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Russian Bees
by Jack Horan - posted 08/01/11


 

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! To the nearest beehive in your neighborhood, that is. In fact, the Russian honeybees are already here. They’re buzzing around meadows and gardens around the Southeast, pollinating crops and flowers, gathering nectar and making honey for beekeepers.

While not every gardener is a beekeeper, every gardener feels the importance of keeping bees healthy and hives strong, because we wouldn’t have flowers without them. And the popular Italian honeybee, which populates many beekeeper hives, is susceptible to mites.

The tracheal mite and the varroa mite have killed millions of bees and have decimated wild honeybee populations as well. Italian honeybees survive today because of ongoing pesticide treatments. Without in-hive treatment, Italian honeybees and the honey and pollination industries built on them could be wiped out.

Russian bees are similar to the Italian honeybee, except the Russians carry an important characteristic that the Italians don’t have. Russian bees contain a built-in resistance to the exotic mites that began devastating the country’s bee population in the 1980s.

Russian bees come from the far eastern area of Russia. They were sought out by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for their resistance to the mites, a trait that evolved from over 150 years of co-existing with the mites. The Russians were imported to the United States in 1997 for testing, and later made available to commercial breeders for sale to beekeepers. They can survive with less treatment with pesticides, or even none at all.

Ray Revis of Marion, N.C., is a beekeeper who belongs to the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, a national organization dedicated to maintaining and improving pure strains of Russian stock. Revis said now he’s fully stocked with Russian bees in his 300 hives spread around 20 miles in McDowell County, and he hasn’t used pesticides for almost eight years.

“It’s really the best thing that beekeeping has going for it,” he said. “It’s a great bee.”

Revis propagates Russian bee queens to sell to beekeepers, which enable them to start their own colonies or to replace existing Italian colonies. He said he sells 300 queens a year, with demand outstripping his supply. “There’s a very big demand for Russian honeybees all over the country,” Revis said.


 

It takes about six to eight weeks to transform an all-Italian honeybee hive into a Russian hive after the introduction of a Russian queen, who then lays eggs to get the colony rolling. That’s because the life span of worker bees in the summer, whether Italian or Russian, is just six to seven weeks. “They literally wear themselves out,” he said.

Revis said the Russian subspecies, while darker in color than their bright yellow Italian cousins, have the same gentle temperament, as do the Italians. Also, the honey tastes the same. And he said the Russians are cheaper to keep because they don’t require the $10 per hive pesticide treatment needed to keep Italian bees alive.

According to David Tarpy, extension apiculturist with North Carolina State University, “Russian bees are not mite free, they are just more tolerant of mites.” Therefore the Russian bee should be considered a tool to combat mites, rather than a replacement for the Italian bee. “The best approach to coping with mites, diseases and other bee problems is to maintain a diversity of different kinds of bees in the population,” Tarpy said. And that appreciation of diversity in wildlife is something every gardener can take to heart.

(Photos by Ed Speer.)

 


Jack Horan is a freelance writer and avid naturalist and hiker from Charlotte, N.C.