There seemed to be a lot more problems with queens in apiaries in 1997, particularly on the east coast. These were reported to Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture. His investigation into the matter resulted in a special symposium on the subject at this year’s American Beekeeping Federation convention in Colorado Springs, CO. Dr. Eric Mussen, extension beekeeping specialist in apiculture at the University of California, Davis, attempted to define the “problem.” He asked three questions:
1. Are the problems new?
2. Are the problems worse than usual?
3. Is there a verifiable special problem?
The answers to these, according to Dr. Mussen, appears to be no. There are historical records of high queen losses; a 50 percent turnover in California commercial bees is common. Dr. Mussen also quoted as high as 55 percent loss in two months, reported by Washington State bee inspector Jim Bach. After gathering some facts on the reported losses, Dr. Mussen said he found little evidence of new problems. Most of the complaints centered around traditional causes associated with requeening and retaining replacement queens, including handling during processing and shipping, and subsequent introducing into recipient colonies.
In a brainstorming session, participants at the symposium were able to develop a long list of possible problems that could have resulted in the reported observations. Generally they related to climate, malnutrition, unhealthy environments, and diseases and pests. Specific ones concerning queen acceptance and retention were those that caused stress during production, including queen handling, lack of drones and banking.
Producers pointed out that the condition of recipient colonies was also extremely important. If old queens were not removed adequately (two in a colony may be more common than supposed), introduction techniques were substandard, and/or recipient colonies were under a lot of stress (disease, mites), the chances of them retaining introduced queens was minimal.
It is impossible to give justice to the full symposium here. It took half a day and a subsequent evening, and included much give and take between producers and users. In that respect, however, it provided a different and unique format to the convention. Several persons remarked that this was one of the best and most interesting sessions at this or any meeting in recent years. Its success may stimulate other organizers to rethink their programming philosophy.
Although there may have been repetition of well-known caveats concerning queen production and subsequent introduction, there were “nuggets” of information that came forth during the sessions. Dr. Marla Spivak quoted the late Dr. C.L. Farrar, “Poorly reared queens of productive stock will be inferior to well reared queens of less productive stock.” She also said that nosema control was most important in mating nuclei. One reason is that sperm will migrate faster into the queen’s spermatheca the less stress there is on a nucleus. This means that there should be no nosema, tracheal or Varroa mites, a tall order in these times. Finally, Dr. Spivak concluded that drone production must be emphasized more, especially now that Varroa mites prefer males and the lack of feral colonies appears to be narrowing the potential genetic base. She closed with an exhortation to producers to always rear more drones that you think necessary.
A comment from Dr. Roger Hoopingarner, now retired from Michigan State University, got some attention. Many of the symptoms of the problems being described, he said, were reminiscent of those found by investigators looking at the effects of sublethal doses of fluvalinate on colonies. Long-term exposure to fluvalinate treatment has been associated with a reduction in honey yield. The fact that this pesticide was also bio-accumulating in the wax, Dr. Hoopingarner said, means that there continues to be more and more of the material in the bee’s environment. More recent research on non-lethal effects of pesticides adds to this concern.
Dr. Jeff Pettis at the USDA Beltsville Bee Laboratory said that a problem with current-day queen production is that producers are constantly asked to get the product out earlier. This can result in shortcuts and stress. Acceleration of expectations may also bleed over into the bee yard, according to Danny Weaver of Navasota, TX, who asked users not to “over manage” colonies by pushing them too hard. This was supplemented by Pat Heitkam of Orland, CA, who said more observations, more management and more movement could equal more perceived problems. More easy-going beekeepers, he concluded, let the bees solve some of the problems themselves. The fact that there may be a lot more colony movement going on than in the past came from David Hackenberg, the Federation’s new president, who calculated his bees were rented 17 to 21 times for pollination last season!
Another thread of conversation had to do with innovations in queen production. There is little information about what effects there might be from using plastic cups and cages (different sizes) or battery boxes. In particular, queen cages were described as smaller and, therefore, not able to hold the quantity of candy more traditional ones could. Finally, there was the great unknown called the U.S. Postal Service, which also is continually changing its guidelines and procedures, sometimes without informing either producer or customer. A presentation by USPS officials at the convention indicated that as much as a 200 percent increase in charges might be applied to shipments in the coming season.
Most participants agreed that there is a lack of basic information on a great many of the issues associated with modern queen rearing, shipping and introduction technique. Thus, as Dr. Mussen concluded, although the problems do not appear to be new, certainly many of the methods employed by queen producer and user alike are. Meanwhile scientific research in many of these areas languishes as funds are directed to more pressing issues such as mite control.
Recently North Carolina State University has developed a “queen and disease clinic.” Reports of all analyses are summarized into a simple format that provides relative measures. This places the findings into context and makes it much easier for fast and reliable interpretation.