The beekeeping industry is increasingly faced with the lack of “tools” (various chemicals) to fight diseases and pests. And those that are available cost more each year in real dollars, as well as time and labor to apply. It looks more and more like the solution for many of these problems must have a genetic component. Breeding programs, therefore, are being looked at carefully and taken more seriously than in the past. Traditionally, many beekeepers have resisted paying higher prices for the queens produced by these efforts. Queen breeding is an expensive enterprise and can be fraught with many obstacles. A recent review of the issues associated with breeding honey bees is provided by contributor Rusty Burlew.
The concept of selecting for honey production may not be as “sexy” or in vogue as selecting for disease and pest resistance. But this kind of breeding design can be cost-effective. By definition, bees that are riddled with diseases or pests will not produce more honey. Selecting for this trait, therefore, is probably the result of a number of good genetic characteristics. It’s the kind of approach discussed by Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler in a classic paper: “Necessary Links in the Chain of Honey Bee Stock Improvement,” American Bee Journal, Vol. 120, Nos. 3 and 4, pp. 223-5, 304-5.
Acknowledging the potential cost and complexity of any bee breeding project, Dr. Rothenbuhler asked rhetorically in his article whether there would be room for smaller, less expensive operations. His answer was yes, provided someone assumed overall management responsibilities. Some of the decisions and actions that must be made in perhaps the simplest of these plans, according to Dr. Rothenbuhler, are:
1. What region of the country is the bee to be developed for? Conduct field tests in the region in a practical way.
2. What bee characteristic is to be improved? For simplicity, select one. Honey production is suggested.
3. How many colonies are to be tested in each generation? Keep the number small, but not too small. Fifty colonies is suggested.
4. What percentage of the fifty are to be selected for further breeding? Ten percent is suggested.
5. Should new queens be naturally or instrumentally inseminated? Natural mating in a large population of drones, from other than the queen mothers, is suggested.
6. Send fifty naturally mated queens to the honey producer for field testing.
7. Continue this procedure for several generations.
8. Learn whether progress has been made by comparing in the same apiary the newly bred stock with samples of commercially available stocks.
9. If the newly bred stock is superior, the queen producer or producers will make it commercially available.
Such a plan, according to Dr. Rothenbuhler, concentrating on selecting only drone mothers, should result in stock improvement about half as fast as if both parents were selected. The design is simple, not costly and can be carried out by good beekeepers. One can build, he concludes, any number of more complex and efficient programs, but they increasingly must be carried out by people and organizations specially prepared to do so.
Fortunately, it looks like much of what Dr. Rothenbuhler recommended has been incorporated into contemporary breeding programs. One of Dr. Rothenbuhler’s discoveries might be a current key to breeding programs, the somewhat universal role that hygienic behavior plays in disease/pest control.
Several well-known breeding programs exist. One is the so-called Buckfast honey bee. A major player in this bee at the moment is the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Others focus on the Russian honey bee and the New World Carniolan brand. Programs in New Zealand and Australia exist as well. Serbia has a program called “Apicentar” that has been influenced by U.S. efforts in honey bee breeding. It is worth looking at a 1999 paper in this context discussing breeding for resistance to Varroa.
Although bee breeding programs are important, they are only part of the answer when it comes to the many beekeeping problems facing the industry today. And it is dangerous to focus totally on this aspect in favor of other considerations. That is the view of Dr. Michael Burgett, writing in the January 1995 (Vol. 123, No. 1, pp. 58-60) Bee Culture. He suggests that genetic solutions are problematic, especially if they are considered a quick-fix to what ails the beekeeper. As Dr. Burgett says:
“A genetically selected (designed) honey bee line is by most genetic definitions, a hybrid constructed from crosses manipulated by bee scientists. It is not genetically ‘fixed’ and without continual human intervention, the qualities of the line will be eventually lost when those queens are placed into hives. Why? Because most beekeepers do not requeen frequently enough. Because many newly requeened colonies will undergo supersedure without the beekeeper’s knowledge. Because those supersedure queens will be mating with drones from local (unselected) stock. Because a single selected line cannot be well adapted for all the beekeeping conditions found in North America.”
For all of the above reasons, Dr. Burgett says, there is no possibility of a genetic quick-fix honey bee breeding program, characterized by an open, multiple-male mating system. In spite of this, Dr. Burgett doesn’t advocate stopping the search for and development of improved lines of bees. The genetic solution when found, however, cannot stand alone, he concludes, but must be part of a generally improved system of beekeeping practice.
Dr. Keith Delaplane of the University of Georgia provocatively asks in this hour long video whether honey bee breeding is fact or fiction, laying out an argument that in the area of bee-breeding, we have “under-exploited” vast areas of honey bee biology. Feb. 9th 2013, Indiana State Beekeepers Association.
The specific difficulties in commercial honey bee breeding are well laid out by New Zealand beekeeper Mr. D.W.J. Yanke of