Some honey bees are much more prolific than others and there is quite a lot of misunderstanding about the meaning of the word “prolific”. The prolificacy is relative to the egg laying rate of the queen, not the vigour of a colony as is sometimes thought.
Honey bee sub species evolved in isolation and developed their characteristics based on conditions of the areas they evolved in. As far as prolificacy is concerned I will give three examples – Italian, carniolan and Dark North European honey bees.
Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica). These evolved in the Mediterranean area where the climate is reliably warm all year round, apart from perhaps some mountainous areas where it can be colder. It is a benefit to them to have large colonies, therefore queens that produce large quantities of brood. The queens probably carry on laying throughout the winter.
Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica). They originated in an area where there are mainly long cold winters and short warm summers. The queens are prolific in the spring and summer, to take advantage of the short foraging season and are non-prolific during the winter to conserve stores.
Dark European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). Their range is the whole of Northern Europe where the winters and summers can be variable. Winters can be long, wet or cold, summers can be warm, but invariably cool and damp, so bees can often be confined to their nest for several days in a row.
The above has not been written for any other reason than to illustrate that bees have evolved to suit climatic conditions and in my view it makes sense to follow what the bees do naturally. Many beekeepers may only have mongrels, but they can be selected for the characteristics the pure races possess. The successful introductions of bees into areas where they were naturally absent has been done with bees that suit the climate, hence mainly Italians are used in countries such as Australia.
I will now confine my comments to how I see the situation in the Northern United States, where apart from some areas where there are relatively pure Amm, the majority of bees are mongrels of varying prolificacy. There is little research to consult on the characteristics of bees, but much anecdotal evidence, some based on observation by good sound beekeepers over long periods and some by considered conjecture. Research into characteristics such as prolificacy would be very difficult to perform because of all the variables, so would probably be no more accurate than information gained by observant beekeepers, and possibly less so because of the time involved in gathering the information. There are clearly some claims and counter claims that are based on prejudice and false logic, often peddled by quite inexperienced beekeepers.
There is a view that more bees = more honey. I can understand why and I’m in no doubt it is the case in better climates than ours, but it is false logic in New England. Just before writing this I have seen some advertisements for queens for sale Virtually every one mentions “prolific” as if the sellers believe the above, but I wonder how experienced some of them are. Perhaps they think it looks impressive as a sales gimmick. I would advise any beekeeper to leave them well alone. What many beekeepers don’t realise is that bad weather = more bees and brood to feed, therefore rapidly decreasing stores (your honey) and bigger colonies usually = bigger swarms!
What do we mean by prolific and non – prolific? Queens will lay varying quantities of eggs and sometimes these are readily quoted, but how many people have ever counted them? I certainly haven’t and I doubt if they have either, so you can’t difine it by the number of eggs laid in a day. I am unaware of any definition, so lets lay down something. As far as I’m concerned non – prolific means bees you can keep in a single brood box -all year round, without them bursting out of the box in the summer and needing emergency feeding in the winter. Prolific will need a double brood or more year round. Semi – prolific (now there’s new beekeeping terminology!) will need a brood and a half year round. Does it matter how many eggs the queen lays in a day? Of course it doesn’t.
Some of my observations on prolific v non – prolific bees and the management required are:-
In general all queens with yellow in them are prolific or semi – prolific.
Prolific queens will probably lay throughout the winter. My concern is that varroa will continue to breed and levels will be higher in the spring and summer.
In non – flying weather there is more brood and bees to feed, so stores are consumed at a much faster rate.
I have seen it quoted that Italians need 2.5 times the amount of food during the year to keep the colony going than native bees. My own observations would agree with that for my own native type bees that are very frugal. Bearing in mind the extra brood reared they will require much more pollen too.
In periods of poor weather prolific queens will carry on laying, turning food into brood that may not be needed. In my experience if bees need feeding during the summer it is usually prolific ones that need it first.
In my experience starvation, both summer and winter, is much more of a problem in colonies with prolific queens.
Bigger brood areas will be needed, meaning larger hives and frames or multiple boxes.
When it is advised to replace queens every year or two it is the prolific queens that are meant, presumably because they wear themselves out. Some of the Italian hybrid queens, Dadant Starline in particular, were bred to lay all year round and they needed replacing after 12 months.
Non – prolific.
In general non – prolific queens are dark, although some dark queens can be prolific.
There is a view that adult bees live longer in non – prolific colonies and I have seen a figure of 50% longer. I haven’t checked and it would be a very difficult experiment to conduct, but I often notice that with non – prolific bees the frames are better covered with bees, even in warm weather. My thinking is that’s because they live longer. If a worker does live longer it will probably give a higher return for the cost of rearing it than a bee that doesn’t live so long.
Queens live longer. It is said it’s because they don’t wear themselves out, but I think that is human thought and the reasons may be more complex.
I have found that non – prolific queens will still head productive colonies throughout their lives and don’t need regular replacing.
Even though the colonies are smaller, my experience is they will give a reasonable crop most years, without having to feed them the vast amounts that more prolific bees need.
In my experience non – prolific bees are more frugal and look after their food.
As less food is consumed, then surely more colonies can be kept in the same place. The honey will be stored in the supers, rather than turned into brood.
There is often food in the brood box in the summer, so starvation is unlikely when the supers are removed.
Smaller colonies means less work.
Over a long period I have kept or been involved with a lot of different bees belonging to me or other people. I am not basing my opinions on the odd colony, because that would be unfair to do so, but on quite large numbers. I have come to the conclusion that for New England conditions the bees that consistently give the best return in relation to the amount of food they consume, the cost of extra equipment and time involved are non – prolific ones. I accept that in the occasional good year prolific colonies will often out – perform the non – prolific, but is that year worth waiting for, especially when everyone else has a large crop too? I have occasionally come across a prolific colony that does well in a poor season, but I suspect that has a lot to do with hybrid vigour.
There is a view, certainly amongst newer beekeepers, that the “modern bee” is too prolific for a single brood box, but I think this is more to do with fashion than beekeeping knowledge. I have kept bees for over 5 years and in my experience, in general, the only difference is that bees are much softer than they were. In my time there have always been both prolific and non – prolific, in fact when I started many beekeepers bought imported prolific queens, mainly Italians, to make up for losses after a hard winter. They soon gave up on them.
As with everything else in beekeeping the prolificacy of the bees you keep are a matter of personal choice. That’s fine providing you have thought it through and not relied on poor information.