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Feb. 20, 2023

Russian Bee Program Update with Dan Conlon (S5, E36)

Russian Bee Program Update with Dan Conlon (S5, E36)

Returning today is Dan Conlon, vice president of the Russian Bee Breeders Association.  Dan updates us on how the Russian bee breeding program, the status of the association and how the Covid shutdowns impacted the USDA Baton Rouge Bee Lab, which...

Returning today is Dan Conlon, vice president of the Russian Bee Breeders Association.  Dan updates us on how the Russian bee breeding program, the status of the association and how the Covid shutdowns impacted the USDA Baton Rouge Bee Lab, which first introduced the Russians, and now provides breeding oversight to the group.

The basics of the Russian bees is that the good traits tend to be getting better and those traits not favored by beekeepers, are being reduced.

Russian bees build quickly in the spring as soon as the pollen starts. This is favorable for beekeepers using their bees for pollination services, but results in swarming issues, if the beekeeper does not keep on top of it.

Resistance to varroa is good and is getting better as breed is improved, especially compared to many available bee strains.

One trait often mentioned is the defensiveness, but this is more with hybrid Russian bees, but true Russians are even more docile now than even a few years ago.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Thank you for listening!

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

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S5, E36 – Russian Bee Program Update with Dan Conlon


Jeff: Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast presented by Bee Culture. Beekeeping Today Podcast is your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim: And I'm Kim Flottum.

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Jeff: Thank you, Sherry, and thanks to Bee Culture for continuing their presenting sponsorship to this podcast. Bee Culture's been the magazine for American beekeeping since 1873. A quick thanks to all of our sponsors whose support enables us to bring you this podcast each week without resorting to a fee-based subscription. We don't want that, and we know you don't either.

Make sure to check out all of our other content on our website. There, you can read up on all of our guests, read our blog on various aspects and observations about beekeeping, search for, download, and listen to over 200 past episodes, read episode transcripts, [chuckles] leave comments and feedback on each show, and check on podcast specials from our sponsors. You can find it all at Hey, Kim, it's another week down. How's your week going?

Kim: It's going good. It was 70 degrees two days ago. It's going to be 30 degrees today. You don't like the weather, wait a minute, and it'll change for you. The 70-degree day is fun because you get to open a hive. I haven't opened a hive in a long time. The 30-degree day, I'm just sitting here looking at it, dusting the snow off. I got to tell you, this lends me to who we're going to be talking to today, Dan Conlon.

Jeff: Yes.

Kim: He's the vice president of the Russian Bee Group. When you talk about cold weather, you're talking Russian weather, and when you're talking Macon honey, you're talking the Russians. They've been shut down for the last couple years because of COVID because the Baton Rouge Lab just pulled in their rains and they weren't really involved, but they're back up full speed now. I'm getting excited about this program. Not having to put chemicals in a beehive has got to be the best thing there is, and that's where they're headed.

Jeff: It sure is. It's an exciting program, and we've had guests on before in the past, including Tom Renderer and Steve Coy talking about the Russian Bee Program. It's always an exciting one, and we always receive questions from our listeners about the Russian bees. I'm looking forward to this one to find out what's going on and what's coming down the pipe.

Kim: I'm anxious to hear what they're headed for this year.

Jeff: All right. Well, let's get right to our discussion with Dan Conlon and Russian bees. First, a quick word from Hive Alive and Strong Microbials.

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Jeff: While you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, the regular newsletter full of interesting beekeeping facts and product updates. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. Sitting across the virtual Zoom table right now is our friend of the podcast, Dan Conlon. Dan, welcome back to the show.

Dan: Thank you, Jeff. It's good to be back.

Kim: It's good to see you again, Dan.

Dan: Good to see you too, Kim.

Jeff: Dan, for those listeners who haven't listened to our prior episodes with you, can you give us a little bit of your background, who you are, your little bit of history with bees, honeybees?

Dan: I've kept honey bees since I was 14, and since about the last 25 years, I've been a commercial beekeeper. We've run somewhere between 500 and 1,000 colonies depending on the year. I exclusively use Russian honey bees, and that's today's topic, and to update people hopefully and get them interested in the Russian bees. Sal Honey is warm colors, apiary, and produce some wax. We sell some candles, and we do everything beekeepers do including local pollination.

Jeff: Where are you located?

