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.


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


New (to me, at least): Ankle-Biting Honeybees

ankle biter

This year my husband and I signed up to participate in the Michigan Pollinator Initiative.  Basically, as a participant, you have the opportunity to participate in various research projects.  I just received an email from the organizer, Dr. Meghan Milbrath, with the opportunity to order Michigan x Ankle Biter breeder queen for $150 on the condition that you are willing to make at least 100 queens available for sale.  Their hope is that this project will result in the addition of genetic material that yields desired traits to flourish within the honeybee population.

So, what’s an Ankle Biter bee?

Dr. Greg Hunt, at Purdue University, is breeding what he’s called ankle-biters. Now, I’m going to attempt summarize what this means and you’ll be nice because I’m not a biologist 🙂

Dr. Hunt and his team have been breeding from queens who come from colonies with significant grooming behavior. Bees are natural cleaners, but the researchers were looking for queens whose colonies were more “aggressively” cleaning. Specifically, Hunt’s bees bit the legs off of varroa mites – a pest that is devastating the honeybee population. Once legless, the mites eventually die.  His bees also have some of the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) trait, but I think the leg-biting is the exciting new element here.

As a review, varroa mites are present in most hives. They feed on bees and their larva. The result of this is bee death as they spread Deformed Wing Virus through the colony. Typically a colony can handle a small mite presence, but in more recent years, mite presence has grown to epic proportions. As a beekeeper, a big part of what you’re looking for when you inspect a hive, is the presence of varroa.

There are ways to treat varroa mites. There are, of course, harsh chemicals and also some natural treatments (spices, essential oils).  We have never treated in any way for mites because we’ve never noticed a huge impact, however, we’re now starting to wonder if some of our weaker colonies have been this way because of mite presence.

Anyway, if beekeepers are able to introduce the ankle-biter trait into honeybee colonies, this might mean the bees can begin to solve the problem themselves. This is interesting and also makes me curious if there will be a consequence of this behavior.  Will bees who eat the legs off of varroa be more aggressive? Will it change their hygiene in any other areas of the hive? Will the death of the varroa lead to the increase in a different, new pest?  All the reasons why I love science. Any one answer only opens the door to 100 new questions!

I’m not sure we’ll spend the money to obtain a queen. Committing to raising a 100 queens is no small task and we have never attempted queen-rearing at that level.  It’s definitely going to be a conversation for the dinner table, however!

Here’s Dr. Hunt’s presentation about the ankle-biter honeybee (it also includes information about the effect of pesticides on honeybees):

Neonicotinoids and their Effect on Honey Bees

Neonics and Bees

Last week Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man was all about bees. He did a nice job of skimming a few really important issues in beekeeping and bee population. He visited with small and commercial keepers, gave an overview of Colony Collapse Disorder, showcased commercial pollination, investigated honey imports, and addressed pesticide use and its effect on honeybees. Last weekend I attended the Michigan Beekeepers Conference at Michigan State University and specifically a class about the effects of pesticides on honey bees.  The man, a professor at MSU, who presented did not seem completely convinced that resolving the pesticide issue alone would resolve the bee crisis. While I do agree that it will not solve the bee problem, I certainly feel that it would help it considerably.  Additionally, as a human who eats food, I’d prefer to eat fewer chemicals, so there is that food safety component as well. The pesticides we’re talking about here are neonicotinoids.  These are insecticides and, since bees are insects, they can and will kill bees. The question is, are they? Certainly if bees are on a plant being sprayed, they will be killed, but what about plants, like corn, soy, or sorghum, whose seeds are coated with it?


