A comparison of strength and survivability of honeybee colonies started with conventional versus northern requeened packages

Final Report for FNE12-756

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Erin MacGregor-Forbes
Overland Apiaries
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Project Information

Summary:

This project is a continuation of work done in two related one year on farm projects, FNE09-665 and FNE10-694, which compared strength and winter survival rates for three groups of honey bee colonies; colonies started with traditional commercial packages, colonies started with northern raised overwintered nucleus colonies, and colonies started with traditional commercial packages which were requeened with northern raised queens. In the previous two projects, the overwintered nucleus started colonies and the requeened package-started colonies both experienced nearly double the probability of winter survival than traditional commercial packages.

This project continues that work, this time working only with the package-started colonies (overwintered nucleus colonies were eliminated in year three.) This project compares 50 traditional 3lb honey bee packages all purchased from the same supplier, installed on identical new equipment at the same time, and managed in one yard by the same beekeepers using identical management criteria. One half of the packages were managed as received, and one half of the packages were re-queened with northern raised queens in June. We then continued to manage the colonies through the season, monitored the hives progress and compared strength and survival rates at the end of the winter.

Consistent with prior years, our final survival results were dramatically increased in the packages that we had requeened with northern queens.  Of the twenty standard packages that were not disqualified (due to swarming) 65% had died by spring.  As for the requeened packages, of the twenty three that were not disqualified, only 13% had died by spring.

Introduction:

Honey bees are crucial to successful agriculture and environmental health, and the overall decline of honey bee health has become front-page news for the past several years. In recent years, the annual mortality rate of honey bee colonies in Maine has steadily increased due primarily to the parasitic Varroa mite and associated diseases. Additionally, beekeeping costs are increasing due to the increased cost of replacement colonies, queens, specialized equipment, medications and transportation. Currently most New England beekeepers rely on “package bees” and Southern or West Coast raised queen bees to restart their hives or establish new hives. These are generally “Italian” race honey bees and they generally come from commercial suppliers in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, or California. These colonies of honey bees are often not well suited for the New England climate and are less effective in honey production and pollination in this area than they are in milder areas. Many hives started with packaged bees do not survive the New England winter.

Packaged bees are, by definition, stressed colonies. They are far more susceptible to downturns in spring weather conditions, disease transmission, and pest and parasite infestation. Unfortunately packaged honey bees are the most widely used and promoted method of starting new colonies across the nation, including the State of Maine, primarily because packaged bees are most widely available. Many beekeepers feel that the sustainability of beekeeping hinges on new ways of operating that depend on local bee and queen breeders to produce replacement and new starting colonies in their area. However, due to the short queen rearing season in New England, local colonies are often difficult to find and often not available until well after the primary honey flow and pollination seasons are over (Queens are usually not available in the north until Mid-June, long after the Apple and other pollination seasons are over).

Our project demonstrated an alternative to the high loss rate associated with commercial packages by requeening one half of the colonies with a northern raised queen in Mid June. Since all honey bees in the colony with the exception of the queen live for less than two months in the summer, and all offspring of the queen are genetically determined by the queen and her mates when she is less than two weeks old, it is very simple to change the genetic make-up of a colony of honey bees. Our strategy was to re-queen purchased packages with northern raised queens as soon as such queens become available (mid-late June). Once accepted by the colony, the northern raised queens will produce offspring that are better suited to winter over in the New England climate, and by the end of August, our re-queened colonies would be comprised entirely of honey bees which are offspring of the northern raised queen.

Our previous year’s projects final survival results showed that both the requeened packages and northern raised nucleus colonies had significantly higher winter survival rates than the commercial packages, but our sample size was relatively small. This third year of replication nearly doubled our sample size from 54 to 104. Our project therefore offers an affordable, readily commercially available alternative to the expensive and unsustainable practice of purchasing commercial packaged bees in the spring and losing that colony over the winter.
Our increased sample size and the results of year three of the project again demonstrated that despite the many threats to Maine honey bee colonies, sustainability is achievable by maintaining healthy colonies of northern raised honey bees that are particularly well adapted to our climatic conditions. The project methodology and results demonstrate a simple method of improving colony strength and survival by utilizing northern raised queens in establishing new or replacing dead colonies while still utilizing commercially available packaged bees.

