Establishing and Maintaining Mite Resistant Nucleus Colonies for the Sustainable Apiary Using USDA Russian and VSH Queen Bees

Final report for FW18-023

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $16,980.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2019
Grant Recipient: San Juan Apiaries
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
John Gagne
San Juan Apiaries
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Project Information


Currently there is limited access and availability to nucleus (nuc) colonies utilizing Varroa
Sensitive Hygienic (VSH) queens. The demand for the importation of package bees specifically
has increased dramatically because of the continued loss of viable colonies due to the devastation
of the varroa mite. Large scale commercial package bee operations are hard pressed each year to
maintain an adequate supply of bees and queens to satisfy the demand. There is also limited focus
on varroa resistant breeding within this commercial environment and many of these package bees
don’t survive the first year. While numerous studies have been conducted, and controlled breeding
endeavors are gaining focus, there is still a minimal emphasis on utilizing and breeding for
genetically proven VSH queens. Within the beekeeping industry today, it is widely accepted that
the continued use of chemicals and miticides to combat the varroa mite is not a long term viable
solution to a healthy beekeeping industry. Economically speaking, todays mixed race queens and
bees are raised as quickly as possible in an attempt to satisfy the demand for bee colonies within
the commercial market, as well as supplying the general public.
Alternatively, maintaining healthy and vigorous mite resistant nucleus colonies is now attainable
through the use of available queens such as the Russian and USDA-VSH strains, that possess
significant mite suppressive traits. Through the use of controlled breeding, monitoring and
evaluation, over-wintered nucleus colonies headed by VSH expressive queens can be responsible
for eventually impacting the local and regional communities to a more sustainable and profitable
climate. This grant will demonstrate to others how to establish and maintain vigorous nucleus
colonies for sustainable growth within the apiary. An outreach program will be established to
provide instructional site visits to the bee yards, as well as educational presentations within an
academic setting. The availability of over-wintered colonies headed by VSH mite resistant queens
offers numerous possibilities for shared genetics within the community, and future breeding
programs to benefit all beekeepers.

Project Objectives:

1. Establish and maintain two separate nucleus colony bee yards consisting of a minimum of
24 colonies each. One control group will be established using USDA Russian queens and
the other group will be established using commercially available queens with high levels
of VSH.  (Two different test yards were established in May of 2018.  VSH and Russian queens were received and introduced in each yard from May 14 through the 18th.  Queens were mixed into each yard randomly.  Queen acceptance was well above normal with only (2) queens rejected in one yard, and (1) queen rejected in the other.  Because of variables during the mating process of queens, and potential issues with introducing mated queens into queen less colonies, this is considered normal.  
2. Maintain and evaluate each colony in each group, and perform mite count testing after
spring/summer colony growth, prior to overwintering and at the beginning of the following
spring. Compile and maintain a data base for each colony showing vital statistics and
pertinent information. Mite count testing was performed on each colony on June 26, 2018 and again on September 27th and 28th.  See attached charts for testing results. 
3. Schedule on site instructional seminars in the bee yards with other producers to share and
discuss benefits of the program. Educational outreach seminars will be scheduled at San
Juan College, Farmington N.M. as well as Santa Fe Community College. These events will
be hosted by the producer as well as Dr. Don Hyder, Professor of Biology and Dr. Jose
Villa, Retired USDA-Research Entomologist.  The first educational outreach seminar was held on March 24th, in Santa Fe, N.M.  A key focus of the presentation was nucleus colony management and sustainable beekeeping. John Gagne / Producer was the keynote speaker at this event (see attached brochure).  The second event was the New Mexico Beekeepers Assoc. annual summer conference.  This statewide event combined the Santa Fe Community College event to a more centralized location to accommodate a large attendance. Keynote speakers were John Gagne/ Producer, and Dr. Jose Villa, technical advisor to the grant.  (see attached brochure). The last educational outreach program was held on October 20th., 2018 at San Juan Community College, Farmington, N.M. Keynote speakers were; John Gagne/Producer, Dr. Jose Villa, Technical advisor, and Dr. Don Hyder, Technical advisor to the grant (see attached literature). 

4. Assess bee populations and honey stores of all colonies at the beginning and end of the
overwintering period.  Currently ongoing, to be included in final report. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Jose Villa - Technical Advisor (Educator and Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Two separate nucleus colony test yards have been established using (2) different genetic lines of queen bees.  Each yard is comprised of a mix of VSH queens and Russian queens.  The overall objective is to overwinter each nucleus colony without the intervention of any miticides or chemicals. In the spring of 2019 each colony will be inspected and a final report will be provided indicating how many of the colonies were able to survive the winter.  

On April 15, 2019 all colonies in each test yards were again sampled for varroa mite infestation. The mite sampling results are attached.  


