Determining the Best Bee for Your Operation
HUDSON, North Carolina – Not all honeybees are the same. That’s why a 4th generation North Carolina beekeeper is helping regional beekeepers determine which bees are best for their operation.
Ryan Higgs, with Blue Ridge Apiaries in Hudson, NC, received a $9,959 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Producer Grant to evaluate honeybee stocks on foraging, pollination and colony health to help Southeastern beekeepers better understand how each strain resists disease and pest pressures, pollinates Southern horticultural crops, capitalizes on local honey flows, and adapts to the area climate.
“For example, what works for an operation focused on almond pollination in California may not work as well in a North Carolina-based operation capitalizing on the sourwood flow. Different bees have different uses,” said Higgs. “Beekeepers need to think about what they are wanting to achieve before deciding what stock to buy.”
The study was designed to help beekeepers ask the question, “What do I want to get out of my bees, and which bee strains will satisfy my objectives?”
Higgs chose three well-established honeybee stocks for the project: Minnesota Hygienic (Italian), New World Carniolan and Russian bees, and evaluated the performance and behavior of the colonies in terms of pollinating apples, pollinating blueberries, and their ability to forage the sourwood crop to produce honey.
Higgs found marked differences among the strains emphasizing the point that some bees may be better suited for certain purposes than others.
“The project found a direct correlation between colony size and pollination efficiency. The colonies that were the largest during a given bloom period were the colonies that were the most effective at capitalizing on those blooms,” said Higgs.
He said that the foraging efficiency is linked to how quickly a colony can build up before a particular crop requires pollination.
“We found that the Minnesota Hygienic strain builds up quickly in the spring, whereas the Russian bees are slower to build. The Minnesota Hygienic colonies were, on average, twice the size of the Russian colonies during the apple and blueberry bloom period,” said Higgs. “So growers needing to pollinate early season crops may find benefits in using Minnesota Hygienic bees to accomplish this task.”
By contrast, the Russian honeybee strains out-foraged the Minnesota Hygienic strains by the time the sourwood bloom occurred in the summer. “Beekeepers focusing on mid-to-late season honey flows such as sourwood, goldenrod and aster may benefit from using Russian stock,” said Higgs.
In addition to foraging, Higgs found behavioral differences among the bee strains with the New World Carniolan bees being the most docile and the Russians bees being the most temperamental, in general.
“Italian bees are the industry standard when it comes to beekeeping because of their early-season pollinating capabilities and their mild temperaments,” said Higgs. “The New World Carniolan strain is even more docile and very easy to work with. They would be well-suited for pollinating ‘U-Pick’ horticultural crops or for beekeeping in densely populated areas.”
Higgs said that the swarming behavior of Russian bees is one of several adaptations that the strain has developed to keep pest pressures in check.
“The Russian bees tend to swarm to mitigate varroa mite populations, one of the more important honeybee pests. The swarming breaks the brood cycle, which is what the mite needs to reproduce,” said Higgs. “The Russian bees, imported from the Primorksi region of Russia by USDA, have co-existed with varroa mites for well over a century and have adapted accordingly.”
Higgs said that a purebred Russian bee strain would exhibit remarkable varroa mite resistance.
“That, to me, is amazing,” he said, “and is an important aspect of sustainable beekeeping.”
There is no one bee that will rid the beekeeper of all concerns in the industry, but the outcomes of the SARE project are designed to provide beekeepers with greater insight to make more informed stock selection decisions.
“We wanted to express to beekeepers that there are choices available to them that they may not have even thought about before,” said Higgs.
To learn more about the SARE project, “Sustainable Honeybee Strains for Western North Carolina,” visit the national SARE projects database and search by project number FS10-244.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.