It is important to realize that all honey bees are not alike; even though they may look the same, their behavior can be quite different. In fact they may be one of nature’s most diverse species. Given this situation It is clear that many current and potential problems affecting beekeeping can only be solved in the long run by managing the bees’ genetic material. Thus, what has been recognized as the potential cure for many of the ills faced by beekeepers in the past will also be true for the future, purposeful queen selection.
The best way to do this is by requeening colonies frequently and religously, marking queens to determine if and when they are replaced (superseded). Queen rearing was first developed on a commercial basis by G.M. Doolittle.1 Most of his techniques are still in use. A current authoritative reference on the subject is available.2
Rearing queens is an exacting managerial task which often is not fully appreciated. The details are straight forward: transfer or “graft” one day old larvae into specially designed queen cups, insert these into colonies of young bees for feeding (starting) and maturing (finishing), transfer the finished (sealed) cells to small colonies (queen rearing nuclei) in which the queens emerge. In about two weeks, the young queens will have randomly mated with a number of drones and layed eggs. Mating can be strictly controlled through Instrumental insemination, but this is expensive. In at least one case, it was not found to be an economically viable enterprise.3 Thus, although queens have been commercially produced over the years, bee breeding per se has been almost non existent.
This is changing slowly as more genetic information becomes available and researchers and beekeepers are looking much more carefully at their breeding programs. Recently, efforts in Ohio and elsewhere have begun to take honey bee breeding more seriously. Informal rearing of queens by the beekeeper continues to be possible, although their is concern about conserving genetic diversity. The parallel situation between honey bees and an iconic plant that has indeed gone almost extinct, the American chestnut, is worth looking at in this context.
The issue surrounding queen quality is one that continually confronts beekeepers. A symposium as far back as 1998 reflected on “problems” reported by beekeepers concerning queen quality. There’s little reason to conclude that there has been much change in the situation in ensuing years. A recent extensive article on queens/queen quality was published in August 2015 on the Extension Bee Health site.
An important thing to consider is that any beekeeper can easily cause honey bees to raise a new queen by removing a current one. This allows the bees to replace that individual as the insects have done for centuries. However, the process is risky and genetic control can be lost. Because of these factors, beekeepers are encouraged to purchase replacement queens on the open market rather than letting the bees do it.
The most problematic way to inject diversity into honey bee populations is purposeful introduction of stock. Unfortunately, in many cases, unintended consequences emerge from this practice and it is routinely discouraged. This often goes against the idea that world trade in honey bees is a uniformly good practice. Somewhat ahead of the curve are breeding programs in New Zealand and Australia. For more information on queen rearing see an especially comprehensive site on the subject developed by contributor Dave Cushman.
1 G.M. Doolittle, Scientific Queen Rearing, Chicago: G.W. York and Co., 126 pp., 1909.
2 H.H. Laidlaw, Contemporary Queen Rearing, Hamilton, IL: Dadant and Sons, Inc., 1979.