Dan: We're in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. We have an 80-acre farm there, and it's about honeybees.

Jeff: We were talking before we started recording. Right now, you're sitting on a beautiful beach somewhere in Florida.

Dan: I'm in Coco Beach, got to see a launch the other day with SpaceX, and we can see it off the balcony here. It's a nice spot. Life is good. What can I tell you?

Jeff: [laughs] Thanks a lot. You're right, the Russian bees are the reason why we invited you back because based on our other episodes where you've joined us, Russian bees are a hot topic.

Dan: They should be. We're showing better and better results with them, and they're starting to gain a little bit of notoriety as far as, at least in the northeast, surviving winters better than other bees seem to be doing. They're producing very well as far as honey production. We've survived the first since 2007. The organization has kept going and we're on an upswing, and I hope to update you on some of the things we're doing now.

Now, as for those who don't know anything about the Russian Program, it began with the Baton Rouge, ARS USDA Genetics Lab. The person who headed this whole thing originally was Tom Rinderer. Dr. Rinderer wanted to find bees that had some natural tolerance or resistance to varroa mites, and he wanted to really put many of the lab scientists on the idea that we could find genetics that would be inheritable and could be strengthened by breeding.

They brought the first queens in from Russia, which is where they found bees that had not been treated but probably were exposed to mites a hundred years before the US even knew about them. In '97, they brought in the first batch of queens. That was phase one. Then they imported some more in 2002, but they took about 362 breeding lines and they selected the 18 best ones. From there, that's where the program began.

There was a lot of testing, a lot of selection that went on, and they were also putting together a program of how to go about raising these queens and breeding. That was some of the things weren't really understood or known if they would work or not at that time. Since then, we've been tracking all the information ever since, and the lab keeps track of all this and they can measure the results as we go.

In 2007, phase two kicked in, and that's where the bee lab turned it over to the private sector, which is the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, which I'm a past president and current vice president. The genetics for these bees is not owned by any individual, but it's the property of the association. People who are members in good standing and following the breeding requirements will have access to the pure breeding lines to keep the program going and the selection process in place. That's the quick update on that.

We are now entering really the first, when we're in phase two, that was really to get the organization off the ground, get it organized, try to recruit some members that we could count on to do the work. That's been up and down. We have members who decide it's not something they want to do once they're in, it's more work than they may want to do, or they find it too restrictive for their businesses. There's a lot of reasons people drop out, and we've picked up a few more as we've gone along.

We're into what I call phase three. Phase three is really to increase membership and increase distribution of the bees and basically improve on the results that we've been getting. We know how to do this, and we understand a lot of the things we probably didn't 20 years ago, but it still means everybody's got to follow through and follow the procedures to keep the program intact. We've got to step up our ability to really bring in new members and make sure that they understand how to follow the program as well.

As it grows, it doesn't get easier, it gets bigger. We've picked up maybe it dozen new members who all seem to be very good. I'm pleased that a lot of them are younger members who hopefully are going to be around a while when the rest of us retire and don't do as much of this anymore. That's the beauty of the way this is structured. If people come in on a regular basis and learn to follow the procedures and follow the program, the bees will continue to be selected for their desirable characteristics. If that continues for another 20 years in the way it's been happening, we'll slowly improve the bees as we go and keep the stock improving. That's the whole notion.

The phase three, we took a little bit of a hit during COVID. I know everyone uses COVID as an excuse for not getting things done, but the bee lab did shut down for two years, which didn't help us because we do rely on them to do a lot of the serious testing with the DNA and so forth, the samples that we send them, and we weren't able to get those. We were working on our breeding program using queens that had not gone through all of the tests that we required normally in order to make sure we haven't lost some of the genetics in the breeding. We're back on track now. We had a meeting with members of the bee lab.

The other thing, of course, that's happened with the lab during COVID is a lot of the researchers who worked with us these past years retired. They're retired now, so we have new people we're dealing with and working with. Our get-acquainted meeting was good, but we're going to have to rethink how our relationship with the lab works and what our responsibilities are going to change for the future.

A big part of this is that we have relied on the bee lab to keep us on course with the honeybees' genetics, the Russian bees' genetics, and they've been able to, each year, take the samples we send them of the queens that we think should be the desirable breeding queens from each of our operations. They will verify as our last test that the genetics still match up to the genetics we expect them to. We have no way, of course, doing that in the backyard. You need equipment. The good news is they have really stepped up with some new DNA testing equipment. They can do things quicker now, and it's going to be less expensive. We hope to get more out of it than we actually have in the past, more details.

