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Queen Rearing for Healthier Bee Colonies 

Posted 03/31/2021 BY Bruce Rutter

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At the Best Bees Company, we’ve spent more than 10 years studying honeybees across a wide array of environments in America. Our research has led to a set of best practices that has improved bee health and increased colony survival. In spite of these efforts, we still lose more than 40% of our bee colonies each year, especially in northern environments, because of three factors: extreme cold, persistent mite infestation, and unpredictable queen strength.

We believe the solution to these problems is queen rearing—to breed stronger, more prolific queens that can pass on to their broods cold tolerance and mite resistance. While the beekeeping community has engaged in some experimental breeding, the scope of these efforts has been limited; no one has yet developed hardy queens that can reliably address all of these issues.

 

We’ve committed our resources to the cause 

As beekeepers and bee scientists with the largest bee database in North America, we’re joining this effort, bringing our knowledge, people and data to the work of breeding hardier queens, and through them, colonies that can survive under the many different conditions found in cities, suburbs and rural areas across the nation.

Earlier this month, our beekeepers in California began our first queen rearing initiative. It’s swarming time in California, and hives are full of larvae and nurse bees that can be separated out for use in raising queens. Our beekeepers will take “splits” from hives with high performing queens whose colonies have shown encouraging resistance to varroa mites. “This is one of the advantages we bring to queen rearing,” says Nicole Voracka, Best Bees’ head beekeeper in the Bay Area, “We have amazing data on our hives like brood size & consistency, mite resistance, honey production, survival rates. This data will help us select larvae with the best genetic potential, raise our own crop of queens, and monitor the success of their hives.” 

“We have amazing data on our hives like brood size & consistency, mite resistance, honey production, survival rates. This data will help us select larvae with the best genetic potential, raise our own crop of queens, and monitor the success of their hives.”

– Nicole Voracka, Best Bees’ San Francisco Head Beekeeper

Beehives in San Fransisco
Three honeybee hives on the roof of Levi’s Plaza in San Fransisco

 

We’re breeding queens for local conditions

Similar queen rearing initiatives will begin later this Spring at Best Bees operation centers in Boston and New York. There, larvae will be selected from hives based on both mite resistance and survival rates, with the intention of developing colonies that can better survive cold winters in the northeast and fight off varroa mites with little treatment.

“As our data has shown again and again how varied bee health can be by geography,” says Noah Wilson-Rich, our founder and CEO, “we realized that the next phase in bee health optimization had to include queen rearing. If we use our hive data to select the best queen genetic material possible, we can develop hives that are uniquely adapted to the needs of different geographies.”  

 

How queen rearing works

The most common approach to queen rearing is known as grafting. Grafting is quite a complex process, involving many careful steps from initiation through harvesting.  The following is a simplified description of the steps beekeepers go through to raise queens using the grafting method:

    • Grafting is usually done when hives are on the verge of swarming—when they are near capacity and plenty of drones are available.
    • A portion of the selected hive, known as a “split” is taken from brood frames, as these are full of both larvae and nurse bees, and placed in a nuc (short for nucleus colony)—a smaller bee box ideal for queen rearing.  
    • Young larvae are then removed by special grafting tools and placed into queen cups in a separate strong, queenless colony full of nurse bees to feed them royal jelly and build them into queen cells.
    • After 10-14 days the larvae ripen and are ready to emerge as functioning queens.
    • Before emergence, individual queen cells are then removed and placed in mating nucs where they can be fed and cared for until mating time.
Two queen cups
  • After 10-14 days the larvae ripen and are ready to emerge as functioning queens.
  • Individual queen cells are then removed and placed in separate containers where they can be fed and cared for until mating time. These include queen excluders, which prevent other queen from entering and killing them, or them leaving and killing other newly emerged queens.
Brood frame used for queen rearing
Queen cells stuck into a brood comb from a “split”
Grafted queen cups that transformed into successful Best Bees queen cells

The drone challenge 

If bees were like most domesticated animals, cross-breeding different strains for selective traits would be relatively easy. But bees, unlike cows, sheep and pigs, are not easily contained during breeding. When it’s time for a queen to mate, she flies away from the hive, and can mate with dozens of drones from different hives in what is called a “matingyard”, each bringing a different set of genes. With uncontrolled breeding, the traits introduced by a new queen can be diluted over a few generations. 

There are a number of solutions to this problem. Artificial insemination is the most effective method, but it can be risky (queens can be damaged in the process) and without the natural selection process where the only the strongest drones mate with the queen, human selected drones can accidentally pass on weaker genes. Rearing queens in isolated environments—islands, desert oases—can be effective for small-scale experiments, but impractical for large scale breeding. A third solution—breeding queens in an environment where a majority of hives are part of the breeding program—significantly reduces the chance of genetic dilution.  As queens will fly as much as a mile further from the hive than will dones (a response designed to increase genetic  diversity), to assure greater genetic control, its essential to surround the hive in a radius of a mile or more with hives with desired genetic stock.  As we grow in the the Bay Area, we’ll be able to set up satellite apiaries around our intended mating yard, increasing the likelihood that desired genetic traits will be passed on by mated queens.

Next month we’ll share with you some of the queen breeding work of other beekeepers around the world, and what we can learn from their successes and the challenges they’ve faced.

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