Preserving the genetic diversity of acclimated feral and survivor stock honeybees for future use as breeding stock in local, diversified production of queen bees.
In late April, we received materials to assemble 50 hive bodies and 500 frames with foundation. The original time line was to purchase half of the equipment in summer of 2015 and the second half in December 2015. However, by increasing the number of hive bodies with frames from 46 to 50 and placing a single order, we received a discounted price and free shipping. At this time, all hive bodies, frames, covers, and bottoms are assembled and painted. In spring of 2015, weather conditions produced a short swarm season with most swarms being produced at the same time making it difficult to respond to many calls. Fortunately, calls about feral bee colonies in buildings that were being demolished and from businesses, homes and churches where bees had to be removed allowed for the collection of the target number of colonies for the first year.
I attended several beekeeping meetings and have talked to beekeepers from across Kansas and from the surrounding states. I also continue to research articles and beekeeping periodicals. With this information, I have been able to make some significant improvements to this project. From talking to many beekeepers in Southern Kansas and Northern Oklahoma, I recognized what I believe to be some trends regarding feral bees. Many long-time beekeepers insisted that they were seeing changes in the feral bee populations over the past few years. They described some of the bees they find now as “swarmy and mean.” I have talked to multiple beekeepers that have tried to keep these bees and found another trend. The beekeepers first thought the bees were very productive honey producers, but later all came to the same conclusion: that the more aggressive bees were just better at robbing the beekeepers more docile colonies. While the size of the colonies, their swarms, and frequency of the swarming is most likely the product of natural selection from the pressure of varroa mites, at this time I can only hypothesize that the change in demeanor is the result of influences from Africanized bees. Regardless of the source of the aggressiveness, I have decided it would be a mistake to add Russian genetics which are known to be more defensive. The hybridization might also be counter-productive if it changes the swarming tendency which is providing an extra broodless period, which interrupts the varroa mites population cycle. As the eventual goal of this project is to collect feral and survivor stock genetics for producing acclimated breeding stock, adding more outside genes to the mix must also be considered. Therefore, instead of importing Russian bee genetics, I intend to purchase survivor stock from beekeepers who have used the collection of feral swarms as their primary source of bees. I will purchase eleven full-size survivor stock colonies for $300 each this March, 2016. I will then try to induce the swarming mechanism in those colonies and create three to four splits from each. I can then place the splits with their unmated virgin queens in strategic places to be fertilized by feral drones. In this way, I can collect genetics from feral colonies without relying on the weather and conditions necessary for those colonies to swarm. I have been given the locations of several feral colonies that I feel meet my requirements for having good potential.
Objective 1: Purchase and construction of hive bodies, frames, trap bases, covers, and stands
This objective has been completed. The small hive beetle screen bottom boards with inserts, which we tested, were not as effective as we hoped they would be. So I purchased 100 beetle blaster traps which could also be placed in the top of the hive. I took a high school Environmental Biology class on a field trip to a feral bee colony, which had been found by a land-owner who fell a tree while cutting firewood. We were too late to save the bees, which were gone, but we caught several small hive beetles. The students devised several experiments to study the beetles, and designed bottom-board traps. The class built the bottom-board traps for this project.
Objective 2: Purchase and collection of survivor stock
It is our intention to purchase survivor-stock within the next month, February-March 2016. This will enable us to relocate the hives and encourage an early build-up which can facilitate creating splits with unmated queens. Not only can this technique be used to capture feral genetics, but with permission of beekeepers, we could get the genetic sample of an entire apiary. Many beekeepers are continuously trying to maintain and make increases and simply do not want to sell hives, but are willing to cooperate otherwise. There is no single approach that will work for all situations. One beekeeper wants to learn to graft queens, and the next insists that you should never disturb the brood chamber.
Objective 3: Collection of feral swarms, feral colonies that must be removed, and genetics from feral colonies by mating virgin queens with feral drones
As stated in the summary, the first swarm season was not as productive as I had hoped. Because this objective is unpredictable, adjustments have been made for the spring 2016 swarm season. With the project’s wooden-ware completed, boxes can be left with volunteer beekeepers as traps and/or hives for swarms or splits they may catch or make.
The construction of the hive bodies, frames, and covers was an accomplishment thanks to Roger Werner and Jeanette Nichols. Design and construction of the screen bottom board traps was an accomplishment with the help from the 2015 Environmental Biology class at USD 285.
The 2015 swarm season could be considered an accomplishment no thanks to the cooperation from mother nature. Hopefully the 2016 season will be longer and less synchronized. Beekeeping in Kansas is an accomplishment. Beekeepers from other regions may not understand the desire for an acclimated survivor stock, but they most likely do not experience a yearly temperature difference of 135 degrees Fahrenheit and potential daily fluctuations of 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Yearly precipitation can range from 16 inches to 40 inches with years of drought followed by record rains. The numbers and species of nectar producing flowers can change from year to year. A diverse mixture of drone genetics could help a colony cope with different circumstances.
Yet another accomplishment was learning how to locate beekeepers besides the obvious ways, such as social media, beekeeping organizations, and databases such as Driftwatch.com, another great way is to attend auctions where beekeeping equipment has been advertised. Farmers markets have also been another way to connect with other beekeepers.
While the networking and communication with other beekeepers could be listed as an accomplishment, perhaps a milestone was the realization that there are no two beekeepers who do things the same. The most consistent trait is that they all respect bees and try to take care of their colonies to the best of their ability.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Multiple beekeepers who purchased Italian queens that were well-tempered reported that it only took two generations bred by local drones to produce an ill-tempered colony. It was not the intention at the beginning of this project, but it may prove significant that we collect a lot of acclimated genetic diversity before aggressive bees with poor temperament displace the more docile, feral and survivor stock bee lines. If bees kept by beekeepers are affected, then feral bees most likely are also. Though the official maps are showing Africanized bees are still roughly 100 miles south of our location, I believe we are seeing their effects. I can’t verify my suspicion, and was not able to get samples, but at least two life-long beekeepers in our area told me about encounters with bees they believe to be Africanized. Each said it was the first time in their life that they had to kill a colony of bees because of their disposition or bad-temperament. The winter climate is the reason Africanized bees are thought not to have proceeded this far north, but the distance and number of bees that pursued the beekeepers in those two cases suggests that they were Africanized. I would hypothesize that the climate may significantly limit in northward spread of Africanized bees, but as long as there are heated and air-conditioned buildings with walls to occupy and the occasional warm winter day to rob from nearby colonies, we will see northward movement. I question if the introduction of Africanized bees to the south provided a selective force for more aggressive, feral European strains which are now advancing north into areas with less aggressive bees, but beyond the reach of the actual Africanized bee.
Hopefully an outcome of this effort will be to provide a base of sufficient genetic diversity for a well-bred, locally-produced source of bees.