What’s the Best Bee for Me?

By Kim Flottum

Before we can answer that question for you, you have to answer some simple questions for yourself.

First, where do you live? Second, what kind of beekeeper are you? And finally, what do you do with your bees?

Let’s start with where do you live, because the absolute fact of life is that all beekeeping is local. So, up north, down south or somewhere in the middle? Are you in a crowded city with questionable food supplies or out in the country with abundant resources? Do you have long hard winters with lots of snow and cold, or is winter simply a cooler summer? It is hot and dry like Arizona or this year’s Texas, or is summer more like it should be, with moderate rain, wind and temperatures? Does fall come fast and early every year it seems, and are there predictable summer dearths in July or so? Is spring late every year, or does it go from winter to summer with no spring at all? Do you have lots of neighbors or none at all? And what about kids, pets, birdbaths, swimming pools and picnics? And generally, what are the weather extremes wherever you live? Do you have a handle on the whole season?

Once you are comfortable with where you are and the environment you are bringing bees into, you can move on to the next question.

What kind of beekeeper are you? Were you a two colony beginner last year, or have been a backyarder for a couple of decades? Are bees in the middle of almost everything you do, or just something out back you like to fool with once in awhile? Are you handy with tools, look forward to spring starting in October, or kind of get around to stuff by May? Is swarm control the hottest item on your to-do list, or do they swarm every year because you are always a month or more behind?

Do you keep really good records every year, or start strong and by June don’t know where that record book is? Do you have all the equipment you’ll need next season ready now, or are you waiting for the new catalogs? Or, what catalog? Do you harvest several times a year so you have several varietal crops to sell, or is last year’s crop still out there? I think you see where this is going. When you evaluate your beekeeping habits be honest and thorough. Basically, are you a beekeeper, or a beehaver? Don’t get me wrong, both are fine, just understand yourself and your habits so when you make the choice of what bee is best, you make the decision based on your skills, intensity and goals, which brings us to the last question, what do you do with your bees?

Are you serious about making a honey crop every year? Is honey why you keep bees, to sell and make money to pay for not only the bees, but kids, bills, school, as a necessary second income? Do you raise queens for yourself or to sell to make money? Maybe you are, or want to make nucs to sell—either spring splits or over wintered nucs from this summer for next year, with your queens or queens from somewhere else.

Do you pollinate, or want to start? Is the crop early like almonds, later like cukes, or late like pumpkins? Or do you have all kinds and need strong colonies all summer? And what about that honey crop? Can you juggle both a crop and a contract? Or will one or both suffer because of the way you keep bees, or because of the bees you keep? Figure that out first.

Some beekeepers focus not on honey or pollinating, but on harvesting pollen, maybe even honey bee venom, and propolis is a commonly collected and profitable crop. And, what about ‘natural’ beekeeping? Are you looking for bees with mite and disease resistance or tolerance? Are you a NO chemical, NO feeding, and NO interference beekeeper?

OK, now, if you are honest about your answers to all of these questions, making the right choice about what kind of bee you should be raising will be easy. You can fine tune your operation by making a good choice. Keeping bees will be easier, more fun, more profitable, safer, and just plain more of what you got into bees for in the first place if you choose the right bee for you. Think of it like this,you don’t use an 18 wheeler to move a beehive a couple of miles, and you won’t use a pickup to haul 500 colonies to California. There’s a right truck for the job, and a right bee for your style of beekeeping.

Your assignment this month, should you choose to accept it, is to go through one or two beekeeping magazines and note how many kinds of bees there are for sale. Note all kinds and styles and breeds and names and attributes and claims and types. Write them down and have your list ready for next time—the last time I looked I easily came up with over 20 on my list—which one is best for you?

Next month: Italians, Carniolans, Caucasians, Russians, Hygienic, Natural, Resistant, All American, 3 Banded Italian, Russian Hybrid, New World, Mixed, Big Island, VSH, Cordovan, Survivor, Fresh, Old World Carniolan, Instrumentally Inseminated, Gentle, Buckfast, Malka, and more. Which bee is right for you?

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