Kim: What you just mentioned was that you were trying to make sure that the desirable characteristics that you're looking at are being continued by your Bee Program. Let's back up a half a step. What are those characteristics for somebody who isn't familiar with the Russian Program?

Dan: Good question, Kim. The original things that the program was designed to do, it was a response to the huge losses we experienced with varroa mites and, at the time, tracheal mites as well. Fortunately, the Russian bees don't get tracheal mites where they control it. It's really the varroa mites, and the bee lab was-- what we are trying to do is basically wean our bees from the need for a lot of interventions, minimize chemical use in the hives, a lot of things that are desirable to all beekeepers.

That's been the main thing. In order to also look at what we're selecting for, we're looking at honey production. We do measure honey production each year off the individual hives that are going to be used in breeding. That's the second thing. That's what we'd call a general test where, obviously, we want these bees to be commercially useful and viable for big operations. A bee that's not producing honey for people who produce honey is not going to be very useful for very long, no matter how good they are against the mites. That's always been a priority.

What has happened, Kim, is as we've gone along, the bee lab has done lots of experiments. I know you probably read Clarence Collison's excellent column on the Russian Bee Program in February's issue of a magazine. You might know something about Bee Culture. [laughs] It's really a very good summary and overview, I think, of the history and some of the different things that make the Russian bees a little different from other bees.

Dr. Collison's usual way, he documents everything. You can look up the references and so forth, but you can also find a lot of this stuff on the ARS USDA publication list. It's all open to the public. You can go look up these experiments, and you'll see a lot of this stuff has been tested and checked, and a lot of different people have had their hands in this.

Jeff: We did have Dr. Rinderer on the show back in May of 2020 talking about the start of the Russian Bee Program with the USDA ARS. For any of our listeners who want to hear directly from Dr. Rinderer on the start of it, that's a really fascinating discussion.

Dan: He taught me quite a bit as our technical consultant. He would sit and advise us on technical things. There's a very good book that he authored, which is called the Russian Honeybee. If you're interested in this, you also find that it's a very useful book because there's about 10 behavioral mechanisms that honeybees use to counter mites and a lot of other things, diseases, and so forth. Doc Tom does an excellent job of describing how those things work, and he gives the backup testing and experiments that led everyone to certain conclusions about these things.

By the way, other bees also share these characteristics. They just don't share all of them necessarily as the Russians do. They haven't been selected for this in the same way we are doing it. It's a little different, but it's a great book if you have an interest in this. I would tell you to read Dr. Collison's article and get Tom's book, and then check the bee lab publications, just Google Russian honeybee, and you'll just be amazed at how much we know about these bees.

Jeff: You mentioned the two big characteristics is the resistance to mites, both the tracheal and raw, and they're really good honey producers. What are some of the traits of the Russian honeybee that a new beekeeper might want to be aware of?

Dan: Well, there are some downsides. There are. One of the criticisms, and Jeff, you and Kim and I have talked about this, is we are often asked about the defensiveness of these bees and the idea that they have a terrible temperament. I would say, at times, that's true. I don't really see them as necessarily worse than other bees I've worked with, but there are times that I see things that trigger certain behavior. That's the first question.

By the way, you have to look at this again as part of the selection progress. We did a check on that at this year's meeting. To a person, everyone selecting queens is just eliminating any bees that are overly aggressive. They just aren't part of who we choose. There's been an evolution here too. It's the idea that we're just breeding bees and they're going to be all kinds of different temperaments. Now, we're aware of this and we're conscious of it too, and we're trying to select that would be another thing on the list.

We've also identified, or the labs helped identify these things. We have been able to note certain things when we're working with these bees, such as they don't seem to get certain diseases, they don't seem to get certain viruses, and the lab can confirm that with their tests, then we send them samples. We have been seeing a lot of beneficial disease resistance in these bees as well. That's just the tolerance to mites. We're really seeing some good progress in a lot of this. By the way, all of this research really benefits all beekeepers, not just the Russian honey breeders. The more we understand about these things from a scientific level, the better we can come up with alternative ways to deal with them. I find that very exciting.

