Our Breeding program

Some of the hives that are part of our breeding program.

One more thing that sets Eco Honeybees apart!

While most local beekeepers source their bee colonies from southern Georgia each Spring, we opted early on that these bees were not suited to this area and had very low chances of survival.  And that OUR success as a business would be judged by the survival of our bee colonies.  Happy clients are the ones with live bees, right?

So we started our own local breeding program in our very first year and starting introducing these colonies to our clients starting mid-way into our second season.  Understanding why we did it and a little of what's behind it helps to not only educate our client base but also help you to understand our commitment to the world of bees. 


Why was a breeding program needed?

Through time and observation, we determined that a major reason why local beekeepers ere losing 70+% of their colonies on a yearly basis.  And, to be honest, it's not for something we can blame on the folks at Monsanto.

Over 90% of the bees brought into the aea each spring by local beekeepers and the local beekeeping clubs for their members are Italian bees sourced from the major bee breeders down in Georgia.

These bees are:

  • available early in the season because it's warmer down south and the earlier the start, the better.
  •  are available in quantity so local bee clubs can pop down there and bring back up to 1000 packages (small colonies) in trucks and trailers for their members
  •  These bee packages are affordable, easy to obtain, and provide a source of income for many of the clubs or people providing them.
  • While available in quantity, these bees are only available at the beginning of the season.

All this would be great were this a perfect world.  But, the reality is that the majority of these colonies don't make it because they are not attuned to our local environment.  If a Queen has never experienced a real winter, chances are she doesn't know how to prepare for it.  If her version of winter is 6 weeks of chilly weather, that's what she'll prepare for.  Both in her honey supply and the number of bee populating her hive.  If winter turns out to be twice as long and is 2-30 degrees colder, than her colony is either going to starve or freeze out because there wasn't enough bees inside to stay warm in cluster.  In the autumn, you can try to feed them a lot but they might not know WHY you're doing it and not accept it.  Often hives will survive only by sheer luck.

We learned early on that this wouldn't work as a business model and maybe this is why no one's tried and succeeded at this type of business before.

The honeybee already has enough challenges surviving.  They didn't need another hurdle.  we knew we needed to be able to source our bees locally to combat this and give us a supply of colonies throughout the whole season and not just the beginning.

A rare wild hive in a tree.  But it hadn't been there too long

How do you start a breeding program?

The best way tp start a breeding program is with local bees.  Normally this means catching some wild (feral) bee colonies and breeding them together.  But!  One reason there's a bee crisis is because there are VERY few wild bee hives left.  A wild feral hive is not just someone's swarm that's living in a tree or in someone's attic.  Feral bees are that type of hive that's done that but has survived for several years.  If a wild hive can survive for several years with no one feeding it in autumn and no one treating it for mites and parasites, than one can imagine that it would be a strong ive with good survival instincts.  And they'd be right.  

My friend Tom runs a tree business and he also runs our breeding program.  He was lucky enough in the winter of 2012 to find a true wild hive inhabiting about 5 feet of a dying tree about 75 feet up off the ground in Arlington.  After a lot of work involving night time climbing to close off the entrances, a crane to lower that six foot section of tree trunk down 75 feet to the ground and a truck to transport it back home, we had our first wild hive!

Come early spring, the trunk was cut apart, the Queen was found and her and all the wax comb was removed and transferred into standard boxes that we could work with.  Yes, it is a nasty, sticky mess to do.

After that, it was a matter of causing that hive to create new Queens, introducing the new Queens into other Queenless colonies, and adding other colonies of Russian and Carniolan bees sourced from breeders residing in a similar, or worse, climate than ours.

With lots of trial and error, finding strong Queens with gentle offspring and breeding them to other similar unrelated (no one wants bees with flippers) bees, and now you start having your own reliable supply of bees.

Several small starter hives in a local yard

Sounds easy! Why doesn't everyone do it?

Trust us, it is far from easy!  Lucky for us, Tom loves doing this type of thing and being a mad scientist.  It requires a huge amount of patience because nature can't be rushed.  It's a lot of trial and error.  And when the climate's changing, a spell of super cold winter weather can kill two years of work.  During the winter of 2017 we lost 70% of our breeding program because it was 5 degrees for ten days right after the new year.  Even the bees that survived often were weakened so that they couldn't survive the next stretch of cold weather even though it wasn't as bad.  So it can be heart breaking.

Another thing that's needed is space.  DC is an urban and suburban area.  Breeding local bees means breeding in at least a suburban environment.  Last we checked there aren't any 50 acre field close by where one can house 100 beehives.  Having a breeding program based down past Fredricksburg defeats the purpose of having local bees and is a huge logistical issue when trying to transport hives.

Through a lot of effort and some novel marketing, we overcame this and now have a small to medium sized breeding program going to support our clientele.  Because of the space issue and zoning laws, there's no way we can produce enough hives to supply the demands of all the local beekeepers so we don't try.  This is why our bees aren't available to the public outside of our clients.  We don't see that happening in the future unless the space thing is solved and then we wanted to turn our breeding program into it's own separate entity.

An undisclosed roof top in NW DC

How do the clients fit into this?

We impress upon all our clients that we always consider the bees in their hives, while theirs, to always be a part of our breeding program.  And we commonly use client hives to support our and vice versa.  A natural part of any hive in the spring is for it to grow larger.  At some point, it will usually want to swarm or will be of a size to where it can be safely split, or reduced in size by removing brood and bees, to help manage it professionally.  While some of our clients will want us to split their hive so they can have multiple hives in their yard, many are happy with just one.  So we'll take the bees we remove back to our own yard and use them to start new hives.  Or we'll introduce them into someone else's hive that is weaker and would benefit from the boost.  Last year we might have taken bees from your hive, this year, we might have to add some from someone else.  You never can tell but we're all here to support each other.

If you have incredible bees in your yard, we'll be very interested in creating a few daughter Queens from some of your brood.  If your hive does swarm and before the Queen leaves, she creates ten Queen cells to replace herself, to prevent the hive from swarming once or twice more when new Queens hatch, we might remove seven of those Queen cells, take them and start 4-5 more hives from them in our yards.  If, for some reason, your new Queen doesn't take properly, we're ready to bring another daughter Queen from your hive back over to reintroduce so we can keep the genetics all the same.  At least we'll know that new Queen will have been properly fertilized in our yards by our bees.  It's a lot of fun, a lot of work, and gives our clients an overall better product!


Now you know!

While by no means complete, at least now you know a little more of the complexities of how we do our business.  

Like we mentioned before, we're pioneering this type of business.  Through trial and error, we're writing the book.  Other may try to offer this kind of service but, for all the reasons you've just read about, if they're not taking all these sort of steps, usually by just trying to supply Georgia Italian bees and that's it, we honestly don't know how they could possibly have any success.  We certainly expect that we'd have to get this involved when we started out but we learned!