Northern Production of Disease and Mite Resistant Queen Honey Bees

Final Report for FNC06-641

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2006: $4,409.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $2,940.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
stewart jacobson
Illinois Queen Initiative
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Project Information


Two operations were involved in this project, a mixed grain farm of 250 acres in Loami, IL, and a 2.6 acre homestead near Rochester, IL. The Loami site has 15 honey bee colonies and sells honey and honey soap; the Rochester site has 50 honey bee colonies in three bee yards and sells honey and since the SARE project began, some queens and small honey bee colonies. (Honey bee colonies generally have one queen, a few to 60,000 worker bees and in spring and summer a few hundred to a thousand or more male bees called drones.) Sustainable beekeeping practices have been carried out for the past 4-5 years at both sites; either no treatments or only “soft, “botanically-based ones were used for varroa mites in a given year. In addition, antibiotics have not been used for at least 7 years at either site, unlike in most beekeeping operations.

General goals: The project is designed to address the dual problems of a lack of adoption of disease and mite resistant or tolerant lines of bees and an over-reliance on queens from Sunbelt states. Use of these lines will lessen the industry’s dependence on harsh chemical and antibiotics, which can contaminate honey and cause reproductive problems for the bees, and should be at the core of strategies to address Colony Collapse Disorder. The project’s purpose is to increase understanding and adoption of disease and mite resistant lines among beekeepers in Illinois, eastern Missouri and southern Wisconsin.

Project methods (processes): A major thrust of the Project, and in many ways the most important part, was comprised of educational presentations to beekeepers on disease and mite resistant lines of bees. During 2007-2008 nine Power Point presentations on this topic were given to a total of 288 persons. Two presentations were given at the 2007 Heartland Apicultural Society annual meeting (where two talks were also given to 32 persons at the meeting on the SARE Farmer/Rancher Grant Program). Venues during 2008 included the Bluegrass Beekeeping School, which draws beekeepers from Indiana and Ohio; the Kankakee Valley, IL Beekeepers Association; an introductory class of the Lincoln Land Beekeepers’ Association; the summer meeting of the Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association; at a State Line Beekeepers Association meeting; and at the Eastern Apicultural Society meeting, where I also moderated a session on state queen rearing projects with 23 persons. Another talk, to 26 persons at the Central East Illinois Beekeepers’ Association, was postponed from December, 2008 to January, 2009, after the project ended (and for which project funds were not used).

The second part of the project was to produce disease and mite resistant, Minnesota Hygienic queens and to sell them to local beekeepers. We used standard “cell grafting” methods to raise queens. The cells were introduced individually into small colonies called mating nuclei, from which the virgin queens take mating flights and remain until they begin laying eggs, at which point they are sold or placed into larger colonies. During 2007 marketing of the queens occurred first through the annual summer meeting of the local beekeeping association, with about 30 persons attending. Marketing also occurred via calls to beekeepers in the area. During 2008, marketing also occurred during an introductory beekeeping class. In both years 15-20 queens were over-wintered in small colonies to be sold the following spring.

Steven Staley assisted by producing queen bees at his farm for the project; Richard Ramsey, past president of the Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association, provided ongoing advice on marketing and related matters. As described below under Project Impacts, David Burns, a queen bee producer and beekeeping equipment supplier, and Phil Raines, a commercial beekeeper in Illinois and Wisconsin, made important contributions to the project.

In 2007, 115 viable queen cells were introduced into mating nuclei; 81 queens survived their mating flights, a 70% survival rate and lower than we anticipated. Acceptance of viable queen cells by nuclei was only 50% in the July 24 graft. Of the 81 queens produced, 36 were sold to beekeepers and 25 were introduced into large colonies to provide hygienic, disease resistant male bees to serve as mates for queens during the 2008 production season. Another 20 queens were placed into small colonies that were held over winter; nine survived and were sold as part of small nucleus colonies in spring, 2008. All others were marketed at local beekeeping association meetings or via word of mouth. In 2008 queen production was delayed due to cool, rainy weather and major colony mortalities at the Loami site; leaving only the Rochester site with enough colonies to be used for queen mating. Thirty queens were produced in June and July and sold; in late August an additional 15 were produced from 28 cells and were over-wintered in small nucleus colonies. To date the survival rate of 14 out of 15 of these over-wintered queens is much higher than during the previous winter.

Written evaluations were distributed at three of the presentations at association meetings. On average they showed that about 70% of those returning the evaluations understood the importance of using disease and mite resistant lines of honey bees; a little over 50% said that they would endeavor to buy queens of one or the other of these lines in 2009; almost none of the respondents said that they had used these lines in 2007 or 2008.

