ATG Quirkies: How a Canadian Beekeeper Breeds New Queens

by | Jul 11, 2021 | 0 comments

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Honeybees aren’t your typical livestock.

After the honey harvest, the bees swarm around the new hive before reentering.

BY SHAUN PETT

Anicet Desrochers slips the small, crowbar-like tool underneath the lid of the beehive and cracks the propolis seal, a glue that bees make from resin. He puffs a smoker over the box as he pulls and examines the honeycomb frames with bare hands. The smoke, he says, disrupts the bees’ alarm pheromones, making them groggy, while also causing them to gorge on honey and nectar, a possible response to believing there is a fire. When they’re full, they’re less likely to sting.

His team of half a dozen beekeepers tackle the rest of the bee yard, pulling down the honey-heavy boxes, each six-foot stack containing 200 pounds of honey. As the harvest progresses, the bees fill the air with their electric buzz and speckle the sky black. There’s the occasional curse of “tabernac” each time a beekeeper is stung. Desrochers insists on no gloves—they have to remain sensitive to the bees. Sometimes he even does tai chi with his team to set the right energy. He approaches his work with bees more as a collaboration than subjugation.

As the team finishes loading the trucks with several thousand pounds of honey, Desrochers takes a moment to admire the chaos of hundreds of thousands of bees droning around him. “You cannot do beekeeping if it’s only for money,” says the 42-year-old beekeeper. “It’s so demanding, you need to really be in love with the bee.”

While Desrochers’s parents kept bees, they used the honey to produce mead. When he took over and launched his business, Miels d’Anicet, in 2000, he wanted to focus on the honey’s quality. But first he had to reckon with the bees he’d inherited. At that time, all Quebec’s beekeepers used yellow Italian bees, which don’t do well in his home of Ferme-Neuve in the High Laurentian mountains. In order to have a bee that could thrive in the short summers and cold winters, he studied the art and science of queen-bee breeding, which he describes as the most complex realm of beekeeping.

For us, bees are both workers—they pollinate a third of our food—and livestock: They produce about 1.9 million tons of honey globally each year. So there’s a lot at stake in what kinds of bees we use. But they’re more challenging to breed than a cow or pig. Bees are short-lived, they’re never truly domesticated, and you can’t just put two in a box and hope they mate. “The bees are still wild because if they don’t want to do what you want them to do, they take off,” says Desrochers. Yet over the past two decades, he has succeeded in refining his breeding technique and his personal bee strain, becoming the largest queen-bee producer in Canada and one of the leading practitioners of this wondrously specific skill.

Desrochers hadn’t planned to become a beekeeper like his parents. He wanted to escape his remote town to study anthropology and to travel. But soon after graduation he was in Réunion, studying their medicinal plants, and met a family of beekeepers. There he realized this ancient practice of beekeeping could connect him to others across the world, not just keep him trapped in Ferme-Neuve, and that bees knitted together his disparate passions. “Beekeeping touches everything,” he says, “botany, biology, ethnology, anthropology, gastronomy.”

In a field of goldenrod, the beekeeping team collects queen bees. This happens weekly during the season; they are then shipped directly to beekeepers.

After learning from breeders in British Columbia and California, he went in search of bees from around the world that had characteristics suited to his environment. The majority of honey bees belong to the apis mellifera species, believed to have originated in Africa, which spread across the world and evolved into unique sub-species due to regional environments. From Russia, Desrochers acquired the Primorsky bee, known for their cold hardiness and resistance to mites. He went to Slovenia for the Carniolan bee, which is good at foraging on cold days and surviving long winters—his wife, Anne-Virginie Schmidt, actually smuggled them home. “They were in my bag,” she says, “but when I went to customs I knew I would wear a dress and put the cages underneath.” They began to buzz against her because of her warmth. He brought apis mellifera monticola back from Kenya, a gentle bee that lives above 6,500 feet on the slopes of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Then he added Caucasian bees from the Caspian region that a friend in Vancouver gave him.

While there is evidence of beekeeping dating back to ancient Egypt, breeding began with the bee’s modern domestication, probably around the mid 1800s with the creation of the Langstroth hive. The Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth built an easy-to-use hive of removable frames on the basis of “bee space,” a roughly one-centimeter gap that allows bees to move freely. Any less and the bees fill the space with propolis; any more and they construct honeycomb.

To breed his bees, Desrochers narrows down the top 100 colonies each spring from his 1,200 hives, then chooses the top 10 to use, and sends some to a university breeding program. The characteristics that make a bee suitable to his climate also help his clients across the continent who buy his queens. “My main focus, and it’s still the same right now, is to find a bee that will resist and tolerate pressures like climate change, diseases, parasites, and of course being productive.” Though he can accomplish a lot through observation and intuition, he lacks the time and resources to select based on detailed scientific data.

For this, he has collaborated for nearly 20 years with Pierre Giovenazzo, a professor at the University of Laval who employs genetics, statistics, Big Data, and artificial intelligence in his bee-breeding program. “We have developed a statistical model,” says Giovenazzo, “so we don’t just select based on observations, we select based on measurements.” His lab’s focus on both genetic and environmental factors makes it a scientific leader within North America and internationally.

See HERE for the full article from Atlas Obscura

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