In partnership with NCR-SARE, FSA, Project Partners, Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, and The University of Florida’s entomology division; Foley’s Russian Bees successfully completed their 2013/2014 project “Demonstrating Russian Queen Bees Resistance to Mites to Benefit Midwest Beekeepers”. Through the efforts of all partners FRB was able to expand its operational capacity in 2013 and distributed numerous queens to clubs and individuals across the Midwest and farther. Studies were sent out in the fall of the year to determine the overall health and observed benefits these queens provided in those apiaries. A second set of surveys were sent out in late winter/early spring to determine the winter survivability of those same hives. The results of the surveys did show significant improvements in the key areas of the projects’ focus, and we are considering all efforts to be a great success.
- University of Florida Master Beekeeper
- Foley’s Russian Bees
- FSA logo
- Russian Honey Bee Breeder Association
- Iowa Honey Producers
Honey bees pollinate approximately $15 Billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year. Bees play a vital role in the sustainability of agriculture. The beekeeping industry is responsible for the majority of the world’s food production through pollination. The vast majority of bee hives in the United States use Italian genetics. Over the years the bee industry has been facing various hardships in the form of pests and diseases. In 2011, the average hive loss a beekeeper suffered was 25.3% across the United States due to the combined problems of mites and diseases. In northern states such as Iowa the percentages were much higher due to cold winters. In 2012 hive losses were up to 30.6% nationally, and a much better number of 23.2% for the 2013 season. Chemical treatments are available, but they are not necessary or sustainable if selective genetics can solve the pest and death loss issues. Research from North Carolina State University has concluded that breeding Russian queen bees may provide a natural method for increased hive survival rates in the cold climate states, due to their resistance to mites that infest the hive. However, most of the breeding of Russian queens and their availability is in southern states and California.
Over the past four years FRB has experimented with the introduction of Russian queens in their hives. The hives used in this project for queen rearing are chemical free and have had 100% survival rate for the last four years of operation (checked by the Iowa Apiarist, Andrew Joseph).
To grow the current operational size to have a larger impact and capacity to influence beekeeping in Iowa and the Midwest. To integrate high quality standards, artificial insemination practices for heightening genetic traits, and distribute quality mated queens to individuals and clubs. To provide education to individuals and clubs on the benefits of Russian Bees and the problems faced by our industry. And to survey the results of the Russian Queens distributed with a fall analysis and spring analysis judging overall health and honey stores going into winter and survivability/health into the 2014 spring in comparison to the rest of those apiaries.
Foley’s Russian Bees systematically culls out genetics in their apiary in order to heighten key traits they feel are essential to raising bees in northern states. Colonies showing susceptibility to mites are requeened throughout the growing season. Additionally, hives showing uncharacteristic aggression are also requeened through the growing season. Hives are monitored for honey and build-up, and also monitored through the winter and nectar dearths for keeping smaller clusters and frugalness with stores.
In the spring of each year hives that did not meet desired levels in the key areas are requeened from grafts of the most desirable hives. A portion of FRB’s operation pushes those key genetics further by performing artificial insemination of queens by grafting virgin queens off select hives and drone trapping genetics off other select hives. While there is a small percentage of “drift” from drones, this does result in more control over genetics than simple saturation of drone stock within mating yards
Foley’s Russian Bees utilizes wet grafting along with a method of growing queens that is a cross between the standard “Cell Starter/Cell Finisher” method, and “Brother Adam’s” method. It has been commonly termed as the “Sustainable Apiary” Method. This method is a bit complicated, but essentially the same hive is used for both starting and finishing the queen cells. Ten days prior to grafting, the hive is given a full deep box (10 frames) of emerging brood frames separated by a queen excluder. This overwhelms the hive with an enormous number of nurse bees from both the additional frames and the normal brood box on the bottom of the hive. The entire hive is broken apart on grafting day and in the home position of the original hive. The now emerged deep box is placed on top of a single honey super (1 honey super with 1 deep box over it). Frames are arranged in the deep to have proper nutrition available for the grafts. Finally a large portion of the bees are shaken from the remaining boxes into this new set-up. All remaining boxes are placed 10ft away, reassembled into a second hive, and facing the opposite direction from before. What this does for the grafts is to give them a home that is overflowing with nurse bees, thinks it’s in a nectar flow because of the honeysuper being on the bottom, eliminates the presence of any other young larva in the hive for the nurse bees to feed, and also gives the hive the benefit of all the returning field bees that will want to come back to the hive’s original location. This overcrowded hive will send it into a swarming frenzy at the same time as it is being hopelessly queenless. Grafts introduced into this set-up have an exceedingly high success rate and are given all the best possible care. Typically cells are provided with so much royal jelly that a good portion of it goes to waste and is still in the queen cups when the virgins hatch out. More information on this process can be found online.
