Increasing the production and use of disease and mite resistant queens adapted to northern conditions

Final Report for FNC08-705

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $11,478.28
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
stewart jacobson
Illinois Queen Initiative
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Project Information


Lincoln Country Honey is located on 2.6 acres in central Illinois. However, our honey bees range over an area as much as three miles in diameter. Currently our small family business produces liquid and comb honey, as well as queens and small colonies for sale. There are about 30 colonies at the home location site and another eight to ten in a second bee yard.

Before receiving this grant I did carry out sustainable practices in that for five years I have not used harsh, synthetic chemicals (e.g., fluvalinate or coumaphoz) for control of pests such as the Varroa mite; rather colonies are treated with proprietary ‘soft chemicals’ based on plant essential oils, such as thymol. In addition, antibiotics are not used to treat bacterial diseases such as American foulbrood; instead infected colonies are burned.

Goals: The project’s goals are: 1) To increase the number of beekeepers raising queens and bees for sale in Illinois; 2) To increase their capacities to select a diverse breeding pool of northern-adapted bees with resistance to bee diseases and Varroa mites; 3) To facilitate a regular exchange of both locally-adapted stock and of information among queen producers; 4) To promote Illinois raised queens and bees to beekeepers in Illinois.

In order to increase the number of beekeepers raising queens and bees for sale in Illinois (Goal 1), 118 beekeepers were taught queen raising skills during 2009-2010 in seven day-long as well as two 2-day workshops. The workshops included hands-on activities as well as demonstrations.

Workshop participants also learned about testing honey bee colonies for disease resistance using liquid nitrogen to kill small samples of pupae to test for the rapidity with which the bees remove the dead pupae. Colonies that remove 90 percent or more within 24 hours are considered hygienic and have been shown to remove diseased pupae during a similar period. Demonstrations also were held on sampling Varroa using “powdered sugar rolls” to dislodge the mites from standardized samples of “nurse” bees from combs of honey bee larvae. The purpose of these tests is to select for disease and mite resistance in prospective breeding stock. The tests address Goal 2 in that they teach beekeepers how to select breeding stock that possesses resistance to bee diseases and Varroa mites. Photographs of a demonstration of testing for hygienic behavior at one of the project workshops are shown in an article in the August, 2010 issue of the American Bee Journal.

Goal 3, facilitation of a regular exchange of both locally-adapted stock and of information among queen producers, was addressed by two follow-up meetings in 2009 held for 26 workshop participants in order to exchange information on queen rearing. In addition, in October, 2010 a major meeting was held for 31 workshop participants at which Dr. Jeff Harris, a USDA bee geneticist, gave talks on genetics and on breeding for Varroa mite resistance. Goal 4, promotion of Illinois raised queens and bees to Illinois beekeepers, has been addressed by presentations to a large number of groups and by a website. (See Results and Outreach sections for more information regarding the 2010 meeting and the website)

A number of individuals contributed to the success of the project; those who were most actively involved are named here. Dr. Joe Latshaw, a queen breeder from Ohio, taught two queen raising workshops in 2009. Two Illinois producers who were instrumental in carrying out the project were Phil Raines and David Burns. They together with Jeff Ludwig and Terry Combs taught queen rearing workshops in 2010 and were key participants in follow-up workshops. Margaret Larson, University of Illinois Extension regional director in Winnebago County, provided opportunities for outreach regarding the project to Master Gardeners and to the public in northern Illinois (see also Outreach section). With the formation of the Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI) as a formal organization, a ‘working board’ was formed that includes Mr. Raines, Mr. Burns and Mr. Combs as well as Carolyn Gerberding, who serves as secretary-treasurer and has been instrumental in developing the IQI website. Stu Jacobson as SARE project coordinator also serves as the IQI coordinator.

Prior to the SARE project we estimate that Illinois beekeepers raised 150-200 honey bee queens each year. During the period of 2009 and 2010, workshop participants produced an estimated 1600 queens. Almost all of these were raised by only eight of the beekeepers who participated in the workshops. Based on two surveys we estimate that about one third of the participants raised at least some queens for other beekeepers during the year they took the workshops; approximately an equal number raised a much smaller number of queens for themselves. At the beginning of the project we would have expected that more beekeepers would have raised a larger number of queens. However, in an interview with Dan O’Hanlon, president of the West Virginia Queen Producers Association, he estimated that almost all the more than 2000 queens produced for sale in 2009 in their state were raised by only five beekeepers.

