Breeding Better Bees

Below is my latest post to the Kalamazoo Bee Club blog. It’s a rework of a topic I wrote about previously:

Breeding Better Bees

Of all the things potentially killing honeybees (pesticides, poor nutrition, colony collapse), disease is one of the areas where the individual beekeeper may have some impact. Most commonly, hives are plagued with varroa mites. Varroa mites are external parasites that attack both adult honeybees and brood. They attach and suck the blood of the bee. In cases of brood infestation, bees often hatch with deformities and/or weaknesses. Left untreated, mites can ultimately kill a colony.  I recently watched a video on youtube and the man said, “Are you in denial about your mite problem? Repeat after me: I HAVE A MITE PROBLEM.” If you aren’t sure if you have mites in your bee yard, you probably do.  I think they are more responsible for weakened colonies than we perhaps give them credit for.

varroa

There are various treatments (both chemical-laden and natural) and many, many opinions about the treatment of varroa mites. Dr. Marla Spivak has been one of the more outspoken members of the beekeeping community who has suggested that constantly treating for mites is basically just propping up weak bees. She and her team have been working to breed mite-resistant bees since 1994. And, simply speaking, this sounds like the best solution (in my opinion), but also the most difficult. I’m encouraged by some of the work researchers are doing around the country, but as a backyard beekeeper, I need to help my colonies now. Improving the genetics of any living thing requires several generations as well as access and a bit of know-how.

This raises an interesting philosophical question about beekeeping, however. How long are we going to play the game of, what Meghan Milbrath calls, “annual beekeeping”? Every time we lose a colony in the winter and replace it with packages in the spring, we are not doing anything to help the honeybee species as a whole. Beekeepers need to start making purposeful queen selections, whenever possible. Again, easier said than done, I realize.  One idea to consider is to requeen your packages with local queens – survivor stock being ideal, of course.

Another possibility is getting in touch with some of the universities who are breeding hygienic bees and see if they have queens for sale. Case in point, I signed up to be a part of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative through Michigan State University and Northern Bee Network.  Last week I received an email from Dr. Meghan Milbrath explaining that Purdue University has been breeding what they call ankle-biter bees. These highly-hygienic bees actually bite the legs off the mites.  They are selling queens for $150 each, provided you are willing to make upwards of 100 queens to sell or give away, so as to introduce these new traits into the local population.  I find this kind of work fascinating.

There are many books, classes, and youtube videos about queen-rearing and many beekeepers who would probably be happy to show you their system (you can find many of these resources on this website, in fact). I think those of us committed to beekeeping for the long-haul need to stop propping up weak colonies and start breeding for strength. My piece of advice to you would be, don’t be afraid to fail. Do your research and give it a try. It’s time for backyard keepers to start contributing to the problem of bee deaths as well as the university researchers.

Certainly solving the varroa mite problem will not solve all of our beekeeping-woes, but it will certainly help the bees immensely if they are not fighting environmental obstacles, while also suffering from problems within the hive.

Here are some resources to check out:

Queen-Rearing Essentials by Larry Conner (a great book to get you started)

Backyard Queen Rearing with Larry Conner – an extremely thorough video about queen-rearing on a small scale.

New Direction for the Minnesota Hygienic Line of Bees – an overview of Marla Spivak’s work

An overview of Dr. Greg Hunt’s work with ankle-biter bees (includes a video of a lecture he gave about the bees and his process)

Northern Bee Network – a link to the NBN in case you are interested in contacting Meghan Milbrath for more information about the purchase of ankle-biter queens.

happy beekeeping

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8 thoughts on “Breeding Better Bees

  1. Great post – a lot of backyard beekeepers feel that they can’t raise queens because they don’t have drone yards. I would remind every bee club that together they (and other non-participating beekeepers in their areas) are potentially each other’s drone yards (depends, of course, on how far away other bee hives are located. Together beekeepers located within open breeding range of each other can help breed honeybees that are adapted to their areas and can survive without, or with minimal, treatments, supplements and/or chemicals. Again – great post

    • Thanks. Yes that’s a message that our club has tried to spread a bit, but it seems like backyard keepers are so worried with just keeping them alive and general maintenance, that they fail to think long term. I’m certainly not judging, as it’s taken me years to get to this point myself, but hopefully bee clubs can do a better job of supporting new keepers in this way.

  2. I read a lot of blogs written by people in various countries round the world, and U.S. beekeepers seem to have to buy in packages more frequently. I don’t know whether that’s partly due to harsh winters – 2014/15 seemed particularly bad in the East coast? Certainly I think keeping on top of varroa and diseases generally is an important part of successfully overwintering colonies though. The healthier your bees are in autumn, the more likely they are to survive winter, whatever the weather throws at them.

    I wonder whether buying a package puts you at a disadvantage in the first place, particularly if the queens have been imported or come from an area of the country with a different climate. In the UK bees are more commonly sold in nucleus hives on frames already containing brood, nectar and pollen, which seems easier on the bees. I always feel sorry for the bees I see sent in boxes with no combs to cling to.

    • I absolutely agree with both your thoughts about mites and packages! Really, they are the result of commercial pollination industry, so you’re getting these bees that have been trucked around, subsisted on a poor diet, and probably treated with chemicals. I hate buying them. The last few years it’s been hard to find nucs b/c of the awful winters. Our plan this year was to start with packages and re-queen with local queens (survivor stock, ideally). I just got word of a guy close-by who still has nucs from Ohio and they are overwintered colonies. We might buy one or two, or at least a couple of queens. I feel like buying packages each spring is doing nothing to help the honeybee population, but really only funding the commercial industry. Desperately hoping these hives survive the winter!

  3. We are running hives up here in Marengo, Wi. the same way your talking….We raise our own Q’s and sell nucs. All overwintered here. Went from 3 over wintered and 3/3 pound packages to 25 hives last year. Sold 8 of them lost 2 and went into winter with 16. Coming out with 15. Not bad…This year looking at reaching 60 splits…..My question is when we introduce Purdue’s, which I have some coming from Megan this year, how long will those genetics stay in our yard?

    • That’s a tough question to answer. If the queens are already mated with drones who also carry the gene (which I assume they are) then you’ll for sure have the genes for that queen’s generation, but new bees only get half of their genetic material from their mother, so if the father isn’t a carrier, the trait may be spotty. Those Purdue bees are great genetics to introduce into the bee population at large, but in terms of your personal apiary, it’s hard to preserve and prove the trait after the first year. If that makes sense? I’m not a biologist, so I’m trying to remember what I learned when I saw one of the Purdue researchers speak!

      • Thank you for getting back to me on this….Done some more research on this. My understanding is once the genetics are there, their there…Some have suggested to keep 60% of your hives queened by the queens of choice. Meaning if I like the Purdue trait, queen 60% of our hives with her daughters…We are not looking for a pure strain of any breed in our yard. We will end up with Mutts. We keep introducing genetics we like, and prayerfully have a breed of bees that are genetically adapted to the Upper Midwest…Thanks for you reply…..

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