Queen Bee Posts

Optimum genetics

Italian Queen Bees

Italian queen bees make up the heart of the American beekeeping industry.  They are well known for their gentle disposition, abundant brood production, and the excellent foraging abilities of their workers.

Originating in the Apennine Peninsula of (obviously) Italy, Italian queen bees were originally introduced into the United States in the late 1850’s.  As they say, “the rest is history.”  Up until the introduction of Italian queen bees, American beekeepers favored the German honeybee, which was darker, less resistant to disease, and aggressive.  Who wouldn’t prefer the pleasant qualities of the Italian honeybees to that?  Sure enough, given their genetic advantages of solid brood production, excellent foraging, and gentleness, Italian queen honeybees and their respective Italian bees, have been a staple of American beekeeping ever since.

While by far the most popular race of bees in US beekeeping, Italian queen bees are not perfect.  Some of their strengths are also the root of their weaknesses.  Their continuous brood production can sometimes result in the overshooting of their optimal population, especially once a honey flow comes to an end.  Sometimes, Italian queens may overproduce brood during times of dearth and cold weather, which can lead to a greater need for supplemental feeding of the colony.  If ignored by the beekeeper during these times of dearth, Italian honeybees can overshoot their optimal population and then become susceptible to starvation.

In recent years, with the ever-increasing demands of the California almond pollination, Italian queen bees have become even more vital to the United States beekeeping industry.  Pollination of almonds takes place in early to mid-February each year, and requires upwards of two thirds of the entire US bee population to successfully pollinate a single year’s almond crop!  Obviously, February is an especially early time of year for a typical honeybee colony to be up to the level of strength of field force necessary to pollinate a commercial crop.  Thus, enter the Italian queen bee!

The Italian queen bee doesn’t care what time of year it is, as she is always ready to lay more brood!  It is no wonder that the vast majority of commercial beekeepers who pollinate almonds select Italian queen bees for their operations.

At Wildflower Meadows, we too have come to love and respect the venerable Italian queen bee and her wonderful traits.  All of our VSH queen bees are crossed with Italian stock to create our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

Artificial Insemination Of VSH Queen Honeybees

It is surprising to us that the majority of queen breeders do not take advantage of the well-known and long-established tool of artificial insemination.  Even more surprising is that most queen breeders choose to ignore the proven advantages of directly adding the VSH trait to their breeder stock.  By ignoring the valuable tool of artificial insemination and the VSH trait, many queen breeders select stock relatively haphazardly with little or no knowledge of the source of the drones that influence not only the behavior of the breeder queens themselves, but also of the daughter queens that end up being sold to the public throughout the season.

Artificial insemination has been utilized by livestock breeders of farm animals for nearly 70 years, and has been available to queen honeybee breeders for nearly as long.  Its advantages are obvious and many, especially when it comes to honeybees, which naturally mate with multiple unknown drones in an uncontrolled environment (the sky).  Artificial insemination allows a conscientious queen breeder to control mating and to mate specific drones to specific queens.  This enables the breeder to directly select the desired genetic traits in the offspring, such as the VSH trait, gentleness traits, honey production, disease resistance and color.  Without artificial insemination, a queen breeder has no first-hand knowledge of the genetics in the breeder queen that are being passed along to the next several generations.

At Wildflower Meadows, all of our breeder queens are artificially inseminated with hand-selected VSH drones from proven, gentle and highly productive colonies.  This provides the core genetic footprint of our operation and allows us to continue to build and improve the Wildflower Meadows brand of VSH-Italian queen bees with each successive generation.

In the above photo Tom Glenn, legendary VSH queen breeder, artificially inseminates a Wildflower Meadows’ champion breeder queen.

Say Hello To “Wheels”

We imagine that some beekeepers fall in love with certain queens and even go so far as to name them.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is completely out of the question since we keep far too many colonies to be able to name individual queens!  Plus, queens are constantly coming and going as we prepare our weekly shipments of queen bees for sale.

Once in a while, however, a queen stands apart from the rest.  We once had an artificially inseminated breeder queen who was missing an antenna, but in fact turned out to be Wildflower Meadows’ best breeder queen of 2011.  Naturally, she was named “Antoinette,” and became a legend for several years.

