Posts

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.

The Best and Worst Seasons for Raising Queen Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we raise queen honeybees for a relatively long season, which begins in March and carries on through September.  Our mild weather is typically accommodating for such a long season.  However, the conditions for raising queen honeybees throughout this lengthy season vary, and are not always ideal.  As a result, we have to compensate for fluctuations throughout the year.

In raising queens, the most important factor in determining both the quantity and quality of queens is the condition of the cell building colonies.  A cell building colony is where the grafted queen cells are fed royal jelly and are developed into virgin queen bees.  The condition of the cell building colonies naturally varies throughout the season, and these variations directly affect queen rearing.  Sometimes conditions are good, and sometimes they are not.

The basic requirements of a cell building colony are that it needs to be well-stocked with nurse bees, well-fed with plenty of pollen for producing royal jelly, and consistently strong and healthy.  Most importantly, a cell building colony needs to be well-motivated to produce queen cells.  There is generally one period of the season when all of these conditions come together most perfectly, and this is the ideal season for rearing queens.

Typically, this ideal season is during the mid-to-late spring, which also, not coincidentally, is peak swarming season.  The swarming season is also typically when the most favorable nutrition conditions are available for the cell-building colonies, with plenty of high-quality pollen coming in.  It is when the bees are most naturally motivated to produce queen cells for swarming.  The bees know that the conditions are good and they are motivated to get to business!  In short, the best time of the year to rear queens is generally the same time of year when the bees are most apt to swarm.  The longer that conditions are favorable for swarming, the longer the queen producer has to raise abundant and well-nourished queens.

Some of the worst times of the year to produce queens are during the very early season, during the very late season, and during times of drought.  During the very early season, the ratio of older bees to nurse bees is at its worst, with a high percentage of older bees that overwintered and a much smaller percentage of vital nurse bees.  This is because in the early spring, the cell building colonies have not yet had enough time to begin brood rearing in earnest.  The small number of nurse bees means that less bees are available to properly feed queen cells.  During the early season, a conscientious queen producer needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number; since even though a cell building colony may look strong, it is filled with only a small percentage of nurse bees.

During the later season, a cell building colony is more motivated to shut down for winter than it is to produce swarm cells.  At this point in the season, a cell building colony may still be receiving proper nutrition, but its motivation to produce queen cells is instinctively low.  The queen producer has no way of changing this.  Therefore, once again, the beekeeper needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number towards the end of the season.

Drought poses two different problems:  During drought, the bees are less likely to want to expand or swarm, so their motivation to produce queen cells is reduced, and during drought, nutrition becomes a factor.  The nurse bees have less access to quality pollen sources, which limits their ability to produce nutritious royal jelly.  Queen production can suffer.  Therefore, any conscientious queen producer who desires to continue to rear queens during a period of drought needs to aggressively feed the cell building colony both syrup and a pollen substitute in order to offset the effects of the drought, thereby limiting the ability of the cell building colony to feel the drought’s effects.

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.

An Ideal Queen Mating Yard

Central to all queen-rearing activities is the queen mating yard, where the queens make their home between the time that they are hatched from a queen cell, until the time that they are ready for sale.  A typical commercial queen mating yard contains hundreds of mating nuclei, each with at least a pound of worker bees, a small frame or two of brood, sufficient honey stores or feed, and a queen cell.

Not all mating yards are of the same quality. When we evaluate locations for establishing a mating yard, we always consider the following very important factors:

  1. First and most importantly, all mating yards need to be within optimal flying distance (approximately one half mile, give or take) to our drone-rearing colonies.  There has to be an abundance of quality drones in the area; otherwise, what’s the point?
  2. The mating yard should also be near rich pollen sources.  Young, growing queens need proper nutrition during their formative days, and nearby pollen enables the queens to be well nourished as they prepare for and take their multiple mating flights.
  3. An ideal queen-mating yard must also have landmarks, such as trees or bushes interspersed throughout the yard.  That way the queens do not get lost when returning home from their mating flights.
  4. A clean water source nearby is also important, so that the bees stay clear of swimming pools or other dangers
  5. And, the mating yard should be free from ants or other small pests that can overrun the small and relatively defenseless mating nucs.

The above photo is one of our favorite mating yards, and has all the key elements to make it a success.  It also features an additional benefit that we didn’t mention above: beautiful tall pine trees that provide plenty of shade for a relaxing lunch break after a morning of selecting and caging queen bees!