Some things we would look at, just to summarize it, first, it's varroa mites. That's the number one reason we became this organization. Along with that, we're looking for bees that have commercial potential. One of the experiments going on right now is the wintering Russian bees, maybe they've come out of the wintering building out in Utah by now. The Coy Brothers have put in, I forget how many they put in, some colonies or something. Those will go to probably home in pollination in one of the pollination sites.

Kim: Dan, let me interrupt you here again quick. Early on, that was one of the issues that was being looked at pretty aggressively is that because of where they originated, which is the cold part of Russia, they were slow to wake up in the spring. Their climate up there is just selective for that. If you got up too early, it would be too cold, and you wouldn't survive. How is that working now? Have you been looking at that?

Dan: Yes. This experiment is partially the result of that. First of all, it's thought that because of some of the characteristics that Russians have such as wintering in smaller clusters, they use a lot less food during the winter, or resources, and they would probably be very well suited for wintering and indoors. They could benefit from controls.

The other thing is they will do some stimulative feeding to see if they can get the bee clusters up larger than they normally are coming out of winter. What Kim is referring to is the Russians are very frugal. If there's no food coming in, they kind of have a solid brood nest, but it doesn't get really that big right off. I would tell you this, many a year, I will open up some spring colonies and say, "Boy, they look pretty pitiful. They're kind of small." Then, a month later, I'm trying to get into all these hives before they swarm on me because they explode. When we say explosive buildup, the Russians clearly do this.

What triggers that is fresh pollen and nectar. You give them the good food, they really explode. Feed them sugar syrup and pollen substitute, they will get by, but they won't get very big very fast. Of course, if you're doing spring cross-pollination, that's not what the growers want to see, and certainly, it's a little more difficult for the beekeepers if you can't force these bees to increase efficiently. It's no problem for the summer pollination because by the time we get into summer, we've split these hives and have more bees than we need. It's a little different at that point. That's one of the experiments that we're trying to figure out.

Now, there have been a lot of things about that, Kim. One is Lilia De Guzman did studies on different size boxes, and that was interesting to us because it showed that if you put bees in an eight-frame or five-frame nook and stack them up three high, they build up faster going up. They don't go out sideways too much, but they build up quicker. We've done that as a way of getting early colonies built up faster, we will sometimes do that. The early build-up of bees could be a little frustrating for somebody who expects to see that.

Kim: Another good reason to have eight-frame equipment, Jeff.

Jeff: You're always searching for that, aren't you? [laughs]

Kim: Not only are they easier to lift, but my bees are going to build up faster than-- I had some two for two here so far today, Dan. Thanks.

Dan: Yes, I can tell you that some of the people I know who, of course, are all invested in 10-frame equipment, they'll tell me, if I was starting over, I'd probably go with eight frames.

Kim: Good advice.

Jeff: Hey. Speaking of which, this is a good opportunity to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors.

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Kim: Well, now that we've shown that eight-frame equipment certainly is a good choice for these things.

Dan: I think you have an agenda at this point.

Jeff: I'll certainly pick that up too, Dan.

Kim: I got to ask you. You said you've got a lot of people testing these bees. Is the program expanding? Are you getting to where you want to be, and what's on the horizon here?

Dan: The program's a long way from what it could be, but we've managed to keep going. There are a number of members who have been particularly helpful in keeping it going, and we've seen some really good results. In that sense, yes, we've been achieving some of those goals. The speed at which we increase this is sometimes difficult. When you're selecting for improvement in bees, it's tedious. You don't see it right now. You've got to have a long-range outlook on this, and you have to believe it. You got to believe that your efforts are going to benefit down the road.

I think everyone who's been in the program for a few years sees it because they've seen improvements in their own bees. We still need more members because this is also the type of process that the more people selecting, the more likely you're going to get the results you want quicker because you're going to be identified over a bigger sample. I think that's something we're starting to see some interest in. We're getting more and more inquiries. From that standpoint, I think the interest is there. People, they want Russian queens. It's amazing. We are selling bees to people in Alaska. We're getting better distribution. They're going all over the place.

Kim: There's a good question, Dan. Before it gets away from us, where do I get Russian queens?

Dan: Well, you're going to want to go the and look at who's in the organization. By the way, we hired a professional web builder, and we're redoing our whole website at this point. That's been lacking for a number of years. We need to communicate a lot better than we have, and that's one of the focuses we're on. I think that's one of those areas we can really improve on. We need to offer more. We've decided we need to reach out to people a little more than we have, and we need to actually tell them what to do with managing these bees so they're more successful.

