Survivor Bee Traits

When we incorporated the “Survivor Bees” text into our company logo, we started getting lots of questions (mostly from non-beekeepers) with regards to what this means. Since then, I’ve wanted to write a blog to explain a little bit more about survivor bees (I also mentioned in a previous blog that I would write a follow up blog with regards to the traits that make a survivor hive a survivor hive).  I warn the readers that much of what they will read in this blog is my opinion based on observations that I’ve made on our survivor stocks of bees. To date we haven’t spent much time documenting or doing scientific analysis to back up these observations with hard data (but I’d love to get to that point). Survivor bees in other regions, I suppose, could be different than ours.

For those people not familiar with our operation, we have been exclusively propagating/breeding bees that started as wild swarms for a decade now. For a few years (circa 2009-2013) we were very active in hive removals and swarm collections. We were fortunate enough to catch some truly “feral” bees that now make up the foundation of our honey bee genetics. It has been exciting to keep bees the “natural” way, completely treatment free, while we read articles and publications discussing the best treatment methods for pests such as varroa. I believe that there are plenty of other “treatment free” beekeepers with bees that can survive against varroa, so why have survivor bees not caught on with other beekeepers? The answer is simple, survivor bees are not for everyone, and as a matter of fact most beekeepers wouldn’t appreciate survivor bees. It seems that the traits that make survivor bees great are actually traits that beekeepers have been breeding against for years. Without further ado, let’s jump into these “survivor” traits:

Long broodless periods in dearth times (Winter/Summer)

Survivor bees tend to be very cautious about building up brood. They usually lag behind in spring buildup and tone down (shut down) brood production during the summer dearth. However, they will often turn up production again in the fall before shutting down for winter. On the more extreme end, some bees would be content living in a double deep hive the entire year without outgrowing it; often, if you open the hive in late summer, you’ll find four to five frames of bees in the bottom box and the top box full of honey. But the average is quite a bit higher, maybe 10 to 15 frames. We do get “jumbo” hives that are on the other extreme, which rival “regular” bees in population size and strength.

The negative implications of this trait:

Well, less brood production means fewer bees and less honey yields. If you make a living from pollinating crops, you need a lot of bees. If you make a living selling honey, well, you want lots of honey. Small winter clusters also affect those pollinators who want large bee populations early in the winter (for almond pollination). I would say that for most beekeepers, this is a pretty big drawback.

The Positive implications of this trait:

Being stingy with brood production really leads to fewer bees, which leads to smaller hives. But fewer bees also means fewer drones and in general fewer bees for varroa mites to parasitize. So even if varroa mites infest a hive, the infestation doesn’t reach catastrophic levels and the bees are more likely to successfully fight off the infestation. So in general, brood breaks are a useful tool for controlling varroa mites. However, don’t confuse being cautious with being slow. In the spring, these bees can really turn up production if they want to (which may be why they always keep plenty of pollen around).

Very clean

Survivor bees are obsessive compulsive when it comes to keeping a tidy hive. They concentrate a lot of resources on cleaning and general housekeeping. You’ll see them working hard hauling off hive debris and will notice the cleanliness of the hive during an inspection.

The negative implications of this trait:

This is an easy one. If the hive spends more time cleaning their hive, then it means that they spend less time foraging for nectar. In this manner, this trait also contributes to lower honey yields.

The positive Implications of this trait:

I believe that it is this cleaning impulse that drives the hygienic behavior and their overall low tolerance of pest infestations. It seems to me that “regular” bees are so consumed with foraging that they disregard an infestation. Survivor bees understand that they need to deal with the pest problem since there is no sense in dying and leaving behind a hive full of honey. They simply don’t tolerate invaders and will generally fight off pests such as varroa, wax moth, hive beetles, and ants. Having said that, a hive that is too weak will get overran by any of the above pests. I’m sure that every year we lose some hives to varroa and ants. Hive beetles aren’t a big issue and wax moths can get out of control especially on weak hives. But a strong survivor colony will usually fare very well against these invaders. As far as I’m concerned, the more that a hive cares for itself, the less work that I have to do, so I enjoy this trait.

