I skipped town this weekend. There was a lot going on around the farm. We are smack in thimble of spring planting, the heavy spring nectar flow, house construction deadlines…. But I carelessly left town in pursuit of the elusive queen. Her royal highness of the hive, mama to all, queen big booty. Despite the 40,000-60,000 worker bees in a hive, there is only one queen (usually -nothing is cut & dry). One who lays eggs. One who passes on genetics. One who sets the tone for the entire colony. She is pretty important – so she gets the imaginary crown.
As beekeepers, most of the challenges we (and the bees) face can be traced back to the queen. Weak colonies, varroa mites, nosema disease, poor foraging, swarming, winter kill, can be linked to queen troubles. And it’s our convenient excuse for colony problems. “Queen wasn’t mated well”. “Queen wasn’t hygienic”. “Queen had poor pattern” “Queen was mean!” Blaming the faceless corporate queen rearers – easy explanations for our woes. The majority of queen bees raised in this country come from hot spots: FL, GA, CA, TX. Places it is warm early in the year to raise the big girls. And they are raised in huge quantities – some breeders up to 100,000 queens/ year.
But there is a growing movement of beekeepers looking for local bees, queens included. In response, the NC Beekeepers Association (NCSBA) introduced their “NC Born & Bred” program to infuse our state with newbie queen rearers. Me included.
This weekend’s class was led by the who’s who in NC beekeeping. Folks who know bees. They drilled into me (and a 100 other inquiring minds) the tactics for raising quality NC queens. It was a rich experience and I left exhausted. (I think I won for most questions asked). I also left inspired but daunted by the complexity of the biology and also by the responsibility to do better by our bees. Plus it requires a whole new set of bee gear – nerd love!
The learning curve sounds pretty steep – true of most things in beekeeping. But I am intrigued. Queens cost $25-30+ plus shipping. And there are no guarantees that they are quality or will be accepted by the bees. I’ve personally watched a hive kill 2 queens in a row this year (for reasons I’m yet to understand). So the idea of raising my own queens can save money. But even better, it will allow me to choose genetics I like from my favorite colonies to reproduce. Plus I like the whole self sufficiency aspect.
People spend their lives dedicated to perfecting their queen production. So little old me in my backyard has got some learning to do. But Carolina was named for the royal King Charles I who granted the land. We should be able to craft some legit crown-worthy women. And I can’t wait to start.