These seeds might be pretty to look at, but according to Walter Pate (the MSU entomology professor who taught the class I was in) just one insecticide-coated corn kernel contains enough poison to kill 80,000 bees. That’s in a concentrated form, of course. And most large-scale farmers use machinery to plant seed, almost blasting it into the dirt. The concern in this case, is the dust. Dust produced while these chemically-coated seeds are being planted settles on nearby plants, flowers, and in puddles – all places bees land and feed. So bees are then carrying insecticide residue back to the hive with them. Can this kill a hive outright? Yes. Can exposure leave lasting issues? Affect the brood? The general workings of the hive? The queen’s ability to lay? We aren’t sure.  That’s a lot harder to study. The other issue affects both bees and humans. If we are planting insecticide-coated seeds, and that insecticide is present enough in the plant and fruit that it kills insects, then it is also clear that we are consuming insecticides on a daily basis. The amount of neonicotinoid residue found in a tomato, for example, is safe for human consumption, according to the EPA. However, there have not been adequate studies recording long term exposure. For example, it might be perfectly safe to eat a tomato, but what about the cucumber also on your salad? What about the ear of corn you have with dinner? Or the many, many food products that contain soybean oils? And do these residues accumulate in your body? These are details that have not been researched in any great extent. There is some evidence to suggest that the excretions of plants does contain chemicals and in such a quantity that it is deadly to pollinators. This paper, published in 2009 by several Italian entomologists, explains how insecticides like neonicotinoids can be transferred from a corn plant to a honey bee.

Guttation is a natural plant phenomenon causing the excretion of xylem fluid at leaf margins. Here, we show that leaf guttation drops of all the corn plants germinated from neonicotinoid-coated seeds contained amounts of insecticide constantly higher than 10 mg/l… The concentration of neonicotinoids in guttation drops can be near those of active ingredients commonly applied in field sprays for pest control, or even higher. When bees consume guttation drops, collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds, they encounter death within few minutes.


So what can we do? There is a website called Driftwatch that is just gaining momentum and is being utilized by some states more than others.  This site allows farmers and beekeepers alike to enter their information. This way, farmers and keepers can coordinate and help protect the bees when seeds are being planted and/or fields being sprayed. As a beekeeper, if I know a farmer within a 2-5 mile radius is planting corn Tuesday and Wednesday, then Monday night (after all the bees are home for the evening), I’ll close the hive up. This could help keep bees safe from direct spray and initial run-off and early residues, but the other way to get the insecticides out of the plants, is to stop using them. Also, the EPA recently released a new labeling for neonicotinoids that details how harmful they are to honey bees along with directions for usage. There has not been any information about enforcement, however.  

**To learn more and to donate to our cause, visit our fundraising page HERE

2.4 Honeybee Initiative


We have a couple exciting things going on, most importantly, is our GoFundMe campaign! CLICK HERE for more information!

Last weekend we attended the Michigan Beekeepers Spring Conference at Michigan State University. There we signed up to participate in a new program called The Pollinator Initiative.  Here’s the info from the site:

Pollinator Initiative Project at Michigan State University

We received the following communication from Mike Hansen, State Apiarist for Michigan…

Good Morning, many of you already know Meghan Milbrath through presentations she’s provided at local bee club meetings, through MBA’s Annual meeting at ANR week, through the Northern Bee Network, or through many of the bee schools being offered. Meghan recently joined the staff at Michigan State University’s Dept. of Entomology and has been given the task to direct and coordinate a pollinator initiative here in Michigan. Meghan is looking for assistance from beekeepers who are interested in partnering with her. She’s provided the following as a means of introduction, and I hope many of you will respond to Meghan by participating in her mail list and then discovering ways you can help Meghan with the work she’s been asked to do through Michigan State University. Thank you

Mike Hansen, State Apiarist
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Hello beekeepers,

My name is Meghan Milbrath, and I am the coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative – a program started at Michigan State University to address concerns related to pollinators and pollination related issues in the state of Michigan. I would like your help and input as beekeepers/ stakeholders. As we work on understanding the threats and solutions for bees in Michigan it would be best to have an easy way to communicate directly with those most involved. I’ve created a mailing list that will be used only for communication between me, as the coordinator of pollinator related activities at MSU, and you all – the beekeepers. This list will be used to provide you with updates of current projects, to solicit input on future research directions, and to create a list of beekeepers willing to work with us on research projects. Many of the upcoming projects will require hives for monitoring, and we would like to know people who will be willing to work with researchers so that when a project becomes funded we can have a list of beekeepers we can work with so we can get started right away. 

I look forward to meeting you and working with you in the future.



The other interesting thing going on is that while we were there, we trained with Dr. Huang and Megan Milbrath in some new hive management techniques.  I’ll be posting more on this as we begin to get started, but here are a few highlights:

– With Dr. Huang’s assistance, we learned how to identify evidence of nosema and other microbial problems going on in the hive. We’re hoping we can use this knowledge as a preventative measure, so as not to lose a hive to nosema again.

