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Winter Thoughts and Requeening

So, the season has wound down and the bees are put to bed. Although this might be considered a quiet time for the beekeeper, for me it is one of excitement and more work! The excitement centers around the coming Spring. That season is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most exciting time to be a beekeeper when you have hives that are overwintering. The work centers on taking inventory of the last season, planning for the coming season and repairing or building any equipment for increase or new experiments. Although the bees sleep over the Winter, I certainly don’t!

While reviewing my notes (at this point, this includes multiple notepads, a computer app and various scraps of paper in my ‘hive’ file!), I took at look at some of my early strategies and how I had planned to let them evolve as my hive count increased. The central theme of my early increase strategy (‘increase’ simply is beekeeper jargon for methods that he uses to increase the number of hives that he has, like splits, nuc’s, etc…) was simply survivability. I didn’t care if a hive produced only a little surplus honey or if they were a bit mean – I simply wanted the hives that could survive our Winters without any medication or feeding. My goal was to begin to flush my ‘bee genetic pool’ with the survivor traits.

But, starting this past year, I began to weed out some of the hives that didn’t meet certain other standards. By weed out, I simply made sure that I did not create any Nuc’s off of them or increase off of them. They still have the survivor traits, so I want the genetics (I let ’em live to send drones out for my queens).

But, one of the things that I noted this year were the blue queens that survived through the Summer and led hives into the Winter. Out of the 30 or so queens that I started the year with, 5 blue queens came into the year and 2 blue queens made it to this Winter. This is significant on many fronts. To begin with, many beekeepers requeen regularly. A blue queen was born in 2010 , a white queen in 2011 and a yellow this year (2012). Most beekeepers who follow the requeening strategy went into the Winter with yellow queens. Those who went into the Winter with white queens will probably requeen next year. The strategy is based on two theories. One, a young queen increases the survivability chance of a hive over the Winter. Two, a hive is less likely to swarm in the Spring with a young queen.

I do not dispute either of these facts, but I think that this strategy may be a major misstep for the beekeeper that is looking to build apiaries with bees that can survive the various issues of our time without medication. The fact that queens are unlikely to live longer than 3 years is a factor of our times, not of the honey bee. I have been told, back in the day, that queens lived 5 or 7 years. But now, with the confluence of diseases, pests and pesticides, they are unlikely to make it past the 3rd year. So, beekeepers manage to those stats, requeening and removing the chance of having a queen fail over the Winter and thus kill the hive.

But, what if you let those old queens have a go of it? Wouldn’t those old queens be carrying the best of the best, when it came to genetics? Wouldn’t these queens be the ones that you would love to raise your next queens off of? I think so. It is true that my management techniques do not allow a queen of that age to sit in the same hive through their entire life (all of my blue queens from this past Spring went into Nucs before August, allowing the primary hive to raise a new queen to continue on with), but they still have survived. These are the queens that I want to breed my next round of queens from. This is how my strategy has evolved.

Of course, the blue queens in my apiary may not make it through the Winter. Fortunately, I have enough hives that I can sacrifice a few in the pursuit of knowledge. But, I sure hope they make it. Ideally, one will come roaring out of Spring like a young queen and provide me with a bunch of new queens and Nuc’s.

Of course, Spring is a long ways off. Other ideas could cross my mind and change the whole plan. But, that’s why Winter is so fun, as a beekeeper!

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