Another result of the SARE project has been an increased interest in using disease and mite resistant lines of honey bees through the purchase of breeder queens of several lines. In 2008, before the SARE project, it is estimated that three or fewer such queens were bought by Illinois beekeepers. In 2009 this number was at least six breeder queens, which ranged in cost from $125-$500 each depending on the source; in 2010 at least eight such queens were purchased. In 2011 one central Illinois IQI group alone has ordered five breeder queens. In addition, in 2009-2010 five apiaries were identified that have gone without treatment for Varroa mites for at least five years. Three of these are being used as sources of mite-resistant, locally-adapted breeding stock.

An important result of the SARE project is the formation of the Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI). This organization will continue to promote the SARE project’s goals regardless of whether or not continued funding is available. There are currently 38 paid members. The Illinois Queen Initiative’s purpose is to promote disease and mite resistant queens and bees that have superior survival and productivity under Illinois conditions; similar to the goals of the SARE-funded project. The IQI seeks to do this through educational programs, exchange of breeding stock and promotion of Illinois-produced queens and bees to our state’s beekeepers.

In October the IQI held its first annual meeting where a coordinated breeding plan for 2011-2012 was discussed and two presentations were made by Dr. Jeff Harris of the USDA. Dr. Harris provided a breeding plan for resistant bee stocks that focused on combining the USDA-developed Varroa Sensitive Hygiene line with other stocks, including locally-adapted honey bee stocks adapted to local ecological conditions. One of the objectives of the IQI is to maintain a website that will serve to notify interested beekeepers of upcoming trainings and meetings and to provide information on queen raising and breeding. The website’s purposes include exchange of information and breeding stock among IQI members as well as promoting Illinois-produced queens and bees to beekeepers in our state.

As a result of the project we learned that there is a growing interest among beekeepers in Illinois in acquiring disease resistant queens adapted to our state’s conditions. In addition, there are an increasing number of beekeepers who are interested in producing their own queens. The Illinois Queen Initiative was formed in order to meet the needs expressed by those interested in raising queens and those interested in buying locally-adapted queens and bees. The October IQI meeting and its main speaker have motivated a number of project participants to increase their use of, mite-resistant stock developed by the USDA.

There appear to be no disadvantages to a project such as ours, assuming one agrees with its goals. There are several broadly similar queen projects across the U.S. Those in West Virginia and Ohio are part of the state beekeepers associations in those states. This has obvious advantages in that there is an existing organization with resources that can be made available to the queen project. The Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI) developed independently of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association (ISBA); the SARE proposal was prepared during a period that the ISBA president position was vacant. However, the ISBA has provided important assistance to the Initiative in that we have been able to make presentations at the annual meeting and have been able to use the ISBA newsletter to provide information regarding IQI events and activities. Being part of a larger organization can be a disadvantage to a queen project: recently the Ohio project was terminated by the state beekeepers association in Ohio.

At this point in the development of the still young Illinois Initiative it is apparent that most of the activity occurs at the local/regional level; leadership at this level appears critical to the success of a state-wide effort. Lastly, if asked for more information or a recommendation concerning initiating a similar project, I would say that it is a worthwhile endeavor and that it is important to develop a broad-based organization to involve a large number of beekeepers.

The eventual impacts of the SARE project and of the Illinois Queen Initiative should prove significant for beekeeping in Illinois and potentially other states. Illinois beekeepers spend an estimated $1.5 million dollars on queens and packages bees each year. Virtually all of these come from states in California or the South. Beekeepers expect to buy their queens from there because they have always done it. However, in the past several years an increasing number of beekeepers are seeking locally-adapted, disease resistant stock. In the past 4 to 5 years beekeepers here and in other northern states have experienced annual losses of 50 percent or more of their colonies to rigorous winters, mites and diseases. If beekeepers bought locally-adapted queens produced in Illinois, a large proportion of these funds would remain in the state.

