I have a small beekeeping operation of about 40 colonies (numbers are changing daily at this time of year). I have about 15 colonies behind my house and I have about 25 colonies scattered at various other locations. I also remove swarms of honeybees when called to do so. I intend to continue to expand the number of colonies of honeybees I have so that I can rent my bees to farmers and orchard growers to pollinate fruit, nut, vegetable and legume crops.
Before receiving this grant I did some sustainable practices, such as using pollen traps and drone brood assassination to help reduce my dependence upon miticides in my beekeeping operations. I have been incorporating these practices for about 6 years now.
PROEJCT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
My project goal was to compare my artificially inseminated queens to my naturally mated queens and also to commercially produced queens.
My basic plan was to attend an advanced queen honeybee insemination course and then begin inseminating my own honeybee queens. I anticipated using average honey production as my maim measurement tool. I thought that I would be able to raise queens in the spring, inseminate some and open mate some and install some purchased queens to have a good comparison. I had planned to have Ray Nabors (from University Outreach and Extension) analyze my data when the project was completed for comparison.
I have not to this point been able to get enough queens inseminated and open mated early enough in the year at the same time to make a valid comparison in production to purchased queens.
My first problem turned out to be that I was as good raising honeybee queens as I thought that I was. I have used a couple of commercial queen rearing systems that work pretty well in the summer but not so well in the spring. I have found that I can raise better queens by letting my bees almost swarm and raise their own queens. I cut those queen cells and incubate them until they hatch. Banking virgin queen honeybees continues to be difficult and resource intensive. Two years ago I purchased some additional equipment from a beekeeper who went out of business which has helped with open mating queens and also in banking virgin queens. However, it took a year of trial and error to get the equipment with drawn comb. That system works much better for open mating queens than other systems I had been using and the small size of these mating nucs make find the queens much easier and much less time consuming.
My second problem was one of equipment. I did not realize for some time that one of my insemination tips was ever so slightly broken and had a jagged edge. While cleaning another tip with the aid of the microscope I broke the tip and as it broke I saw the tiny piece break off leaving what still looked like a good tip. At that point I realized that I had been using another tip (my favorite tip as it tuned out) with the same flaw. This explained why so many queens never recovered from the insemination. If I had been closer than 475 miles from my insemination instructor she would probably have been able to easily identify my problem. The new tips I purchased last summer worked better and helped me to successfully inseminate several queens and end a mystery that had plagued this project for two years.
I learned to my surprise that I do have enough drones in my area to successfully open mate queen honeybees. I have worked to make comb that has mostly drone cells instead of worker cells to increase the number of drones in my colonies. Until recently, beekeeping equipment suppliers did not make drone brood foundation so I had to force the bees to make such comb themselves. However, now such foundation is on the market, which is good for queen production as well as controlling Varroa mites. Varroa mites prefer to reproduce in drone cells and if you freeze capped drone brood you are able to reduce the numbers of those parasites without chemicals.
Having the ability to artificially inseminate queen honeybees has given me the opportunity to inseminate queen honeybees with tracheal mite resistant semen collected by USDA researchers at the national honeybee research laboratories. I have been inseminating a few queens each of the last 3 years with semen from those colonies to help increase the frequency of those traits in the honeybees I keep. The first year of this project I suffered heavy winter colony losses most likely caused by tracheal mites.
In reflecting on this project I would plan to do some things differently to make the comparison more accurate and more likely to succeed. I would raise queens in the fall and over winter them and compare them against commercially available queens from the next spring. This will eliminate some of the problems I have with being able to make queens early enough in the spring to be properly mated. I will also have the spring and summer to refresh my insemination skills so that I am ready to make good queens.
I had planned to evaluate some pollination benefits by the amount of pollen the bees collected. I have had to stop this because the bees have collected more pollen than I can store an sell at this point in time. I have also learned that I have some bees that are pollen hoarders and they collect much more pollen than other colonies. To further complicate the issue the quality of the pollen traps is inconsistent and some allow the bees to pass by without removing the pollen loads while others are much more efficient traps. I have talked with the pollen trap manufacturer and they have tried to correct the problems but it seems to me that the design is flawed and better products are on the market.
At this point I have spoken to two beekeepers associations (Missouri Valley Beekeepers Association 14 beekeepers and Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association 45 beekeepers) about the first phase of this project. Since I do not yet have valid data for the comparison I have not given much more than updates to various attendees at the meetings. Even though the grant cycle is ending and I am required to submit this report I am not satisfied with the current state of the project and I intend to keep attempting this project until I can make it work.
I did present a poster for the first half of this project that was funded by another grant at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference (about 200 people attended). At that time I did indicate that there was an additional potion to this project. I have used those and other pictures at various presentations I have given about honeybees to schools and nursing homes. The teachers and staff have been most interested at the use of artificial insemination for honeybees.