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Winter Hardy Bees & Types of Bees

The most common questions we hear, especially in spring is, “what breed of bees do we sell?" The answer is rather simple at first: mutts - same as everyone else is selling in the US. Unless you live on an island many miles from any other form of land and/or you are really good at containing, artificially inseminating, controlling a queen and the drones around her, then your bees are going to be mutts. How do people sell bees and call them Italians, Russians, etc? Well, we think they don't know or care and most buyers don't know or care either.

So let’s look at this a bit closer. A new queen emerges from her queen cell about 16 days after she was laid. She then goes outside her hive and takes off, flying around trying to get the attention of the drones in the drone congregation areas. Once she has the attention of enough drones, mating will commence. She will repeat this process often, generally from a few days, up to a week or two. When this process is complete, she will not have to mate again and will lay 2,000-3,000 eggs a day for the rest of her life, which by the way can be anywhere from three to six years.

So, where are these drones she's mating with coming from? Other hives you may have? If you only have one hive, then none of the drones are from your hive because drones that are from the same hive as the queen cannot mate with each other. If you only have one hive, then that queen has to rely on mating with drones she finds after she leaves the hive. This could occur with your neighbors’ drones if they have hives within a few miles or could happen with wild bees that may in a barn or nearby tree.

In any case, a queen leaves the hive to mate; thereby making it impossible to keep her from mating with a drone of a different breed.

There is really only one case where someone selling bees would categorize them into specific breed; because the bees they are selling may have many of the same attributes as a specific breed (i.e. aggressiveness, honey production, swarm prone, etc.), so they just lump them into a category of breed traits and are not actually trying to sell them as a specific breed.

Even if you were able to spend a lot of money and find some actual purebred bees, as soon as you install your bees and the hive decides to re-queen for one reason or another, your purebred bee project is toast. Besides that, any hives you make from your purebred hive, unless you are going to do artificial insemination and have more than one of these purebred hives, won't be purebred either. Since drones from the same hive cannot reproduce with their own queen, a new queen would have to rely on sperm from another purebred drone from a different hive. It is a pretty high price to pay, for so called purebred bees, to have a very small chance that they will survive year after year and be worth the investment.

The question that immediately follows is “where are your bees from?” and “are they winter hardy?”

Let’s look at this in a little more depth. How long do bees live? Workers live about six weeks, drones live about six months or one season, and queens live anywhere between three and six years. So when someone asks us where our bees are from and if they are winter hardy, we assume they are asking because they would prefer bees from snowy or cold regions with the idea they are more likely to survive winter.

If we consider the average life span of bees, then we can conclude the queen would be the only bee that lives long enough to even see winter, right? The drones are killed off in the fall because they have served their purpose and the workers only live about six weeks. Even the winter worker bees that are smaller and live much longer than six weeks, still die off in the spring once the workload picks up and they are replaced by larger worker bees that can forage. So, when people want bees from a northern state or those that have "survived a winter", they are really requesting a queen bee from winter stock, not the actual nuc or package.

Is there a benefit to a queen that has survived a winter? Does she pass on a genetic phenotype to the rest of here offsrping that make a hive stronger over winter? Currently, we are unaware of any studies that a queen that has survived one or more winters is any more "winter hardy" than those that have never survived a winter before. Do the traits and genes of a queen transferred to their offspring, actually help a hive fair better in winter? There isn't definitive proof of this. There are just too many variables in bee genetics and outside influences to test or control this.

Not to say that there may not be something to it, but we generally wouldn't worry too much about the type of bee or whether or not they are from a winter climate, but we would worry more about the following traits: Do they have good hygiene? Are they mite resistant? Do they swarm often? Are they calm? In the end, you should go with what you feel is important to you and not the hype of the type of bee or whether it is from a northern climate.

Don't forget to give us your feedback on the matter. You can always comment, e-mails us or stop in and chat with us about this or any other topic. We love to talk about things, test them out and learn everything we can, whenever we can. Thanks for reading and we'll see you soon!

Rif Graham is a 3rd generation beekeeper, Master Beekeeper from the University of Montana, owner for Sun Valley Apiaries and Great Lakes Bee Supply and has been beekeeping since 2000.

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