Sustainable beekeeping: increasing production and utilization of northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant honey bee queens

Final Report for FNC10-822

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,431.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
stewart jacobson
Illinois Queen Initiative
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Project Information


Prairie Grove Queens and Bees is a family farm business located on 2.6 acres south of Springfield, Illinois. We have about 40 honey bee colonies which are primarily dedicated to producing queen bees and small colonies for sale, rather then to honey production. About half of these colonies are small ones (nucs) from which queens fly to mate. The operation is focused on producing bees sustainably; meaning that no “hard” mite treatment chemicals have been used for the past 8 years; and no treatments for mites or for the pathogenic fungus Nosema or of any kind have been used since fall, 2010. No package bees have been purchased for over 10 years. Colonies have shown good winter survival, 87% in 2102-13, similar or better to those of area beekeepers who treat for Varroa mites. Our mission is to produce gentle queens and bees that are healthy and can survive and be productive without chemical treatments.

Before receiving this grant the following sustainable beekeeping practices were used: 1) Thymol based, “soft” chemical compounds for Varroa mites; 2) Treatment for Nosema only with those few colonies that showed symptoms; 3) Antibiotics for brood diseases were not used at all; those few colonies that appeared to have American foulbrood were burnt; 4) Supplemental feeding of a few colonies with sugar syrup only to avert starvation. In addition, sprays for horticultural crops are approved for organic use. Although the surrounding area is characterized by corn and bean production, there are also a number of small woodlots and stream corridors in the vicinity.

The project’s goal is to increase the production of Illinois-adapted, disease and mite resistant bees and queens.

This project has built on progress made by an earlier SARE project (FNC08-705). That project resulted from discussions between Phil Raines, David Burns and Stu Jacobson, as well as others about how to most effectively increase production and utilization of northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant queens and bees in our state. At that time, in 2008, only Mr. Burns was raising queens for sale. We decided that the best way to increase interest in producing Illinois queens was to start an organization, the Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI), which has goals similar to the SARE project. In 2009 we began offering workshops each year on how to raise queen honey bees as well as two follow-up workshops in which beekeepers could share both their successes and their problems. For both the current and previous SARE projects funds were sought to pay for travel and related expenses needed to conduct the workshops as well as for travel expenses of a major, outside speaker at an annual meeting of the IQI. Each year the project has offered one queen workshop and one follow-up each in the northern and southern halves of the state, as well as an annual meeting in the central region. The current SARE project is primarily an education/ outreach endeavor; a smaller component of the project also focused on selection of honey bee stocks adapted to northern conditions that have resistance to Varroa mites and to major brood diseases.

A. Educational activities: During spring 2011 we held two, day-long workshops where 21 beekeepers from Illinois, three from Missouri and one from Wisconsin learned basic queen rearing skills. In addition, four half-day classes that included queen rearing were held for 21 persons in 2011 and over 30 persons also attended queen rearing workshops conducted by David Burns, an IQI regional coordinator, as part of his Long Lane Honey Farms educational program. Further, 13 beekeepers who earlier participated in the queen rearing classes attended one of the two follow-up classes in either northern or central Illinois. During 2012 three half-day queen rearing classes were held for 17 persons in south-central Illinois. Unfortunately, registration for neither a Chicago nor Peoria area workshop met the minimum of six persons; the number set in order to cover facility rental and costs of supplies. The Chicago workshop had been scheduled for a Sunday morning by the site’s education coordinator. The inner city location and possibly the Sunday offering may have negatively affected registration. This year the Peoria workshop scheduled for May 5 already has over six persons registered, as has a second workshop scheduled in far southern Illinois, a region not previously reached by the IQI. In 2012 sixteen persons attended the two follow-up workshops related to queen production. An additional 19 persons attended an IQI sponsored, sustainable beekeeping workshop in June, 2012.

The annual, day-long meeting of the Illinois Queen Initiative provides an opportunity for those interested in raising queen bees to increase their knowledge and exchange information with other queen producers. In October, 2011 32 persons participated in the 2nd annual IQI meeting in Bloomington, Illinois. Kent Williams, a commercial beekeeper from Kentucky, spoke about his experiences in breeding and selling queen bees. A panel of three Illinois queen producers with very different operations also shared their ideas and experiences. Participants also worked in small groups to identify activities to promote raising of locally adapted queens in Illinois. In October, 2012 twenty-seven persons participated in the 3rd annual meeting during which Dan O’Hanlon, the president of the West Virginia Queen producers, spoke about that organization’s experiences and about non-grafting methods of producing queens. At the 2012 meeting St. Louis area beekeeper John Timmons also spoke about web based marketing of queens and about an initiative of the TRB to supply nucs.

