The Africanized honey bee hybrid possesses traits that continue to challenge beekeeper maintenance of gentle European honey bees. Since 1993 Africanization of European honey bees in the southwestern United States has severely diminished the number of hobby and commercial beekeepers (1). The arrival of disease vectoring Varroa mites has further exacerbated the loss of managed and wild European honey bee colonies. The number of managed colonies in Arizona decreased from 55,000 to 35,000 colonies in a ten-year span (1993-2003) per USDA statistics (9). Ten years later national honey production increased 5% while Arizona’s production lagged at 3%. Since these figures account for the entire state, it is highly likely that southern Arizona faired far worse – the likelihood of Africanization is more substantial in the lower half of the state due to geographic and climate factors.
Commercial pollination frequently involves transporting colonies to warmer locations in the southern United States to ‘over-winter’ where defensive colonies reside. European colonies used for pollination are at risk of being taken over by Africanized swarms through a process called usurpation. Keeping honey bee colonies gentle increases safety, and saves time when moving and inspecting colonies for pollination
Hives that have become Africanized may not readily accept queens of a different strain. An accepted anecdotal observation of Africanized honey bees is they tend to reject requeening efforts by beekeepers, superceding European queens within the first year of introduction. This makes the act of requeening hives more time consuming and expensive as additional queens may be needed before a hive is successfully requeened.
Beekeepers in Arizona rely on a volatile supply of imported queens for requeening needs. Honey bee packages and queens need to arrive in Arizona in early to mid-March. Currently packages and queens arriving from out-of-state tend to arrive in mid-April or later, just as hot summer weather diminishes nectar and pollen resources. This contributes to a several month delay in hive development compared to other
Despite rising demand for honey bees in southern Arizona queen and honey bee production by local beekeepers for the local market is almost non-existent due to these challenges.
Through partial mating control, efforts to reduce problems associated with Africanization have been successful yet limited (4). Traditionally, beekeepers maximize successful queen mating with European male honey bees (drones) by flooding a mating area with high drone populations from strategically placed hives containing European honey bees. This “open-mating” method has proven useful, but it’s not 100% successful, it’s expensive and labor intensive. Controlling the drone type and quality in an open-mating system also requires suitable space – several hundred acres or more – which is becoming difficult to find and negotiate.
Studies indicate that defensive behavior is likely paternally inherited. Therefore, controlling the source of drone semen is essential in producing a gentle honey bee (7). In a personal communication with Dr. Ernesto Guzman-Novoa, Department of Environmental Biology at University of Guelph, Ontario, he confirmed that a fully-controlled mating study using instrumental insemination to develop a gentle strain of Africanized honey bee – using only selected gentle Africanized parents – has not been attempted (11).
Honey bees found in the wild without a recent history of beekeeper influence, and that have demonstrated survivability amidst waves of pests and diseases, are said to be a “survivor” strain. Recent research and several years of observing the results of selecting from our own survivor strains of Africanized stock suggests that a gentle Africanized strain of honey bee can be further developed (5). This, while retaining their improved grooming behaviors and Varroa mite resistance. Consequently, chemical treatments to mitigate pests can be reduced or eliminated.
However, our current methods of minimizing the influence of defensive Africanized honey bees are insufficient to supply queen bees to regional beekeepers on a commercial scale, or to contract hives for crop pollination. These are two markets that we would like to participate in.
ReZoNation Farm (tradename “Sun Apiaries”) would like to obtain instrumental insemination training and equipment to establish on-farm propagation of European queen replacement stock, and eliminate the influence of Africanized honey bee strains in a significant percentage of our apiaries. In addition, Sun Apiaries seeks to use instrumental insemination training and equipment to determine whether we can accelerate development of our existing gentle Africanized honey bee survivor strain. Together, these objectives may enable us to supply region-specific breeder queens needed for ongoing replacement of queens on honey bee farms
We hope to measure a significant reduction in costs due to the time savings of using instrumental insemination. We also hope to develop a production model specific to our region that could be used in beekeeping communities with similar constraints where Africanization persists in warmer parts of the country.
By training over 400 people in beekeeping techniques since 2008, Sun Apiaries has been active in encouraging the selection of gentle honey bees. Through these trainings, internet presence, and meetings with beekeeping associations, the methods and results of this work will be shared. In the future, we would like to supply queens and bees to our region, and spearhead a collaborative effort to develop gentle survivor honey bee strains in all Africanized regions.