Testing Darwinian Honey Bee Breeding Protocols for Mass Replication: Evaluating the Efficacy of the “Walk-Away Split” as a Queen Rearing Method

Progress report for FNE20-964

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,953.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Yard Birds Farm & Apiary
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Angela Roell
They Keep Bees (Formerly Yard Birds Farm & Apiary)
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Project Information

Summary:

Recent SARE research found that honey bee hives headed by northern-adapted queens survive winter nearly twice as well as hives with southern queens. This suggests that rearing northern queens could improve the biological and financial sustainability of beekeeping in the Northeast.  A 2018 survey of 116 Northeast beekeepers found that 65% “usually” or “always” seek out queens reared from Northeast stock, and 68% are “very interested” in learning how to rear queens. However, producing high-quality queens in the Northeast’s short season is logistically complicated and resource intensive. 

This project seeks to demonstrate the viability of the “walk-away split” method as an effective and productive queen-rearing strategy.  The “walk-away split” is the technique of splitting a hive into two or more hives by distributing resources equitably and leaving the bees to raise a new queen.

This project’s objectives are to: 

  • Trial 4 methods of “walk-away split”, 
  • Compare “walk-away splits” to traditional 10-day queen rearing method and the novel approach of producing 48 hour queen cells funded via SARE: ONE19-326.

We seek to determine if we can produce high-quality queens using fewer resources and simpler techniques, thus making it easier to teach beekeepers and enhance our ability to improve and exchange genetic stock. . By simplifying methods and lessening inputs, beekeepers can increase their hive numbers and provide more hives for sale in our bioregion.

To share our findings and improve regional beekeeping strategies we will host a queen rearing symposium and create a printed guide book of our methods.  

Project Objectives:

Objectives:

To build on our NE SARE partnership research, and improve our ability to produce northern-hardy genetics, we will test 4 “walk-away split” methods to identify which one produces the highest quality queens. Our specific objectives are to: 

    1. Trial 4 methods of “walk-away split”, 
      1. Compare the reproductive potential of queens produced through 4 methods of “walk-away splits”.  Use the following metrics:
        1. Mating Percentage 
          1. Hypothesis: queen acceptance will not be different across walk-away split treatments.
  • Winter survivability & 2nd year mite level
  • Hypothesis:  queens raised through “walk-away splits” will have higher than average winter survivability, and lower mite count in the 2nd year.
    1.  
  1. Compare “walk-away split” queens to traditional 10-day queen rearing method and 48 hour queen cell method funded via SARE: ONE19-326.  Use the following metrics:
    1. Queen rearing quality (weight, head width, thorax width)
    2. Queen mating quality (number and viability of stored sperm)
  2. Produce a guide to best practices for “walk-away splits” in the Northeast, which incorporates research results.
  3. Conduct a queen rearing symposium to teach beekeepers three queen rearing methods:  “walk-away splits”, 48 hour queen cell and 10 day queen cell methods.

Ultimately this project could increase the sustainability and resilience of beekeeping in our region by sharing adaptive strategies for queen production in the Northeast.

Introduction:

Problem: 

Nearly half of all Massachusetts hives died the winter of 2015-2016, according to the most recently published survey (Kulhanek et al. 2017).  To replace hives, northern beekeepers often purchase “packages” (3 lbs. of bees and a queen) from southern states. However, hives with southern genetics may not survive northern winters as well.  A series of SARE projects in Maine showed that hives headed by northern-adapted queens survived winter better than hives headed by southern-adapted queens. According to MacGregor-Forbes, “Many beekeepers feel that the sustainability of beekeeping hinges on new ways of operating that depend on local bee and queen breeders to produce new starting colonies in their area.” (MacGregor-Forbes 2014).

 

These findings suggest that utilizing northern queens and starter or nucleus colonies is a path forward for sustainable beekeeping in the Northeast.  Nucleus colonies are small, viable colonies of honey bees created during the late spring and early summer from full-sized hives.  They are a promising way to improve the sustainability of beekeeping in the Northeast.  Beekeepers know this: in fall 2018, our team surveyed 116 Northeast beekeepers and found that 65% “usually” or “always” seek out queens reared from Northeast stock.  In addition, 68% are “very interested” in learning how to rear queens. However, typical queen rearing practices require complex logistics and lots of resources.  

