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What Makes a Quality Queen Honeybee?

Of all the bees in the hive, the queen is by far the most important member of the colony.  Without her, the colony is certain to perish. The colony will likely thrive with a well-mated queen, but the extent of her success is partially dependent on the quality of the genetics of the queen bee herself.

What makes a quality queen bee? The answer to this question is actually two-fold. Unlike a worker bee, a queen honeybee must be graded on two scales – her own performance, as well as the performance of her offspring. She is graded on these two entirely separate criteria.

The queen bee’s performance is measured by her brood production. A quality queen honeybee needs to lay the right amount of brood at the right time of year, all in a consistent and tight brood pattern. By consistently laying eggs in a tight pattern, a well-performing queen efficiently utilizes her brood space and keeps a good, healthy, and uniform production of new worker bees. Her egg laying should be prolific when it matters and lighten up during the offseason, or during times of drought. She should be well-mated, healthy, and long-lived, giving off plenty of quality queen pheromone, to let bees in the hive know that she is present and getting the job done.

What’s unique about queen honeybees, however, is that their worth is not only measured in their own performance, but also in the performance of their offspring. While a queen needs to be healthy and productive, it is perhaps more important that she produce offspring who perform well. What good is a queen that demonstrates excellent performance, but produces offspring that is ill-tempered, or of poor quality in their own right?

A quality queen bee must carry and deliver quality genetics to her offspring. It is her offspring that will achieve a successful beehive after all. If the worker bees are not of quality stock, the entire colony will suffer – which is why the right genetics are so critical in queen honeybee breeding.  A quality queen will pass along desired genetic traits known as “phenotypes” to her worker bee daughters, such as disease resistance, temperament, honey production, early season buildup, low swarming tendencies, color, etc.

At Wildflower Meadows our focus also needs to be two-fold. We take every step possible to make sure the queens we sell are well-mated and excellent performers. Of course, equally important, we constantly strive to breed and select queens that carry the optimum genetics. We want each of the worker bees in the hive to perform at their best possible level, meeting the standards of excellence that both we and our customers demand.

Raising Your Own Queen Bees

Here at Wildflower Meadows, we take pride in being a reliable source for quality queen bees for our many loyal customers – both repeat and new. Raising queen bees is more than just our job; and we are pleased when our customers can enjoy the fruits of our hard work and expertise.

Believe it or not, we are also equally happy when a beekeeper takes it upon him or herself to learn the science and art of queen rearing.   At that point we share the joy of a beekeeper, who in learning how to raise queen bees, joins a select group of beekeepers who not only manage honeybees but are self-sufficient in meeting their own queen needs.  Queen rearing is advanced beekeeping.  There is a bit of a learning curve, but the benefits of knowing how to raise one’s own queens are huge.

The first and perhaps most valuable benefit is self-sufficiency.  Imagine the notion that you can have your own source of queen bees more or less whenever needed, on-demand.  This means no waiting during the peak season, no scheduling with your queen provider, and no placing orders months in advance. You’re the boss, and you raise your queens when you need them and when the timing is right for you and your hive.

Plus, you’ll likely save money – perhaps a lot of money.  The more queens that you raise, the lower your cost per queen becomes.  Sure, you need to purchase breeder queens and some basic supplies upfront, but once your system is in place, you can literally raise thousands of high-quality queen bees – or as many as you need.  After your initial outlay, the cost of producing every incremental queen is minimal, besides some basic ongoing supplies. The more queens you produce, the more money you save.

If you start with a Wildflower Meadows instrumentally inseminated breeder queen, your stock will carry the optimum Wildflower Meadows genetics that we are known for.  The difference is now you’re in control of both the timing and scale of your queen production.

Raising queens gives you the direct, satisfying experience of witnessing the joy and magic of a queen’s transformation first-hand: from larva to pupa, to virgin queen, and finally to a quality mated queen that you can truly call your own.

Breeder Queens vs. Mated Queens: What’s the Difference?

Beekeepers looking to purchase a queen bee sometimes ask us – what makes a breeder queen unique, and why does a breeder queen often cost nearly ten times the amount of a regular mated queen?

A breeder queen is the cornerstone of a successful bee breeding program. While a breeder queen could certainly take part in regular honey production and beekeeping activities, such as pollination – and most likely would be a superstar in such endeavors – this is not the breeder queen’s purpose. A breeder queen is the carrier of the finest, specially selected genetics, almost always instrumentally inseminated – she is a prized specimen, too precious for ordinary beekeeping.

The vast majority of queen honeybees sold by most queen producers (including Wildflower Meadows) are commonly known as mated queen bees, sometimes also called laying queen bees.  These queen honeybees have been naturally open mated.  While these mated queens are generally of high quality themselves, they are not instrumentally inseminated, and therefore always contain a percentage of unknown genetics.

