WELLFLEET — The bee yard bakes in the midday sun, redolent of honey and the faint spice of propolis. Workers dart from hive entrances, returning heavy with pollen and nectar to feed burgeoning masses of larvae. We remove the hive cover and set a small open wooden cage atop the frames. A freshly hatched queen crawls out, cautious. Nurse bees sniff her curiously before she disappears down between the frames, seeking out the pheromone of the old queen. The two will battle; the strongest survives.
The practice of selectively raising honey bees on the Outer Cape has a small but growing following. Until recently, local beekeepers would typically order bees from apiaries in Georgia and other Southern states, receive a package in the spring, and set up their hives. Come winter, many of these colonies would weaken and die, so beekeepers were forced to buy another round of bees from Georgia the following spring.
John Portnoy started keeping bees in Wellfleet in the late 1980s. I’m his son, and I grew up watching the process and learning a little. Following him into his apiary again over the past few months, I discovered that the practice of local beekeeping is evolving. After years of frustration with winter losses, John is trying to raise bees adapted to colder climates.
Most commercially available bees trace their lineage to Italy, so a first step was to special-order queens from Russian and Eastern European stock. With these queens as a first generation, John began learning bee husbandry, aiming to create a strain adapted to our local environment. His efforts paid off, and now he supplies local beekeepers with their queens.
So how do you create a local queen? “You have to have a strong colony to begin with,” John says. In early summer, when the hive is flourishing, overcrowded bees prepare to swarm — which is a good thing in the sense that it’s an indicator the colony has grown and thrived. The swarm will divide one colony into two. But before that can happen, the bees must raise a new queen, several, in fact, of whom only one will succeed.
When rearing queens, you have to mimic those swarm conditions, timing the work with a strong nectar flow and filling a “queen nursery” with pollen stores and plenty of nectar. Adding frames of brood will attract nurse bees, needed to tend to the new queens-to-be. But the old queen must be excluded. She would kill the growing queens if she found them in her colony.
Once the nursery is prepared, John selects larvae from the strongest genetic line and gingerly places them into tiny plastic cups. The cups face downwards in the hive, mimicking the orientation of natural swarm cells, constructions of comb where a healthy colony would rear its new queen candidates. This type of cell tells nurse bees to keep feeding the larvae royal jelly — the special food that sets off the epigenetic process by which a generic female larva grows into a queen.
After four or five days, the queen cells are capped by the nurse bees, and the larvae begin their metamorphosis. Before they hatch, the new queens must be separated, for the first to emerge will systematically eliminate the other queens in the chamber. Once hatched, the new queens can then be introduced into other hives.
The advantages of locally adapted honey bees are well documented, most extensively in Europe, where honey bees are native, with many local subspecies. A series of studies by an international nonprofit group called Prevention of Honey Bee Colony Losses (COLOSS), launched throughout Europe in 2009, found that locally bred bees survived 15 percent longer than bees brought in from other areas.
Truro beekeeper Daniel Smith, who raises queens in Truro, points out that raising a local population is bound to mean healthier bees. “By using local queens, you are not introducing your colonies and those of other beekeepers to diseases from other areas,” he explained.
The most common reason for colony loss — both in Europe and here in the U.S. — is the Varroa mite, which is a vector for many diseases. The mites themselves are about the size of a pinhead, which, sized up to human proportions, would be like having a parasite the size of a frisbee attached to your stomach. The COLOSS studies indicate that local bees are better adapted to survive infestation and to fight off divergent virus strains.
There are myriad other advantages to selectively raising bees. A fundamental one is this: in general, Southern queens lay eggs year-round, whereas Northern bees stop raising brood in the cold months, conserving their resources to survive the winter as a smaller cluster.
Raising a local strain of bees also offers the opportunity to select for traits like gentleness and honey yield. In addition, locally bred queens are primed for better reproductive success than those shipped from the South, whose sexual development is interrupted by the whole business of shipping.
Introducing a locally raised and unmated queen to a hive does carry a risk. When she flies out to mate, there’s always a chance she could get snapped up by a bird or other predator and not return to the hive. Another issue beekeepers worry about while their young queens are off in the wild is who she ends up mating with. If other beekeepers nearby are sticking to the old formula and raising bees imported from the South, she might mate with one of their drones. If so, the new colony’s brood will have only half of the DNA of a locally adapted bee.
The more beekeepers use locally adapted queens, the stronger the local gene pool will be. Wellfleet beekeeper Barbara Brennessel had trouble with Southern-bred queens in her first two years of beekeeping, but “a locally raised queen came through and in our third year we had a good honey harvest, and several after that.”
Selectively raising local bees is not as simple as mail-ordering a package of bees and dumping them in a box. But with the failure rate of imported queens estimated at close to 50 percent, there is increasing motivation to try something different. If the local beekeeping community commits to learning, and demand for local queens grows, the Outer Cape could be on its way to a hardier local honey bee.