NewsMating the island guests: the fertile summer of the...

Mating the island guests: the fertile summer of the bees

Baltrum is not a land of milk and honey for bees, because there is very little nectar there. Nevertheless, beekeepers from all over Germany head for the North Sea island in summer to have queen bees mated.

Baltrum – The crane of the cargo ship “Baltrum II” carefully loads pallets with dozens of colorful boxes from the pier at the port of Neßmersiel on board.

On this early summer morning, the ship has particularly valuable cargo that it is supposed to bring to the East Frisian island of Baltrum. Because there are colonies of bees in around 300 colorful boxes, each about twice the size of a shoebox. Little by little, the boxes are stacked on deck between beverage crates, toilet paper and mail containers. But why so many bees for Baltrum?

“Everyone on board,” calls Detlef Kremer questioningly over the deck – and by that he means a good dozen beekeepers who bring the beehives to Baltrum. Kremer heads the mating station for bees of the Lower Saxony Buckfast Beekeeping Association on Baltrum. Because the North Sea island, like other islets, is also an ideal place for beekeeping. The facility is called “mating location” because “occupying” is another word for “mating”. The 72-year-old takes care of the arrival and departure of the boxes and maintains contact with the beekeepers.

Breeding success on the island is greater than on the mainland

Breeding bees that fly for miles is not that easy, explains Kremer while the cargo ship is sailing to Baltrum. It would be difficult to show a queen bee with which male bee, called a drone, she should mate. Therefore, the breeders use the remoteness of the otherwise North Sea island. “Bees don’t cross large bodies of water,” explains Kremer. On Baltrum, the queens mate with selected drones that were brought to the island a few weeks earlier – this is how the characteristics of the brood can be controlled.

The places of the mating station on Baltrum are popular with beekeepers from all over Germany. The capacity exceeds the demand from the breeders, explains Kremer, who has been in charge of the position for 19 years. “We are fully booked.” The breeding success on the island is greater than with mating sites on the mainland, explain the beekeepers. On this day, beekeepers from Lake Constance, Saxony, Bavaria, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia bring queens to mate. And since the queens do not travel alone, there are also about a handful of workers in each of the locked mating boxes – almost like a small court in their entourage. The breeders take meticulous care beforehand not to bring any foreign drones with them to the island – this could ruin the whole breed.

One of the beekeepers is Heiner Buschhausen. A long night lies behind the 53-year-old from Herten in North Rhine-Westphalia and his colleagues. Since bees are sensitive to heat, the beekeepers made their way to the coast with their boxes at night. Because when it is warm, the bees want to leave their boxes. “It’s a little bit of adventure and freedom,” says Buschhausen, who has been bringing his bees to Baltrum every summer for six years, with a view of the crossing.

Drones are “flying sperm packages”

Once on the car-free island, the work really starts: the beehives are brought to the edge of a remote dune area by the waterworks of the smallest of the East Frisian islands by horse and cart. From there the beekeepers whiz out, always two boxes in their hands, and distribute the bees over the spacious area. Everyone follows their own philosophy: Where should the boxes be? How should they be aligned? Everything should be perfect for the mating flight. After a short time, a colorful mosaic of boxes forms in the dune landscape.

The drones are “flying sperm packages”, explains Beekeeper Buschhausen with a wink as he distributes his roughly 50 boxes. Their only job is to mate the queens. A queen is mated by several drones in the air, after which the drones fall dead from the sky. The queen then returns to her box and begins breeding – this is how the hereditary material of the drones is passed on to the colonies.

Beekeeping is a bit like breeding English racehorses, says Buschhausen, who has been a part-time beekeeper for 15 years. “Of course you want to have the fastest racehorse in the stable.” Of course, Buschhausen and his colleagues are not interested in speed. Rather, the bee colonies should be as vital, gentle and robust against diseases as possible – and ideally also bring a decent honey yield. In the end, however, the service of the breeders is also an important contribution to agriculture, explains Kremer, the head of the mating agency – because without bees, many plants would remain unfertilized.

After 14 days there is a “change of bees”

Such evidence as on Baltrum can also be found on other North Sea islands. The state association of beekeepers Weser-Ems maintains facilities on Langeoog, Wangerooge, Norderney and Juist and provides selected drone colonies there. However, a different breed of bees is bred there than on Baltrum. According to the association, around 6,500 queens from all over Germany and EU countries are fed to the sites on the other islands.

Some time after the first boxes have been placed on Baltrum, it starts to hum and humming. The sun’s rays lure the first workers out of the now opened boxes – it will be a few days before the queens start their mating flight. You only leave the box once for this.

Detelf Kremer will come to the island four more times to organize the arrival and departure of the boxes. Every 14 days there is a “change of bees” and the beekeepers bring their queens back from the island. In the end, between 1200 and 1500 mated queens could leave the island – after a summer on Baltrum. dpa

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