I recently spent a few days with Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, Vermont. Ross is the author of Natural Beekeeping and was trained by world-renowned beekeeper Charles Mraz and his son Bill.
Ross never re-queens. Ever. Two reasons:
First, Ross reminded me that a colony of honey bees, as a super-organism, behaves much more like a mammal than an insect. The queen represents the female reproductive organs; the drones represent the male reproductive organs; and the workers represent the individual cells and other necessary organs of the super-organism’s body, performing all the functions necessary for its health and vitality. A colony regulates its own body temperature; builds its own home; eliminates outside its “den”; makes decisions and choices for itself; learns and remembers; chooses the foods it needs for its health from the forage available; produces a “mother’s milk” for its young, which we call Royal Jelly, from the pharyngeal glands of the nurse bees; and reproduces through an event we call swarming, which produces a second, live colony (the queenless half just has to wait to become sexually mature through the creation of a new, mated queen).
Ross believes that every colony has a right to life.
If the queen needs to be replaced, let the bees decide that. They are the best at knowing when that should be done, and have a very complex process for doing so. Ross allows every colony to live out its own natural life.
Secondly, Ross believes that our reasons for re-queening may be flawed. For example, conventional beekeeping practices teach us to replace a queen that has a spotty brood pattern. But, if the queen has the genetics for a propensity toward varroa sensitive hygiene, the brood pattern may be spotty because the worker bees are uncapping and removing brood that they sense have varroa mites reproducing on them. Also, Ross said, we don’t know if a queen that we are replacing may actually have the genetics to successfully handle the next disease or stress that the honey bees may encounter.
My own thoughts:
In addition to the above, by re-queening, we are not allowing honey bee colonies to adapt. We are, in fact, interrupting that process. We are not allowing the colonies to become an ecotype (sometimes called an ecospecies) – a colony that is a genetically distinct geographic variety, and which is adapted to its specific environmental conditions.
It is part of the honey bees’ natural process of adaptation to re-queen their colony themselves when they perceive the need to do so in order to survive and thrive. As bee-centered beekeepers, why would we disrupt this? Re-queening by the beekeeper is one of the practices of conventional beekeeping that is aimed at maximizing honey production for the beekeeper’s profit. But, given the above, re-queening may not necessarily fit within the ethos of bee-centered beekeeping.