The slogan "Buy Local" is increasingly being used in northern beekeeping circles, and not necessarily to promote honey. A growing number of our beekeepers, hobby and commercial alike, are questioning the status quo. You see, every year commercial beekeepers in southern states, chiefly Texas, Georgia and Florida, fill orders that we northerners place with them, and the orders are for thousands of packages of bees and queens. A package typically weighs 3 pounds and contains 10,000 to 12,000 honeybees: worker bees, some drones and a mated queen. A package of bees is the most common way beekeepers establish a new colony. Since requeening established colonies is a common practice, those that don't raise their own queens must purchase them from those that do. Thus, many commercial beekeepers to the South are not just in the business of selling honey or pollination services; they are also in the business of selling bees, lots of bees.
Why should we be purchasing our honeybees from northern beekeepers? From an economic standpoint, a good chunk of change leaves our local economies every year and travels south. From a biological standpoint, long-distance travel and less-than-ideal traveling conditions cause stress and, in extreme cases, can lead to significant mortality. Southern packages tend to have higher queen failure and supersedure rates during the colony's first year. (Supersedure occurs when the worker bees deem the queen to be weak or failing and replace her with a new queen.) With the arrival of the Africanized honeybee to this country (to date it has been detected in 12 states), beekeepers, southern and northern alike, are wondering what effect this could have on European honeybee genetics and, ultimately, the commercial package bee industry. Could packages act as a vehicle and disseminate AHB genes across the country? We don't know. Nevertheless, a growing number of people are worried. The most important reason, according to Mike Palmer, a well-respected commercial beekeeper and queen breeder in St. Albans, Vt., is southern-bred honeybees are just not designed for our climate. "Raising your own stocks here in the north is mostly about wintering," he said. So, what we should ultimately be striving for are hardy lines that can survive long, cold winters and get by during cool, rainy springs. It is not simply a matter of leaving enough honey on the hive to get them through winter. They must be acclimatized to northern latitudes or else all is for naught. As Palmer puts it, "If they can't winter, there's no sense selecting for anything."
Scattered throughout the northern tier of this country, there are beekeepers like Palmer that have been managing lines of honeybees for years and encouraging the rest of us to wake up and smell the coffee. In Palmer's words, "When 60 percent of the packages crash before winter, and they're full of small hive beetle and whatever, it's about time northern beekeepers woke up." So, what options do we, the noncommercial and/or inexperienced beekeepers, have? The most obvious is to purchase queens or nucleus colonies (mini-hives commonly referred to as nucs) from our northern counterparts who know what they're doing. Local producers of packages, nucs and queens can be found through your state's version of the market bulletin, local beekeeping clubs and the Internet. However, as more and more of us wake up, and as new beekeepers, who have been trained to think locally, come on board, demand can quickly outstrip supply. If you are not on your game and thinking ahead, the phrase, "Sorry, we don't have any more available," will fall on your sorry ears.
The answer, for those who want to become more self-sufficient, is learning how to rear queens and form nucs. Beekeeping associations strive to keep their members informed and educated. You would be hard-pressed to find a state that does not offer at least one workshop on queen rearing and nuc formation within its borders this summer. Last year, the Vermont Beekeepers Association raised the bar when it applied for, and received, a grant to institute a two-year queen-rearing program for its members. Nine folks signed up and learned how to rear queens, and this year they are learning how to manage breeder queens and mating nucs. If you have an interest and are motivated to learn, you too can learn the art of queen rearing. "While I've been at this a long time, it's something any beekeeper with enough bee resources can do," writes the ever-encouraging Palmer. There's good reason to listen to what this man has to say. Heading into the winter of 2010-11, he had 750 hives. By spring, his hives had suffered a mortality rate of less than 10 percent (the national average has been hovering around 30 percent), and several of his customers wrote to tell him that only those hives built on his queens survived the winter.
Developing northern lines of honeybees is possible, and it's not new. Historically, northern beekeepers led this country in queen production. At the end of the 19th century, the top five queen-producing states were Ohio, New York, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. By the 1920s, production had shifted south, and in 1978 those top five slots were held by Alabama, Texas, California, Georgia and Louisiana. Queen rearing in the north country is making a comeback, however, as more and more beekeepers apply the basic principles of animal husbandry to their honeybee colonies. As Palmer so succinctly puts it, "It's really just good basic agriculture."
The author, a regular contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.