Queen Rearing (raising): a realistic approach based on understanding the honeybee

This post is also available in: Spanish

In the first article from the series Beekeeping from Passion to Profession we are going to try a different approach to one of beekeeping most vital topics: queen rearing.

Why did we choose to start with this topic? Because it’s said (and for good reason) that a colony is only as good as its queen is. The key word that should dictate any action is POTENTIAL. Basically, the success of any endeavor is less or equal to its potential. The larger the potential, the greater the success. In the context of beekeeping, it must be said that the actions of the beekeeper can’t compensate the deficit of having an underperforming queen. We can extrapolate this and even compare the situation to one in which a car that was designed for a maximum speed of 60 km/h was being forced to go faster. It’s not going to happen, regardless of how skilled the driver is. We are not saying that a quality queen is the only necessary element in order to be successful, but it definitely is the first condition.

Having said that, let’s see how we can obtain colonies with high performance queens from a practical standpoint.

First, there are a few very important notions that require proper understanding. Without them, understanding the honeybee and its breeding particularities would be impossible. It is the difficulty of having a firm grasp on these aspects that caused a delay in the breeding and selection of honeybees when compared to other species. Even if we are required to be practitioners in our job as beekeeper, without a commitment to understand the honeybee’s particularities, we won’t be able to progress and, even worse, we won’t be able to tell what caused a particular outcome of our work, regardless if it’s good or bad. Thus, we won’t be able to repeat what caused the good results and to avoid what didn’t. Without further ado, here are the main points:

The relationships inside a bee colony are vastly different from other species due to three main reasons.

The first is the way the queen mates. A queen mates multiple times with multiple drones. The second is that the mating can happen far from the apiary, making it very difficult to control. And the third has to do with parthenogenesis, meaning that the drones come from unfertilized eggs and only inherit the genes of the mother.

Therefore, the relationships within a colony are as follows:

Image source: beesource.com

Let’s further explain what the image represents. Considering we now know that the queen mates with multiple drones, there will be multiple sub-families within the colony. Every worker bee of a sub-family comes from the same parents, so within that particular sub-family there is a relationship of worker supersisters. Between the various sub-families there is a relationship of half-sisters as there is only one common parent: the queen. Also, we can observe that the drones com from unfertilized eggs, thus inheriting only the genes of the mother. An important side note is that after the mating, the sperm is stored in layers inside the spermatheca of the queen and it won’t mix. Therefore, after finishing the sperm from one drone that has mated with the queen, it will start using the sperm from the next one and another sub-family will be formed. It’s easy to see why saying that in queen rearing, the daughters are identical (they’re not). Only a part of them are  supersisters (same mother and father) and the rest are hald sisters.

Despite this complex structure, the base principles of genetics still apply to the honeybee.

Until these principles were discovered, it was believed that once a fertilized eggs was divided into two cells, representing the first stage in the process of forming a new individual, hazard was the one to determine which component of the cell’s chromosome pair will end up to one cell or the other one. Therefore, according to this theory, each one of the two daughter cells would receive a package of 16 chromosomes that could come entirely from the mother, from the father or a combination of both.

Mendel’s discoveries proved that the way the genes are transmitted (heredity) is a constant and not a random process. The term mixed-blood used until Mendel (and even nowadays) has no scientific support. When talking about heredity we are actually talking about an exchange and mutual influence of the genes that determine the characteristics of every living being. The laws of heredity are called Mendel’s Laws particularly because it was Mendel the one who showed that the genes remain unaltered from one generation to another.

Let’s see what are the practical solutions for a beekeeper to have quality queens. There are basically two variants:

  1. Buying the queens from a breeder that follows a professional and transparent breeding program and also has the means of a complete control of the biological material through artificial insemination;
  2. Raising the queens in his own apiaries by following a working strategy that implies a constant evaluation of the resulted daughters.

We will focus on the second variant. More books on the topic of queen rearing were written than on any other subject related to beekeeping. One of the books that does a great job of compiling all the different working methods is Breeding techniques and selection for breeding of the honeybee by Friedrich Ruttner. You can also check out our working methodology here. Starting in the month of April we will also present these techniques in through videos and images.

There are however a few aspects that we consider essential and are worth mentioning, especially when we now know how difficult it is for a beekeeper to control the breeding process of the honeybee.

The first one is selecting the biological material. Usually, this material is obtained through buying the queens from a specialized breeding center, through exchanges with other beekeepers or by selecting the queens from your own apiary. If the breeder queens are selected from your own colonies, one must consider and eliminate the risk of inbreeding. Even if many already know what inbreeding is, allow us to reiterate: inbreeding occurs when genetically related individuals breed. When practicing natural mating of the honeybees, the most common occurrence of inbreeding is brother-sister breeding, meaning that the daughter of one queen mates with drones from the same queen (her brothers). Repeating this process will eventually lead to a high degree of inbreeding, associated with the loss of vitality and disease resistance, low viability of the brood etc. To avoid this scenario, it is recommended that the breeder queens to be from a different colony; also, the breeder queens and the queens from the colonies where the breeding is made must not have alleles.

Regardless of your choice, we want to try and show a different approach, a departure from the classical method where a queen that performs well is selected and multiplied. Knowing the immense genetic variation of the honeybee, a step forward in this process is mandatory.