Project Objectives:

The project participants managed 50 package-started honey bee colonies “as a new beekeeper would,” feeding and maintaining the colonies to maximize survival and strength, not necessarily honey production. All colonies were purchased from the same supplier and installed on the same day in the same apiary, in May of 2013. Approximately five weeks after installation, one half of the colonies were randomly selected for requeening, and the commercial queen that came with the package was removed and replaced with a northern raised queen. Once requeening was complete, the colonies were then managed for the rest of the season without any discrimination between the two groups. The colonies were assessed several times throughout the year and the project participants documented the progress of all colonies. The project colonies’ success was measured by regular use of an assessment form evaluating hive health and survivability. Ultimate colony strength and survival through their first winter was the final evaluation, but honey production, disease load and overall colony strength were also measured. The “hive assessment tool” used in the previous related SARE projects; FN09-665 and FN10-694 was used for this purpose, and provided continuity in the data between the three project years. In April of 2014 all of the surviving colonies were finally assessed and the results are reported herein.
The goal was to simulate the typical installation of brand new honeybee colonies by a beekeeper and see whether a difference in survival could be seen through the introduction of a new queen into the colony. Our project attempted to remove the outside variables of weather conditions, beekeeper error, inconsistent assessment and any other factors which might impact the data between the groups. Our hope was to clearly demonstrate the impact that the management technique of requeening with a northern raised queen had on colony survival in the long term.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • C. "Bee" Bee
  • Anthony Jadczak

Research

Materials and methods:

The project involved purchasing and managing fifty new honey bee colonies in the spring of 2013 and evaluating the colonies at set points for health, honey production, and overall colony strength through the 2013 season and until the spring of 2014. The colonies were maintained in one location, a “bee yard” separate from the rest of the Overland Apiaries operation. Members of the cooperating club, the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association (CCBA) volunteered their time to paint the hives, deliver the equipment to the apiary site and to set up the bee yard. CCBA volunteers also helped with bee yard maintenance and note taking during the inspections.

The fifty colonies were started with fifty packages of honey bees imported from Georgia from a single reputable commercial package bee operation in early May, 2013. The SARE project colonies were managed the same way on identical equipment by the project leaders and allowed to build up and grow without additional manipulation or support of the beekeepers aside from the initial feeding regimen. In June, when northern raised queens became available to purchase, twenty-five of the packages were randomly selected for re-queening with northern raised queens from one of two New England suppliers: a Vermont queen breeder, and a Northern New York queen breeder. The original package queens were removed and the new queens were introduced to head the colony. (The removed package queens were caged and donated to a honeybee restoration project in Kentucky.) Due to the honeybee lifecycle (worker bees live approximately 45 days in summer) in a matter of weeks, all of the new bees born in the colony were the daughters of the new queen and by fall, all of the bees in the requeened colonies had the genetic characteristics of the northern raised queens and the drones (males) that she mated with in Vermont or New York. Thus, by fall the bee yard had twenty-five colonies with the genetic make up of the southern package producers apiary, and twenty-five colonies with the genetic makeup of the northern apiaries.

Each colony was started and expanded in identical new hive equipment to ensure that the colonies were on equal footing. All hives were run in eight-frame medium equipment starting with undrawn foundation. All colonies were offered food (sugar water) until they had substantially built out their “nest area” and then sugar water was withdrawn. The exterior of each hive was painted the same dark purple color. Hive entrances were uniquely marked with colored patterns to help the bees distinguish their own hive.