Additional, related educational activities included a presentation on bee breeding and a panel discussion on keeping bees without chemical mite or disease treatments organized by Stu Jacobson to a total of about 65 persons at the annual meeting of the Heartland Apiculture Society (HAS) in July, 2011 in Vincennes, IN and to about 40 persons at the 2012 HAS meeting in St. Louis. In addition, in 2012 Jacobson taught queen rearing methods at the Three Rivers Beekeepers queen rearing workshop in St. Charles, MO.

B. Selection of Honey Bee Stocks: The identification of honey bee lines (breeds) that are both disease and mite resistant and adapted to regional conditions in Illinois is important to the long run success of the project’s goals. Top performing queens can serve as the basis for breeding bees that possess these desirable attributes. The traits evaluated included maintaining mite loads below harmful levels, winter survival, spring population increase, productivity and gentle behavior. Twenty colonies in central and 10 in northern Illinois headed by queens from different sources were evaluated beginning in summer, 2011. Sources included: Buckfast queens from Canada; Carniolan cross stock that survived at least 10 years without treatments from Pennsylvania; queens of the USDA developed Varroa Sensitive Hygienic (VSH) line we raised that were crossed with two different, locally-adapted, central Illinois stocks. At least four queens of a given line or cross were used. These queens represent a diversity of northern-adapted lines that have demonstrated at least some resistance to the Varroa mite and in some cases also demonstrate hygienic behavior that confers resistance to several important diseases of honey bee pupae.

A number of farmer/beekeepers have made significant contributions to the project. Phillip Raines, a commercial beekeeper with 400 colonies, serves as IQI northern regional coordinator and has been a presenter at queen rearing workshops and at follow-up meetings in 2011 and 2012. Jeff Ludwig, a small scale beekeeper in northern Illinois, also been a presenter at the above mentioned workshops and meetings. Craig Schultz and Fred Gerberding were also presenters at a central Illinois 2011 workshop and follow-up meetings in 2011 and 2012. Carolyn Gerberding has significant contributions as IQI treasurer and secretary since 2009. Recently elected central and southern IQI coordinators Lonnie Langley and Mark Kilty have made arrangements for queen raising workshops May 4 and 11, including far southern Illinois where there haven’t been queen rearing workshops previously. Lonnie also has been instrumental in working with the IL Department of Agriculture to streamline apiary inspections to make them simpler for queen and nuc producers. Terry Combs has taught queen rearing since 2010 and maintains the IQI website (, which is focused on sustainable beekeeping and serves as a means of marketing Illinois produced queen bees and small colonies to the state’s bee-keepers. David Burns, although no longer active in the IQI, contributed his ideas and has trained over 100 beekeepers in queen rearing, many of them from outside of Illinois. The Sangamon-Menard County office and Extension educator Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, the McLean and the Livingston County Extension offices provided meeting space and publicized a 2012 Sustainable Beekeeping workshop and the 2011 and 2012 IQI annual meetings respectively.

A. Educational activities: The SARE Project has greatly increased awareness of and interest in buying locally-produced queens and bees as measured by increased requests for queens and small colonies or “nucs.” Before the current project and its predecessor, SARE-funded project, only one person in Illinois was raising honey bee queens for sale. Over the past two years there has been a significant increase in the number of beekeepers raising queens for sale, from eight beekeepers at the beginning of 2011 to an estimated 17 by fall 2012. Another result of the SARE project is a project started this year to provide nucs with locally adapted queens and bees to beginning beekeeper members of the Lincoln Land Beekeepers Association in central Illinois. The idea for this came from the talk about a similar project near St. Louis at the 2012 annual meeting of the Illinois Queen Initiative. The impetus for the project arose from the high rates of queen losses and failures of package bees from California among association members.
If successful, the plan is to replicate the nuc project with other local beekeeping associations.

The Illinois Queen Initiative has been the major vehicle for achieving the project’s goals. In 2012 the IQI had its first election, which resulted in two new regional coordinators and board members. The addition of these regional coordinators has resulted in new initiatives and educational programs in central and southern Illinois and increased the chances of having viable future leadership in the organization. The IQI is self-sustaining at this point with a modest balance in its treasury. One important development is that the president of the Illinois State Beekeeping Association has become very supportive of the IQI, promoting the organizations’ (and the SARE project’s) goals and offering to cosponsor future meetings. (See also section on Impacts.)

