WORKSHOP HIGHLIGHTS: “Strategies to produce better honeybee queens.”
On January 31, 2023, scientists from the Delta Research and Extension Center hosted scientists, bee inspectors, and novice and experienced beekeepers from across Mississippi and neighboring states to discuss matters related to honeybee queen quality.
Mississippi is home to several large commercial queen producers who produce tens of thousands of young honeybee queens every spring and then distribute them to beekeepers in and out of state. The state’s mild winter allows beekeeping activities to start early in the spring when honeybees in the northern states are still hampered by winter conditions. The climate and lush vegetation resources in Mississippi provide the opportunity for beekeepers here to produce queens and honeybee packages to support beekeepers in northern states at the start of their beekeeping season. As a result, it is critical for queen producers to access to and adjust their queen production skills based on the latest scientific recommendations.
The workshop was the first of its kind after the establishment of the new Pollinator Health Center, which is a partnership between Mississippi State University and USDA-ARS. The workshop allowed expertise at all levels to mingle and enjoy each other’s perspectives. Attendees included professional queen breeders, sideliners, hobby beekeepers, and scientists freely talked during formal sessions and in the hallways and conference room during scheduled breaks and lunch.
This meeting was unlike most hands-on queen rearing workshops that focus on training participants on the mechanics of grafting bee larvae into queen cups, nurse colony preparation, and basic manipulations of cell builders, and mating of the virgin queens. The primary focus of this workshop was to open the dialog between queen producers/breeders and scientists to discuss strategies for producing better honeybee queens and to exchange ideas among queen producers. The discussions were primarily target towards producing healthier queens with fewer viral diseases.
The program was organized by Drs. Harris and Amiri, from the MSU Extension Apiculture Program. In addition to a discussion panel between beekeepers and honeybee scientists, Drs. Jeffrey Harris, Per Kryger, David Tarpy and Bradley Metz presented the results of their latest research activities and provided recommendations to produce better queens.
Dr. Jeff Harris, Mississippi State University
Dr. Jeff Harris provided a comprehensive introduction to beekeeping and queen breeding activities in Mississippi. He categorized beekeepers in Mississippi into the following five groups.
- Transient Beekeepers: Those who bring their colonies to Mississippi, stay less than 4 months to make splits and complete requeening before moving out of state.
- Part-time or Migratory Beekeepers: They keep their colonies in northern states to produce honey but move them to Mississippi during the winter months and stay in our state for nearly 6 months.
- Small Commercial Beekeepers: Those who have less than 1,000 colonies and normally produce starter colonies and queen honey bees for selling to hobby beekeepers in the state. Many sell all their produced honey at retail markets, while others sell wholesale by the barrel.
- Resident Commercial Beekeepers: They have 1,000 to 15,000 colonies with a primary focus on honey production, but a few of them selectively breed honey bee stocks for sale.
- Hobby or Small-scale Beekeepers: Those who mostly keep colonies as a hobby.
Dr. Harris then gave a brief history about the breeding programs of different Mite-resistant stocks including Minnesota Hygienic bees, Mite-Biter bees, Varroa Sensitive Hygienic bees, and Russian Honey bees. He also discussed the establishment of the Russian Honey bees breeding program and their association in Mississippi, and he highlighted the negative effects of yellow Jasmine on honey bee queen development that impacts queen production activities in the southern part of the state.
Lastly, he provided his thoughts on breeding strategies for selecting colonies with resistant traits to Varroa mite. He recommended using a simple monitoring system for Varroa mite infestation in colonies and always keeping records of brood quality to avoid inbreeding. He believes that queen breeders need to produce queens and drones from colonies that do not reach mite threshold (< 3 Varroa mite/100 worker bees), raise only drones from colonies that are able to keep the Varroa mite below the threshold, and change the queens from the colonies that exceed the threshold and treat the colonies against Varroa mite. If the beekeeper needs colonies to be resistant to Varroa mite, however, he recommended killing the colonies that exceed the Varroa mite threshold to avoid propagating drones and queens as well as eliminating virulent mites from the apiary.
Dr. Per Kryger, Aarhus University
Dr. Per Kryger from Aarhus University first gave a brief explanation of beekeeping and queen breeding in Denmark. He emphasized the importance of monitoring systems, field diagnosis, and good beekeeping practices. One beekeeping practice used in Denmark is melting out all the used wax coms at the end of each season to prevent pathogen transmission.
