Due to the profound interests in backyard beekeeping, join beginner apiarian Lorraine Glowczak, as she shares her discoveries on her new adventure of keeping honeybees in this monthly column. Enjoy.
The recent popularity in sustainability and homesteading has giving rise to backyard beekeeping. Although I live on a small acre of land, I’m not a homesteader, but beekeeping has been buzzing in and out of my consciousness for many years. So, recently I took the plunge and purchased my first package of bees. They are due to arrive in a week.
Since announcing my new endeavor, the extreme fascination with honeybees has caught me by surprise and kept me in long conversations with total strangers. The countless questions and comments informs me just how little I know. To assist in my learning, I am reading as much as possible, have taken a class from a Master Beekeeper, joined the Cumberland County Beekeeping Association, and have a mentor or two by my side. But I suspect it will be the bees themselves that will impart the most knowledge.
My most recent discovery happened in January through a conversation I had with a scientist from the USDA office in South Portland.
“Where are your honeybees from?” He laughed when I told him Georgia. What he really wanted to know was if the bees were German, Russian or Italian. It took me a bit to assimilate that there are races of honeybees and are immigrants to the U.S. Although there over 4,000 varieties of bees native to North America, honeybees are not one them.
The first documented case of honey bees arriving to the Americas was in 1622. Although research does not indicate what country of origin these particular bees were from, beekeeping history tells of the earliest honey bees known to live in America was the German bee, also known to as the black bee. They were a nasty and grumpy sort that made beekeeping management very difficult. Additionally, the German bee was riddled with diseases and survival rates were low making honey production inadequate.
Two hundred years after the German bee made it’s landing in the New World, the Italian bee arrived giving the apiarian some relief. The Italian bee is a very laid back insect and has a canny knack for foraging. They are also excellent pollen collectors. Also, the Queen, whose bright yellow “coat” makes her easier to identify, helps the apiarian keep track of her whereabouts. As a result, the Italians quickly became a favorite among beekeepers of the day and remain a popular choice three centuries later, especially among the novice apiarian like me. (Yes, my bees are Italian.)
Although still a favorite among 75 percent of the beekeepers, there are a few draw backs with the Italian bee. First, they are susceptible to varroa mites – making survival rates low, sometimes with only a 50 percent survival rate per hive after a long cold winter. Their inclination to overbreed can contribute to lower honey production and in the event of limited nectar supply, the Italian bee will not hesitate stealing honey from another hive (which can lead to increased mite infestation and a cranky fellow beekeeper.)
Which brings us to the Russian bee. They have been exposed to mites much longer than the Italian. The long time exposure has created a natural resistance against the mite and stems the need for the use of chemicals to eliminate the pests. Their resistance to disease and their ability to survive winter months is a preference among some beekeepers. The Russian, however, is known to be a bit more aggressive which keeps the Italian a beekeeper’s favorite.
There are other variety of honeybees that aparians also include in their beekeeping business to include the Carniolan, Caucasian, and the Buckfast bees. If you wish to learn more about these bees, below are a few websites for your perusal. Or, you can join me and other beekeepers at the Cumberland County Honeybee Association at http://mainebeekeepers.org/cumberland-county-beekeepers/