You and Me and All the Bees

It’s Easter Sunday and things are calming down here at the ranch. For one thing, it is actually sunny! With real sun! Mother Nature has finally taken a break from dumping snow all over us and is now free to focus on cultivating a bumper crop of mud for our dog to play in. The upstairs bathroom is complete now, too, and the swamp behind the passenger seat of my car has been drained and the leak (hopefully) fixed.

The next major item on our agenda is the acquisition of the honey bees, which, I have to admit, is intimidating to me. And I don’t just mean handling bees for the first time. I am not sure how much familiarity you may personally have with the approximately gazillion varieties, subsets, and hybrids of honey bees in existence, but I’m pretty well-read on the subject right about now. I have learned so much and stumbled onto such a trove of fascinating, and sometimes downright odd information (such as an archaic and cheerily oblivious comparison of variations between bee races to variations between human races) that if there is one thing I am confident in, it is that there are a gazillion kinds of honey bees.

After poring through so much material, I thought it might be helpful to myself and perhaps others to summarize what I have learned about several of the varieties of honey bee that are most prevalent here in the North of America. The traits I’m focusing on are the ones most critical for my family’s purposes. Before I start, I want to point out that there is that there is just SO much contradictory information out there! This is true of many things you could research on the interwebs, but on the bee topic, the “facts” appear to be especially subjective. In my summary, blatantly contradictory findings will be accompanied by a {mildly colorful expletive}. Also, beekeepers (or beeks as they often refer to themselves) have their favorites–this is true of both hive types and bee varieties–and, like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry¬†fans, they will argue forever about which is best.

I’m not going to get too much into what type of bee is the most gentle. Let’s just say it’s a horse race. Aside from the German, Africanized, and possibly Buckfast, they all sound like pretty agreeable little critters.

Let’s start with the honorable mention, the Carniolan–or if you’re like me and have no idea which syllable gets the emphasis, you can just call them Carnies. These are almost the perfect bee for us. Almost. They are generally agreed to be extremely docile. They overwinter well and are thrifty with their honey, making them good for the mid-Atlantic climate, and their combs have pretty, white caps, which is nice if you like comb honey, and I most definitely do. Ever since I had a glistening chunk of comb honey as part of a transcendent charcuterie platter a couple of months ago I have been dreaming about it. Carnies are also either marvelous or dismal comb builders {cheese and sprinkles!}. But it doesn’t matter because there is one major problem: they swarm like a flash mob…multiple times a season and, according to one local beek I know, sometimes multiple times a WEEK. I can just see the zoning citation now……next!!

Buckfast,¬†besides sounding like a kind of Hobbit, is either a race of bee or a hybrid, depending on who you ask {cor blimey!}. It is also either very gentle and great for beginners or moderately aggressive and not a beginner’s bee {what the actual @&#%?}. Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey traveled far and wide to find bees with desirable characteristics and shuffled them around for quite a while until he got these little guys. The best I can conclude is that they are lovely as long as you re-queen them every year. As this is not something I feel we can commit to, Buckfast is probably not going to work out for us.

Caucasian bees seem to have their charms. They are super docile, like tiny, winged golden retrievers. They have extra long tongues (also like golden retrievers) which gives them an edge, with all the nectar sucking. They make lots of propolis (bee glue). Some people don’t like this because it makes the hive harder to work, but the silver lining is that you can harvest propolis for various cool purposes. The deal breaker is that they are also rather disease prone, and some of these bee diseases give me the heebie jeebies. Ergo, I would like to try to avoid sick bees as much as possible.

Now we’re getting down to the true contenders…I decided to add illustrations for these two.

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Italian bees are currently the most popular honey bee in North America. They are the iconic honey bee, bright yellow with black stripes. These little golden cuties, true to the stereotype of the Italian mother, raise a large family and feed them well–too well sometimes, since they can eat themselves out of house and home over the winter. They are reasonably gentle. They are prone to robbing and drifting, sometimes wandering into the wrong hive, but swarming does not seem to be as much of an issue. Italians are good honey producers and make a nice comb, with white caps like those of the Carnies. The only question is, can they hack a Pennsylvania winter?

Which brings us to our final candidate, the Russian honeybee. Swarthier and more frugal than the Italian, these bees are supposedly well adapted to make it through a long winter, which, as I sat last weekend looking out the kitchen window at the driving, late March snow, seemed like a very desirable quality. They also have some resistance to mites, including the dreaded Varroa. They are somewhat lacking in soft skills, however. Michael Bush of Bush Farms observes on his website that Russians can be “defensive, but in odd ways.” Evidently they are prone to head-butting. Though he goes on to say that this does not necessarily mean that they sting any more than other bees. So maybe a colony that can make it through the winter is worth a little head-butting. These rugged, Putin-esque bees are definitely still in the running.

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Not to be anti-climactic now that we’ve been through all of this comparing and contrasting, but there is also still a big chance that we’ll just try to catch a swarm of the local bee du jour. It’s a lot cheaper, and besides, we are past prime bee-ordering season and many bee suppliers are sold out of the more popular varieties. So for the upcoming week, I am going to make it my goal to assemble a swarm kit. This way, if the golden opportunity arises for Dana and I to voluntarily retrieve a writhing, buzzing mass of bees dangling from a tree branch in God-knows-where, PA…we will be(e) prepared.

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