– Megan is beginning to experiment with the way she is overwintering her hives and also encouraged keepers to focusing on buying/raising good quality queens.  The new system involves requeening packages with good, local queens (preferably survivor stock). Also, in the late summer/early fall, Megan turns her smaller/weaker hives into several nucs. She then requeens these with good quality queens. So for example, if you have 4 hives and 2 are not as strong, you might turn those 2 into 6 nucs. This increases your chances of having SOME bees alive in the spring provided you feed them through the winter and can keep them warm. The keeping them warm is the experimental part. We’re working out some details and doing some research about building a bee house to “store” the hives during winter. The initial plan is to incorporate the chicken coop, so that the bees can benefit from the heat. … all in the early stages!

Anyway, we’ve set up a GoFundMe if you’d like to help us on our journey to keep bees alive!  For more information, CLICK HERE.

USDA Organic Honey – What Does It Mean?

A great overview that explains why organic honey is a moving target. The short answer, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t exist, no matter how you play with the terminology.

Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog

Organic Label from the United States Department of Agriculture

We have all seen the USDA certification symbol on some honeys.  But what does it really mean?  It can mean a lot, or it can mean nothing at all.  Confusing?  Yes.  And that’s the best term for honey labeled “organic”.

According to an email correspondence I had with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service “, honey can be certified organic using the organic livestock standards… However, NOSB {National Organic Standards Board} recommendations are not part of the regulations until/unless the National Organic Program adopts through rulemaking process.”

In more normal words: Your honey can be certified organic by the US government, although they have no regulations to define organic honey.  You got to love the federal government.



The federal government does not inspect for organic honey. In the US there are certifying agencies that will certify honey as organic.  They seem to use the…

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The Facts about Grocery Store Honey

Jarring my own honey supply.

Jarring my own honey supply.

Two weeks ago our local Fox News channel did a three-part investigation about honey quality and it was THIS video that really got me thinking.  In the video (which I suggest you watch), they tested 5 brands of honey off the grocery store shelf.  They tested one identified as clover honey, one labeled as “organic rainforest honey,” one local jar, and the Spartan and Meijer brands (local brands).  They sent the honey to Texas A&M to analyze the pollen content because this is  how one would determine the make-up of honey.  Here were the results:

– Clover honey – no evidence of clover pollen

– Rain forest honey – little to no evidence of pollen from any rain forest plants (More about “organic” honey in a future post)

– Local honey – mostly legit, but had a variety of pollen, which suggested they had mixed honey from different locations and/or seasons

– Meijer and Spartan Brands – zero pollen. No pollen at all (it had been filtered out), so they were unable to make any assumptions. They literally put a question mark graphic on the screen.

This left me with two thoughts (well, two thoughts that I’m going to address here): why would a company ultra-filter their honey and why didn’t the news story address this question?

The conspiracy theorist in me assumed the ultra-filtering was probably bad and Spartan and Meijer are local companies, so the news channel made a political decision to not trash the local businesses on air. They had no problem suggesting that the local honey was questionable because it had a variety of pollen in it, however.

So, I spent days and days reading online about commercial honey producers, honey importation, honey regulations, testing, and inspections, and filtered honey and here’s my short take-away (because the issue is enormous)…

The reason to ultra-filter honey is two-fold: it attempts to clean up any “others” that may be in the honey besides pollen (chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, treatments, etc) and it ensures that tracing the honey’s origin is impossible.

Do you know who uses a lot of chemicals in their honey, always ultra-filters, and sells honey to the U.S. on the cheap? China. Does ultra-filtered honey guarantee your honey is from China? No. But there’s a pretty good chance.

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it. It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China.” (Food Safety News)

Why does that matter? Because Chinese honey producers are under far fewer guidelines about what they can and can’t treat their hives with. Also, Chinese honey producers typically cut their honey with sweeteners like corn syrup. You’ll know your honey has been cut with corn syrup if it never crystallizes.

