Why I Keep Pure-Bred Russian Honey Bees in Texas

Varroa Destructor and the viruses they vector have been problem number #1 for honey bees and their keepers in Texas since the early 1990’s. Having grown up in a family bee business which my dad started in 1975, I remember how
beekeeping was before this honey bee parasite arrived...how easy it was. Actually, the bees made it look easy. A person could put a beehive in his
backyard, harvest honey once a year, and generally the bees would take care of themselves. They even were able to overcome most ignorant mistakes that an unskilled beekeeper might make. Not so in the 21st century. Due to the
unrelenting parasitic pressure of the Varroa mite, most colonies exist continuously in a relative state of ill-health. As a result, annual colony losses throughout Texas have averaged 30 to 40 percent over the past 20 years. When I was growing up as a beekeeper in the 80’s, yearly beehive losses over 10% were considered extreme.

Varroa mites are the biggest reason I keep Pure-Bred Russian Bees.

In 1994, bee scientists from the USDA Honey Bee Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana conducted an exploratory trip to far eastern Russian known as the Primorsky region. It is believed that European Honey Bee colonies were first introduced to this region over 150 years ago. This may have been the first contact between Varroa mites and European Honey Bees. For eons Varroa mites have been a rather benign parasite of Asian Honey Bees that naturally occupy the Primorsky region, which is located directly north of Asia.

These USDA bee scientists hoped that they would find European Honey Bee colonies that were exhibiting Varroa mite resistance. Over the next few years multiple queen bees from the Primorsky region of Russia were brought to the USDA Bee Lab to evaluate their ability to head colonies that fight off the mites and prosper.

Today the Pure-Bred Russian Breeding Program has evolved into a group of queen breeders across the US that continually select for Varroa mite resistance in the descendants of these queens imported from Russian over 20 years ago. Multiple scientific studies confirm that this breeding program consistently produces colonies that fight the mite with far greater vigor than other more commonly used honey bees in the US.

Without jeopardizing Varroa mite resistance, the Pure-Bred Russian Breeding Program also selects for honey production and workability. As a result, I have found the majority of these colonies to be good survivors, that are workable and produce good crops of honey when managed skillfully.

Although I still sample and treat for Varroa mites as needed throughout the year in my production colonies, I know that I can count on these bees to carry some of the load for their mite management. When the mite and virus populations are kept under control in my colonies then they once again perform like the bees I
remember from my youth.

Additional information can be found on my website, www.OakleyFamilyApiaries.com, and the website of the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association, www.RussianHoneyBeeBreeders.org. An excellent new book, Russian Honey Bees, by Thomas E. Rinderer and Steven E. Coy, details the origins of the breeding program, shares the scientific studies that demonstrate the usefulness of the Russian Breed and gives guidance on colony management of Russian Honey Bees.