Sustainable Beekeeping in Alaska?
Can we keep bees year-round and sustainably in Alaska? Or since Alaska is so very large maybe I should narrow the geographic focus, and ask instead; "can we keep bees year-round and sustainably, in south-central Alaska". To do so seems pertinent since wintering conditions in the interior regions are very different to those on the Kenai Peninsula or around Prince Williams Sound; beekeeping is local as the old adage goes. But regarless of location within the state, from a global perspective it is fair to suggest that most Alaskan beekeepers (intent on overwintering at least) face fairly unique challenges. The situation of course is in part a reflection of Alaska's latitide; we are at the very fringe of the honeybees' natural self-sustainable capacity.
Molecular and morphological evidence suggest that the original ancestoral honeybee evolved in tropical Africa. The development of colony lifestyle provided for a collective approach to foraging and resource storage. A social lifestyle and cavity nesting (which provides shelter from incelment environmental conditions) allowed the species to expand northwards as far as the temperate regions of western and eastern Europe, including areas of the middle-east, and possibly as far east as Xinjiang province in north-west China (see link below to Chen et al. 2016). Honeybees adapted to range of ecological conditions as they expanded their native range.
A number of things have likely allowed honeybees to rapidly adapt (within evolutionary time-frames) to many different ecological and climactic conditions. For example, compared to other organisms, honeybees have particularly high rates of genetic recombination. Each generation therefore, an innumerable amount of novel and potentially beneficial gene combinations passed on from queens to workers and then are exposed to different social and environmental conditions. Beneficial combinations sometimes lead to greater survivorship, and hence (either naturally or through artificial selection or breeding) are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.
In addition, honeybees are polyandrous, which is fancy way of saying that the sexual female (queen) mates with multiple partners. Apis mellifera queens mate on average with 13-15 drones. Colonies with well-mated queens should have genetically diverse colonies that might be more responsive to ecological challenges. From a population perspective, polyandry might offer both a means for local rapid adaptation, as well as a way of preserving suitable and locally beneficial genetic variation.
Outside of Alaska, declining honeybee health has made beekeeping an increasingly labor intensive occupation. There are multiple reasons for the increase in colony losses - but localized small-scale breeding has been proposed as part of the solution. Some beekeepers are selectively breeding for local adaptation in efforts to enhance at the population leve those heritable characteristics that allow their colonies to be winterhardy, productive and disease resistant, ect.
Improvements in bee-health can be achieved by selecting only the most hardy and productive colonies for breeding, while concurrently guarding against the detrimental effects of inbreeding that can rapidly be expressed in small populations.
Chen et al., 2016. History and temperate adaptaion of the honey bee subspecies Apis mellifera sinisxinyuan