In 2001, Chinese beekeepers experienced an epidemic of the foulbrood disease that ransacked their hives. They fought off the disease with strong animal antibiotics, including chloramphenicol — a carcinogenic antibiotic that’s been banned by the FDA. As recently as 2010, the FDA confiscated $32,000 worth of imported Chinese honey that was contaminated with this drug. (Food Renegade)

Wouldn’t someone in the United States stop this madness? Well, currently only 5% of imported honey is tested, so if you are interested in making a lot of money on a cheap, mislabeled product – honey is the place. There are few enforced regulations about testing, quality, ingredients, and labeling. For example, in Europe, honey bottles must be labeled with the word “pollen” if the honey isn’t filtered, that way the consumer knows if they are buying filtered honey or not, and according to the FDA, if the honey doesn’t include pollen, then it isn’t honey. However, if you read the ingredients on a Meijer-brand, pollen-free bottle the ingredients say only “honey.”

Real honey.

Real honey.

This is not the the worryings of a food conspiracy theorist. Spend some time on google and you’ll find no shortage of information. And, in the meantime, buy from local beekeepers. If you can’t, look for the “True Source” stamp to ensure you’re buying the good stuff.

“Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey” (Food Safety News)

Tainted Chinese Honey May be on U.S. Store Shelves” (Time)

“Your Honey Isn’t Honey” (Food Renegade)

“Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves” (Food Safety News)

“Is Honey You Buy At The Store Really What It Says It Is?” (MI Beekeepers)

A Collection of Articles about Chinese Honey (Huffington Post)

Honey Labeling Laws

MI Beekeepers’ Assoc: “Pondering the Winter of 2013/2014”

This is a GREAT article I just happened upon from the Michigan Beekeepers’ Association website. It summarizes many immediate concerns facing keepers this year.


Pondering the Winter of 2013/2014

This writer predicts that the winter of 2013/2014 will go down as one of the largest, if not the largest, die offs of managed honey bee colonies in North American history.

It is too soon to tell whether or not this prediction will come true, as the data has not yet been compiled; it probably won’t be for another 6 to 9 months.  But the stars are aligned, we think, for bad news.

Here in the north (we are in Michigan), the current problem seems to have started in the spring of 2012 when we had unheard of 80 degree temperatures in the first week of March.  (As we write this in 2014, the first week of March is only two weeks away and there are plenty of single digit lows predicted until then.  What a difference a couple of years can make.)

Those record breaking balmy days set the whole floral community ahead by about 4 weeks.  And it stayed that way right up until winter set in.  The fall flowers (golden rod and asters) which normally support the last rounds of brood rearing of winter bees did not come at the right time (way too early).  Consequently, the colonies went into the winter of 2012/2013 in bad shape.  And, of course, the colonies came out of the winter of 2012/2013 in pretty bad shape too.

The summer flow of 2013 for many colonies was not too bad.  But the colonies were struggling.  A huge swath of territory across the northern tier of states had a pretty severe draught at the end of the summer and into the fall of last year.  And this scenario doesn’t even count the historic draught in California and the southwest.

The colonies went into the fall of 2013 (last fall) very light and short of stores.  At our local bee club meetings, the word was out last fall to start feeding your bees.  Despite heavy feeding, we lost three hives (of 12) by late fall.

With the colonies already stressed and lacking stores, the winter of 2013/2014 has also not been kind to our bees.  Record low temperatures, record high snow fall amounts, no suitable days for cleansing flights and a winter that just keeps hanging on is taking its toll.

By mid February, we have lost 7 more colonies and are down to just two.  We have no hope for one hive; the other looks a bit better but the spring resources are still many weeks away.

This tale of woe is shared by virtually every beekeeper we speak to.  And the reports from other areas and other states sound all too familiar.

None of this even begins to consider the impact of varroa mites, for which it is becoming all too obvious that the mite is winning the race to develop sustainable strategies that will bring this critter under control.

The Silver Lining
Beekeepers sit at the intersection of farmers and crazy people.  We share the traits of both.  Like farmers, we are eternal optimists.  Like crazy people, we are… well crazy.

20140223_CrazyWe are passionate about our bees and tend not to give up so easily.  Our club’s group purchase of packaged bees for spring 2014 increased by 250% from last year despite the cost approaching $100 per.  Replacement nucs are well north of that figure, if you can find them.  Even at these sky high prices, demand will far exceed supply.  As we said… crazy.

Despite this gloom and doom, some of our bees (perhaps many) will survive this winter season.  The bees that make it will have done so for a reason.  Perhaps it is blind luck, but perhaps more likely these survivors have something going for them that gave them an edge.