Regarding raising and selling queens, it’s probable that earlier production of queens, by at least May 15, and more efforts at local marketing would have resulted in sales of more queens during the project period. In 2008, the queens we produced survived at a higher rate than the 14 MN Hygienic queens we purchased for drone production and to serve as a comparison with the performance of our queens of the same line. At least until more beekeepers in central Illinois are used to buying locally-produced queens, selling the queens as part of small colonies or nuclei appears to be the most predictable way to market them until more beekeepers understand the value of replacing their queens annually or semi-annually. Nuclei are superior to “package bees” (either 2 or 3 lb colonies with queens but without comb or without larvae, pupae, honey or pollen) in terms of colony growth, honey production potential and fewer problems with queen failure. As a result of the interest expressed by local beekeepers, we plan to sell more nuclei in 2009. Coincidently, many of the package bees received by area beekeepers from California in 2008 had problems major with the queens surviving.

In general it’s difficult to gauge the longer term impact of educational programs, including most of the presentations given for this project. Those at the summer, 2008 Illinois State Beekeepers Association (ISBA) and the fall Stateline Beekeepers Association (Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin) meetings proved to be exceptions. They served as catalysts for what is this project’s most tangible outcome, the formation of an Illinois Queen Project (IQP). This initiative’s purpose is to promote the Illinois production of disease and mite resistant queens as well as small colonies adapted to the state’s climate and conditions. In each of the past 4-5 years an estimated $650,000 worth of package bees, including queens, are brought into Illinois from Sunbelt states. (This is probably a low estimate; data are not kept on the number of packages purchased.) A rough estimate of the value of replacement queens purchased separately would be $40,000; unlike package bees most are ordered directly by individual beekeepers. The economic impact goes beyond the $690,000 estimate because queens shipped in packages or separately through the mail often die within less than 6 months, resulting in reduced honey production or even colony losses, if the bees don’t replace the queens. In addition, the beekeepers that produce queens and nuclei purchase supplies, including small hives, wooden frames for combs and wax “comb foundation” from the Illinois-based Dadant Company and David Burns’ small beekeeping equipment manufacturing and supply company.

The objectives of the Queen Project are that by 2015 Illinois beekeepers to produce half the approximately 2000 queens sold separately, and to produce small colonies to replace one third of the approximately 10,000 package bees sold in this state. In order to begin this effort, thirty beekeepers will participate in one of two day-long, queen rearing workshops scheduled on April 24-25, 2009 at the State Line and Central-East Illinois Beekeepers Associations; at a total cost of approximately $1000 for the out-of-state presenter. The objective is to have at least half of them raising queens for sale next year. We anticipate offering additional workshops in 2010, based on the waiting lists for the 2009 workshops. At this point I am providing statewide coordination, but the “on the ground effort” has come from David Burns and Phil Raines, the presidents of the above-named associations. To date, the Queen Project has been the subject of two ISBA newsletter articles. In response, several beekeepers have inquired about making monetary contributions to the Project; in addition, approximately $500 worth of queen rearing supplies has been donated to it.

In comparison to the above, the impact of the local production of MN Hygienic queens and sales to beekeepers has been relatively minor. However, as a result of the sales of small colonies with these queens, new beekeepers in the immediate area are more open to buying locally produced queens and nuclei due to learning about their advantages from presentations at introductory beekeeping classes as well as their own experiences. At least two plan to produce their own nuclei for expanding their operations rather than buy package bees.

The educational component of this project was outreach to beekeepers, including a number from Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa and Kentucky, although the majority were from Illinois. This effort is described under project Description and Results. In addition, as mentioned previously, two articles describing the Queen Project appeared in the newsletter of the Illinois State Beekeeping Association, which has almost 1000 members. An article entitled How to Get the Best Disease and Mite Resistant Queens has been submitted for publication to Bee Culture, one of two beekeeping trade journals.

I can think of only one potential change to the Farmer/Rancher Grant Program. That is, at least in some cases it would be worthwhile for a specialist in a relevant field, for example tree fruit production or beekeeping, to look over grant applications and perhaps offer to provide on-going assistance. In beekeeping, at least, I believe that this would work within the NCR; if nothing else because at least two of the specialists have applied for and received fairly large SARE grants. In NY State there was a SARE Farmer/Rancher beekeeping project that would have benefited from interaction with the specialist at Cornell. Perhaps this might be done in cases where over a set amount is being requested, perhaps $4000 for an individual or $12,000 for three applicants. I do believe that the program fills an important need. This is based partly on my own experience but also from visits to four grant recipients several years ago.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.