 

Under the current model, queen rearers use a multistage process to raise queens from egg to mature queen cell.  This process includes a technique called “grafting,” in which young larvae are manually transferred to tiny cups. The larvae are then placed in a resource-rich hive that is filled with honey, pollen and nurse bees.  After 10 days, the queens are sold as mature pupae (called queen cells) (McNeil 2015).  Because of this specialized knowledge requirement, traditional queen-rearing methods can be inaccessible to novice beekeepers.  This limits beekeepers’ capacity to produce nucleus hives for their own use or sale, thus perpetuating the dependence on Southern package bees, and inhibits operations capacity to expand into businesses. 

Solution: 

Research has shown that creating a strong rearing condition can have an effect on overall queen health and quality; there is a robust literature showing that queen rearing conditions affect queen quality (Tarpy et al. 2011).  The importance of queen quality combined with the interest in queen rearing by local beekeepers demonstrates the value of performing our research inquiry. The “walk-away split” provides the beekeeper a much less physically demanding, and less specialized method of developing a healthy queen and in turn a healthy colony.  

This project seeks to: 

  • Trial and compare 4 methods of “walk-away split” 
  • Compare the performance of “walk-away splits” to both the traditional 10-day queen rearing method and the novel approach of producing 48 hour queen cells our team is studying in the recently funded SARE: ONE19-326 

 

The simplicity and replicability of these proposed methods will prove more accessible to a wider range of beekeepers.  Thus, this study will empower more beekeepers to produce nucleus colonies for use or sale.  According to NE SARE project FNE15-818 nucleus colonies can offer beekeepers in northern climates a viable and efficient means to retain or increase their stock. They are an appealing addition to the commercial, sideline, and backyard apiary because they function as a reserve stock of locally-raised bees that can be used to replenish winter losses.  Furthermore nucs are a highly saleable product that offers an attractive business opportunity to apiaries in the region (Berry, D. 2018). 

 

Crafting a formula for a “walk-away splits” method simultaneously increases hive numbers and stymies the reproduction of Varroa by providing a longer egg-laying gap in colonies.  Research suggests that longer egg-laying gaps lead to lower levels of Varroa, a damaging and ubiquitous bee pest (Rosenkranz 2010, Loftus et al. 2016).  The pause in egg-laying during the queen rearing period mimics the hive’s natural reproductive cycle of swarming.  Slowing Varroa reproduction has the potential to limit its horizontal transmission from hive to hive and enable the coevolution of parasite and host. This can improve the health of current bee stock (Oddie, M., Büchler, R., Dahle, B. et al. 2018).  

“Walk-away splits” could imbue increased Varroa resistance and better winter survivability, thus reducing the amount of bees that are being brought in as packages from beyond our region.  This method could add to the toolbox of effective queen rearing methodologies, which includes the traditional 10-day queen rearing methodUltimately this project could increase the sustainability and resilience of beekeeping in our region.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Samantha Alger
  • Sam Comfort
  • Dr. David Tarpy
  • Hannah Whitehead

Research

Materials and methods:

General Approach & Treatments

We initially proposed the following treatments:

Yard 1 – Simple Darwinian “Walk-Away Splits”

12 established hives, both Langstroth and “box hive” styles, will be split into approximately 48 new hives on site over the course of 2 weeks starting mid-May as weather and hive conditions permit.  Splits put in new positions in the yard will be made stronger than those left in the original positions.  All original mated queens will be removed.  The bees in these splits will be allowed to fly immediately.  The Langstroth hives will be split into both commonly-used 4 frame nucleus boxes (16.8 liters) and 10 frame deep frame boxes (42 liters).  The “box hives” will be split into a two box configuration (23.8 liters) and four box configuration (47.6 liters).  The yard will be checked after four weeks for queen mating success and expanded as necessary.  Failed splits will be combined with successful splits and documented.

Yard 2 – Darwinian “Walk-Away Splits” plus confinement time

12 established hives, both Langstroth and “box hive” styles, will be split into approximately 48 hives over the course of 2 weeks starting in mid-May.  The splits will be put into various confinement times- 25% of the splits will be allowed to fly immediately while the rest are screened into the box and placed in a cool, dark place for 20, 45, to 70 hours.  For ease of moving and storing, these confined splits will be at smaller volumes (two frame and four frame for Langstroth, and one box and two box configuration for “box hives”).  They will be checked for successful mating after four weeks and expanded/combined as necessary.

