By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Every worker bee has the potential to be a queen before she is three days old and Jodi Roth has capitalized on that knowledge to become a queen breeder at Huckleberry Hives near Gad’s Hill.
Having studied queen breeding and rearing via the Tech Transfer classes offered by the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, Roth is establishing herself as a beekeeper, queen breeder and nuc supplier after learning bee basics working for her brother, Mike, at Nith Valley Apiaries.
“I was helping with the retail side of the business and people kept asking questions about the bees,” remembers Roth, now 31, who has grown her own Huckleberry Hive business to over 120 hives. “The more I learned, the more I realized I wanted to work directly with the bees.”
Roth became fascinated with bee biology, marvelling at the dynamics within the hive. For instance, worker bees that only live 45 days in summer can live months in winter when their role changes from gathering nectar and feeding larvae to warming the queen to keep her alive. These “winter” worker bees are born with extra body mass which gives them more insulation and vibrating power to create heat.
As her interest in bees grew, so did her fascination with queens and in particular, breeding bees with specific phenotypes to create the ideal queen bee. For instance, some bees are known for their hygienics and how quickly they can clean out dead brood. Perhaps even more beneficial, are bees bred for Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) which increases the chance bees can clear their hives of one of Ontario’s bee’s worst threats – varroa mites.
Roth’s top three criteria for raising queen bees are:
▪ Hive overwintering
“I don’t focus on production but I haven’t found that any of my hives are unproductive,” says Roth.
Queen rearing is a delicate process and it starts with worker bee larvae under three days of age. “At this early larval stage, they are all fed royal jelly which nurse bees produce with special glands in their mouth,” explains Roth. After three days, larvae are switched from royal jelly to worker jelly and this different food source then dictates the future careers of the larvae.
To breed queens, Roth removes larvae before they are three days old and places each one in a manufactured queen cell. The process is called grafting and it’s tricky because the larvae are tiny and easily squished. Also, it’s vital to maintain the orientation of the larvae because if they are flipped upside down, they cannot breathe and will die. Roth uses a special Chinese grafting tool which features a little “plastic tongue” allowing her to complete this delicate process. Once the larva is safely in the queen cell, the nurse bees then understand this larva to be a future queen and continue feeding her royal jelly. The fact that there are 40 or more cells on the bee frame doesn’t seem to fluster the nurse bees.
Roth showed me one of the queen cell frames in her colourful bee yard beside her tiny home. After a careful inspection, she announced 39 of the 48 queen cells had “took”. That’s an 81 per cent success rate and Roth was satisfied with that. Of course, there could be more losses before the process is totally complete but so far, so good.
There are many factors to ensure a high success rate. Grafting needs to be done in hives that are feeling “swarmy” (about to swarm) and are queen right, meaning they have a healthy queen. Roth follows the Cloake system which involves a Cloake board inserted into the hive to keep the queen in the bottom box. Roth has to make sure the queen doesn’t have access to the new queen cells or she will destroy them.
Plus, the bees must feel they need to create another queen in order for them to get busy taking care of the new queen cells. She encourages the process by taking a frame of brood from the lower box and placing it beside the new frame of queen cells. It takes 16 days for the larvae to emerge as queens and it’s critical to remove the frame of queen cells before emergence because the first one to emerge will kill the rest.
Roth rears queens four to five times in her chosen hives, then gives the hives a rest. It’s hard work raising queens and the process is stressful for the bees. The health of her hives is paramount so a rest is mandatory.
Roth has sold 600 bee queens and queen cells to other beekeepers at a cost of $55 per queen. She also sells nucleus colonies – usually 50 a year – which changes according to how many hives overwintered. This year, she sold 65 which was an exciting milestone to reach.
Beekeeping has been quite a journey for Roth. Starting her own business was an exciting time in 2017 but a few years later, she experienced a 95 per cent hive loss after a difficult winter. It was devastating and is why breeding for overwintering success is high on her list of priorities.
“It was rough. I remember checking the hives and having a good cry in the beeyard,” says Roth. She had to take out a loan to purchase new hives and worked part-time on her hives, her brother’s business, another apiary and her parent’s business as well to restore her finances. It was busy but now, Roth is back on track with slow and steady growth. Looking back, she suspects part of the reason was mite management. She has since taken a tech transfer course on pest management and now feels confident about best practices. This spring’s survival success proves it worked.
Raising bees is a never-ending learning process and Roth is up for the challenge. Her technical knowledge is astounding and interviewing her, I felt like I was taking a technical course. She also shares her knowledge with families during her on-farm tours. She used to run tours every weekend but ended up exhausted so she scaled down to five tours during the summer, each one at capacity. The tour takes people through her yards, includes a hive inspection and ends with making candles out of beeswax.
She also teaches about native bees. “Some people don’t even know native bees exist!” says Roth. Within the pollinator patch planted beside her tiny home, Roth is able to point out native bees on plants such as beeblam, false sunflower, mint and globe thistle plants in the garden.
“If I have space, I feel it is my responsibility to have a pollinator patch when keeping bees at a small-scale commercial level,” says Roth. She encourages participants in her tours to plant pollinator patches as well. “I think planting habitat is probably more important than having hives for people who want to save pollinators,” believes Roth.
It’s been many years of learning, highs and lows, failures and successes for Roth since she started Huckleberry Hives in 2017. This year, instead of feeling she has to “catch-up” she feels a sense of success. “It was a good year for beekeepers in general but I do feel I did my hive management well. I went through all the hives to make sure the queens were laying in August, did mite checks and got off all the honey in time so I could do the fall treatments,” says Roth. “I feel I have hit my stride in terms of having knowledge and implementing that knowledge well.”
That allows her to be in her own “state of flow” which, when she’s not too busy, is what makes her love beekeeping. “I love to watch the bees work and how they live…there is a real coolness factor to bees.” ◊