Russian Bees

We only use pure Russian certified bees. One of the biggest threats to the modern beehive (and beekeeper) is the varroa mite. Russian bees are proven to have increased resistance to varroa and tracheal mites. They are a hardy race that overwinters well. In our opinion, they are the best suited bee race for our climate. In every study comparing Russian and Italian bees, Russian bees produced as much or more honey that Italians.

Reserve Your 2024 Russian Nuc

We have pure Russian Nucs available for sale. Reserve yours today. The cost is $225 per nuc. All Nucs require a $100 deposit to complete the reservation. Nucs will be available the first weekend in May (weather permitting).

 

Click Here to Reserve Your Nuc!

 

E-mail andy@thistlebeeco.com for questions and visit our store to place an order!  

Common Questions about Pure Russian Honey Bees

Honey production: Before the different lines of Russian honey bees were released, studies were done over several years by USDA scientists comparing honey production between Russian honey bees and Italian honey bees. In all studies, they produced as much as or more honey than Italians.

Mite resistance/tolerance: The main factor over the years in selecting breeder queens in the USDA breeding program and in RHBA’s breeding program has been to select for varroa mite resistance.  Queens which show the most resistance/tolerance to varroa mites are used to propagate the lines each year. 

The Russian honey bee lines were not released to the industry for breeding by the USDA until they had shown the ability keep varroa mites at low levels. Russian honey bees are not entirely immmune to varroa although they are resistant to them. Colonies will have some varroa mites, but usually at levels that do not require massive treatments of hard chemicals. A treatment once every year or two with a soft-chemical miticide is usually all that is necessary. Examples of soft-chemical miticides are products containing either formic acid, thymol, essential oils, or HopGuard®. It is important to monitor varroa mite levels and treat hives as needed; otherwise, viruses may become a problem, even when mite levels are not excessively high.

Russian honey bees are not notably resistant to bee viruses, so care must be taken to keep varroa mites at low levels. Varroa are known to transmit a number of serious viruses, such as deformed wing virus and black queen cell virus. These viruses are more deadly to the colony than the varroa mite itself.

Aggressiveness:  The truth is that Russian honey bees are generally very gentle. But like in any other strain of bee, occasionally one finds a mean one. Also, as with all honey bees they can be a bit hard on you when you work them when the weather is rainy or cool, especially if there is not a nectar flow. 

Like any other strain of bee, unless their mating is controlled, they may produce hybrid strains that can be unacceptably aggressive.  For any stock, outcrosses with unselected drones can result in aggressive colonies; therefore, it is critical that Russian honey bees be mated with Russian drones to maintain their gentleness and other fine traits. Russian honey bees have gotten a bad reputation among some beekeepers because of queen producers, who are not RHBA members who advertise and sell hybrids (so-called Russian queens which are mated with non-Russian drones).

Hybrids vs. Pure (certified) Russians:  As with any strain of honey bee, Russians will interbreed with other strains of honey bees, which results in hybrids that have the characteristics of both strains. While designed and tested hybrid breeding programs take advantage of useful hybrid vigor, uncontrolled hybrids often display undesirable hybrid vigor; they may have increased aggressiveness,  reduced honey production and a decrease in their ability to withstand  mites and detrimental expressions of other traits as well. “Russian honey bees” and Russian hybrids are advertised for sale by non-RHBA members. There is very little chance these so-called “Russians” are pure bred and they are unlikely to have the exceptional characteristics of pure-bred Russian honey bees.

 Russian queens from certified members of the Russian Honey Bee Breeders’ Association (RHBA) members are not hybrids. Rather, they are pure bred from a broadly based closed breeding population selected for resistance to varroa and increased honey production.  They are bred and DNA tested to be genetically pure Russians. As such, their traits are those which they were bred for by the USDA Bee Laboratory in Baton Rouge from queens imported from Russia and continue to be improved by the combined efforts of the Russian Bee Breeders Association. The RHBA is the sole owner of the Pure Russian Honey Bee Stock for breeding purposes. RHBA members sell only pure-bred Russian honey bees selected for resistance to varroa mites and superior honey production.

RHBA currently has 17 lines of Russian genetic stock.  RHBA members are assigned two lines each to select and propagate. Lines belong either to a white, blue or yellow block and inbreeding is prevented by having members of each block provide queens each year from his two lines to members in the other two blocks. These queens are used to establish drone source hives to produce drones to mate with queens of each member’s two lines. This prevents inbreeding and maintains genetic diversity among the 17 lines.

