|Single Frame from Hive|
It’s barely detectable with the naked eye and can hide easily on a honeybee’s body. As apiarist Virginia Webb explains, “It feeds on the blood of the bee, through the body fluids of the bees. It also feeds on the young larvae of the bees, and it can greatly weaken the hive, and it can cause many viruses within the hive.” Since the 1980s, this unwanted visitor called the varroa mite has wreaked havoc on bee colonies in the United States. At first, beekeepers thought pesticides were their only defense. Of course, the pesticides brought their own dangers to nature’s table.
|Virginia & Carl Webb of MtnHoney.com|
A researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture started a program in the 1990s of importing special verroa mite-resistant Russian bees. They came from the Russian Far East area of Primorsky Krai. The bees’ very hardiness and hygienic behavior make it easier for them to fend off the mites. When the Agricultural Research Service began offering the bees to US breeders in 2000, Carl Webb of Clarksville, Georgia was one of the first to purchase a breeder queen. “From that time on I was so enthused about it because I didn’t have to use the harsh treatments for mites anymore. And they could live and produce and they’re really good honey producers. So, I’ve been breeding them ever since.”
In 2007, the Webbs and a few others in their field formed a Russian Honeybee Breeders Association. Carl says, “What we’re doing is we’re testing and breeding Russian bees that are most resistant to mites and best honey producers.” The Webbs set up test yards for certain genetic lines and select the best specimens to be next year’s breeders. They currently maintain eleven bee yards.
|Bees Entering Hive|
I was privileged to be allowed access into one of the Webbs’ bee yards, where millions of the prized insects were busily flying to and from flowering plants, bringing valuable pollen and nectar back to their hives. Carl and Virginia worked together, pulling out individual frames to check the status of the colonies, especially checking for the prized queen bee. Each hive’s social structure includes countless female workers, countless male drones, but only one queen. They pointed out the orange dot of non-toxic, water-based paint on the thorax of the queen, who dines on royal jelly and lays about 2,000 eggs per day. The Webbs were concerned whether bees in another hive might have cut short the life of a new queen. The constant care and watchfulness required of full-time beekeepers is remarkable.
At their MtnHoney.com business, the Webbs collect large amounts of honey, pollen and beeswax for commerce. Because they use Russian bees, honey yields are abundant, and even award-winning for the unmatched flavor of the sourwood honey. However, it is the Russian queen breeding that further sets this apiary apart from others. Virginia notes, “We have our bees tested every year via DNA to ensure the purity of them.”
The Webbs say they’ve sold 160 Russian starter hives in the past year to people wanting to try honey production or use bees to enhance other agricultural efforts like organic gardening. Central to those hives are the prized Russian queens. Carl says with a rare mixture of pride and humility, “But we’re not able to produce enough of them, unfortunately, but we’re working at it.”