B. Selection of Honey Bee Stocks: The queens from both “outside” sources did not perform that well, in the case of one line this was clearly due to shipping stresses during a period of high temperatures. In the other case most of the queens were prematurely superseded or replaced by the bees in their colonies. Although the results might have been different at another time, there was also a change in outlook during 2012 toward utilizing locally adapted stocks. We identified three central-south central Illinois honeybee stocks that have survived for three plus years and two that have survived 10 years without any treatments, whereas stocks acquired as packages from Sunbelt states rarely last more than one year without mite treatments. The project made a shift to combining the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene line with Illinois-adapted survivor stocks and ongoing selection/breeding for disease and mite resistance. To that end queens from a 10-year survivor stock were acquired; in 2013 they will be made available to Illinois queen producers as part of an informal stock exchange program. Using northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant queens is critical to the development of sustainable beekeeping in the Midwest. This is because honey bees bred and produced in California and southern states, while good honey producers, generally do not survive as well under northern conditions. The combination of pathogens and Varroa mites with cold Midwestern winters and cool springs appears to be more than most southern honey bee stocks can survive well, even when they are treated for mites and Nosema.

There are a several lessons that were learned during the period of the grant. First, it has become clear that the strength of Illinois Queen Initiative is in its three regions and the regional coordinators, as well as the other board members, including its webmaster. Illinois is a long state on a north-south axis, and it has proven necessary to have educational programs and meetings arranged by the regional coordinator in each region. The disappointing registration figures for the 2012 workshops were at least in part due to the arrangements being made by the state coordinator who was unfamiliar with the locality where the Peoria workshop was planned and by a second board member unfamiliar with the Chicago site. Each region appears to function best somewhat independently and there are no set formulas for the arrangements for the queen rearing workshops. At the same time we have learned that there is a need for improved communication between members and the state coordinator and other board members. To that end a 2-3 page newsletter has been sent out during the past two quarters and greater use is being made of the IQI website.

Another thing we have learned is that projects like this one in some cases may be better off running separately from the states’ beekeepers association. For example, Ohio was one of the first to start a queen project, which was highly organized; it was also part of and received support from that state’s beekeepers association. Apparently, with election of a new board. the support for the queen project was discontinued and it was disbanded. At the time the predecessor to the current Illinois SARE project was begun, the state beekeepers association had significant leadership challenges, including lacking a president. Currently, however, the Illinois State Beekeepers Association has strong leadership and a progressive board which has been very supportive of the Illinois Queen Initiative which has goals similar to the SARE project.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the current SARE project, working through the Illinois Queen Initiative, has pioneered a new and growing agricultural sector, the production of honey bee queens and small honey bee colonies or nuclei (nucs) for sale. The estimated value of queens and package bees (a small cage with 2-3 lbs of bees and a queen) currently imported into Illinois from California and the southern states is conservatively $700,000. At this point Illinois queen and nuc producers are only capturing a fraction of this market. The demand for Illinois raised queens and nucs, which are alternatives to package bees, is increasing in part due to the growing number of new beekeepers over the past 6-7 years. These beekeepers are younger on the whole, and more open to new ideas and especially to more sustainable agricultural practices than older, long time beekeepers. It’s also not an overstatement to say that that the growth of this new agricultural sector wouldn’t have happened without the activities of the Illinois Queen Initiative, which in turn would not be where it is organizationally without the funding from the SARE project. To put it another way, there would need to have been some kind of organization like the IQI to teach beekeepers how to raise queens and to promote Illinois queens and bees to the state’s beekeepers. The SARE funding has made a significant difference in bringing about the changes described above and to helping the IQI to be on firm footing. In addition, as noted previously, in response to a proposal by the IQI, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has modified its inspection procedures for honey bee colonies so as to facilitate producers’ efforts to meet the increased demand for nucs and queens.

The current project is largely an education/outreach endeavor; education activities are described above under Process. Regarding telling others about our project, in 2011 Stu Jacobson gave a presentation on the SARE project, its results and on queen production to over 50 persons at a meeting of the Three Rivers Beekeepers Association near St. Louis. In 2011 Phil Raines gave talks on the project to about 250 beekeepers to the Chicago area Cook-DuPage Beekeeping Association and to about 40 beekeepers at the southern district meeting of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association. In 2012 Jacobson also spoke about the SARE project and its results to over 70 persons at the Indiana Beekeepers Association’s annual meeting and to about 25 persons at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference at Columbia, MO. Information about project activities was disseminated via the IQI newsletter and website (, the Illinois State Beekeepers Association newsletter and website and several Extension newsletters. Brochures on the Queen Initiative were designed by Carolyn Gerberding and distributed at local and state beekeeping association meetings.

A video of Jacobson's presentation at the 2012 NCR-SARE Farmers Forum can be viewed online through NCR-SARE's YouTube channel. Visit and search "Jacobson" to find it. Alternatively, copy the following URL and paste it into your browser to go directly to the video:


Participation Summary

Information Products

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.