Swarming tendency: You often may hear rumors that Russian honey bees swarm a lot. That is likely true when no precautions are taken to reduce swarming. Russian honey bees are like all other strains of honey bees. They will readily swarm without proper management; however, with proper management Russian honey bee swarm drive can be controlled. They respond quickly to environmental cues that stimulate brood production. They buildup in population very quickly and if the beekeeper is not paying close attention, they soon can be to swarming strength. Queens must be given plenty of drawn combs in which to lay eggs and space to expand the brood nest .

Russian honey bees are unique in that colonies will often have active queen cells but do not swarm.  You might call them “emergency queens”. It might be compared to a colony producing emergency queen cells when a queen is lost, but just one step ahead. The queens are there to emerge and quickly take over egg laying responsibilities if a queen is lost. Although usually the unneeded cells are destroyed by the bees. According to Dr. Tom Rinderer, who bred the Russian lines, about one of every five Russian colonies will have more than one laying queen without swarming . Since the size of the brood nest is controlled by worker bees, such two queen colonies are no larger than colonies with one queen.

Requeening: For some reason, people often get the idea that Russian honey bees are hard to requeen, and that Italian strains cannot be requeened with Russian queens.  The truth is that they may be easily requeened. The ideal way to requeen any kind of honey bee colony is to first remove the existing queen from a colony, wait one day, then cut the queen cells that are being made and place the new queen into the colony using an introduction cage or the shipping cage she arrived in (removing the attending nurse bees); place it between two brood combs and leave it sealed and undisturbed for at least 4 days before again cutting any queen cells that remain and releasing the queen. Do not allow the bees to free the queen by eating through the candy in the cage. They often do it within 24 hours. Russian queens often take a bit longer to begin egg laying so wait for about 3 weeks to look for a developing brood nest to determine the queens acceptance.

Other Russian Qualities, such as resistance to American Foulbrood, tracheal mites and small hive beetles:Research has shown that Russian honey bees are also resistant to American foulbrood and tracheal mites. Research is ongoing on small hive beetle. Observations have shown Russians to be more aggressive towards small hive beetles than Italian honey bees; however, the degree to which they keep them under control has not yet been determined.

Mechanisms of Resistance

A complimentary combination of various resistance mechanisms and behavioral strategies give Russian honey bees their strong resistance to varroa mites and their great resilience and wintering ability.  Listed below are brief descriptions of some of these mechanisms and behaviors and how they compliment each other.

  • 1) When dead mites are collected from Russian colonies and other domestic stock, those collected from Russian colonies exhibit a higher proportion of missing/damaged appendages and damaged exoskeletons.  Observations have been recorded of Russian bees ‘biting’ varroa mites, inflicting this damage.  Let’s refer to this as Varroa Sensitive Grooming, or VSG.
  • 2) Relative to the general domestic population, Russian honey bees exhibit a high level of Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH); they can detect that brood cells contain reproducing female varroa mites, they uncap a high percentage of those cells and eliminate most of the mites thus exposed.
  • 3) Relative to other domestic stock, in Russian honey bee colonies a much higher proportion of varroa mites are found on adult bees rather than reproducing in the colonies brood.  This slows Mite Population Growth (MPG).  Simultaneously, this increases the efficacy of Russian honey bees VSG trait as a higher proportion of the colonies mites are exposed to that behavior.
  • 4) Though the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association does not select for hygienic behavior, Russian honey bees exhibit a high level of hygienic behavior.  When compared with other stocks in multiple tests (removal of freeze killed brood) over time, these bees have exhibited excellent hygienic response.
  • 5) Relative to other domestic stock Russian honey bees are frugal, when appropriate, in brood rearing.  They are very resource driven regarding brood production.  Accordingly, in the beginning of the season they rear minimum brood until significant pollen and nectar are available to them.  Brood rearing is again minimized or ceases altogether when annual pollen and nectar flows end or during periods of dearth.  This shortens the total time of brood rearing.  Shorter total brood rearing time translates into less MPG as well as an increased period that the mites decline due to VSG.

Russian honey bees frugality also serves to preserve the colonies stores.  Russian honey bees balance this frugality in brood rearing with extremely rapid population expansion in order to take maximum advantage of good honey flows.

Keepers of Russian honey bees have noted that during dearths and during the ‘off season’ they are the quietest bees we have ever worked with.  We presume that this is a part of the reason that they winter so well; it seems to serve both by preserving stores as well as by preserving the individual bees resilience/longevity.