Yard 3 – Micro “Walk-Away Splits” for two rounds of queen rearing

In mid-May, established hives from an outer bee yard will be split into 48 nucleus hives of various volumes: two comb “box hive” (3 liters), four comb “box hive” (6 liters), two frame Langstroth (8.4 liters), four frame Langstroth (16.8 liters).  These splits will be confined until dark and then moved to the mating yard and allowed to fly.  They will be checked for successful mating after four weeks.  All successfully mated queens will be caged.  Fifteen will be sent to NC State University for spermatheca analysis; some will be retained, used for splits in other locations, and tracked; and some will be distributed to other beekeepers to be tracked.  Splits that failed to raise a queen will be given brood from those that were successful.  All hives will again be allowed to raise a new queen and checked in another four weeks, approximately mid-July.  They will then be expanded, combined, and fed as necessary in preparation for winter.

Yard 4 – Micro “Walk-Away Splits” onsite comparison to grafted queen trials and previously established “Walk-Away Splits”

In mid-June, established hives from an outer bee yard will be split into 48 nucleus hives of various volumes: two comb “box hive” (3 liters), four comb “box hive” (6 liters), two frame Langstroth (8.4 liters), four frame Langstroth (16.8 liters).  These splits will be confined until dark and moved to the mating yard being run for the previous SARE grant.

Mating success of these newly-made June splits will be compared to both the conventionally grafted queen trials already in progress at Yard 4 and the “walk-away splits” likewise established at both Yard 4 and Yard 3 which will be starting a second round of raising queens without moving.  After four weeks, expanded/combined/fed as needed.

So the splits established at Yard 1, 2, and 4 will execute one round of emergency queen rearing for this project.  Yard 3 will execute 2 consecutive rounds.  The data from the previous SARE grant walk-away trials (2 consecutive rounds) at Yard 4 will also be included in the final analysis.  In total, data will be accrued from approximately 336 queen rearing starts.

What we did:

We did not split the treatments by yard, opting instead to seek out a wider data pool by working with hives in multiple yards in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.  We grouped them into the type of split sorting them into four groups as follows:

  1. Group A could be split into A1) First round dequeened, and A2) second round dequeened.  (This is by date vs location which I have in my notes.)   
  2. Group B could be split into B1) moved to new yard, and B2) moved in the same yard (this is currently included in A, I think)  
  3. Group C could be split into C1) confined 1.5 days, and C2) confined 2.5 days.     
  4. Group D could be split into D1) “Drum up” split- shaking out a simulated swarm, and D2) “Run-away” split- moving a large hive in the yard and moving back open brood to catch the field force.  

The experiment was to consist of 192 hive sample, however we were able to collect data for over 600 splits made by Anarchy Apiaries and They Keep Bees. 

Each split/round of dequeening was numbered and recorded on a tracking matrix. 

Under the “Split Data” section we entered the hive conditions (hive size, worker population, brood conditions, etc). 

The next section included “Split Conditions” which is documents which method was used to create the split.  We omitted weather during split, because our own production calendars influencing when splits were made, we needed to make splits in all weather types.

The next section tracked the mating percentage of each split.

We have not gathered winter survivability (if applicable) data because hives have not yet completed one winter cycle. 

Mating success of these newly-made splits was compared to both the conventionally grafted queen trials.  The walk away split data from our 48 hour queen cell SARE grant trial was included in our analysis

Research results and discussion:

In our proposal we hypothesised that queens produced by the “walk-away split” method will be of equivalent in quality and survivability to queens produced through the complex 10-day method.  If we find that “walk-away splits” and 10-day queens have equivalent reproductive potential, it means that we can raise high-quality queens using an easier, less resource-intensive method. This would make queen rearing more accessible to backyard beekeepers and would dramatically enhance our ability to produce, disseminate and exchange northern-hardy genetics.   

20+ queens from this trial were be sent to NC State University for spermatheca & morphometric analysis; the remaining queens were retained and will be tracked.  Some were distributed to colleague beekeeepers for tracking and some remained with They Keep Bees & Anarchy Apiaries. 

After winter is over, in early spring we will assess walk away splits for survivability. 

Second year analysis for survivability, mite count and spring vigor will be completed in Spring 2021 on successfully overwintered “walk-away splits”.

