Sustainable beekeeping: increasing production and utilization of northern-adapted, disease and mite resistant honey bee queens
Educational programs: The SARE project’s major goal is to increase the production and availability of Illinois-adapted, disease and mite resistant bees and queens. The project pursues this goal in large measure through the activities of the Illinois Queen Initiative (IQI), which during spring 2011 held two, day-long workshops where 21 beekeepers from Illinois, three from Missouri and one from Wisconsin learned basic queen rearing skills. In addition, over 30 persons also attended queen rearing workshops conducted by David Burns, an IQI regional coordinator, as part of his Long Lane Honey Farms educational program. In addition, 13 beekeepers who earlier participated in the queen rearing classes attended one of the two follow-up classes in either northern or central Illinois. These were designed to provide additional information on queen rearing and provide support to those who had started raising queens.
Participants exchanged ideas and discussed their successes and problems they encountered; they also sampled several bee colonies for Varroa mite populations using the “Varroa Gizmo,” a device developed at the University of Minnesota Honey Bee lab that allows for quite precise sampling of mite numbers. Because Varroa mites are considered to be the most important problem facing beekeeping, for sustainable beekeeping the selection of breeding stock needs to be based on accurate knowledge of which colonies manage to keep Varroa mite numbers below levels that are damaging to colony survival.
The annual, day-long meeting of the Illinois Queen Initiative provides an opportunity for those interested in raising queen bees to increase their knowledge and exchange information with other similarly interested individuals. On October 1, 2011 32 persons participated in the second annual IQI meeting in Bloomington, Illinois. The IQI currently has 35 paid members. Kent Williams, a commercial beekeeper from West Kentucky, spoke about his experiences in breeding, raising and selling queen bees. A panel of three Illinois queen producers with very different operations also shared their ideas and experiences. Participants also worked in small groups to identify activities to promote raising of locally adapted queens in Illinois.
Additional educational activities included a presentation on bee breeding and a panel discussion on keeping bees without chemical mite or disease treatments organized by Stu Jacobson to a total of about 65 persons at the annual meeting of the Heartland Apiculture Society in July, 2011 in Vincennes, IN. In addition there was a presentation on queen production methods by Jacobson to over 50 persons in the St. Louis, Missouri area at a meeting of the Three Rivers Beekeepers Association in November, 2011. Phil Raines gave talks on queen rearing methods to 250 beekeepers to the Chicago area Cook-DuPage Beekeeping Association and to about 40 beekeepers at the southern district meeting of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association.
Selection Project: The identification of honey bee lines (breeds) that are both disease and mite resistant and adapted to local/regional conditions in Illinois is an important aspect of the project. The top performing queens will then serve as the basis for breeding bees that possess these desirable attributes. The traits to be evaluated include maintaining mite levels below harmful levels, hygienic behavior, winter survival, spring population increase, productivity and gentle behavior. Twenty colonies in central and 10 in northern Illinois headed by queens from different sources were evaluated beginning in summer, 2011. Sources included: Buckfast queens from Canada; Carniolan cross stock that has survived at least 10 years from Bjorn Apiaries in Pennsylvania; queens of USDA-developed Varroa Sensitive Hygienic and Pollen (“Pol”) lines crossed with two different, locally-adapted, central Illinois stocks; two different “survivor stocks;” and a single queen from a Purdue University program that is selecting for honey bees that groom mites from themselves, often biting them. These queens represent a diversity of northern-adapted lines that have demonstrated at least some resistance to the Varroa mite and in some cases also demonstrate hygienic behavior that confers resistance to several important diseases of honey bee “brood” or pupae. In the majority of cases at least four queens of a given line or cross were evaluated.
Educational programs: Attendance at the two 2011 queen rearing workshops was somewhat less than in 2010; it was decided that in 2012 the two workshops will be offered in new regions in the state. Another thing we learned during the workshops was that a number of the participants expressed concerns about mastering the process of the grafting method of queen rearing, in which 1-2 day old honey bee larvae are transferred individually into artificial “queen cups.” This process demands very good eyesight as well as fine motor skills. In 2012 we will be teaching more about alternative methods that do not require removing tiny bee larvae from their cells and placing them into 3/8” wide cups. Although grafting is the norm for commercial queen rearing operations, beekeepers can learn how to produce queens with alternative methods; those who wish to expand their production can choose to learn the more complex grafting skills.
The Illinois Queen Initiative’s efforts to increase knowledge of the importance of locally-produced and northern-adapted queens, as well as increased information on these topics in the two major beekeeping trade journals have resulted in increased demand in Illinois for these queens. IQI producers have seen considerably more inquiries for these queens over that seen prior to 2011. Another measure of the project’s impacts is that over 10 instrumentally-inseminated breeder queens at a cost of $100 each plus shipping were ordered and used by IQI members, a considerable increase over previous years.
Selection project: The start of the project was delayed from spring until mid-summer due to delays and difficulties in obtaining queens of the desired lines. The queens evaluated were over-wintered in small colonies. All of the 16 colonies that entered the winter in central Illinois survived, although two queens had died and were replaced during fall, 2011. An additional four queens died during winter 2011-2012; one other queen failed during spring, 2012. In northern Illinois five queens from a single source perished over winter, while the five “survivor” stock colonies over-wintered well. This level of queen loss is not unusual. Most of the queens that died were replaced, although in some cases with queens of different lines. Of considerable disappointment was that the queen producer who had agreed to artificially (instrumentally) inseminate queens for the project withdrew his commitment, although he had expressed much enthusiasm about the project during the proposal stage. The prices he quoted were about one quarter of those of two other sources. The average cost of $150 per queen (not including shipping costs) for instrumental insemination puts this technology beyond the means of small to medium size queen producers. At this point it is still unclear whether or not the project may proceed with instrumental insemination of daughters of the top performing queens.
WORK PLAN FOR 2012
Educational programs: In 2012 two queen rearing workshops again will be offered, with an emphasis on new, urban locations in Chicago and the city of Peoria. In addition, two follow-up workshops will be offered at no or minimal charge to all beekeepers who have taken one of the queen rearing classes offered by the Illinois Queen Initiative or by Long Lane Honey Farm. The IQI annual meeting will again be held in fall, 2012. This meeting brings together those interested in raising queens from throughout Illinois and provides opportunities for beekeepers to learn new ideas and exchange information. The meeting will again feature a nationally recognized speaker as well as several other presenters on topics related to production and marketing queens, bee breeding and related subjects.
Selection project: This is continuing this spring. Currently there are 24 colonies that are under evaluation. By late June adequate data should be available to identify the best performing queens based on evaluation of the colony traits listed above in WORK ACTIVITIES, Selection project. Instrumental insemination of selected queens with semen from top performing selected colonies is a good means of more rapidly achieving progress in breeding. Unless an alternative to the price of at least $100 per queen can be located, the project will need to rely on distributing naturally mated queens instead. The producers can evaluate these potential breeders based on the traits and the scoring system developed by the project. Additional, mated or unmated daughters also will be available for sale to other beekeepers.
An article entitled Locally adapted, Varroa resistant honey bees: ideas from several key studies, was published in the August issue of the American Bee Journal. As explained above in WORK ACTIVITIES, Educational Programs, 250 persons attended queen rearing workshops or other presentations given by representatives of the SARE project. In addition to the queen rearing and related classes planned for 2012, it is anticipated that presentations will again be made at the Heartland Apicultural Society meeting and at several local or regional beekeeping meetings, including a queen rearing class planned in St. Louis.