 

Young Larvae

When you look at a healthy young queen bee, it is sometimes hard to imagine that only a month or so earlier, she was actually not recognizable as a bee, but rather existed as a larva.  For the first four to five days after emerging from an egg, a future queen bee is a larva, which is helpless and must be cared for and fed by other bees.  For these four or five critical days, the worker (nurse) bees feed the larva generous servings of royal jelly.  The size and health of the future queen is directly dependent on both the quality and quantity of the royal jelly that the larva receives during this brief and critical time window.

Each larva has a life span of only about four and half days between the time that it hatches from an egg to the time that the surrounding bees seal it and it begins its transformation into a pupa, eventually becoming a queen bee.  Therefore, a conscientious queen producer needs to take as many steps as possible to ensure that each and every queen larva is well cared for during this vital metamorphosis period.  Well-fed and well-nourished larvae result in high quality queen bees.

In order that each larva receive the maximum amount of royal jelly during its brief life, a good queen producer will graft larvae that are young; as close to egg emergence as possible.  Older larvae are already too far into their four-day window to receive the maximum quantity of royal jelly needed during their short lifespan as a larva.  A young grafted larva will receive a full four days of royal jelly feeding before it is sealed, whereas a two day old larva has already missed out on up to two days of royal jelly and has only two days left to be fed before it is sealed.

Once the young larvae are grafted, they are placed into cell building colonies that are packed with healthy and well-fed nurse bees.  Having a strong cell building colony ensures that the larvae will be well-attended and abundantly fed from the time that they are placed into the cell builder cups until the time they are sealed shut.

The Queen Bee Grafting Tool

Imagine a tool that is designed to be as flimsy as possible.  If you went to The Home Depot and asked their staff for their flimsiest tools, they would laugh at you.  Who wants flimsy tools?  The answer is the queen producer, that’s who.

Although, historically, beekeepers have utilized a number of different kinds of tools for grafting (grafting is the act of transferring larvae from breeder colonies to queen cell production cups), most beekeepers nowadays have settled on the “Chinese grafting tool” (shown above), as their preferred queen bee grafting tool of choice.

The Chinese grafting tool is a simple pencil-like object made of plastic that contains a thin plastic reed, or spatula, at the end.  The reed is what picks up the delicate larvae.  The grafting tool also features a spring-loaded plunger that the beekeeper uses to gently push the larva off of the reed and into the cup, thus allowing the beekeeper to precisely transfer an individual bee larva to a queen cell cup.

As soon as someone begins to graft larvae in quantity and as a serious endeavor, it immediately becomes obvious that the reed tip needs to be as flimsy as possible.  A stiff reed does not give easily, making grafting more of a challenge than it needs to be.

Eventually a beekeeper will break in his or her favorite grafting tool and get used to the flimsy feel of that particular tool, to the point where it becomes like an old friend, something similar to the way a well broken-in baseball mitt feels to a nimble shortstop, or the way a priceless violin feels to a concert violinist.  The main difference, of course, is that a grafting tool only costs about $3, and an unassuming beekeeper performs not in front of a cheering crowd, but alone and in peace among the humble bee larvae and future queens.

Grafting Queen Bees

The act of transferring young larvae from breeder queens into cell building colonies is called “grafting.”  Queen producers do a lot of grafting.  Every future queen bee for sale begins with the simple act of grafting; the transferring of larvae from a breeder queen into a cell cup, and then into a queen cell building colony.  It is with this method that the entire commercial queen rearing industry produces queen cells, which hatch into future queen bees.

Grafting is one of the more technically challenging parts of raising queens.  The grafter should have excellent eyesight, and a sure hand to be able to pick up tiny larvae that are about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen.  The grafter uses a special tool (known as a grafting tool), which slips underneath a larva and scoops it up along with some of the surrounding jelly.  The larva is then carefully placed in the center of the receiving cell cup.  Ideally, there should be no impact on the larva whatsoever; as the act of grafting needs to be a smooth and gentle process.  Larvae are extremely fragile, and grafting needs to be done in a warm, well-lit, and relatively humid environment.  Speed is also important, as the larvae should not spend too much time outside of the colony and run the risk of drying out.

We have found that our best grafting sessions take place when we are calm and relaxed.  Too much sugar or caffeine can lead to a shaky hand!  Calm and steady is the key, one larva at a time.

Photo is courtesy of Glenn Apiaries, with permission.