This year, another legend was born.  Her name is “Wheels.”

Wheels originally had no name.  At first she was just one of nearly a thousand queens that we shipped during the last week of May.  A customer purchased her, and the queen’s destination was a remote UPS Customer Center in Eastern New Mexico.  The customer was planning to pick up the queen early in the week.  But by Friday, the UPS tracking number showed that the queen was still waiting at the customer center.  UPS had been calling the customer several times a day throughout the week to ask her to come and retrieve her queen, but with no success.  It seems the customer was nowhere to be found and the queen had been completely abandoned, an orphan of sorts.

We didn’t have the heart to let her die such a pointless death, so we arranged with UPS to ship her back to Wildflower Meadows.  But by then, however, UPS was shutting down for the Memorial Day weekend.  UPS thought that they might be able to get her back to us by Saturday, so she was expressed back to the airport in Albuquerque, and then overnighted to California.  We then sent an employee 40 miles into San Diego on Saturday to retrieve her!

Unfortunately, she never arrived.

Then Memorial Day came. Would she survive such a lengthy delay?  A week is a long time for a queen to last without water.  She urgently needed to be placed inside of a colony that could take care of her and attend to her every need.

However, after what seemed like a long Memorial Day holiday, and another 40 miles into San Diego, on Tuesday she arrived!  Tired and thirsty, she required several drops of water at the UPS Customer Center just to revive her strength.  She was then driven back to Wildflower Meadows and installed into a queenless colony.  And then, we all just hoped for the best.

It turns out she’s just fine.  With all the traveling, she was naturally named Wheels.  She is a great Wildflower Meadows’ queen: an abundant brood layer, her offspring are golden and gentle, and Varroa mites are nowhere to be found in her colony.  Naturally, Wheels is now one of our favorite queens, and also one of this year’s top performers!

The Swarm Lure

Wildflower Meadows is not in the business of rescuing or catching swarms, and it is generally not something that we spend a lot of time doing.  When it comes to swarm catching, we let other beekeepers have all the fun!

However, once in a while we run into swarms that demand our attention.  Sometimes a mating nuc has swarmed into a tree outside the apiary and needs to be brought back into place.  At other times, one of our colonies has swarmed near a neighbor’s house and the neighbor is panicked and calling for assistance.  Occasionally, we may find that a giant swarm has arrived right next to our breeders.  We strive to keep swarms away from our breeders lest they even think about entering a breeder colony and possibly usurping a champion breeder queen.  In all these cases, we need to take action and give our best efforts to corral the swarm into a better place.

This is when the swarm lure proves to be an invaluable tool.  The swarm lure is a bait of essential oils that is highly attractive to a traveling swarm.  The mixture of oils is designed to either smell like an appealing beehive, or to mimic the smell of the Nasonov gland.  The Nasonov gland is the gland in a honeybee that emits the pheromones that call bees together.  Ideally, a good swarm lure immediately catches the swarm’s attention and directs the flight path in the direction of the lure.

There are many different recipes for swarm lures, many of which can be discovered with an Internet search.  Other commercial swarm lures come pre-formulated, and are sold by nearly all of the beekeeping supply companies.  Our personal favorite is the Swarm Commander, which is a proprietary mix of essential oils that reliably directs swarms into our waiting equipment.

When working with a powerful swarm lure like the Swarm Commander, our beekeepers need to be careful not to spill any! Wherever the lure goes, the bees follow. Even an accidental drop on top of the head is enough to cause problems for an entire day!

 

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.

Hybrid Vigor

Our customers often ask us if the VSH (varroa sensitive hygiene) trait is so desirable then why doesn’t Wildflower Meadows sell pure VSH queens?  Or, why are Wildflower Meadows’ queen bees VSH-Italian hybrids instead of pure VSH queens?  After all, if it takes a great deal of selective breeding to produce a high level of VSH behavior in bee stock and VSH behavior is so valuable, why dilute the pure VSH stock by crossing it with Italian stock that is not purely VSH?  The answer to this question is in the concept of “hybrid vigor,” otherwise known by its scientific name, heterosis.

