Sustainable beekeeping: increasing production and utilization of northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant honey bee queens

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,431.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
stewart jacobson
Illinois Queen Initiative

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animal Products: honey


  • Crop Production: beekeeping

    Proposal summary:

    Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) continues to plague the U.S. beekeeping industry. The varroa mite is generally recognized as a key element in this disorder. Unfortunately, the response of much of the beekeeping industry is to search for the next chemical when the mites become resistant to the current one. Large commercial operations also regularly use the antibiotic Tylan as a preventive against American Foul Brood, an off-label use. Many scientists who study CCD believe that beekeeper-applied miticides are also a major factor in the disorder because they negatively impact the immune system in honey bees, making them more susceptible to various pathogenic microbes. The recent study implicating a new virus and the fungus Nosema ceranae as additional causes of Colony Collapse Disorder further shows the error of beekeepers’ over-dependence on immune system damaging chemicals. It’s impossible to imagine any other livestock industry that would tolerate annual losses of 30%, which are now considered normal. Last winter’s losses in Illinois and Wisconsin were exceptionally high, in some cases as much as 70%. An increasing number of beekeepers realize that we are not on a sustainable path, that disease and mite resistant honey bees adapted to local environmental conditions are critical both to reducing chemical usage and to increasing winter survival. Small and medium size queen producers are in a better position to produce disease and mite resistant queens than large producers in Sunbelt states. The vast majority of the latter continue to focus on honey production rather than resistance in their breeding (Sue Cobey, personal communication). In contrast, most of those raising queens in Illinois are using lines of bees that are resistant to mites and diseases. Compared to queen producers in California and southern states with thousands of colonies, our producers have at most a few hundred and can more readily alter the genetics of both their queens and drones. In Illinois and much of Wisconsin the majority of queens and package bees come from California. Even that state’s producers who raise queens from resistant lines have little or no control over drone genetics. This is because almost all the producers are crowded into a small area of northern California. Another advantage that Illinois queen producers have is that there are at least five bee yards where colonies have survived at least five years without varroa treatments; non-resistant colonies rarely survive two years without treatment. The proposed project will utilize these “survivor” stocks along with other resistant lines in a cooperative breeding program. The current SARE project (FNC08-705) has completed its major objectives and exceeded most of them. One result is the formation of the Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI), an organization that furthers the objectives of the SARE project. In October the IQI held its first annual meeting where a coordinated breeding plan for 2011-2012 was discussed and two presentations were made by Dr. Jeff Harris of the USDA on bee breeding. As a result of the meeting we have identified the following objectives: 1) To increase the number of beekeepers raising queens and bees for sale in Illinois; 2) To improve queen producers’ skills to select and to produce improved, northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant honey bee stocks; 3) To facilitate a regular exchange of both information and improved stock between queen producers; 4) To promote Illinois-produced queens and bees to beekeepers in our state. In order to realize these objectives we are seeking funding for the following activities: A. Educational Programs 1. Introductory classes in queen raising to be held in different regions in Illinois. Although we have trained 118 beekeepers in queen production during 2009-2010, there is a growing interest in raising queens in Illinois and adjacent states. We will offer at least four hands-on workshops for 15-20 persons each in 2011 and 2012. 2. Follow-up meetings: four in both 2011 and 2012 to provide support and additional information for an estimated 140-150 persons who have taken the introductory workshops. The meetings will focus on several topics: 1) Marketing and mailing queens; 2) Selection and breeding; 3) Producing and marketing small colonies (nuclei) as an additional source of income for queen producers. These meetings will include opportunities for exchange of ideas between producers and hands-on activities. 3. Additional activities will include an annual state-wide Illinois Queen Initiative meeting focusing on queen production and bee breeding; including having a nationally recognized speaker on bee breeding. The proposed project will also develop an informal “train the trainers” component so that beekeepers with one year of successful experience raising queens will be encouraged to become mentors and some of those with at least two years of queen raising also will teach sections in the introductory or follow-up workshops. B. Evaluation of Stocks of Locally-Adapted, Resistant Honey Bees and Stock Improvement Utilizing Artificial Insemination Queen producers can evaluate queens to be used in breeding for both hygienic behavior and varroa resistance using established methods (refer to section 3). Truly sustainable beekeeping requires honey bees having these traits. American foul brood is the most important honey bee disease. Beekeepers can use simple equipment to test their colonies’ resistance to it by using liquid nitrogen to kill a small section of pupae and observe whether or not the colony removes the dead, potentially infective pupae within 24 hours (Jacobson, 2010. Am. Bee Journal 150: 777). During the follow-up meetings queen producers will learn about genetics of disease resistance and practice procedures to identify hygienic and varroa mite resistant honey bees. Artificial insemination (AI) is the only way to control honey bee matings and is used in all major bee breeding programs; for example development of the Minnesota Hygienic and the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene lines of bees. Unlike other species of domesticated animals, it is impossible to control the natural mating of honey bees because the queens mate one or more miles away from their home apiary with 15-20 different males (drones). A.I. also has the potential to increase the rate of progress in breeding by at least two-three years. The proposed project will utilize this technology by contracting with an experienced bee breeder/inseminator, Tim Arheit of Honey Run Apiaries in Ohio. Mr. Arheit has taken introductory and advanced courses taught by Sue Cobey, an acknowledged national expert on artificial insemination of honey bees. During 2011 we plan to send to Mr. Arheit 30 queens from at least two different sources of locally-adapted, disease and mite resistant stock; in 2012 we anticipate sending 60 queens, including ones from additional sources. The queens and donor drones will be from survivor colonies that have existed four or more years without treatment for varroa; typically non-resistant honey bee colonies survive at most two years without treatment. The inseminated queens from different sources will be distributed to four to six experienced queen producers for evaluation (see also section 5). Daughters of the breeder queens will be made available for sale to Illinois beekeepers. They will also serve as foundation stock for the cooperative breeding program for locally-adapted, resistant honey bees that will involve exchange of stocks.

    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.