Pennsylvania queen bee program and Heartland Honey Bee Breeders Cooperative: Mite-biting behavior and overwintering success

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2018
Grant Recipient: Always Summer Herbs
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Jeffrey Berta
Always Summer Herbs

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: parasite control
  • Education and Training: extension, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives
  • Pest Management: biological control
  • Production Systems: holistic management, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    Varroa mites are the single greatest threat to sustainable beekeeping in the Northeastern US, and across the world. Now, a new novel genetic trait described by Dr. Greg Hunt (SARE LNC08-295 2008-2011) is Mite-Biting Behavior, the MBB trait is when the honeybees bite off one or more legs from a varroa mite, bitten mites will then bleed to death. This project will measure MBB, and its relationship to mite counts, Winter survivorship and colony weight. If MBB can increase Winter survival, it will increase the sustainability of beekeeping by reducing replacement costs of dead bees. This project will involve queen breeders, bee clubs and beekeepers in several states, as well as two universities and the extension service. Several recent SARE grants in the Northeast and North Central regions measured varroa sensitive hygienic behavior (VSH) and proved its value for mite resistance. This project will build on that existing work, and incorporate the new grooming behavior MBB, and measure its effects on mite counts, colony weight and ultimately Winter survival.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project will determine if there is a relationship between MBB levels and the total number of Varroa mites, colony weight, and Winter Survivorship.  MBB is a recently described grooming behavior trait that has been documented at high levels in some honeybee stocks, but it has yet to be proven as effective and practical tool for controlling/reducing Varroa mite populations, and improved Winter survival. We will measure MBB percentages across colonies generated by artificially inseminated (AI) queens with semen from previously identified MBB stocks overwintered from our 2015 SARE grant, and compare this to a control group of commercially available stock of unselected bees obtained from Southern breeders. If MBB proves to reduce mite populations, we can select for this genetic trait in our breeding programs. The study will take place in several states, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, and, and cooperation with the Heartland Honey Bee Breeders Coop (HHBBC). Note: this project spans two USDA SARE regions, we have contacted the administrators in the North Central and Northeast, and they welcome and encourage collaboration

    Our objective is to measure the relationship between mite-biting behavior (MBB) and the total mite count in honeybee colonies. MBB is a new and novel grooming behavior, and is defined by a honeybee biting one or more legs off of a Varroa mite. This will yield measurable results, and a potential tool for breeding selections. An assay has been developed by Dr. Greg Hunt at Purdue University (Hunt & Andino ABJ 2011) for accurately measuring the proportion of chewed mites in a colony. The method has two major components, collection of mites, and evaluation of chewed legs. The collection of mites in the field by beekeepers is simple: (1) an oiled board is inserted over the bottom board (floor) of the colony, (2) the board is allowed to remain for 24-48 hours, (3) the mite boards are removed from the colonies, and brought to safe processing area/lab.  And then the second component is evaluation: (4) sift through the contents and pluck out the dark mature mites, (5) glue/set the mites "legs up" on a glass microscope slide/petri dish, and count the total number, (6) view each mite on the slide under a low power microscope/15X-handlense and count how many mites have chewed/missing legs, (7) calculate the MBB, as a percentage, example: 12 chewed mites/ 36 total = 33% . The collection portion is simple for beekeepers to collect in field with minimal training and tools. The evaluation component, steps 4-7, is more skilled, labor intensive and time consuming. Fortunately it can be done later as time allows by the beekeeper, or outsourced to a technician. There are two groups that will compared: 1) HHBBC-overwintered best MBB queens generated from our 2015 SARE grant, and 2016 AI queens inseminated with best MBB 2016 stocks raised in Purdue  (2) Control Group-queens obtained from commercial package breeders in the Southeast US, which have not been selected for any traits.  These studies will allow us to determine if the MBB traits is associated with reduced mite loads, increased colony weight, and increased overwintering success, and if breeding for the MBB trait is feasible.  The beeyards locations planned to be in the HHBBC members respective states: Jeff Berta W-PA, Mark Gingrich E-PA, Bernie Svidergol C-PA, Dan O'Hanlon WV, Dwight Wells W-OH, Joe Kovaleski E-OH and Matt Evans IN.  Each yard will include 4 colonies from each group.