Currently we have the results for the successful mating of queens for this project of the  quantity: the mating results.  (Augmenting quality– especially within the most successful split methods- can indeed be a focus in future studies, or if we extend/renew this one, etc.)  

The overall mating success of the project was 65.202%, below we’ll draw queen take comparison from SARE 48 hour queen trial proved to be similar.  Here is a slide comparing queen take of 10 day queen cells, 48 hour queen cells and walk away splits.

Findings

Our team is currently working to evaluate our data.  We’ve hired a statistician to consult on the data, and analyze our results to determine their statistical significance.  Our statistician Susan Spruill is evaluating data from over 600 walk away splits Anarchy Apiaries and They Keep Bees made this season.  We collected data from approximately 425 splits tracking queens mating success, brood pattern and population.  Susan Spruilll is currently evaluating the data and will have outcomes shortly.  

Susan will use generalized linear models with appropriate error distributions (e.g., binomial, Gaussian, Poisson) to assess how queen rearing method, round (May or June) and their interaction affect each response.

Further analysis of reproductive potential will tell us important information about the reproductive potential of queens produced through the “walk-away split” method. This will serve as a foundation for any future studies comparing hive-level responses (eg. brood area, egg-laying

Preliminary research conclusions are listed here.  We have not completed our data analysis, and the analysis is under way by a statistician and our team.  

Walk away split methods were as effective at successfully raising high quality queens as the10 day queen cell method.  The percentage of successfully mated queens with walk away splits was  65.202%.  

10 day queen cell method, take percentage was 69%.  48 hour queen cell take percentage was 69%. 

We completed Morphometric Analysis by Dr Tarpy’s Queen Bee Clinic at Western North Carolina State University. Preliminary results based on the queen clinic analysis of walk away split queens morphometric of 20+ walk away split queens caught on 7/15 and 8/4. We have not yet completed analysis of Morphometrics results, but will continue to work with this data.  Initial data in linked in the following Morphometric reports from the Queen Clinic. 

Report 1:  2020-07-15 TD;  (Group D Walk Away Splits)

Report 2:  2020-08-04 TD;  (Group A-D Walk Away Splits)

Initial overview indicates that there was little Morphometric difference between queens produced using Walk Away splits vs 10 day or 48 hour queen cell methods.  We’ll continue to investigate these results, to understand which of the Walk Away treatments produces the best queens. 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

250 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Our team is currently working to evaluate our data.  We’ve hired a statistician to consult on the data, and analyze our results to determine their statistical significance.  Our statistician Susan Spruill is evaluating data from over 600 walk away splits Anarchy Apiaries and They Keep Bees made this season.  Approximately 425 splits were successfully mated and data collected on the queens mating success, brood pattern and population.  Susan Spruilll is currently evaluating the data and will have outcomes shortly.  

In additon, the research team is in the midst of developing our “Queen Rearing Zine” which will share process and results of our research.  A first draft has been sent to the team and can be viewed here. QueenRearing_booklet_R1draft2

The zine will include short videos on each walk away split method, as well as an overview of queen rearing biology and strategies.

Webinars, Zooms and/or Presentations given sharing our research question and methods with preliminary results of our data.  Preliminary results based on the queen clinic analysis of walk away split queens morphometric of 20+ walk away split queens caught on 7/15 and 8/4. 

Report 1:  2020-07-15 TD;  (Group D Walk Away Splits)

Report 2:  2020-08-04 TD;  (Group A-D Walk Away Splits)

Our team has spoken at the following clubs and beekeeping classes:  

  1. San Mateo Beekeeping Association, Ang Roell:  Queen Rearing Methods & Strategies
  2. San Francisco Beekeeping Association, Ang Roell:  Queen Rearing Methods & Strategies
  3. Norfolk County Beekeepers Association, Ang Roell:  Queen Rearing Methods & Strategies
  4. University of Vermont Beekeeping Class led by Dr. Samantha Alger, Sam Comfort, Ang Roell:  Queen Rearing Methods & Strategies
  5. Ohio Beekeepers Association, Sam Comfort, Queen Rearing Methods & Strategies

According to numbers tracked by Ang Roell & Sam Comfort 50+ beekeepers attended each session.  Confirmed upcoming presentations include a planned presentation to the West Virginia Beekeepers Association, a second presentation at the Norfolk Beekeepers Association and the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association.  Our team is pursuing additional online and in person engagements at this time.  

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.