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Bees of the apiary and beekeeping

A mix of different breed bees settled in the apiary in 2021: 3 colonies of mixed black bees (apis mellifera mellifera mix), 4 buckfast colonies and 2 carnica. All of them overwintered well, including the late swarm of mixed breed that overwintered on 3 frames literally. A perfect example why locally adapted and not imported bees matter. Some of my thoughts below in that regard:

Mixed breed bees (local queens) – bees which contain a mix of genes from bees local to the apiary. Today, it's pretty much a mix of everything- native black bees, caucasian (a relict from Soviet times mass import), carnica, buckfast and Italian. They tend to be of unpredictable character sometimes. However, thats mainly due to the fact that no, or little selection is performed with them. And in general, the decision whether bees are good or bad is typically done from beekeepers perspective and not from the bee. This view is changing with the new trends in sustainable natural beekeeping. One of the mixed breed colonies was inherited from an old local beekeeper, another was a wild swarm caught in Labanoras forest with a bait hive, and the third was a late small swarm that settled itself into an empty hive in the apiary.

Left: a bait hive being set up in tha Labanoras forest. Center: hives, housing 2 local colonies. Right: labanoras forest from the air.

Today more and more attention is put to local adaptation of the bees, which tend to to provide many superior features-such as good overwintering, disease and pest resistance, survival in feral environment. Sustainable beekeeping is a broad topic but one can find interesting ideas by prof. Thomas D. Seeley [1.]. My version of sustainable beekeeping excercised in Pelkių bitės apiary is described below.

Sustainable ecological beekeeping at Pelkių bitės apiary:

  1. Increased distance between the hives. In nature, wild bee colony density is typically 1 colony per square kilometer. Of course, that's a tough target for the apiary but the main trend is clear-reduction of the beehive density within the apiary. Space them as wide apart as possible (and still practical). In typical apiaries, densely kept colonies are prone to disease spread, migration, queen loss, robbing. Widely spaced apart hives reduce disease spread, robbing, migration and, quite importantly, queen loss, which typically happens when a newly mated queen returns to the wrong hive and is killed instantly.

Left picture of the apiary densely packed in 2021. Center and right, 2022 version.

  1. Locally adapted bees and self sustainable local queen rearing - locally adapted bees are bees that are native to the local emvironment and are adapted to the climate, forage environment and diseases. Such bees overwinter well and adapt the colony development cycle according to the local climate and phenological characteristics. In Lithuania, we have 4 distinct seasons with cold winters, therefore overwintering is a major challenge for the bees. Unsurprisingly, local native bee union that is setting up the native apis mellifera mellifera bee reservation discovered that when it comes to overwintering in feral environments -i.e. hollow trees in the wild forests, the black bees are superior vs. Other lineages such as carniolan or italian. Empirically, i observed how a handful of mixed black bees overwintered on three frames in my apiary and now are building up beautiful brood patterns. Evolution and local adaptation at its best. This encourages me to focus on local breeding rather than imported bee stock from Italy, Germany, Denmark etc. Local bees also adapt to forage environment-for instance forest honeydew is a strong flow here due to the wild nature and abundant forests. Typically, honeydew containing honey is seen as a bad option for winter food for the bees as it may cause nausema and diareah. That's actually the case with only one BUT... that is honeydew honey is not tolerated by... the imported bees. Local bees do just fine!

  2. Environment, rich in botanical origin for nectar and pollen forage. Balanced healthy nutrition is not only important for us but also honeybees. What it means for the bees is the availability of rich botanical origin of nectar and pollen environment. Such as...right! Wild meadows and forest! Such environment proved access to hundreds of different types of flowers. Different flowers and plants provide pollen and nectar rich different amino acids, flavonoid and phenol variety, which, in turn, is responsible for the bioactivity of the honey. For comparison, rapeseed honey is monofloral and it bioactivity is just a fraction bigger vs sugar syrup. The reason why rapeseed honey is so abundant and popular is clearly seen from the airplane-because humans have nearly eliminated wild meadows and pastures rich in biodiversity in exchange for monocultures such as rape. So if you are into eating canned meat everyday forever-you'll be good with rapeseed honey. On other ocasions, you'd be better off with wildflower honey. Although these days it becomes more and more difficult to find. Of course, you can find it here!

  3. Not cutting away the drone comb-allow drones live freely- drones are the carriers of the genetic material and thus vital when it comes to locally adapted queen rearing. Cutting away drone comb is one of the ays to fight varroa mite infestation, however comes at a cost of reducing the local drone population. This year i am leaving all drone brood in tact.

  4. No synthetic chemicals and no or minimal organic chemicals for treating the bees against mites - synthetic chemical are no go in this apiary. The only treqtments used were based on thymol and oxalic acid. This year i am testing on the spot queen rearing as both a method of locally adapted queen rearing as well as a method of brood cycle interruption, which mimics natural swarming phenomena. Mites reproduce in brood. No brood-no mites. No chemicals. How it will go-we will see.

[1] Thomas D. Seeley, "The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild", 376 p., Princeton University Press, (2017).

Locally adapted bees enjoy the autumn sunlight.

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