And therein lies the silver lining that we see in this otherwise dark cloud.  We should be paying attention to the bees that make it to spring’s first bloom.

As beekeepers we face a decision as to how we are going to manage this year’s colonies.  We will have to either manage for honey or manage for splits and increases.  You really cannot have it both ways.  Large honey crops need a large population of bees in the hive.

When we split colonies we, by definition, knock back the hive population.  If the bee gods are smiling, these splits should do just fine; though they probably won’t make large surpluses of honey for the beekeeper to rob.  Particularly if we make multiple splits from the daughter colonies.

But we may have an opportunity here to give our honey bee stock a huge shot in the arm by purposely making multiple splits from those colonies that survive the winter of 2013/2014.  Simply put, we need the genes that gave our survivors their edge.

A Strategy to Consider
There are a lot of beekeepers out there that have thought long and hard about breeding a better honey bee.  Two names come quickly to mind: Randy Oliverez and Larry Conner.  Both have written extensively on the subject.  Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials” is… well, essential reading for all beekeepers.  The basic premise is that beekeepers should run at least 2-1/2 hives.  The1/2 part being a nuc.  Then with 50% losses over the winter, a mark which we will easily hit this year, the beekeeper will still have two viable hives come the spring.  It is good advice.

Personally, we have come down on the side of managing our colonies for splits, knowing full well that our summer 2014 honey crop will probably suffer.  But at close to $100 per pop for replacement colonies, breeding our own is making a lot of economic sense.  How many hives did you have last year that yielded more than $100 in honey?

So we are proposing beekeepers consider the following strategies to build their colonies back to the number they want.

1.  Use their survivor colonies for splits and queen rearing.  We need those genes.  If you have a complete loss then partner with other beekeepers in your area for splits and queen grafting from their survivors.  It will be in everyone’s interest to help their neighboring beekeepers.  Again, we need those survivor genes.

2.  Improve your skills in managing hives for splits.  A good place to start is reading (or rereading) Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials”.  He also has several other books in this series that would be well worth reading too (“Queen Rearing Essentials”, “Bee Essentials” and “Bee Sex Essentials” are three more that come to mind).

3.  Improve your skills in grafting queens.  Many local clubs will hold classes on this subject later this spring.  Go to them and learn how to graft.  It is not hard and can be a lot of fun and very satisfying.  Use larvae from survivor hives, either your own or your local beekeepers.  We need those survivor genes in the pool.

4.  Consider managing a split from a survivor colony for drone production.  Drones are half of the equation and are important.  Managing a colony for drone production is not that hard.  You can simply put in drone foundation and the bees will take care of the job themselves.  This needs to be done early in the spring as that is the time when drones are most needed.  Encourage other beekeepers in your area to do the same.  The idea is to saturate the area with survivor drones since drones from your apiary probably will not mate with your virgin queens.

5.  Many beekeepers will be starting with packages this spring.  The packages will be coming either from the south (such as Georgia) or the west (California).  These bees have never seen a snowflake in their life and there is growing concern that they are ill suited for survival in our northern winters.  Using packages to restart a colony is OK, but maybe we should consider requeening these packages with queens reared from survivor colonies.  Graft queens from survivors and then put these queens in your package colonies.

6.  If grafting or raising your own queens is too intimidating, then consider purchasing commercially raised queens.  Try to support those entrepreneurs who are trying to raise “northern” queens.  Don’t be shy in asking questions.  Queen breeders work hard to provide a quality product and should not be offended when given a chance to explain their production methods.

7.  Fall requeening is OK.  In fact, the whole practice of requeening colonies during the spring is a rather recent development in the beekeeping world.  Times were that queens were always replaced in the late summer or early fall.  Of course, seek northern raised queens.

8.  If some of your survivor colonies swarm, that is OK.  There is nothing wrong with having feral colonies from your survivor stock.  These feral colonies will help spread the survivor gene pool (from their drones).

Fellow beekeepers, hang in there.  You need to be stubborn (that’s the farmer part of beekeeping) and keep trying (that’s the crazy part).  Keeping bees is just as rewarding as ever; we just have to have a strategy to keep it that way.

(Editor’s note:  the opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.)