Multiple queens and cells

This survivor bee trait can be confusing to beekeepers. It is confusing to us as well, but we’ve learned to accept it (as with most things bees, working with them and letting them do what they instinctively want to do is easier than trying to fight them). Survivor bees seem to like “queen insurance”, in other words, they like to keep a spare queen or queen cell around just in case the old queen fails. After all, when you have to survive on your own and margins for error are razor thin, you can’t afford to be without a queen when you need her most (at least that’s what I think that they are thinking). During a hive inspection on a hive that shouldn’t want to swarm (too small or wrong time of the year) you might find a ripe queen cell or two (usually big beautiful ones). It gets better, sometimes you’ll find a marked queen (your original) and there’s an unmarked virgin queen running around (we see mated queens too). I wouldn’t be surprised if the hives often do swarm, but it seems like many times they just kill one of the queens after a while. It is my suspicion that the old queen gets killed and the bees are simply superseding a perceived failing queen. However, this doesn’t explain why we often find queen cells in colonies with good new queens. So I just assume that the bees want to preempt any queen issues and always want to be two steps ahead on rearing a new queen. Without frequent inspections and very good record keeping, it’s hard to determine the frequency at which this happens, but if you check 50 hives between late spring and late summer, maybe 4 or 5 will be expressing this behavior at any given time.

Last year I tried hard to document this behavior, mostly by trying to snap a picture of an old marked queen next to a virgin new queen. It turns out that this was pretty hard to do as queens don’t just sit around waiting for their picture to be taken, however, we did run into plenty of instances of 2 queens in a hive. Finally, I got a big break (got lucky really) and managed to take a cell phone video of a mated new queen fighting and killing the old queen.  The video itself is really bad because I was working alone, but I did manage to extract a few good still images from it that show the action.

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My brother suggested that some may think that we simply added a queen to a queen-right hive to get a picture of two queens fighting. My answer was that any seasoned beekeeper would know that the worker bees are the first to attack a foreign queen and would never allow it to fight their queen. In the pictures, you can obviously tell that the worker bees are “hands off” and letting the two queens fight it out. But having witnessed the whole event, it wasn’t much of a fight. It was more like the old queen was running for her life and the new queen was out to murder her as she was clearly the aggressor. The new queen was for sure mated, as I checked back a couple of days later and there were freshly laid eggs.

The negative implications of this trait:

There really isn’t a big negative aspect to this trait assuming we are within the context of a survivor hive. Obviously if you have a huge hive with many resources, a ripe queen cell means you are about to cast a swarm (or already did). So generally speaking, queen cells are viewed as detrimental by beekeepers. It could also make selective breeding a bit harder if queens are superseded more often (but again, we don’t have hard data to quantify the implications of this).

The positive Implications of this trait:

Well consider this: during some hive inspections in one yard, I marked 3 hives that needed to be re-queened in one yard. During my inspections in an adjacent yard, I found two hives (one was a strong nuc) that had two queens, so I promptly marked them and placed them into the hives that needed to be re-queened (what else should I do with extra queens?). I also found a hive with a good queen and some beautiful ripe queen cells, so I took the frame with the queen cells and put it in the third hive that needed to be re-queened in the other yard. So as far as I’m concerned, extra queens and queen cells are a good thing.

Forage hard for pollen

Survivor bees seem to be more interested in pollen that most “regular” bee breeds. Maybe because they know that the pollen patty will never arrive during winter and that they better have enough pollen stored. But mostly, I think that they keep plenty of pollen around to be able to quickly ramp up population should they want to. Often when inspecting around the brood chamber, you’ll find many frames of pollen and bee bread, sometimes brood and pollen on the same frames.

The negative implication of this trait:

Foraging more for pollen means foraging less for nectar, which will negatively impact honey production.

The positive Implications of this trait:

If you collect pollen, then you’ll have more pollen than you know what to do with. I also believe that more pollen means better fed bees and overall healthier bees. Also, if you pollinate crops, then survivor bees will be more effective at pollinating crops.


Pest fighters

Survivor bees are so good at taking care of themselves that they employ a variety of tactics to fend off pests. When it comes to fighting varroa, the biggest trait that they employ is what is known as Hygienic behavior. If you want to read more on this, you can ready my previous blogs on the subject (Hygienic bees and summer inspection). In a nutshell, hygienic behavior is when the bees detect pupa that are infested with varroa and remove the pupa in order to prevent the varroa mite from breeding. It is really great to see this behavior in action. Another tool against varroa is that the hive will simply not rear any brood during an infestation. They somehow know that varroa cannot breed if there is no brood and so shutting down brood helps control the infestation.

Last year, during our second round of Nuc production (mid-april), I found a hive with unacceptable varroa levels. It made it through winter (probably with a high mite load) but was now in bad shape. That same day I saw a Nuc from our first batch (in March) that had a mated queen but most of the bees had drifted back to the original hive and the Nuc only had about one frame of bees. So I killed the queen from the struggling hive and introduced the frame of bees from the Nuc with the new mated queen. I checked the hive a few weeks later and the population had dwindled, but noticed that the bees were expressing the hygienic trait and pulling out infested brood. I worried that they had missed the better part of the spring flow and might not make it. However, during a later inspection (in late August) I found the ten-frame hive full of bees, honey, pollen, and best of all no varroa infestation. It’s hard to tell whether they eradicated the varroa, but at least they got it under control. Either way, they recovered nicely. This new queen perfectly demonstrated the survivor bee intolerance for pests and how they will not grow the hive (even during spring) before the infestation has been dealt with. I had written off this hive at first, but instead I ended up marking it as a potential breeder for next year if it overwinters well.