Hybrid vigor is a scientifically proven concept that states when two relatively inbred populations are crossed, the performance of the hybrid offspring – in terms of size, fitness, growth rate, fertility, etc. – is improved over the two parental groups when taken individually.  For this reason, hybridization has long been practiced in agriculture.  Plant and animal breeders often take advantage of this concept by crossing two pure bred lines, each with desirable traits, to create offspring that maintain those traits, but in turn is stronger than the parents.  As proof, today over 90% of seeds planted in the United States are hybrids, and not pure strains.  Cattle ranchers commonly cross breeds of cattle creating hybrids such as Angus x Hereford or Angus x Brahman, as well as many other combinations to create more robust offspring.  For the same reason, most broiler chickens that are raised for meat production are also hybrids.  And so on . . .

Hybrid vigor is usually best noted in the first generation of purebred offspring, which is known as an F1 Hybrid.  Later generations of hybrids, which are crosses of the hybrids themselves, known as F2 Hybrids, F3 Hybrids, etc., can vary greatly from one another, and usually express less hybrid vigor than the first generation.  Therefore, the majority of hybrids that are utilized in agriculture are F1 Hybrids, or first generation hybrids.

At Wildflower Meadows, our queen bees for sale are the first generation of offspring of pure VSH stock (which contains the genetic advantage of mite resistance) crossed with Italian stock (which contains the genetic advantage of gentleness and robust brood production).  This gives Wildflower Meadows’ queens, when compared to other queen breeders’ queens (many who specialize in only purebred lines) the proven benefit and advantages of F1 Hybrid vigor.

What Are VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene) Bees?

VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene) is a trait in honeybees that enables a colony to survive without mite controls.  The VSH trait causes VSH hygienic behavior, which is the removal of mite-infested cells from the brood nest.  This VSH behavior serves as a natural and physical check on the varroa mites’ ability to reproduce and expand their population inside of a beehive.  VSH is not a unique race of bee, rather it is a behavioral trait that can be bred into any stock.  Wildflower Meadows produces VSH-Italian queen bees for sale, but any race of honeybee can express the varroa sensitive hygiene trait, such as Carniolan, Russian, Caucasian, etc.

The VSH trait is not necessarily linked with the overall performance of a beehive, rather it is only a measurement of mite resistance.  Bees that are 100% VSH can be very good colonies or very poor colonies, as other aspects of a colony’s performance, such as brood production, honey production or even temperament, are all independent of the VSH trait.

The VSH trait is an additive trait.  This means that varroa sensitive hygiene queens that are naturally mated to unselected drones will still produce the VSH trait in their offspring.  Even though the offspring may not have all of the VSH alleles (an allele is a variation of a given gene), a percentage of the VSH trait is passed on to the next generation, thus resulting in an improved level of mite resistance, which can sometimes even be equal to bees that have 100% of the VSH alleles.

VSH hygienic behavior is expressed on cells that have been capped for four to six days; in other words, young capped brood.  VSH bees will either pull or eat mite-infested pupae from the young brood cells, resulting in the death of the immature varroa mites that are present in the cells.

At Wildflower Meadows, our breeder queens contain 100% of the VSH alleles, which we insure through instrumental insemination by crossing 100% VSH queens with 100% VSH drones.  The offspring of these breeders naturally mate with our most desirable and productive VSH-Italian drones, resulting in Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

Royal Jelly

While a larva is developing into a queen cell, nurse bees feed the larva with abundant amounts of a milky white gel, known as royal jelly.  Royal jelly is a high protein food (12% protein) that is also loaded with amino acids, B vitamins and trace minerals – a sort of superfood for insects!  Humans eat it too.  If you watch enough infomercials, eventually you can’t help but to run across one touting the many benefits of royal jelly:  “Royal jelly makes bees into royalty!  It’s magic. Try it.  You’ll have energy to burn!”

