Last month we talked about our own queen rearing efforts. This month, we’d like to share with you some of queen rearing programs around the world that will inform our work.
Some of these beekeepers are working within their own stock, selecting the strongest queens from the healthiest hives, 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 1800’s 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 1980’s: 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.”