Participation Summary
20 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

110 Farmers
35 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

NG-Seminar-March-2018New-Mexico-Beekeepers-Assoc.-Seminar San-Juan-College-Flyer To date we have conducted (3) Educational Outreach

2019 Field Day Seminar

Field Day Handout Russian and VSH Genetics


  1. Beekeeping Seminar, Nucleus Colonies, March 24th, 2018, Santa Fe, N.M.
  2. New Mexico Beekeepers Assoc. Seminar, August 18, 2018, Albuquerque, N.M. 
  3. San Juan College Reginal Seminar (N.M & Colorado), October 20th, 2018, Farmington, N.M. 
  4. Field Day Event, Working Session in Bee Yard, April 27, 2019, La Cienega, N.M.

See attached seminar literature.

Upcoming seminar will be held in April, 2019.  This event will be a regional "field day" seminar with hands on participation of local beekeepers. 


Learning Outcomes

75 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • To date (3) educational outreach seminars have been held directly pertaining to the research grant, and beekeeping in general. In addition, numerous topics of concern regarding the current health of our honeybees in general were addressed. Lectures on specific genetic traits of the two different queen bee lineage we are using was presented. VSH queen bees are considered a positive breeding tool to combat varroa mites and various viruses. The information presented by the producer and the technical advisors was well received by those attending the events. Significant feedback was received by those attending who now wish to implement best management practices as presented into their apiaries.

    Final Report: The results of our seminars and field day event with other beekeepers and educators has make a positive and significant impact to those individuals who attended. We continually receive emails and calls from many of the attendees thanking us for sharing in their learning experience. In addition, at the end of May of this year we have made 15 of the nucleus colonies available to other beekeepers wishing to bring our genetics into their apiaries. Specifically, Laura Duncan traveled all the way from Telluride Colorado, to attend our field day event.

  • Collaborations: Working closely with technical advisor Dr. Jose Villa provided me an enormous learning and educational opportunity that has made me a better beekeeper. Quite frankly, being forced into a more academic and scientific environment, in fulfilling the requirements and the goals of the grant, has allowed me to be much more comfortable performing varroa testing and documentation. Dr. Villa continuously made himself available and was a huge part of the success of our grant.

  • Future Collaborations: While we did not apply for additional funding in continuing to expand our current study, we will be continuing to expand upon our current genetics and breed from our best hold-over nucleus colonies in the spring of 2020. I would like to personally thank Western SARE for granting us financial support that enabled us to conduct our study.

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
40 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
1 Grant received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

We will be including this information in our final report, once a clear evaluation of our test yards can be realized in April of 2019.  We are anticipating that a field day / educational outreach event will be held in April 2019, to finalize the grant.  It is our hope that at that time a positive assessment of our genetic line of bees and management practices of our nucleus colonies will be well received and adopted by others within our field. 

Final Report / Vonn Yard

The nucleus colonies in the Vonn yard were inspected on April 15, 2019.  At time of inspection, Russian colonies # 1 & 2 had died.  In addition, VSH colony #5 had also died.  While there was evidence of the remains of varroa, it appeared in all likelihood that all of these colonies had died from the results of starvation.  Two weeks previous to this inspection all colonies were opened up for a quick visual inspection and also checked for available honey stores.  While these (3) colonies were weak, they were still alive.  New Mexico weather in early spring is sometimes hostile and unpredictable; this past spring was no exception.  

Final Report / Cochiti N.

The nucleus colonies at the Cochiti N. yard were opened for inspection on April 15, 2019.  At time of inspection all colonies were alive.  VSH colony's #9 and # 16 were queen-less, showing low bee populations and no signs of eggs or larvae.  The Cochiti N yard did not lose any overwintered colonies but the two queen-less colonies were combined with other hives in the same yard.  



Success stories:

To date our primary success story has been the attendance and participation at our educational outreach seminars.  The New Mexico Beekeepers Assoc. meeting held in Albuquerque allowed our grant producer and technical advisor a wonderful opportunity to be the featured speakers.  John Gagne (producer) was able to speak at length about establishing nucleus colony's and introducing our two different genetic lines on queens.  Dr. Jose Villa (technical advisor) also presented on varroa mite issues; including: testing, mite resistant genetics, pathogens and viruses and specific best management practices.  Dr. Villa spoke at length regarding our SARE Grant and research study that he was participating in.    

Final Report Success:

The grant team was extremely pleased with the overwintering percentages of the two test yards.  National averages each year for colonies overwintered in the U.S. have exceeded 40%, with numerous localities much higher.  Our nucleus colonies survived with less than 9% mortality, without the use of any miticides whatsoever! It is our firm belief that mite resistant genetics clearly played a major role in the over-all vitality and over-wintering abilities of the bees.  While most of the nucs tested positive for varroa; mite levels were continuously held to low levels and to date, have not spiked to life threatening levels as normally is the case.  


Project Assessment:  Varroa mite infestations is by far the leading cause of honey bee colony decline across the U.S. today.  While many research projects currently exist in hopes of minimizing mite devastation, there is still years of work and research ahead before we turn the corner in our battle against varroa.  It is our firm belief that the role of genetics, and breeding a more tolerant breed of honeybees, is vitally important to the overall health of bee colonies.  While our year long study focused on only two specific genetic lines of queen bees, we were able to demonstrate that keeping bees alive, and over-wintering them without the use of chemicals and miticides is possible.  As a direct result of our research, a positive economic and environmental impact was attained.      

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.