He further explained the breeding programs in Denmark that utilize mating islands as an efficient facility to control mating behavior and to select for specific traits. In Denmark, healthy colonies are selected as parents for drone and queens, and queen breeders select those based on gentleness, swarming tendency, and hygienic behavior. Danish queen breeders have been selecting against Nosema since 1980, which has resulted in colonies tolerant to Nosema infection without fatal consequences.
He then explained the results of European projects that he was involved in including the Epilobee project, which searched for the causes of colony losses in European beekeeping operations, and the SMARTBEES project, which identifies and sequences the genetics of honey bees from different countries in Europe. SMARTBEES exhibited the survival of high diversity of honey bee subspecies and their hybrids in Europe.
Finally, he presented the results from the COLOSS Genetic Environment Interaction (COLOSS GEI) project that revealed Varroa mite is the main cause for colony losses, and local bees lived longer than non-local honeybees because they adapt to the local climate and flowering patterns which leads the survivorship of colonies. Therefore, he recommends breeding local honeybees to establish honeybee stocks suited for local conditions.
Dr. David Tarpy, North Carolina State University
Dr. David Tarpy from North Carolina State University explained the phenotypic characteristics of high-quality queens, which result from the interaction between genetic properties, environment, and colony management, in his “Quality of Commercial Queens” presentation. He also presented the results from the Bee Inform Partnership that indicated queen problems as one of the main reasons for colony mortality.
Additionally, some studies show the longevity of queens is shorter now than in previous years for unknown reasons. This finding has led him to focus his research activities on queen quality from different angles. He presented the results of his long-time research activities, including data about the quality characteristics of queens from commercial queen breeders in the U.S. These quality measures included the weight of whole queens, head and thorax weight, wing length, weight of ovaries, number of ovarioles, and number and vitality of sperms in the spermatheca.
Dr. Tarpy concluded that the quality of queens produced by commercial queen producers has either improved, or at least is no worse than the quality of queens that were produced during prior decades in the U.S. Tarpy suggested that queen producers have high skill sets for producing queens; therefore, if there are problems with queens, it is not caused by some basic failure in queen rearing practices.
In general, the quality of young queens produced by professional queen producers can be graded as “B+”. Even though there is still room for improvement, these results suggest that young queens are of high quality. The morphological characteristics of the tested queens are acceptable. Their reproductive organs (ovaries) are well developed with an acceptable number of ovarioles. According to laboratory analysis, tested young queens showed that they mated with a large number of drones and stored enough sperms, which is far above the critical threshold.
Dr. Tarpy’s recommendations for producing high-quality queens:
- Follow standard queen-rearing procedure (select young larvae, use strong breeding colonies and suitable queen-rearing kits).
- Monitor the quality of queens after emergence, mating, and egg laying.
- Use caution in handling and shipping queens and in introducing queens into new packages.
- Record the age of queens in the apiary; this may help understand the longevity of queens in each operation.
Dr. Bradley Metz, North Carolina State University
Dr. Bradley Metz from North Carolina State University provided an overview of the Queen & Disease Clinic, an extension activity that helps queen breeders check their queen quality. This extension program is a fee-based service that tests the reproductive and mating qualities, conducts standard pathogen screenings, apiary pathogen screenings, and conducts Africanized bee genotyping.
Dr. Metz also talked about his research on drone quality and the importance of selecting drones for mating and high queen quality. He explained the methods of using body and sperm characteristics to qualify drone quality. Also, methods for collecting drone samples to be analyzed in the bee clinic were presented to help beekeepers evaluate the health of their drones. Lastly, he recommended that beekeepers monitor the health status of worker bees who feed drones during larval and mature stages to produce healthy drones.
The workshop successfully presented key points to help queen producer/breeders improve practices to produce high-quality queens. Queen breeders were guided to the undocumented problems related to rearing queens, giving them an opportunity to hear new science and help fill the knowledge gap. To continue such education, it was decided that the program should be continued in the following years. The location of the Delta Research and Extension Center, with meeting facilities allow to invite our USDA-ARS collaborators in Stoneville, Poplarville, Baton Rouge, and Auburn University to form a scientific hub in addition to queen breeder/producers from other states. Additionally, at least eleven sideline and commercial queen producers in Mississippi have agreed to allow Dr. Amiri to screen their queens for viral loads as a first step in trying to evaluate the queens that are produced in our state. Once that data becomes available, Dr. Amiri will be able to offer an overall picture of how the quality of our queens relate to those from other areas, and he will also be able to help mitigate some of the disease issues that may be discovered during this activity.
For more information: Dr. Esmaeil Amiri, MSU Extension/Assistant professor, email@example.com