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Prolificacy of Queen Bees

The egg laying rate of the queen

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.

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 U.K. and Ireland, 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 the U.K. Just before writing this, I have seen some advertisements for queens for sale in the U.K. 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 define 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 B.S. brood box - WBC, Smith or National 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, Commercial or Langstroth 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:-


Non - prolific.

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 U.K 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 B.S. brood box, but I think this is more to do with fashion than beekeeping knowledge. I have kept bees for around 60 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 bees, in fact, when I started many beekeepers bought imported prolific queens, mainly Italians, to make up for losses after the hard 1962/3 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.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 11/06/2013

Page updated 16/12/2022