Within a professional breeding program, where artificial insemination is possible, one of the steps in the process is the controlled inbreeding of the biological material. This critical step is needed in order to ensure the descendants will have a high degree of uniformity; we are referring to the uniformity in transmitting the particular traits we are interested in. So a controlled inbreeding of the breeder queens will ensure a better uniformity of the daughters.

Raising your own queens presents a specific downside in the form of obtaining individuals that vary to high degree: you can have very good individuals, medium or poor. Again, this is absolutely normal when we consider the immense genetic variation caused by multiple breeding. This leads to the existence of colonies that perform excellent, but also some that perform poorly. This type of situation is very difficult to manage; we have the following question: what would you rather have, 90 colonies out of 100 that perform good and 10 that perform unsatisfactory, or 20 families that perform outstandingly and 80 that perform very poor? We think we can all agree that the first situation is definitely better.

It is the majority that matters the most, not the exceptions. So what can a beekeeper do in order to obtain quality queens? Please note that we must not confuse the queen of a colony with great performance and yield with a breeder queen. If we take into account what was said until this point in the article, it is clear that the stability of the genetic traits are far more important than variation when we choosing a breeder queen. For example, an artificially inseminated queen, for whose parents we have absolute control, is much better suited for reproduction than a naturally mated queen, even if this one has better performance. Besides, the performance is often the result of great genetic variation (the heterosis character). The descendants of this type of queen will however vary greatly.

In order to avoid the above scenario, that is to have a lack of uniformity in the performance of our queens (and colonies), there is only one realistic solution: implementing a very good selection system. We hear very often the term selection, but unfortunately it is not described from a practical standpoint. Let’s look at the following scenario: a beekeeper decides to replace the queens from his colonies with the daughters of a queen that he consider to be of good quality. Everything seems just fine up to this point. But how can he know for sure that the new queens will in fact be better than the ones that will be replaced? It all seems pretty much like a lottery game. One might say that he will select the good ones and discard the ones that perform poorly. That is true, but he can observe the ones that perform poorly only the next year, which means a considerable loss. What happens if more than 50% of the new queens are not good enough? This situation perfectly shows why the selection process should ALWAYS be carried out before placing the new queens in the production colonies. For this it is mandatory to use large nuclei that allow the queens to be overwintered and further select the ones the correspond to our selection criteria.

We must remember that evaluating a queen in its first year is not the best approach. As it’s the case with any young organism, the development happens different from one individual to another. Therefore, a more realistic evaluation can only be performed at the beginning of the following year. It is only then we can form an opinion regarding a particular queen and decide if it is good enough to be introduced into a colony. Implementing this simple strategy will definitely improve the results of your work as a beekeeper who produces his own queens.

We can now move on to the next step: selection methods and evaluating the performance. As it was the case with the selection program described above, there is little information on how to establish the selection criteria and how to correctly evaluate a queen’s performance. This leads very often to a situation where the selection is biased and carried out on a whim.

The first challenge that a beekeeper faces is describing the actual desired traits of the honeybees. This list of characteristics may include rapid spring buildup, adjusting the population according to the availability of nectar and pollen throughout the season, resistance to disease, overwintering capacity, swarming instinct, orientation capacity, gentleness etc. All this traits must be suited to the particularities of the location and most importantly, to the type of beekeeping that is performed, to the number of colonies and the production type (honey, pollen, propolis, biologic material).

We highly recommend this approach to the one where it is constantly disputed which race of honeybees is better. A beekeeper with 400 colonies that takes his hives across the country cannot use the same honeybees as a a beekeeper with 20 colonies kept in his backyard. Just think what would happen if 300 out of 400 colonies will swarm in spring due to bad weather condition right before an important nectar flow. In this scenario a honeybee with low swarming instinct is absolutely necessary. Since this activity is highly dependent on weather conditions, eliminating the risks related to the beekeeper and his work is vital. That’s why wee need to have various strains of bees, each one having a set of traits that are suitable from an economic standpoint to the various situations. There isn’t a universally suitable race of honeybees and trying to create one will definitely be a failure.

As an example, we can’t have a colony that maintains a large brood area but also has low resource consumption. It is therefore necessary to select these traits realistically and objectively and ensuring their compatibility. From experience we know that having a short list of criteria (3 or 4) is much more efficient than trying to achieve a higher number of traits when rearing queens.

After we have established our goals, we must now implement an evaluation method. The simplest way to achieve this is by using a numeric score for every trait we’re interested in.

Let’s say that the most important characteristics are resistance to diseases, prolificity of the queen and a low swarming instinct. From the mating of the queen and especially in the next spring we will assign a score for each of these traits. According to their importance, the criteria can have different weights. To simplify this method even more and avoid calculating a weighted average, we can assign different numbers to different traits in accordance to their importance. In our example, we can assign a number between 1 and 20 for resistance to diseases (the most important criteria), from 1 to 10 for swarming instinct (low) and from 1 to 15 for prolificity (medium importance). Thus, a queen can have a maximum score of 45 points. Based on this scores we can decides which of the newly produced queens should be placed into production colonies.

Apart from the (vital) theoretical notions when rearing queens, there are a few practical aspects regarding the selection process that must be very strictly followed. This is the only way to minimize hazard and to move towards a feasible and professional activity.

In the next article we will approach another key topic in beekeeping, the nutrition of the honeybee.

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