Testing Two Selection Assays' Efficacy for Varroa-mite-tolerant Bee Production

2009 Annual Report for FNE08-631

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2008: $4,347.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Adam Finkelstein
VP Queen Bees

Testing Two Selection Assays' Efficacy for Varroa-mite-tolerant Bee Production


Interim Report

Apiculture using the European honey bee Apis mellifera for pollination and honey production, has become increasingly difficult for apiculturalists to manage and to be profitable in the North Eastern United States. Currently, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) receives headline status from the media who has focused on the newsworthy disappearance of honey bees from colonies, yet before CCD was reported, managing honey bees for profitable production had become labyrinthine for the beekeeper. One primary cause for this was the management of two specific parasitic mites: Tracheal and Varroa. They have caused the beekeeper to become increasingly dependent on chemical controls in the hive. Neither sustainable nor healthy for the environment or beekeepers, treating colonies for mites with the labeled pesticides, although accepted, will eventually lose efficacy as these pathogens become tolerant to the chemical controls, while wax, honey and pollen have become contaminated by these chemicals. Less honey bee colonies that are harder to manage impinge on other agricultural crops’ production as crop pollination then becomes more difficult. Farm managers respond by importing honey bee colonies from other regions, even other countries, weakening the market for the beekeepers that are still trying to remain competitive.

Our queen breeding program, on a small scale, has been very successful producing mite resistant queens. These head approximately fifty colonies that we manage without using ANY chemicals. We produce queens and extracted honey without using any chemical controls or any alternative methods to control mites or disease. We utilize Artificial Insemination (or Instrumental Insemination), to make breeder crosses and have used bees from around the USA to create a robust population. Other small scale queen breeders in the North East are also experiencing this success, as selection for mite resistance from survivor stocks is producing good results.

Selection is one key principle to achieving breeding goals. We sought SARE funds to facilitate on-farm research to demonstrate to other small queen breeders and beekeepers in general, how to select honey bee colonies for mite resistance utilizing two simple methodologies. Our intent is to compare an established mite resistant line to a standard commercial line utilizing these two selection methodologies under controlled experimental conditions. This will provide mite resistance data for the two lines, and elucidate the two selection techniques. Analysis of data will demonstrate if indeed these two selection methodologies are effective and appropriate for breeding mite resistance.

By testing these two selection methods under experimental conditions, we hope to provide a potential practice for small-scale queen breeders currently selecting for mite resistant stock. As of now, very few breeders perform both methods for resistance selection. If the results are favorable, there will be empirical and anecdotal data available to the North Eastern beekeeping community that two standardized selection methodologies may be utilized to enhance their current selection scenario. Other benefits from our research include impetus for beekeepers to breed for mite resistance from their own local stock. Not only is this more sustainable than purchasing queens from a different geographical location, but this local breeding would ensure higher colony production: locally produced quality queens, made following the proper biological methodology nearly always outperform imported queens shipped via common carrier. Local beekeeping associations, armed with a mite resistant selection practice could enhance existing local and regional breeding programs, producing queen bees that are productive and mite resistant, or they could initiate programs utilizing these selection practices in a procedure that would facilitate their producing locally adapted, hardy queen bees. This would bring some sustainability back into North Eastern beekeeping by reducing operating costs, dependence on agricultural chemicals that are harmful to the environment and beekeepers, and sole dependence on imported queen bee stock that was selected in a completely different bio-region and made inferior through shipping stress.

This past season, 2008, was the worst season for honey bees seen in over twenty-years. Poorly-timed rain decimated our May honey-flow that we use to produce surplus honey and build up our mating nucs for queen mating. More poor weather followed, with an intense drought from late June through the end of August making 2008 a very poor year for honey bee foraging and subsequent harvests. We had to feed supplemental cane sugar to all our colonies from August through October, a practice we usually avoid since our bees are strong and able to make their own stored food (honey).

We will also be moving many of our breeding colonies to a new location to protect them from curious neighbors.

Since the colonies we established for our SARE research took much longer to build up in 2008 due to the poor nectar-flow, we determined that we’d perform our experiment in 2009. This would ensure that our data was robust, and hopefully provide us with a chance to make up some of the income we lost due to poor honey yield and added expense of additional unbudgeted sugar for feeding.

Our project utilized the farm owners’ and one part-time employee’s time in 2008. In 2009, we will not need to hire any part-time resources.

Although we planned to have our project complete in 2008 and did not complete our work, we did establish our twenty experimental hives. We were able to make detailed observations on the control queens, and have data on what to avoid for breeding for mite resistance regarding foundation queen phenotype.

We will perform our experiment this season, and have our data collected by late September, 2009. Our initial choice for our control line of bees, the non-resistant, performed so poorly in our non-treatment scenario that we’d never recommend them to anyone, and made us realize that these main-stream bees have been selected and bred for high brood production solely, with no provisions for hardiness nor for over-Wintering. 90% of the control line needed to be re-queened with our stock just to survive through 2008’s poor Summer conditions.

We will need to purchase an additional 12 control queens to run our experiment. This expense was unexpected, but we learned exactly what bees we do not want as foundation stock for breeding. We will purchase an additional 12 queens for the project this year, and although they too are not mite-resistant, they are from a line that is purportedly hardy. Thus, although our initial control line fared poorly, we learned what to watch out for in selecting foundation lines, and we’re going to have two season’s of performance data on lines that are industry standards, to compare to our mite-resistant lines.

We found no significant farm conditions that impinged on our project in 2008 other than the extremely poor weather that thwarted the main honey-flow and subsequent Summer nectar gathering.

We had no net income change due to our project, although we were able to demonstrate to prospective customers that we received this grant and that we perform actual tests on our breeding population in selecting desirable breeders.
This might account for an increase in sales early in 2009 as word gets out that we’re working on honey bee hardiness, and we’re serious about it.

By observing an industry standard commercial bee stock perform under harsh conditions next to our stock, we were able to feel our work to date has been justified. Our bees outperformed the commercial standard in every metric.
We are amazed that conditions exists where the commercial line would yield results: beekeeping with an intense chemical treatment regime coupled with excessive supplementary feeding. Again, if this unsuitable result is the “industry standard” in bee breeding, there is certainly plenty of space to fill in with local, high quality, intensively selected bees that can perform well without chemical input and can sustainably produce for the beekeeper or farmer.

Erickson, E.H., et al, Producing Varroa-tolerant Honey Bees from Locally Adapted Stock: A Recipe, http://beesource.com/resources/usda/producing-varroa-tolerant-honey-bees-from-locally-adapted-stock-a-recipe/
Spivak, M. and Reuter, G., The Hygiene Queen, http://www.apiservices.biz/en/articles/sort-by-popularity/774-the-hygiene-queen


Dr. Dewey Caron

Techincal Advisor
Dept. of Entomology, 250 Townsend Hall
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716
Office Phone: 3028318883