    The project will begin March 2016 and end one year later. The time table, responsibilities and durations are listed: March 1-30 Contract finalized and supplies ordered, participants notified of award and duties.-J Berta April 1-30 Start preparing/feeding bee colonies for queen rearing, purchase additional nucleus colonies to make up for shortfalls from winter kill. J Berta, HHBBC, May 1-June 5 Begin queen rearing of virgins and mated queens for project. J Berta, HHBBC, and all participants June 10-12 Bring virgins and drones/semen to Purdue University for Artificial Insemination. Dr. Hunt, J Berta, HHBBC members, June 13-25 Nurture AI queens which will be the MBB test group,  and additionally,  start grafting eggs as soon queens start to lay for the subsequent outreach workshop. Start preparing “48 hour” old queen cells for queen exchange workshop. J Berta, M Gingrich, D Wells, HHBBC, and local bee clubs from Pa State Beekeepers Assoc (PSBA). June 27-28 OUTREACH workshop to exchange and distribute virgin queen cells to participants. PSBA bee clubs, J Berta, HHBBC, June 25-July 31 Produce and mate queens from the HHBBC local survivor stock, MBB stock for project hives, and start project hives. J Berta, HHBBC, and all participants August 1-21 Balance all project colonies so all study groups are adequately represented. J Berta, HHBBC, and all project participants August 22-23 OUTREACH queen exchange at the PSBA annual picnic. PSBA, M Gingrich, J Berta, HHBBC, and bee clubs. August 24-October15 Collect samples of mites from project colonies, and measure MBB percentages. Mite samples will be collected at at least three time points. Weigh colonies after the first killing frost. J Berta, HHBBC, and all beeyard participants. October 1- November 12 Finish any final data collection as needed and prepare colonies for winter.  J Berta, HHBBC, and all beeyards participants. Nov 13-14 PSBA annual meeting, present update to over 100 beekeepers. J Berta M Gingrich November 15-December 31 Write annual report, and feed colonies as required. J Berta report writing, HHBBC, and all project participants feed of colonies. January 1- March 1 2016 Feed colonies as need, record Winter kill percentages, write final report. J. Berta & Tech advisor C. Grozinger.


    Several organizations, and institutions will participate in the project, as listed: HHBBC, PSBA, Jeff Berta-Project Manager, HHBBC, PSBA, W Penna. Mark Gingrich- Assistant Project Mgr, PSBA, E Penna., Dr. Christina Grozinger-Tech Advisor, Pennsylvania State Univ., Dr. Greg Hunt, Purdue Univ.-Breeding Advisor, Dwight Wells- HHBBC participant & Buckeye Queen Producers, W OH, Dan O'Hanlon- HHBBC  participant & WV Queen Producers, WV, and Matt Evans-HHBBC participant, Indiana Beekeepers Assoc. President, Joe Kovaleski HHBBC, Buckeye Queen producers, Bernie Svidergol PSBA, President 2Cs and B Bee Club.

    Outreach will be primarily through “hands-on” distribution of genetics to local bee clubs, and enthusiasts, queen exchange, and presentation.  See details: June 18-July 8 OUTREACH workshop to exchange and distribute primarily unhatched virgin queen cells to participants, and some virgin and possibly mated queens to PSBA, 2Cs and a B beekeepers Club, and other clubs and enthusiasts. August 22-23 OUTREACH queen exchange at the PSBA annual picnic. PSBA, J Berta, M Gingrich, B Svidergol Nov 13-14 PSBA annual meeting, present power point update to over 100 beekeepers. J Berta, M Gingrich, tech advisor.  Other outreach will occur in the Eastern PA, OH, and WV, by associated group members.

    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.