Douglas Farm

NJ Honey and Bees

Breeding the Queens of Tomorrow

What is a breeding program? A breeding program to me is breeding based on set guidelines for desired genetic traits. There are several breeding programs that have revealed a great deal of knowledge and techniques. Their work has enhanced several honeybee breed characteristics. However, I am sad to see northeastern states (USA) to have so few breeding programs.

Yet, it is understandable as the colder climates allow less time to produce new queens, and they are availible later as drones are not born till a certain temperature is reached. Further, queens raised in our area are not the best for other areas or purposes. Queens from our area keep smaller winter clusters. Almond pollination require the opposite, large February populations.

There are a number of queen producers in the northeast that use uncontrolled naturally mated queens, and a very limited amount of genetic testing. This may perpetuate a genetic funnel and loss of genetic diversity or desired characteristics. However, I will note the importance of using local survivor stock.

I like to think of making queens like making a fine wine. A fine wine like a good queen is a true work of art. I recognise the statements of some beekeepers who distinguish a breeder over being just a producer of queens as someone who uses hygienic testing, selective queen rearing and controlled or semi controlled mating. Queen rearing through testing, record keeping, and scientific methods is the key to a succesful queen breeding program. Work that should always build on prior success, learn from failure, and look to improve as time goes forward.

Over that last few years local beekeepers have experienced extremely high winter losses from hives ordered from the South, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. These southern areas offer queens sooner since their winters end earlier. They are often cheaper since they have more time to breed. It is my firm belief that these southern bells do match well with conditions in the North.

Any beekeeper should prefer to get their bees or queens from a breeder who is within a 2hr drive. Buyers should be aware that there are few breeders in the North, some are just brokers reselling queens from the South. Bee buyer be ware.

The US beekeeping community is full of differing opinions on what makes the best queen and what is best to develop genetics for the future. Let us start by recognizing there are certain desired traits that can be brought out in bees through testing and selective breeding. When doing so we ask, "what are the traits we want to enhance?"

Breeding Program Outline

Trait Selection

When selecting traits we are looking for genetics to help us solve problems. Let us identify and rank the top 4 problems for Northern NJ bees:

  1. Cold & wet winters
  2. Varroa mites
  3. Cluster & brood area: proper control of size and strength
  4. Low honey and pollen production / collection

Cold & Wet Winters

It has become common practice in the northeast to order bees from the south (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky). These areas do not have the same winter conditions as the northeast. Northern New Jersey has unique winter conditions.

  • We have more than a dozen days of temperatures under 10 deg. F.
  • Our winters last from Nov. 1st through March 25th.
    • No nectar is available during this period.
    • Winter nights are normally sub 32 deg. F.
  • Our winters can have several days of warm 50 deg F. weather which seems to confuses some hives to think spring has arrived and the cluster breaks too early. Thus the hive freezes when the warm spell ends. A potential cause of freeze brood.
  • Our winters are extremely wet. Nothing kills more during the winter than moisture inside the hive.
  • Our hives need small but strong winter clusters and are different from the needs of almond pollinators, and thus most commercial beekeepers.

So the first trait selection goal is to improve genetics that enable hives to survive moist climate zones 4 and 5a.

Varroa Mites

The second trait selection goal is increasing hygienic behavior. Hives with hygienic behavior can survive and remove a mite infestation, wax moth infestation and hopefully eventually have resistance to CCD and IAPV.

Hygienic behavior within worker bees is two parts: recognizing there's a problem; then the acting out a solution. If a varroa mite has laid its egg next to a honey bee egg, the new bee would normally be born with a mite. A hygienic nurse bee would recognize the varroa egg infestation and clean out the cell. Hygienic hives also have superior ability to remove mites from their bodies. They can also recognize a mite on a bee near them and help that bee remove the mite. This assist a fellow bee represents the highest form of hygienic intelligence. I suspect it relates to the mothering traits of nurse bees.

The Cluster

The cluster of New Jersey kept bees needs to be small and strong. Young bees need to be reared in December to last the 14+ weeks of winter. However, the number needs to bee controlled. Large cluster populations will consume winter stores too quickly and may starve themselves. Clusters without young bees may die of old age before Spring rearing begins. This cluster need is different than commercial almond pollinators. They need large populations in early February. Queen suppliers of good almond pollinating bees, probably don't make good bees for beekeepers who don't travel.

Honey & Pollen Production

A beekeeper with bees that do not produce bumper honey will not do well and may eventually close up shop. Honey production is critical to feed the hive, have enough resources for to split. A top producing hive will have enough resources to make a split in the spring and a second in the fall. The fall's can then be next year's over wintered nucs.

Pollen collection is essential to a strong hive. Queen, brood food and wax production are dependent on a certain amount of protein in the worker bee's diet. Weak (new) hives must be supplemented until their harvesting population is large enough to sustain the hive. Pollen is not collected by the same workers who collect nectar. So selecting parent hives for high honey production does not help select better pollen collectors. Levels of both must be monitored during testing.

Secondary Selection

Besides these primary goals we can develop secondary traits. Traits that are desired, but not critical. A secondary trait may focus on increasing production while primary goals focus on increasing survival ability. The following is a list of qualities we will look for to make high production hives.