Our queen cells are placed in mini mating nucs with their own food stores and kept sealed for 48 hrs with the appropriate amount of worker bees. The nucs are disbursed in our mating yards that have drone source yards surrounding them at distances ranging from a half mile to one and a half miles. The nucs are left alone then for a period of time until queens have had time to hatch, harden, mate, and start laying. New brood is examined in the nucs to verify proper mating, and the queens are then distributed to their perspective apiaries.
Our first goal was to increase the breeding capacity of our apiary to be able to handle a higher volume of queen production. Through direct efforts of all project partners, Foley’s Russian Bees is now able to produce 300 to 400% more quality mated queens each season.
(Education and Outreach)
The next was to meet with clubs and associations and provide education on Russian Bees along with providing queens to use in their own apiaries. In 2013 we visited with a number of different clubs in Iowa, and corresponded with others across the Midwest. Queens were sent out and implemented in their apiaries. Some queens went as far as New York and Washington state. Each of the participants was educated on the benefits Russians could provide to their apiary and asked to monitor these hives.
In the fall of 2013 and again in the spring of 2014 participants were sent surveys to collect a variety of data on observations of the Russian queens in relation to their existing non-Russian hives. The results were surprisingly positive, and better yet the survival rate of the Russian hives were very high in contrast to non-Russian hives in the Midwest that was affected by the unusual winter storms called “polar vortexes”. The average hive loss across the US this year was 20.6%. For colonies in the state of Iowa the average loss was between 60 and 70%. Nationally our Russian queens saw a 10% loss, and within the state of Iowa that average was only 33.3%.
Participants in our study ranged in experience from 2nd year beekeepers all the way up to lifetime beekeepers. In the same token, operation sizes ranged from a handful of hives to hundreds and even thousands. Having a wide demographic was excellent in this experiment as results from all areas were fairly consistent and added weight to the data being accurate.
Honey collection during nectar flows showed surprising results. Other studies done on Russian bees typically show they have the same or slightly lower honey collection than non-Russian hives. This trend is usually justified due to their natural tendency for the queens to size down a hive during nectar derths and increase back up quickly after the start of a nectar flow. The results of our study showed a surprising 64% of participants saw “better” honey collection on their Russian hives along with 92% that saw “same or better”. We believe that due to our focus in Midwestern states, that the frugalness of the bees played a vital and beneficial role. Much of the Midwest encounters a drought time during the growing season. The Russian’s frugalness would have kept the hives from dipping into their honey reserves as much as non-Russian hives.
Mite resistance showed fantastic results as 93.8% of hives required no mite treatments throughout any of the season. Our study was looking at the use of powdered sugar and screened bottoms as well. 60% of the participants not needing mite treatments also used screened bottom boards. Powdered sugar didn’t seem to be a factor in our experiment as the majority didn’t use it. Most participants that treated for mites did it based on systematic prevention rather than mite counts showing they needed it.
Educational & Outreach Activities
American Bee Journal, Volume 153 no.10, October 2013, page 1073-1074
DSM Magazine, August/September/October 2013 issue, page 98 “Russian Royalty”
Screened bottom boards are shown to reduce mite populations by 14 to 15% in hives without any sort of mite resistance. Given the mite resistance and grooming tendencies of Russians, a suggestion for a future incentive would be to set up multiple yards in the early spring of the year all with the same resources and test the benefit of screened bottoms vs solid. It would be interesting to see if the mite reduction was much more. We would suggest not mixing the type of bottoms within the same apiary to prevent drifting bees from contaminating the experiment. Separate yards have higher potential of preventing any drifting of bees that might have varroa attached to them.