Colorado Queen Honey Bee Testing Project for Increased Sustainability

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $24,922.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Kristine Holthaus
Colorado Queen Honey Bee Testing Project for Increased Sustainability

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Education and Training: demonstration, networking
  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, marketing management
  • Pest Management: genetic resistance
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, urban agriculture, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    The varroa mite (Varroa destructor) is the number one threat to honey bees (Apis mellifera) globally, and therefore poses a major threat to the 30% of our nation’s food supply that depends upon pollination. A major portion of the beekeeper’s time is spent in attempting to control this pest, which has become increasingly less efficacious given that the mite has developed high resistance to most treatments on the market. Our project is aimed at reducing or eliminating the dependence on chemical treatment of the varroa mite through selection, testing and improving the ability of Colorado honey bees to resist varroa mite infestations through introduction and genetic selection of resistant queens.

    Our focus will be on bringing to Colorado the strongest, hardiest, most disease resistant honey bee breeding stock currently available in the United States in order to conduct a two-year quality testing project. The first year will focus on identifying breeding stock that have been developed specifically in harsher environments than those found in Colorado, as well as for the presence of specific qualities, including high resistance to the varroa mite and other pathogens. The second year will focus on the quality reproduction from those selected, tested and successfully overwintered survivor stocks. The distribution of those stocks will provide the tools for other Colorado beekeepers to sustain their current apiaries.

    There is a tremendous need within Colorado as well as across the nation to provide the beekeeper with bees that have the genetic makeup to ward off existing pests and thrive within a chemically untreated hive. Our goal is to improve and strengthen the genetic traits of the honey bees themselves so they will detect varroa mites, brood diseases and additional pests within the hive and cells and remove them without chemical treatment. These added traits and strengths are imperative to maintain the sustainability of honey bee colonies throughout our regions. Once identified, the selected and tested colonies will provide the genetics and foundation for a future Colorado Breeding Program.

    The principle commercial supplier for Instrument Inseminated Varroa Sensitive Hygienic or VSH Breeder Queens retired in 2012. This has proven a setback to those breeders and producers who relied on the availability of the VSH X VSH breeding stock that he provided. This VSH behavior is currently the best known trait to decrease varroa levels in hives presently available to beekeepers in the U.S. This trait after the first cross needs to be either back crossed with VSH breeder drones or the F1 queens need to be tested for VSH trait levels to find those queens that have high levels of the VSH trait as well as good economic characters, including honey production. Our project will evaluate and test these selected F1 queens with the understanding that they will form the basis for further selection by Colorado beekeepers.

    It is imperative that Colorado beekeepers become involved in the development of honey bee breeding programs that produce breeding stock selected and adapted to our current challenges and conditions. Most queen breeders are located in California, and it is difficult for them to produce the breeding stock necessary for additional hardiness when they are unlikely to face the same winter conditions that most northern beekeepers face, specifically Colorado.

    Going into our second year with advanced varroa and hygienic testing techniques and season-long evaluations throughout the variable regions of Colorado, we will be able to make data-driven selections based on documented successful performance of chemical free surviving colonies. Targeted reproductions from our selected overwintered breeding stocks in the second year of the project will provide the next generation for future testing, selection and breeding. One group of 2015 project virgins will be closed mated or instrumentally inseminated with designated VSH semen by the regional producers to enhance the genetics. Many of these queens will be used to select from the following year. Another group of virgins will also be offered in 2015 to Colorado beekeepers to allow for regional and localized adaption immediately by incorporating the local drone source into these matings. The virgins will provide Colorado beekeepers the opportunity to add regionally fortified stock into their apiaries that would otherwise not have been available to them without involvement in this project due to lack of beekeeping experience, resources or monetary issues. Distribution of virgins within the project, data collection, evaluations, adaption, testing and selection will continue to occur after the second year and beyond. Regional producers with newly gained testing skills developed in this project will have the opportunity to work with local and regional clubs and associations to further their efforts with additional breeding stock. As a result of this project, ongoing improvement of the quality of mite resistant queens specifically adapted to our harsh winters will spread locally, regionally and eventually, statewide.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Select participants/producers throughout Colorado’s variable regions. (Year 1)

    Prioritize challenges to their honey bee colonies through state survey. (Year 1)

    Set up regional producers' apiaries where all colonies with queens from this project will remain for winter. (Year 1)

    Develop additional protocols that each test yard will use to guarantee consistent and meaningful colony evaluations using a sixth stock as our control stock.  (Year 1)   


    2. Select/Acquire five lines of Queen Honey Bees developed to provide the greatest resistance to varroa mites and the ability to survive harsh conditions. (Year 1)

    Distribute 114 test queens to three regional Colorado producers for evaluation. (Year 1)

    Distribute Instrumentally Inseminated Breeder Queens to regional producers for immediate June reproduction. Each producer will rear 50 virgins for a total of 150 virgins to be distributed for local mating into Colorado apiaries for evaluations. (Year 1)


    3. Develop testing protocols and skills to measure existing behaviors in the 114 Project’s Queen Bee colonies with all regional producers. (Year 1)


    4. Institute testing protocols. (April-May, Year 2)

    Tests will include hygienic behavior tests with the use of liquid nitrogen. This test illustrates the ability of a colony to remove infected larva which demonstrates their ability to also remove chalk brood, sac brood and other brood diseases.

    Natural varroa mite drops will be recorded monthly throughout the summer seasons. (Year 1- Year 2)

    The level of the Varroa Sensitive Hygienic/VSH trait will be measured throughout all surviving colonies. The test will measure the ratio of fertile to non-fertile varroa mites. Those showing the lowest ratio or the highest genetic expression of this trait will be recorded to note for future breeding stock. (April-May, Year 2)


    5. Select Honey Bee Breeding Stock for reproduction by regional producers. (May, Year 2)

    Regional producers will set up colonies to begin queen rearing from the overwintered, selected, most resistant breeding stock from our test colonies. (June Year 2)

    Each producer will rear 50 virgins for a total of 150 virgins from the overwintered and selected stock that will be distributed to Colorado beekeepers for further evaluation and testing. (June, Year 2)


    6. Provide results of Projects Test Colonies to all participants. (Year 1-Year 2)

    Illustrate and document procedures used for hygienic testing used by regional producers on the project website. (June Year 2)

    Regional producers will make presentations to their regional and state beekeeping clubs and associations on the results from these tests. (October-December Year 2)


    7. Develop a Colorado Queen Honey Bee Stock Improvement Cooperative with established and tested Honey Bee Breeding stock. (Future)

    Continued selection and introduction of stock through the additional exchanges among area producers will fortify Colorado’s Honey Bee Colonies into the future.

    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.