Unknown genetics may present risks within a breeding program.  An open mated queen will mate with approximately 15 drone honeybees, all of which may potentially be from unknown origins.  If a regular open mated queen is used for breeding, she is guaranteed to pass along hybrid and unknown genetics to her daughter queens, creating variability in her offspring.  With up to 15 unknown drones (fathers) in her genetic profile, there is no guarantee of uniformity and optimum genetics in her offspring.  The open mated queen’s daughters will almost certainly be hybrids and may be inconsistent in performance and quality, which is not ideal for breeding.

A breeder queen has been specifically bred, selected, and inseminated for genetic excellence – which is breeder queens are more valuable for breeding.  The advantage of a breeder queen versus an open-mated queen is that a breeder features pre-selected F1 maternal AND F1 paternal lines that are 100% known and carefully identified. There are no unknowns with instrumental insemination – everything has been optimized for quality and uniformity.

Optimal genetics are vital to the growth of strong colonies. A beekeeper who wants to breed should start with carefully selected, pure genetic lines that are of known origin on both the maternal and paternal sides. This is the advantage of instrumental insemination and is what makes the breeder queen so unique and prized among honeybee breeders.

Selecting Colonies For Early Season Buildup

During the first week of January, most beekeepers are recovering from the holiday season, watching football, and making plans and resolutions for the new year.  However, the majority of beehives throughout the northern hemisphere are doing far much less.  At this time of year, most bees remain huddled in their winter clusters, preserving heat and waiting out the remainder of the harsh winter.

At Wildflower Meadows, the majority of our bee colonies have their lowest populations at this time of year.  Even in our relatively temperate setting, bees go through their normal annual cycle, albeit with a milder winter shutdown than in most colder climates.  Throughout November and December, our queens typically lay a much lower than normal amount of eggs than in the remainder of the year because of the shorter days, long and colder nights, and general lack of forage.  As a result, bee populations decline throughout the fall and winter, reaching their lowest point at the beginning of January.  This is normal and healthy, as a smaller winter population is more efficient for a typical beehive, with less mouths to feed and less brood to manage.

Here in California, something changes, however, around the first week of January.  By some means, the bees get a sense that the winter solstice has passed.  Somehow, they get the idea that the January acacia bloom is right around the corner.  And, somehow or other, the bees get wind that the almond bloom is now only a month away, with mustard bloom soon to follow.  It’s time to get busy!

We notice that it is right around the first week of the new year that many of the Wildflower Meadows’ queens wake up from their winter slumber and launch headstrong into egg laying.  All of a sudden, the queens begin laying frames of brood – sometimes entire frames at a time, and as much brood as the population will allow.  This is a sign to us that a queen is serious about early season buildup.

Early season buildup is an important and valuable behavioral trait in honeybees.  It is important not only for commercial beekeepers who need strong colonies to pollinate early season crops such as almonds and cherries, but also for smaller scale beekeepers who are typically more focused on honey production.

High honey production almost always correlates with early season buildup for two reasons:  First, early buildup means that the colony will be strong and lively enough to take advantage of the very earliest portion of the honey flow.  This is in comparison to a slow-developing colony that needs to wait for the population to build up before it can fully exploit the earliest blossoms.  A slow-building colony might miss the entire early season flow.  Secondly, a rapid early season buildup will typically correlate to a larger and more mature foraging population during the later peak portion of spring.  A larger population during a honey flow is almost always a key factor in the overall honey totals of a given season.

Most importantly, an early season buildup indicates that the queen is lively.  At Wildflower Meadows, this is what we like to see.  So, beginning around the first week of January, we head out to our apiaries with pens and pencils, our queen records, and our trusty clipboards to begin taking notes.  We grade each and every colony on bee and brood strength.  The purpose of this first grade is to establish a baseline of overwintering quality, as well as to detect the first signs of early brood laying.  Then we come back a few weeks later and grade the same colonies again to see how seriously the individual queens are taking early season buildup.  We take note of the colonies that scored well on both accounts, particularly noting the colonies that rapidly gained in population.  These colonies then become candidates for breeding and drone rearing colonies.  Of course, these colonies still need to pass other important criteria, such as testing for temperament and mite resistance, but their display of early season buildup is duly noted.  Thus, these colonies are leading candidates for continued Wildflower Meadows’ breeding.

Family Ties

Sometimes, here at Wildflower Meadows, we run across a colony that appears superior in all respects.  As a queen breeder, finding a special colony is always a promising affair.  So, of course, we wonder, perhaps we have discovered some sort of “super colony”; the honeybee equivalent to a superhero, like Wonder Woman.  Maybe if we could breed from this colony we could create a “Super Bee” or some other sort of legendary strain of bee.

