The road to blogging is paved with good intentions? I've written and lost about a dozen posts before this one but they keep getting lost between the toes of my two-year-old son.
I recently had a great chat with Tim Malfroy over at Malfroy's Gold and he made me realize that I hadn't updated my site in quite a while, and that some of my blog posts needed editing, so here goes! I highly recommend you check out this post in particular.
Queen breeding: I've long since discarded the idea of requeening all my hives with uniform genetics, and have opted for the opposite approach. Genetic diversity is incredibly important for species survival, and scientific papers I've read since last winter have convinced me that I should aim for a wide variety of bees. I've started keeping track of families, much like Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries. Most of my queen are now local, though I do have one breeder queen from Dewar (a hygienic queen from the Sydney breeding program) in the mix. I still regularly add queens from cutouts. I'm not selling any of my queens, yet, but when and if I do, they will be very, very hybrid. I don't select for colour. Most are black and some are yellow, but they often end up looking a bit like tigers. Earlier this year I had thought seriously about learning how to do instrumental insemination. I'm no longer convinced this is a path worth taking. I'm also not going to aggressively breed for certain traits. I opt to split some hives over others, and I requeen occasionally when the situation warrants it, and this ends up selecting for the traits I want over time.
Varroa Sensitive Hygiene: I'm no longer keen to import varroa sensitive hygiene bees - drone semen or queens. The risk of importing viruses or mites though quarantine is just too high for my liking. VSH also looks to be a good deal more complicated than previously thought, and the bees ability to remove mites is only part of the picture. I'm still selecting for hygienic behaviour, but that's something I can do with local bees, gradually.
Treatment Free: I've now had several commercial beekeepers tell me, separately, that Australian honey has high levels of Oxytetracycline hydrochloride (an antibiotic). Officially treating for European Foulbrood, I'm guessing, but unofficially treating for American Foulbrood, since it works well for either. This was news to me. Then there are beekeepers who dip their hives in Copper Naphthalate to preserve the wood, and some use Phostoxin to keep vermin away from stored comb. Ignorance is bliss, apparently.
Hive Material: I'm more firmly on the side of wood > polystyrene from a purely ecological point of view. From a bottom line perspective, sure, EPS. But life if more than the bottom line for me. I like wooden hives, and I don't particularly like plastic. Working with wood has actually made me a better person and given me useful life skills, and I can't see how EPS would have done the same things for me (but then, I haven't chosen that path, so who knows).
Domestic or Wild? I think bees are both wild and domestic. Partially domesticated. The commercial lines of bees are very restricted, genetically, and are generally poorly adapted to dealing with all the various bee pests on their own (at least the way they are kept these days). They are bred for honey production. On the other hand, these lines require constant vigilance to remain "pure", and quickly revert to wild types if left of their own. A wild swarm of bees, or bees that are derived primarily from wild colonies, are wild, and the selective pressures placed on them have to do with survival in the wild, not honey production. Are my bees wild? I'd say yes. Honestly, I live in an urban area, and it is inevitable that when my bees swarm they get a mix of both line-bred (first generation) and wild lineages. I have at least three families in my apiary that started out as domesticated lines, though only one is still 100% domestic as it hasn't overwintered here yet. How one treats bees, especially the queen, has a big impact, I think, on whether you can consider them wild or not. Most of the beekeepers I know only requeen if they have a hive that's particularly nasty, but I don't know anyone (personally) who runs thousands of hives so I can't comment on their operations.
Apiary Density: I haven't really touched on this one in any other post yet, but Tim raised a good point (and a good article) that high density apiaries are not a good idea when it comes to disease prevention. I can't believe I didn't think of this a lot sooner. I practically did a Master's degree on this very topic, but with birds and mosquitoes. Right now I keep my hives relatively close to each other (to facilitate moving between hives) but there's no reason I can't spread them out a lot more. At three of my sites I could easily put 20-30m between hives. I aim to fix this over the next 12 months. I keep trying to add more site so I can spread my hives out, but it's not easy!
Why are they Dying? The plight of our bees is directly related to how we've been treating them. I think this is a result our agricultural paradigm, which is a result of the food choices we've made as a "cultural gestalt". I'm not interested in apportioning blame - it's not the beekeepers, or the farmers, or the chemists at pharmaceutical companies, or anyone else specifically. It's easy to point fingers. We're all wandering through life one day at a time and we put food on our tables, if we're lucky, and somehow we're where we are, and I don't think anyone is out to kill bees. For me it's not about whether they're domestic or wild, but that they have personality and beauty that is somehow "other", and I want that to persist in all its variety. I think about each of my hives as unique creatures, and one of the reasons I'm stopping at 100 hives for now is because I don't want to lose that feeling. Superficially bees are in trouble because of all the pests, diseases, pesticides, and moving around we've saddled them with, but on a deeper level I think they're in trouble because people are disconnected from the world around them and have trouble thinking beyond themselves. People are in more trouble than bees.
That's it for now. Time to go press some honey and put more boxes on hives. I'm also collecting a hive of bees from the Mt Gambier Airport tomorrow, which will be fun (Edit - it was a good colony, tons of honey, and a reddish-brown queen. Nice strait combs so I was able to save most of the brood).