Is this true?  At Wildflower Meadows, we’ve eaten our share of royal jelly, cutting it out from unwanted queen cells and eating it fresh from the hive.  We have found that it doesn’t taste all that great, but it does seem to provide a nice jolt to the system.  We would rather not tell anyone, however.  The Federal Drug Administration has concluded that there is no human benefit to taking royal jelly.  Furthermore, they threaten legal action against any person or company making unfounded claims to its benefits.

Lets face it: royal jelly was meant to be more of an insect food rather than a human food, as its presence causes a larva to develop into a queen bee rather than a worker bee.

Scientists have recently identified the component of royal jelly that is responsible for this caste differentiation.  It is a protein called “royalactin”, which induces the differentiation of honeybee larvae into queens.  Royalactin increases body size and ovary development and shortens developmental time in honeybees.  We find it amazing that a single substance can initiate the development of such a truly magnificent and royal creature as the queen honeybee.

Fall Requeening

Fall requeening offers many advantages.  In the late season, queens are less in demand than in the early spring.  There are typically no long waits or sold out periods to contend with.  Another advantage of late season requeening is that by fall, many colonies are often not as strong and booming as they are in the height of honey production, and therefore, the requeening activity doesn’t interfere with honey making.  Also, the somewhat lower fall populations can make it easier to find queens.

After a nearly full season of beekeeping, it is easy to determine which colonies are underperforming, versus which are proven champions.  The latter probably do not need new queens, and these existing and proven queens can be “overwintered” and carried forward into the next season.  The former, however – the underperforming colonies – can be given a fresh queen, offering them a brand new start and new hope for the next season.

With the impending winter, these new queens will not lay many eggs for the remainder of the current season, so that by the time next spring gets underway the new queen will still be relatively young with “low mileage.”  Hopefully, by next spring, she will be well established as an integral part of the colony, less apt to swarm, and about to hit the prime of her life just when Mother Nature’s timing is perfect.

Queen Pheromone

What is it about queen bees that are so attractive to worker bees?  When we took the photo shown above, we had just prepared six queens from the day’s harvest for introduction into our own colonies.  Note how the workers can’t seem to show enough love to the queens.  These attendants were so fixated on the queens that they traveled inside our truck like this without us even needing to put a lid on the box!  The workers simply had no desire to fly away nor to stop attending to the queens.

When we prepare shipments of bulk boxes, it is never a problem getting attendant bees motivated to stay and care for the queens.  A quick shake of a frame of bees into the box produces more than enough workers willing to stay with, and attend to, the queens the whole time they are in transit.

The queen pheromone is so powerful that bees will even drop out of the sky to investigate a box of queens!  When we deliver queens to UPS, we have been cautioned by the office staff not to arrive prior to 4:30pm, as any earlier causes curious bees to fly into their customer service center, potentially frightening UPS customers.

Inside the hive is no different.  Worker bees can immediately identify the presence of a queen, as well as the lack of a queen.  The method of this attraction is through a pheromone known as the “queen pheromone”.  The purpose of the queen pheromone is to signal to a hive that a queen is present and that she is recognizable.

A pheromone is a chemical that is secreted by a member of a species that can be used to control the behavior of another member of the same species.  Imagine how much love we could receive if we humans had a pheromone as powerful as the “queen pheromone”!

Queen pheromone is secreted near the head of the queen in an area above her jaw known as the mandibular.  Her secretions make her identifiable to all bees inside the hive; workers, drones, and possibly other queens.  The workers spread this pheromone throughout the hive using their antennae.  If this pheromone is absent, the colony will soon recognize its absence and will know that they are queenless.  They will then begin to construct emergency queen cells to raise a new queen.

Not only can a hive measure the presence, or absence, of queen pheromone, but it also able to measure the level of it.  A dip in the level of queen pheromone indicates that the queen could be beginning to fail.  This will often cause a colony to begin raising replacement queens for supercedure of the current queen.

It is well known that overcrowded bees are more likely to swarm than bees with ample space.  However, some beekeepers believe that the overcrowding of bees itself inhibits the transfer of queen pheromone throughout the colony, therefore causing the colony to raise replacement queen cells in anticipation of a swarming event.