There's a lot of little things we all do. We have the benefit of all working with the same type of bees, so when we meet, we compare notes, and we compare what's working for us and what isn't. We need to be able to tell people new to the Russian bees what kind of management things they need to look for such as how do you deal with early swarming and continual swarming if you're not careful. What can we do to lower the defensive behavior of these bees? How do you best get your honey production up when you're using what you think are smaller bees or smaller colonies? Even wintering.

One of the things I do, I don't even use two deeps anymore. We're doing this in the northeast, one deep box, and I usually put a medium super honey on top, and that's how I winter my bees. I got to tell you, it doesn't slow them down a bit. In the spring, they come out of it, and most of them look pretty good. We've had pretty good success.

Those are all things that are a little different from what you typically are told. Even things like, "What do you do with mites?" I want to be clear about that. Russian bees do get mites. I'm always very skeptical when I hear somebody telling me that somebody does never have mites. I haven't seen that yet in my time. I think it's one of those things that-- what we have been able to show is that we can reduce the interventions necessary or the chemical uses necessary to maintain the colonies. It's very true that the Russian bees can do just fine with a much higher mite load than other bees. That's one of the characteristics that we've learned to work with.

Kim: Dan, how does a virus load look when you've got a higher load of varroa in there? Even though the bees are tolerating the mites, I'm not sure what the question here is, but if you've got a lot of mites, you're probably going to have a lot of virus, right?

Dan: Well, we do accept that it's so low, it doesn't really register. It's there. These go to both Beltsville and to Baton Rouge Bee Labs, and we send bees to these labs all the time in different measurements. I just got a report back. Unfortunately, you get these back in the winter, not in the middle of the summer when I need them. The point is no Nosema of significance.

The only one we see really that I would tell you, I think, is a mite-vectored virus in any dangerous levels are the deformed wing. We see that. The other viruses are there, but they're trace, not anything anyone's too worried about. By the way, that's more like what I remember before varroa, viruses were that way. They were self-limiting. Beekeepers knew about a lot of viruses, but we didn't necessarily see too many hives get taken down by the viruses. It went away on its own once the weather improved and the bees got a little stronger.

I think most of us, including the lab, would probably tell you that they have a lot more resistance to the viruses than many other strains of bees. They do very well with that. One of the things I'll tell you that I'm looking with a little trepidation about is in my area in the fall, we had an outbreak of American foulbrood disease and the bee inspector came by to tell me that some of my yards were in the vicinity of several of the people who had to destroy quite a few hives, and probably my bees were within the contamination zone. We started inspecting every other week on those, and they all went into the winter looking pretty good. I'm hoping come spring, I don't have any problems.

Now, the interesting thing about that, when I brought this up to my colleagues and to some of the lab people, they basically were saying, "Well, the good news with the Russians is they seem to have a really high tolerance level to foulbrood. Tom used to say, "So far, we haven't had a case of it that's been documented in the bees, the pure stock." I'm hoping that's true, but this will be a heck of a test. You should call me about midsummer and see if I've put up a close for good sign or not.

Jeff: There's got to be a joke in there somewhere that the Russian bees are impervious to American foulbrood. There's got to be--

Dan: [laughs] Yes, I know. Yes, I think you're right about that.

Jeff: Keep searching for it. It's a bad dad joke, I suppose.

Dan: Yes, so anyway, they are being exposed to things, and they do pretty well overall, but they do have their weaknesses too.

Kim: Have you been able to modify that spring buildup delay or that later spring buildup? It's early February right now, and people are moving bees to almonds. Are Russians going to be able to do that pretty well?

Dan: Well, some of the members send out thousands of hives every year to almonds and they get good reports. They're doing all right. I think they'd like to find ways to improve on that.

Kim: Well, if they're ready for almonds, they're going to be ready for anything, anywhere, I think.

Dan: Yes, well, as far as I know, that's not a big problem for the commercial guys that are in the organization because they can come up with enough strong colonies to meet the bill.

Kim: For people down south, spring is already there and it's done in July. They're going to need that same kind of timing, I think, to do well down there, don't you?