Of greater significance, beekeepers in Illinois who use locally-adapted bees experience much lower annual losses than those using stock from Sunbelt states; frequently 15 percent or less. If beekeepers were able to reduce annual losses to only 10 percent, the result would be both significant savings and an increase in income. According to the USDA there are 6000 honey bee colonies in Illinois. However, based on additional information state agriculture officials have estimated that the actual number is about 20,000. With losses reduced from 50 percent to 10 percent, beekeepers would not have to replace 2400 dead colonies with package bees, based on the 6000 colony figure. At current prices the savings would be at least $156,000. These savings will be much greater in future years due to the rising costs of package bees. In addition, colonies that have survived the winter — assuming they are healthy and populous – make far more honey than new colonies started with packages, 60-100 lbs more depending on year and location. Using the average of these two honey production figures, beekeepers would realize an increased production of 192,000 lbs of additional honey; resulting in an increased income of $460,800 wholesale ($2.40 per lb) and of $768,000 retail ($4.00 per lb). On the other hand, if one were to use the less conservative estimate of 20,000 colonies, the savings from not buying the extra packages would be about $520,000 and the additional production could reach 640,000 lbs. The impacts would be much greater in states like Wisconsin, which according to the USDA has 64,000 colonies. These figures also do not take into account the increased labor and cost of feeding sugar syrup needed for recently installed package bees; nor does it include the cost of queen losses in packages (at $15-20 per queen), which in 2010 in central Illinois was as high as 8 to 10 percent.

Of course, the real importance of honey bees for human nutrition is not the honey they produce, but the pollination services they provide that make possible the production of virtually all fruit and a large percentage of vegetable crops. For these crops, and the mostly small farms that grow them in the Midwest, honey bees are truly a “keystone” species. The continued decline in the number of beekeepers and colonies is not good news for these farms. Addressing honey bee colony losses is also important for fruit crops because over-wintered colonies are far more efficient at pollinating flowers of early blooming fruits such as apples, cherries and peaches. Furthermore, when keeping bees is more profitable, it enables beekeepers to remain in business or expand their operations, making a larger number of colonies available each year for pollination.

During 2009 Phil Raines gave presentations on the project to an estimated total of 266 persons at the following venues: the Stateline Beekeepers Association (IL and WI membership), at the Heller Nature Center near Chicago and to a class of new beekeepers in northern Illinois. During 2010 he spoke to 275 persons at University of Illinois Extension local foods conference and a Master Gardener Tour, at the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association Southern District meeting, at the Burpee Children’s Museum in Rockford, IL, and at Illinois Farm Bureau Agriculture in the Classroom training for school teachers. In 2009 David Burns gave presentations on the SARE project to a total of 210 persons at the summer and fall meetings of the Illinois State Beekeeping Association, at a Chicago region beekeeper association meeting and at a meeting of the Central-Eastern Beekeepers Association. During 2010 he spoke to about 350 persons at the Missouri and Illinois State Beekeepers Associations and an urban beekeeping conference in Chicago. Carolyn Gerberding also gave a talk on the project at to about 70 persons the 2010 ISBA annual meeting.

During 2009 Stu Jacobson made presentations on the project to 46 persons at the 2009 annual meeting of the Heartland Apicultural Society (HAS) and to about 60 persons at the 2010 HAS meeting. HAS is an association centered in the Midwest that each year attracts about 300 persons to its meetings. In 2009 Jacobson also made presentations to 110 persons, including at the Three Rivers Beekeeping Association in Missouri and at the urban beekeeping symposium in Chicago. In 2010 he spoke to 160 persons, including at the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association and at the Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, MO.

David Burns prepared three articles on the SARE project published in the Illinois State Beekeeping Association quarterly newsletter during 2009 and two in 2010. In addition, Stu Jacobson published an article in the American Bee Journal July 2009 and August 2010 issues. Both articles addressed the main focus of the SARE project: disease and mite resistant and locally-adapted bees, and both mentioned the SARE support the project has received. Jacobson also prepared an article on the Cloake Board method of raising queen cells that was distributed via the Internet to SARE project participants.


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.