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A history of honeybee varieties in America

German black beeThe final thread I enjoyed untangling from Horn's Bees in America was the history about which types of honeybees were being raised in American apiaries over the last few centuries.  Horn reported that the first bees to be brought to what would later become the United States were German black bees.  These scrappy bees quickly swarmed into the wild and spread west ahead of the settlers, although they needed help crossing the Great Plains.

German black bees continued to be the primary variety until the same Langstroth who developed the Langstroth hive was involved in introducing Italian bees to America.  Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, many different kinds of bees were imported from abroad, but Italians soon became the most popular due to their gentleness.  However, a federal law in 1922 outlawed further imports of foreign bees in an effort to block out the Isle of Wight disease.

For a while, Americans seemed perfectly happy with what they had, but the pests and diseases that kept cropping up in apiaries made some beekeepers itch to import new varieties again.  Horn reports that, while American bees have largely been bred to similar genetics for the most efficient honey production, Europe has a more artisanal approach to honeybees, with lots of different varieties available for different purposes.  Especially after tracheal and varroa mites arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, many American beekeepers realized that finding more resistant bees was a better approach than dousing hives in chemicals, and in 2004, the federal law against importing honeybees was overturned.

Donning a bee suit to mow near a hiveIn the meantime, nature was filling in the gap.  Africanized honeybees (popularly known as "killer bees") are survivors, able to find nectar in a dearth, to build up to swarm size quickly, and to defend the hive aggressively.  The bees were introduced on purpose in Brazil in the 1950s, but they quickly swarmed north, resulting in many terrified efforts by the U.S. government to prevent the influx of so-called killer bees.  By the time the variety reached the Texas border, though, we realized the problem wasn't as severe as we'd imagined, although policies continue to isolate bees along border counties to slow their spread.  When Horn's book was published, Africanized honeybees were only found in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands since cold and humidity seem to be preventing the bees from spreading further north and east.

As long-time readers will know, we've had a lot of trouble keeping honeybees alive without chemicals, and the only hive that has so far gone the distance is a colony of bees bred in Texas using some Africanized genetics.  Yes, our part-killer bees are a little meaner than any of the other colonies we've had, but they also seem able to live without any medications at all (so far).  While that's a very small sample size, it makes me wonder if we should be terrified of Africanized bees, or if we should embrace the spread of honeybees that seem able to handle modern problems with aplomb.  I'd be curious to hear from others who have dabbled in chemical-free beekeeping --- do you think a slightly meaner hive is worth the tradeoff for simpler beekeeping?

This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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We've been keeping chemical free bees now for 4 years. While I can't swear that the original colonies we purchased were truly chemical free, what we have now has been chemical free for at least the past three winters. Sadly, though, what we have now is only a single hive. We've gone into the last two winters with two hives, and come out of each of those winters with only our one hive. I'm not yet certain what the problem has been: I haven't ruled out the fact that the second hive has been a late split, or the fact that the hive that has died has always been the one in the redwood hive box. Neither can I rule out the possibility that my home brew version of a top bar hive is not conducive to bee survival in the Virginia winters. (We're not too far away from you, up in Northern Virginia.) But I can say that it is possible: we have a hive that has been chemical free now for three winters.
Comment by Dan Fri Mar 14 23:25:13 2014

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