Dan: Yes. I think so. I understand. I don't do any of that kind of pollination, and I would tell you my bees would be hard-pressed to be in that kind of shape in February from where I live. We just came off of -16 degrees up there, and I'm hoping my bees will do fine because Russians tend to do pretty well in the severe cold. I'd hate to have to tell some pollinator in California that he's going to get four frames of bees instead of 8 or 10. Whatever.

Anyway, no, I think, Kim, that's certainly because it's an important revenue stream for commercial beekeepers. Many of our members are focused on that and then they're trying different ways to build them up. I would tell you in my case, what I clearly see, because I do apple pollination in the northeast, I will tell you this. I usually try to put eight-frame colonies or more out for the apple growers.

What I will see is I will see bees where the queens are laying, but they aren't filling frames. They might have a few frames full by the time they go out in mid-May, that's when it's our time. By the time they come back after 10, 12 days, I got to tell you, you'll see frame after frame full of eggs. As soon as they hit the apple nectar and pollen, it stimulates these queens' delay and it's striking how different it is.

When they come back, the first thing we start doing is putting more boxes on them, give them some room to expand, and then we start using frames for nucs, and our way of controlling the swarming is really to pull out brood frames and control the growth that way. We end up with a lot of nucs at some point, which is fine. There's a lot of people looking for nucs. It's another part of what we do.

It's one of those things where it works, it works all right for me, for the apples, and by the time we do summer pollination, like I say, we've split these hives two and three times sometimes depending on the year. One of the things I would say with the Russians, it's critical to their survival but it's also detrimental to a beekeeper in the sense that we had a terrible drought last summer.

Now, how did that affect the bees? Well, most people I know, it's Italian highs, probably they could just keep feeding them. Right? Now, in our case, I saw a couple of things happen. First of all, the queens will cut way back on laying. If there's nothing coming in, Russian bees get very frugal very fast. They think there's no food, they don't produce, they won't build up as strong. As soon as you get a nice nectar flow going again, here they come again. They come back.

One of the calls I often get from people is, something's wrong with that queen you sold me. I'll explain, well, there's a big dearth on right now, and if you want us to put some sugar syrup on them for a week and see what they do, pretty sure the queen will start laying again, and they usually do, and/or wait for the-- we have a second honey flow in the fall or in mid-August, really. They usually perk right up again during that too.

They do go up and down with their population. It's one of the behaviors that we actually look for as a way of controlling mites. Because during the time that the brood hatches out, one of the things that the Russian bees are excellent at is grooming. They do a great job of grooming the mites off each other and getting them out of the hive. If you have very few new mites coming out of the cells, they can really lower that mite load significantly. This is just the natural cycle for these bees.

For beekeepers who are trying to build up their colonies at certain times, it can be a bit of a frustration, I think. That's one of those things that changes. The other thing I would tell you, these Russians normally are not bees that rob a lot, they don't rob, but this year, boy, I never saw such a problem with robbing as I saw this year. I think that was true across the board for anybody who keeps bees. What that also taught me was they were a lot more protective of their hives too. This was night and day for me from a year before is how these bees treated me all summer.

Jeff: A person who's wanting to get started in Russian bees and if they're not sitting right next to you, they go out and are able to get a Russian queen and/or a nuc from a breeder. How often should they expect to requeen with a new Russian queen?

Dan: Good question. I always tell people, if the queen is laying, then leave her alone. We try to replace queens every second year, and that's been our procedure for a while now. We let queens that we think are doing a lot of things we want, we'll let them go as long as they can because we'll continue to raise daughters from some of those.

I would say to replacing queens, one of the questions I often get, and this is somewhat important, is most people who buy the stock we're selling, our stock is coming off of somewhat of a controlled breeding situation. We spend more time raising drone colonies, really. I mean that because we're very focused on the importance of having high-quality drones to go with the queens we're mating. We try to have a closed system, meaning we're trying to put the queens in a position where they're going to mostly mate with Russian drones, which by the way, are 100% of the mother's genetics.

With that pure mating or closed system, you can actually accelerate to a certain extent the kinds of genetic matchups that you're looking for that will strengthen that behavior in the bee. If you buy one of our queens, you're getting the genetics in that queen and the offspring in the nucs. Our nucs are raised from cells. We put queen cells in and the bees that lay often are the ones that you're going to be working with.

Say, you have a swarm and that mother queen takes off on you and you don't catch her. Happens every day. What's that mean? You hopefully will see queen cells there. One of the characteristics of the Russian bees is there are queen cups in these hives all the time during the warm weather. That's another thing that's frustrating to some beekeepers. They're ready to raise a queen at any time.