The negative implication of this trait:

Yet again, honey production is sacrificed when a hive has to go broodless in order to control a pest. I will not collect one drop of honey from the hive in my story above. As a matter of fact, it yet has to be seen whether they will even store enough honey for themselves to survive the winter (although I’ll feed some if necessary).

The positive Implications of this trait:

Having bees that fight off pests by themselves is the key to having treatment free bees. If you don’t have survivor bees, don’t think about going treatment free as your bees will just die, plain and simple. But as part time beekeepers, having bees that keep themselves means the world to us. We just enjoy having them and collect a little honey from those that can afford to lose some.

More aggressive on average

It goes without saying that bees that don’t like intruders (think varroa) won’t like a beekeeper tearing their hive open and blowing smoke in their faces. I would say that on average survivor bees will be more aggressive than your average hive of gentle Italian bees. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that they are killer bees either (trust me, I’ve ran into some savage killer bees). I often work a hive that is pretty hot (may even get labeled for re-queening due to it) only to open it up a couple of weeks later to find them very gentle. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that they can be more aggressive but often it depends on when and how you do the inspection (which is largely true of bees in general). I always wear a jacket with veil when working the bees and about half of the time I will use gloves as well. If I am going to inspect a few hives and can afford to be gentle, I won’t wear gloves (often I don’t even use smoke). If I need to get through many hives and run a higher risk of making them mad, I’ll wear gloves (often after I get my hands stung up).

The negative implication of this trait:

Well nobody likes to be stung, so more aggressive bees will lead to more stings. It’s hard to say how many more stings, but do expect a few more. If you wear protective equipment and use smoke, largely you won’t even tell the difference.

The positive Implications of this trait:

I may only open a hive a handful of times any given year. So knowing that they are “equal opportunity aggressors” gives me peace of mind that they are aggressively fighting off pests as well. Having said this, I would like to point out that any overly aggressive hive in our operation gets culled/re-queened. There is simply no point in keeping bees that are so aggressive that they take the fun out of beekeeping. I have begun taking my seven-year-old daughter to the bee yards and the last thing that I want is her being stung up to the point that she does not enjoy the bees. In fact, she did not get stung at all working the bees with me all of last year (but she is wearing a full bee suit).

Closing thoughts

Survivor bees are easy to understand. They are simply bees that are working for themselves and looking after their own interests and not the interests of the beekeeper. To survivor bees, there is more to life that just foraging for nectar. They have a more balanced lifestyle in which survival to next year is the most important goal. A more balanced lifestyle means that they will control their populations to not consume too many resources during lean times. It means that they will clean their hives and keep them free of pests. It means that they may keep multiple queen cells throughout the year ready to deploy a new queen quickly should she be needed. It means that they will forage for pollen as much as they forage for nectar. It also means that they will be a bit more aggressive when defending their hives.

Unfortunately modern domesticated bees have been bred to lead an unbalanced life style. Imagine a person who works two full time jobs to make a lot of money and have a huge bank account, but their house is a mess, they are sick, and they can’t care for their children. You’d say that they have their priorities backwards and are living an unbalanced lifestyle. Yet this is exactly what we’ve bred modern bees to do. They take big gambles raising much brood when the resources are not yet available. They tirelessly forage for nectar and produce huge honey crops. But in doing so, they neglect other aspects of their life that adversely affect their own survival, to the point that these bees cannot survive without the beekeeper.

Our philosophy at Estrada Farms is to breed from our productive hives as much as we can, but we always keep the best survivor hives around to keep a strong presence of their genetics in the gene pool. Two years ago, out of five queen batches, four were of our biggest, healthiest, most productive queens and one was from our best survivor queen. Last year the ratio was about half and half. Every year, we straddle the line between best survival and best production, always trying to improve the genetics to see if we can get the best of both worlds. However, as this blog points out, (honey) productivity and survivability have (a sort of) inversely proportional relationship where too much of one leads to not enough of the other. The good news is that at least for us, our bees get the job done. We use them for pollination (almonds at that) and we collect plenty of honey, even if our honey yields are half of what you’d expect from “regular” bees. All things considered, we wouldn’t trade our bees for any other breed.

So there you have it, the Estrada Farms guide to Survivor Bees. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments section or use the Contact Us form to send us an email; we’d love to hear from you.

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