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Choosing chemical-free bees

Bee WeaverWhen we got started with beekeeping in 2009, learning the basics of conventional beekeeping was all I could handle.  So I did what my neighbors did and bought random package bees, figuring they were all about the same.

Then we started losing hives and I realized that what I was aiming for --- natural, chemical-free beekeeping --- isn't really possible with run-of-the-mill honeybees.  We're starting from ground zero again, which gives me the opportunity to use a better bee.

Survivor bees are one intriguing option.  BeeWeaver has been raising honeybees entirely without chemicals for ten years.  They actually started weaning their bees off the drugs years before, but couldn't quit cold turkey or they would have gone bankrupt.  The price tag is steep --- $130 plus shipping for a package --- but the real reason I haven't clicked the "buy" button yet is because the company is located in Texas.  I'm just not sure whether southern bees would do well in our climate.

VSH bees are the U.S. government's solution to chemical-free varroa mite control.  The Baton Rouge Bee Lab discovered a strain of honeybee in which the workers industriously remove any brood infected with varroa mites.  The Lab has sold VSH Chemical free beesqueens to commercial apiaries --- see this map for locations of facilities selling VSH (and other types of resistant bees.)  I'm intrigued by this option (especially since there are local sources), but I'm not sure whether being resistant to varroa mites is enough.  Will these VSH bees die of colony collapse disorder or any of the dozen other bee plagues?

Russian bees came from an earlier government program that imported mite-resistant bees from Russia.  The main problem with Russian bees appears when they hybridize with other bees and the offspring turn mean.  I'm not sure whether I'm willing to focus my efforts entirely on Russian bees, and I don't think it's a good idea to have a Russian hive and a different type of honeybee in the same area.

Feral bees would be the very best option since honeybees that have survived without beekeepers for generations are likely to continue to do so in our apiaries.  However, it's tough to find feral bees at the moment, and when you do find them, you can't be sure they're not a first year swarm from some neighbor's chemical-treated hive.

I'd be very curious to hear anyone's thoughts on these bee options.  At the moment, I'm tempted to order one package of survivor bees from BeeWeaver and one package of VSH bees from somewhere more local.  Thoughts?

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Great information. I had no idea that there was a chemical free apiary near me. Thanks for putting this out.
Comment by Fritz Mon Jan 23 09:21:59 2012
All of the apiaries on the map aren't chemical-free, but they all at least have a nod in that direction. Hopefully you can find a good choice locally! If you have living hives, it's even easier --- a lot of the good places only sell queens and nucs (the latter for pickup only) instead of packages.
Comment by anna Mon Jan 23 11:29:37 2012

While your comment "when you do find them, you can't be sure they're not a first year swarm from some neighbor's chemical-treated hive" is true, on the flip side there's a decent chance it's a non-first-year swarm from a lazy neighbor's non-chemical-treated hive --- since the lazy neighbor's hives are both more likely to swarm and more likely to be non-chemical treated.

My first hive was from a swarm; and while they don't seem as friendly/calm as the ones in the picture you put on this article's page, they do seem to have decent survival skills.

Comment by rmxz Mon Jan 23 18:36:12 2012

If I find a swarm, I'm definitely nabbing it, no matter where it comes from. :-) I'm just not so sure I'm likely to find one.

I wouldn't mind a little defensiveness either if the bees had good survival traits!

Comment by anna Tue Jan 24 08:19:11 2012

I live in Mississippi and it seems that many people in this area have had some success with Russians. However, like you mentioned, you have to really stay on top of your hives to ensure that a new non-Russian queen doesn't replace your old Russian queen. I'll be starting my first hive this year with Russians obtained from a local beekeeper so hopefully they will do well for me.

On an unrelated note, I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

Comment by George Sat Jan 28 10:32:09 2012

Interesting to hear firsthand about Russians --- I'd read about them, but never talked to anyone who used them. I hope you'll check back and let us know how your experiment goes!

Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

Comment by anna Sat Jan 28 11:58:28 2012

I am in central Minnesota and have great sucess with the five packages of bees I got from beeweaver last year. They can be a little testy at time and will let you know when they don't want company. I also have a separate yard of five Russian colonies that are gentle , hardy and good honey production. I am keeping them isolated for the reason you mentioned about cross breeding.

Comment by mike Tue Jan 31 23:25:23 2012
Mike --- Great to hear a firsthand report about beeweaver bees! Their site does say that they probably include some Africanized honeybee genetics and that some of the hives were mean at first. It sounds like in the last few years, they've had the leeway to breed for gentler bees. I wonder when you got your bees?
Comment by anna Wed Feb 1 08:50:38 2012