Hopefully, they raise a daughter. Now, that daughter, if they are healthy and they have the food they need to raise a good queen, will be perfectly fine. However, depending on where you're located, are you going to get the same kind of mating that we get? No, you're probably not. One of the things we really strive to do, because of the research shows us that, the more diverse number of genetically diverse drones mating with a queen, the better your hive is going to be. It's going to be a healthier hive.

That's part of the reason we think we have at least a dozen to 15 different genetic lines in the drones themselves. You're not going to have that necessarily. You may find that that next generation is, in fact, more defensive because sometimes these hybrids can really be quite rough. You may not find that, you may find it perfectly good.

The Bee Lab did a lot of studies on this. The difference between the lab stock that we're working with and hybridized Russians because they were the first thing that people had access to, really. Some of the queen producers would, in fact, get Russian bees and they'd sell them as Russian bees, but they're mating them in an Italian bee operation. Who knows what you're getting necessarily? The pure genetics certainly are going to breed out of them over time. It's going to change.

I'm not saying that's necessarily terrible or bad. It does mean that the bees are going to be a little different from the bees you started with. It's a little more unpredictable. What we do see is that some of those characteristics such as the mite tolerance and so forth, some of that does carry through. You see that in the hybridized Russians and so forth.

When they did the studies at the Bee Lab, what they really found was the ability to control mites was not nearly as effective as what the pure stock offered. A lot of these things, the disease resistance wasn't quite as good either. There were differences. However, and this was interesting to me because I experienced this number of years back myself, they did find that some of the cross-matings with certain Italian colonies actually produced a really good mite-resistant bee. That hybridization actually did very well.

When I got into this business, I did that with my best Italian hives when I got my first pure Russians from Charlie Harper. I thought I had figured out how to cure the problem. My bees just didn't get any mites for two years. Then, all of a sudden, they started getting them really bad. I would later learn from John Harbo, who was doing these experiments that, in fact, you can do this and you get that hybrid vigor initially. It works really well. It's really hard to maintain a genetic line like that. It fizzles, and that was my lesson. It was one of the things that got me interested in the Russian program. That isn't going to be bred down. It's going to be bred up.

Kim: I'm going to tell you; I think what you've done is doing a good job of explaining Russian bees. You should have a link to your podcast on your webpage. You've explained a lot of things and answered a lot of questions that people can go listen to.

Dan: Thanks, Kim. We'll definitely be including that. Like I say, we want to do a better job of telling people what really is going on. Good and bad, but most of it's good.

Jeff: Really good. We really enjoyed having you back on the show, talking to us about the Russian Honeybee Breeding Program and the benefits and the challenges of the breed just as there is with every other honeybee breed. Thanks a lot for being here. I enjoy having you on the show.


Dan: Thank you, guys.

Kim: Good talking to you again, Dan.

Jeff: Kim. You were going to get some Russian bees or experiment with some Russian bees. Did you ever do that?

Kim: I did it early in the program. I had good luck with them. I didn't replace them because I've been scaling down. Dan's kind of got me enthused again. I'm going to see if I can try some this year.

Jeff: That'd be good. I looked into it once and I couldn't find any nearby breeders. I just didn't look beyond that.

Kim: Well, hopefully, there are more breeders out there, some in your neighborhood. I'm going to check out their webpage and see what I can find. It was good. Dan answered a lot of questions that have been lingering. People ask me and I don't have a good answer between what we did here and what they put on their webpage. Hopefully, they can get more information out to more people.

Jeff: I enjoyed the whole history of the Russian Bee Program, starting with Dr. Tom Rinderer who was on the show, as I mentioned earlier. The whole process of bringing that genetic line into the bee program in the US is an exciting story. It's a fun one.

Kim: It's good.


Jeff: Well, that about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on Apple Podcast wherever you download and stream the show. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you like. You can get there directly from our website by clicking on reviews along the top of any webpage. As always, we thank Bee Culture, the magazine for American beekeeping for their continued support of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

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[00:48:03] [END OF AUDIO]


Dan ConlonProfile Photo

Dan Conlon

Vice President

Owner of Warm Colors Apiary, South Deerfield, Massachusetts. Member of the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, and current President of the Franklin County Bee Association.