The apiary was managed by the project beekeepers for hive productivity and strength. All colonies were fed both sugar syrup and pollen substitute in their early weeks to encourage healthy development. As with all first year colonies, the primary goal of the beekeepers was to ensure colony survival over the first winter. We measured and harvested honey from those colonies that were able to build up enough to produce surplus, but the hive management focus was building strong, healthy colonies for winter.

The project used Varroa mite treatment Apilife Var – comprised of essential oils for treatment of Varroa in all colonies in September. Feeding of the antibiotic Fumagillin would have been undertaken in the event that nosema spore counts in the fall evaluation warranted such treatment. In our project we did not have high enough nosema counts to warrant treatment. (Nosema Cerranae, an associated disease has recently been found to be a primary killer of Maine honey bee colonies.)

The management parameters of the project allowed for colonies to be on equal footing from the beekeeper intervention perspective, providing an opportunity to assess the colonies’ productivity and strengths on their own merits. The beekeepers paid particular attention to consistently taking notes and tracking colonies, using the project’s hive assessment tool. We maintained an unbiased management style which will allowed the colonies to build and grow as they were able, without undue interference or artificial stimulation of buildup by the participating beekeepers.

Assessment of the colonies and recordkeeping was facilitated by the hive assessment tool developed for FNE09-665, the same form used in the previous two years of related study. (See attachment)

The project concluded in the spring of 2014, once the weather broke and the surviving colonies were identified. Surviving colonies were evaluated based on brood strength (size of colony and baby bees) as well as food resources at that time and rated in one of four categories: dead, weak, moderate, and strong. This assessment is consistent with the prior two project evaluations, and presentations will provide data from all three years both separately and aggregated.

Research results and discussion:

The first two project years involved a total of 54 colonies (24 in year one and 30 in year two). This third year project included 50 colonies total, nearly doubling the overall sample size. In addition, the removal of the nucleus colonies allowed for a more direct comparison of the impact of requeening packages, not simply having northern raised colonies. Our goal was to see if we would experience the same increased survival rate of the northern requeened packages as we had seen in the previous two years, and to increase the statistical significance of the data we were working with by replicating the work with a larger sample.

In our final inspection on April 19, 2014 we found only seven out of twenty five of the standard package-started colonies alive, and of those seven only three were rated “average” or “strong”(ready for spring). In contrast, for the northern requeened colonies, we found twenty of them alive, and sixteen of those twenty “average” or “strong.” Expressed in percentages, only 28% of the standard package-started colonies were alive in spring, with only 12% rated as “ready for spring,” compared to 80% of the requeened packages found alive and 64% rated as “ready for spring.”

Further considering this year’s results when excluding the disqualified colonies shows that requeening commercial packages with northern queens more than doubled the probability of colony survival and increased the probability of being “ready for spring” by four times.

Using northern raised queens showed a significant increase in colony survival rate without the use of chemicals, medications, or any other type of external input. Requeening is a relatively simple, low cost management technique which can be done with very little colony disruption when performed on the honey flow, as we did in this project. Certainly the time, money and effort spent to requeen commercial packages was amply justified by the increase in colony strength and survival rates.

A look at all three years’ data combined, excluding the disqualified colonies reveals the following: Colonies headed by a northern queen had a 75% survival rate, and 64% of them were “ready for spring” upon final inspection. Standard packages had a 45% survival rate and 24% of them were “ready for spring.” 

(data tables attached)

Note:  colonies which swarmed or attempted supersedure and did not sucessfully regain queenright status were disqualified from the project.  This is consistent with prior years data.

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In addition to survival, we also measured honey production, disease loads and parasite loads (varroa mites.)

For all years, the 3 types of colonies studied were Nuc (N), Packaged (P) and Requeened Packaged (RP).  In this project year none of the colonies made surplus honey.  This is not uncommon for first year colonies and was not unusual for the dry season that we had in 2013.  For the 3 years studied, the number of surplus honey producing colonies for N, P, and RP were 2, 5, and 6, respectively.  The total surplus honey produced (lbs.) was 168, 538, and 461 while the average production per productive colony was 84, 108, and 77, respectively.