However, not so fast . . .

It is tempting to think that the daughter of a superstar will be a superstar herself, but this is an oversimplification.  First of all, we have no idea what made the original colony perform so well.  Might it have been environmental factors rather than genetics?  Perhaps the bees found a pollen source that no other colony in the apiary found.  Or, what if they are situated in such a spot in the apiary that they are the recipient of drifting bees?  Maybe the reason that they are mite-free is not that they are resistant, but simply lucky enough to never have encountered them in large numbers.  In short, what if it is simply good luck that is making this colony appear so special?

Far more importantly, we need first consider whether the superstar colony itself is one of Wildflower Meadows’ pure and known bee lines, or instead a first-or-second-generation hybrid.  If the queen is a hybrid, her offspring are almost certainly going to be unpredictable.  The queen could be carrying many different latent or recessive genes that are not now visible, but could become apparent in next generations.  In general, it is best to breed from pure and known bee lines so that the offspring has a predictability in the immediate generation to follow.  As we described in a previous post, Hybrid Vigor, the most vigorous queens are the result of F1 (first-generation) hybrid bees.  The only way to create this vigor is by starting with pure lines, not with existing hybrids.  Therefore, it is important to remember that one beehive is not a proven line of bees!

This is why when Wildflower Meadows evaluates colonies for breeding potential, we need to consider more than one colony.  We really need to look at the queen’s entire family, and her family ties.  Ideally, we attempt to examine at least six of the sisters of the queen we are considering.  Are they too performing as well?  Are they too uniform?  In any breeding effort, the goal is consistency, and the only way to ensure consistency is to prove that the breeder herself is producing steady results.  The daughters should perform at least as well as the mothers, and should do so time and time again.

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.

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.

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.

Everything Is Just Right

Wildflower Meadows’ employees have been out and about lately moving bees in anticipation of the upcoming queen-rearing season.  Raising queens waits for no one, and the work generally continues rain or shine.  At this time of year, we spend our mornings grading our bee stock, then shuffling individual colonies to the proper yards.  Breeders go to the queen rearing yards, strong drone rearing colonies get consolidated near our mating areas, colonies are re-graded, and so on . . .

On the surface, this photo looks like a miserable situation.  Here, one of our employees is moving a few breeder colonies to our queen-rearing area.  It is pouring rain, and around the apiaries there is mud absolutely everywhere.  One might think that all is wrong, but truly, everything is just right.

First of all, we are finally experiencing rain here in Southern California!  This means that the drought conditions are subsiding, and the bees will have an abundance of foraging opportunities later in the season.  Second, the breeders that we are selecting look great!  They have overwintered exceptionally well and are now being handpicked for the upcoming season.  Third, our Columbia rain gear comes from the Pacific Northwest, where they know a thing or two about rain and keeping a person dry.  And finally, because we just installed new mud tires on this pickup truck – we are just in time to have a little fun and sling some mud!

Mud Slinging

The “Citation” Of Wildflower Meadows

We recently had a conversation with a friend, and were explaining how we have been blessed with a three-year-old breeder queen who seems to be perfect in all respects.  She is one of the best examples of a successful queen we have ever seen.  Not only is she a champion breeder in her own right, but many of the next generations of our breeder queens also trace their lineage back to her in one way or another.  Our friend was quick to respond, “Why, she is the Citation of Wildflower Meadows.”

Unless you are a fan of horse racing, you may not be familiar with Citation.  While not as famous as Seabiscuit or Secretariat, Citation is routinely ranked by experts as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.  Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948 and went on to have a spectacular career, almost never losing.  He was one of those rare race horses that had no apparent weakness of any kind.  Sprints, distance races, fast tracks, muddy tracks, large fields, small fields; none of it mattered.  The horse simply won every time he left the gate, no matter what.

Our Number 43, pictured above, has similar qualities.  She lays perfect frames of brood, one after another.  In three years, her colony has never shown any weakness.  The bees in her hive build up each year to excellent populations; making honey, surviving droughts, successfully overwintering, succumbing to no diseases, nor harboring any mites (treatment free).  Like Citation, they are pretty to look at, and very friendly to all.  And, they always seem to outperform every other colony, no matter what the conditions.

True to her legend, Number 43 has lived a long and productive life, both as a performer and as a breeder of other breeder queens.  Normally, due to the technical challenges of artificial insemination, instrumentally inseminated breeder queens do not last as long as naturally mated queens.  Of course, that is not the case with Number 43.  As we head into 2017, her green dot (now mostly faded) marks her as a 2014 breeder queen heading into her fourth year.

Number 43 is retired now, and she and her colony are living a pleasant life among the greener pastures of other retired breeders.

Citation – 1948 Triple Crown Winner