on the underside of the disc as it hardens. Scrape off as much as you can without digging into the wax. Discard the dirty water, preferably outside – it’s good stuff to decomposers out there. Set the disc back into the pot for a second melting, this time without water. Keep a closer eye on it now, poking at the bees and debris to free them from the wax, which takes on a brown chunky appearance again, though not as murky as the first rendering. Once melted, pour it through a filter. Mine is not high-tech – I use a simple foil bread pan with a paper towel or tripled cheesecloth clothes-pinned to the top to make a sling for the melted wax. The wax drips through, leaving the brown debris behind on the paper towel. It sounds like a sweet summer rain on the skylights. Again, practice patience. But if you’re like me, you can’t help but lift the edge of the paper towel to reveal pure gold, not a bug leg in sight. When it has hardened it easily pops out of the pan.

Order from chaos. Transformation from messiness. Bees, basements and byproducts of the hive. Back in the height of the season, honeybees gathered bits and pieces of the natural world and transformed them into perfect honeycomb.  Used wisely to raise brood and store food, it takes on a characteristic messiness of its own. A cleaned basement can reveal treasures forgotten and spiders banished. A pile of hive scraps is transformed to a golden disc of pure beeswax. All these things take energy, but all are worth the effort. It’s not really alchemy, not always chemistry, but there’s always a hint of magic in what you might find.

Pure beeswax

Encouraging Gravity

“Gravity and entropy are powerful processes in the natural world.” This quoted from Rick Hanson, PhD, noted neuroscientist. Gravity draws things together, toward a center. This is my hive. Entropy scatters them in disarray, an ever-widening circle into the universe. This is my basement at the end of beekeeping season. Honeybees have a system from which they never deviate under normal conditions. Frames in the brood chambers show brood nestled in the middle, surrounded by pollen and nectar, tended by nurse bees, the diligent young workers that haven’t graduated to foragers yet. Honey supers, starting as empty frames, are drawn out with perfect hexagonal comb, then filled with nectar which is converted to honey, all step by step.

As orderly as the hexagonals in a frame are, the corner of the basement where I store my beekeeping supplies is the polar opposite. My system of organization and procedures fails me regularly by this time of year. Most basements are pretty messy already – a reservoir for little-used items and boxes of old clothes and bric-a-brac for a future tag sale, maybe a freezer, some tools. For many, it’s the someday room, as in someday I’ll get around to this. It waits patiently. To really mess up a basement, get a hobby, like beekeeping. Other hobbies would do of course, woodworking perhaps. That’s my husband’s corner of the basement. Yet even the wood scraps are propped neatly against the cement wall according to type and height. My corner is unabashedly, beautifully messy. It reflects all the busy-ness of an active season. There is equipment to be cleaned; boxes and frames to be scraped of propolis and extra beeswax; and plastic take-out containers overflowing with wax in its raw form. Scattered white pine needles – great natural fuel for the smoker – spill from a bucket and lend an outdoorsy smell that blends with the heavenly scent of beeswax. A spare pair of socks peeks out from under a shelf.

It’s time to invoke the gods of gravity and bring it all together into some semblance of order.

Here’s the check list (and a good one to keep for reference, fellow beekeepers).

• Scrape excess propolis and beeswax from frames and boxes. Separate the two if you have enough take-out containers; the wax you render will be that much cleaner.
• Scrub boxes, inner and outer covers, and bottom boards with a mild bleach solution to kill any mold. Set these aside with plenty of space between them so they dry completely.
• Store any drone frames in the freezer for the season; the bees will clean them off next season. Ignore all protestations from other family members that squishy larvae are next to the burger patties and ice cream.
• Wash your hive tool, bee suit, veil and gloves; hang to dry.
• Store clean sugar-water jars upside down and cap any unfilled honey jars. This keeps resident spiders out. We have our share. I’m ok with this because they in turn keep other bugs in check.
• Establish a bin for miscellaneous stuff: extra entrance reducers, the flat pieces of wood used to prop sugar-water jars in the hive, frame-building supplies, etc.
• Rotate any frames pulled from the hive through the freezer at 48-hour intervals to kill any wax moth larvae. Again, ignore protests. Store these on their long ends, like so many books on a shelf.
• Make sure all your honey extracting equipment is meticulously cleaned and covered.
• Wax rendering equipment is inherently messy, but do your best here to at least consolidate it on one shelf.

Order from chaos. Entropy to gravity, so to speak.

I love stepping back after this cleanup process to survey my corner, as neat and tidy as beekeeping equipment allows. And then, I proceed to unravel just a corner of it as I pull out all the wax rendering equipment. This is the amazing part – watching the transformation from a pile of raw wax complete with bee legs, antennae, and odd bits of organic matter to pure wax. It’s alchemy at its best, beeswax defying gravity to rise out of the muck as a golden disc.

From this:

Raw beeswax

To this:

Pure beeswax

I’ll take you through the process next time.