We did not note any bacterial or fungal diseases in any colonies.  We did note symptoms typical of viral loads in a number of the colonies, but without the ability to confirm the presence of virus we are not reporting that data.

We did record and analyze Varroa mite loads, and once again as in previous years, we found the parasite loads to be indistinguishable between the groups of colonies.  There was no statistical difference in the average, minimum, or maximum number of varroa mites between the standard package colonies and the northern requeened colonies. 

The October 2013 Bee Line article further describes our methods of varroa measurement varroa management strateg.

Research conclusions:

This work has established a clear difference in the strength and survival rates of commercial package-started colonies from colonies headed by northern raised queens, whether requeened package or overwintered nucleus colony. The outreach we have done has significantly raised awareness of the value of requeening or using colonies headed by northern queens.

We have given over a dozen presentations of this work at local, state, regional, and national beekeeping conferences, reaching well over 1,000 beekeepers in person with our power point presentation on the project. We have also received many inquiries about this project from the SARE website and our social media outreach, and it continues to gain attention through those outlets. Beekeepers are interested and engaged with this project and hopefully many will consider adopting the practices of utilizing northern queens in their apiaries by requeening purchased packages.

The grant process, from writing the proposal, to obtaining the equipment and supplies, to performing the bee work and data collection, to writing the final reports and doing the outreach work has been extremely rewarding for the project coordinator and collaborators. Many conversations have been started as a result of this project, and beekeepers are reexamining their current methods and considering changing strategies as the result of these findings.

Examples of outreach communications are attached.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Throughout the grant cycle we wrote articles for the Maine State Beekeepers Association newsletter, The Bee Line. This newsletter was published every other month and in each issue we described the project events as they occurred and what was going on in the apiaries during that time. (attached)

In addition we maintain a website (overlandhoney.com) and a facebook (OverlandHoney) page where we featured many photos, descriptions, and updates of the SARE project and its process.
Our final outreach presentations (in person Powerpoint talks) have been warmly received, and we anticipate additional outreach opportunities to continue to present themselves. At this point, Erin Forbes has given talks on these three SARE projects in 7 states, at the American Beekeeping Federation conference in January 2010 and the Eastern Apicultural Society conferences in August of 2011, 2012, and 2014. We look forward to further promoting the results of our project, and the SARE Farmer Grant Program in the future.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

While beekeepers have known that commercial packages have not been surviving as well as they had in the past, it is easy to write the failures off as beekeeper error, weather related, one time mysteries, or simply bad luck. Without a clear, fair comparison, it is difficult to assign success and failure rates to one type of colony or another. This project was designed specifically to remove the arguments pertaining to external forces from the survivability question by meticulously treating all colonies equally, and measuring their successes objectively. The results of our project certainly warrant further investigation, as they clearly point to higher survival rates in colonies with northern raised queens. We believe that our project has shown that there is significant value in requeening with local queens in northern climates, or using locally raised nucleus colonies.

We hope that individuals and beekeeping groups will consider replicating our methods and perform other projects looking at the same issues. Ultimately, requeening with local queens could become an important management technique for beekeepers in many regions.

Future Recommendations

We hope to further promote discussion on the importance of locally adapted queens, and to perhaps inspire others to pursue projects making similar comparisons. These results, while promising, address just one small question in the search for creating sustainable beekeeping apiary management plans.

Further examination in larger groups of colonies, more diverse beekeeper groups, different climates, and multi-year projects all would be helpful to continue to explore the value and boundaries of this management tool in beekeeping.

We would love to see our work continued and expanded in any way that might help the bees. It is our belief that good beekeepers are morally obligated (by their connection with the bees) to help teach good, sustainable, regenerative beekeeping methods. We hope that this work will help reduce un-necessary colony losses and prompt other to explore the importance of queen viability in their own climates.

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.