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 have 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.
Our beekeepers in California began our first queen rearing initiative. March is 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
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.
- 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 queens from entering and killing them, or them leaving and killing other newly emerged queens.
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 “mating yard”, 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 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 drones (a response designed to increase genetic diversity), to assure greater genetic control, it’s essential to surround the hive in a radius of a mile or more with hives with desired genetic stock. As we grow in 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.
How are other beekeepers around the world rearing queens?
Some beekeepers around the world are working within their own stock, selecting the strongest queens from the healthiest hives, while others are cross-breeding bees from different strains to combine the most desirable characteristics.
A brief primer on honeybee strains
Honeybees, Apis mellifera, are native to Europe and Asia, but not to the western hemisphere. When the first European settlers came to North America, they brought with them the most common strain at the time, known today as German honeybees. Most wild honeybees in America are descendants of these German bees. By the mid-1800s these had become prone to disease, aggressive, and difficult for beekeepers to manage. Italian strains were brought in to replace them, and proved for the next 100+ years to be perfect for U.S. agricultural purposes—they were docile and less likely to swarm, making them easy to manage, were good pollinators, and produced an abundance of honey. They have only two drawbacks today: they’re not super cold tolerant and have little resistance to two virulent pests accidentally introduced here in the 1980s: tracheal mites and varroa mites.
While Italian honeybees are still the most popular, four other strains are used by breeders in the U.S. who are looking to create hardier bees:
- Russian honeybees: These bees were discovered in the far east of Russia and have proven resistant to both tracheal and varroa mites. Their primary drawback—they maintain active queen cells throughout the season, making it hard for beekeepers to tell if they’re about to swarm.
- Buckfast honeybees: Bred by a monk at Buckfast Abbey in England, these bees are more mite-resistant than Italian bees, but can also be more aggressive.
- Carniolan honeybees: These come from the alpine region of Italy, Austria, and Slovenia, and are characterized by greater cold tolerance. They’re prodigious foragers in the spring and can create so much honey by early summer that their hives can’t keep up with the supply, increasing the chance of swarming. They don’t like extreme heat.
- Caucasian honeybees. This strain originated in the Caucasus Mountains between Asia Minor and southern Russia. Their extra-long tongues make them great pollinators. They’re more cold tolerant than Italian bees, but can be slow to build up hives in the spring.
Queen rearing for cold tolerance
Members of the Northern Bee Network, an alliance of beekeepers in northern states, are working to breed queens that can survive the sub-zero temperatures that are common where they keep bees. With so many queen rearing operations based in the American South, they feel that the queens they’ve purchased in the past are not acclimated to the extremes of cold in places like Michigan. To combat this, they’re breeding their own, using only queens that have survived cold local winters in Michigan.
Researchers at Washington State University are taking a different approach—they’re working with US raised Carniolan queens, already known for greater cold tolerance, and breeding them with semen from pure Carniolan drones found in the Alps of Slovenia, in the hopes of creating an even more cold-resistant strain that will adapt well to conditions here.
Breeding for mite resistance
With mite infestation one of the leading causes of colony loss, beekeepers around the world are focusing much of their efforts on breeding mite-resistant queens. Researchers at the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab in Baton Rouge have been working on the problem for several decades. Their focus—find and breed bees whose grooming behavior would rid them of most varroa mites. Initial results were promising but worked only with young mites. A breakthrough came when a strain of honey bee was discovered near Vladivostok in the far east of Russia. These Russian bees had been exposed to Varroa mites for centuries and had, through natural selection, developed a grooming technique that was highly effective in killing young and mature mites: they bite the legs off mites, who then quickly bleed to death.
Russian bees, acclimated to severe winters, are also more cold tolerant. While very promising, Russian bees have some drawbacks for beekeepers—their queen rearing behavior makes it harder to tell if they are near to swarming. Cross-breeding Russian with Italian bees to build a super bee is the next challenge for beekeepers.
Some scientists believe the only way to achieve consistent results is through genetic engineering. At the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, scientists have been working to develop techniques for inserting desired genes into honey bees. They’ve faced a host of challenges—genes didn’t take, the insertion process damaged embryos, and nurse bees killed the modified eggs. Over time, they’ve slowly overcome all of these, and believe they have a process that will work. The hard work of developing genetically modified bees that exhibit all of the desired traits will take years, and when complete, could face resistance in countries, such as Germany, that have strict laws about transgenic organisms.
Survivor breeding & wild stock breeding
Our colleagues at Wildflower Meadows are taking a completely natural tack. They’re rearing queens from hives that have consistently survived, without treatment for varroa mites. They believe this natural approach will build up qualities of mite resistance and maintain all of the positive traits of Italian honeybees.
At the Honey Company, they’re taking this approach one step further. In a program they call The Feral Bee Project, they mate their virgin queens with drones from feral hives, in the hopes that these drones, from hives that have survived in the wild for generations without human intervention, will produce hardier, more disease-resistant colonies. The project is relatively young but shows promise.
Our friends at They Keep Bees are doing much the same thing—cross-breeding wild and domesticated bees to build stronger, healthier stock. In describing their breeding efforts, their founder, Amir Jones said “These hives are biodiverse and adaptive to localized bioregions and they can help move the industry forward, ensuring that the bees are equipped with the characteristics that safeguard their survival because bees are more than a tool.”