  1. Gentle hives (Can be worked with faster and with less care)
  2. Superior brood rearing (egg laying) queens.
  3. Quick population build by April 1st. (Able to get early nectar)
  4. Quick to reduce to winter population size by November 1st. (Controls winter honey consumption)
  5. Average annual honey collection and comb building is greater than other hives in the same apiary.
  6. Comb built is even and properly constructed
  7. Queen and drone size and weight are above average. (Requires high protein diet)
  8. Visible winter pollen stores in addition to honey.
  9. Wax produced is generally lighter than other hives in the same apiary.
  10. Low rate of swarming (we won't breed from hives that raise swarm queens)
  11. Genetically diverse

 Additionally, we will seek to select hives that have physical attributes (like color) that best represent the breed.

Since propolis has shown to have high antibacterial & anti viral properties, and people often collect it for consumption, we will not select for hives that have limited propolis use.

Testing for Traits

First off, no living hive is a bad thing. They all have something of value to a beekeeper. However in these times, conditions are set against the survival of bees. We must take action and we must breed stronger and healthier hives.

Each trait already mentioned has its own testing. Some tests are a combination of observations while others are directly measured. All testing must be logged with a hive and queen identification system.

Wintering Ability-

More hives die between Jan 1st and March 15th than any other period. Breeding for wintering ability includes the following requirements:

  1. Father hives survive atleast 1 winter, Mother hives survive 2 winters.
  2. Require only 20 deep frames to survive a winter.
  3. Have an controlled cluster:
    1. Have cluster size of 6 to 8 frames in January
    2. Have cluster size of 5 to 7 frames in February
  4. Consume food stores in the first brood before moving up to the second, leaving only empty comb in the first.
  5. Consume food stores evenly.
  6. Start spring build up around between March 21st and April 1st.
  7. First drones born around April 15th.

Hygienic Behavior

Hygienic intelligent behaviors are the traits that requires the most amounts of labor, records and attention to detail. Test (primary target)

  1. Sugar shake test (varroa)
  2. Liquid Nitrogen freeze test (brood monitoring and abortion)
  3. Alcohol wash test (varroa)
  4. Microscope inspection for disease and parasites (nosema)
  5. Disection and disease inspection of worker and brood guts (nosema)
  6. Brood area visual and smell inspection (disease and fermentation)
  7. IPM tray collection inspection (all mites, unwanteds, and bee waste)
  8. Time permitting, mite testing may include artificially adding mites to a sample of workers. Then testing the time they require to remove their mites. These workers would be isolated in a small observation hive during the test. To standardize results, nurse bees should be used as they have the most direct contact with brood and mites.

Additional Trait Testing and Record keeping

  • Gentleness is tested by rating the reaction to waving a small black flag over an open hive, and in front of the hive entrance. A second rating is recorded about their reaction to the removal of a frame of drawn comb. Ratings are on a 1 to 5 scale, the standard Buckfast method.
  • Queens of superior brood rearing are rated by observing their brood pattern. Uniformly capped brood is rated well, shot gun does not.
  • Quick population build up is observed by rating the size appearance of the hive, counting the number of returning foraging bees and number of capped brood.
  • Population size reduction is recorded when the hive has its entrance reducer added.
  • Each hives honey, pollen and comb production is scored on a bell curve from 1 to 5. An observation note is made for each season. Hives not producing enough are disqualified from becoming a parent.
  • Any uneven comb is noted and potentially disqualifies that hive. This is extremely important when working with plastic foundation.
  • When a virgin queen emerges she is weighed. Queens who are too light are rejected.
  • When drones are sampled from father hives and measured for size and weight. Father hives of small drones are rejected.
  • During nectar flow new wax is rated for its lightness in comparison to other hives at the same location.
  • Hives that have swarmed are disqualified.
  • Hives that start to rear queens or more than 3 queen cell cups are disqualified.

Hives that are genetically diverse are stronger. This does not mean a breeder needs to mix breeds to get genetic diversity or to get a certain genetic trait. Genetic diversity comes from not using the same parent hives more than necessary. Genetic traits come from testing and selection. Breeders who mix breeds to get certain traits are trying to get a short cut to a trait. This short cut causes breed erosion and excessive mixing. The outcome of this short cut is also not always successful.

To ensure genetic diversity we will purchase queens from other breeders at least every 2 years. The new queens must represent one of our lines and not a mixed genetic source. They must also present as good candidates for our program. These queens will be tested for two years after their arrival to the same standards as our stock. New queens will have strict requirements to show appearance and traits of its breed. Each queen will then be mixed with our hives of the same breed that also test well.

It is important to note any breed can be hygienic or gentile. Both good and bad extremes exist within the breeds. Many genetic trait generalizations by breed can be misleading. (Would you accept the statement only black people are good basketball players? No, certainly you would not.) Improving desired qualities is a slow and labor intensive progress.

Controlled Mating

Generally, we control mating by only having the one breed being mated in our mating yard. Other hives are moved to pollination sites, then rotated back for their mating session. This regulates the drone population of our desired father hives. Very few (if any) other hives exist within a mile. Additionally, some drones may be locked in their hive by excluder material.

Starting Our Breeding Program

We started our own breeding in the Spring of 2009. So we are new. Everyone must start somewhere. I some times feel like the young upstart when facing generational beekeepers or beekeepers of decades of experience. A feeling the character Horatio Hornblower must have felt in the C. S. Forester novels. Further, as in Horatio Hornblower, great things can be achieved with high goals and hard work.

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