The Buzz in Honeybee Breeding: Local Queen Bees

When an old queen bee dies, it takes the colony weeks to raise a new one, and in the meantime all production in the hive stops. It's common practice in beekeeping to buy new queen bees by mail order. For the past several years, Colony Collapse Disorder has killed off roughly a third of bee hives. That means a lot of beekeepers buying new queen bees. Most of those are shipped in from the south.

Steve Fink is sitting at a table in a Penn State bee research lab. He's sitting with a small frame filled with a sheet of honeycomb in front of him. He's scanning the cells in the comb for bee larva of just the right size. He's already used a grafting tool to move several larvae into a row of tiny plastic cups.

"You can see them in there just floating on top. Little C-shaped larva on top of the liquid in there. So thereís a little drop of royal jelly. Then little tiny C-shaped larva on top."

Every bee--worker, drone and queen--starts out as a tiny larva. It's only when a larva is fed royal jelly that it becomes destined to be a queen bee. Worker bees usually only make queens when the hive needs a new one. But Fink is learning how to trick bees into making a lot of queens from his hand-harvested larvae.

"So they'll feed them, pack them with food, then seal them in a wax cell. So we'll come back in a week, they'll all be sealed up and then we can carry them home and put them in our hives back home."

Fink has kept bees for 5 years at his home in Kutztown, but this is the first time he's tried breeding his own queens. It's a first for most of the twelve participants in this Pennsylvania Queens workshop at Penn State University Park.

Workshop organizers are testing a theory. They think queen bees from local stock might survive better here than imported southern queens. Right now that theory is based solely on anecdotal evidence from beekeepers like Warren Miller. Heís been keeping bees for 27 years. More than a decade ago he decided to stop using chemicals to treat his hives for parasitic mites and he started to raise his own queen bees.

"So I kind of went the James Bond method - kind of live and let die ñ kind of method of bee keeping. The first few years I had significant losses because I didnít protect them with the chemicals. But I would always raise queens from the colonies that were the strongest that survived. And over the years now theyíre able to thrive here in central Pennsylvania."

Miller is the president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association. He came up with the idea to hold this workshop because most hobbyist beekeepers find the thought of breeding their own queens daunting.

"I kept bees for about 15 years before I started to raise my own queens. Just because of the thought I wasnít qualified or didn't know how to do it or wasnít maybe even capable of doing it. So I just kind of never did it and a lot of beekeepers are like that. They see queen rearing as some step theyíre never going to make."

So far the workshops have been popular. Several beekeepers who couldn't get into this yearís class are already on the list for next year.
Elina NiÒo is helping run the workshop. She does research into queen bees and queen health at the Grozinger Lab at Penn State. And sheís doing a survey of beekeepers in Pennsylvania.

"I really want to see what's going on so we can construct a model, maybe, as to how these bee breeding programs could and should be working. So sort of establish a guide of developing them and hopefully making them successful."

But it's still anecdotal that it's better to use Pennsylvania queen bees in Pennsylvania. That's where Maryann Frazier comes in. She's the Honeybee Extension Specialist at Penn State. She's out back among several stacked boxes of bees. Sheís wearing a white bee suit with a mesh mask attached.

"You see there those big lumpy cells? Those are all queen cells."

Frazier blows on the bees to get them to move. She's sedated them with smoke and they crawl lazily across the frame she's pulled from one of the hives. Frazier is showing off another bee breeding technique, the Hopkin's Method. This one doesn't require quite as good eyesight or dexterity as the larva technique. The bees do most of the work.

"So this is an easy technique where the bees themselves have chosen the larvae and have reared queens from larvae that theyíve chosen rather than this technique where they have to do the grafting."

All the student beekeepers have to do for this technique is to lay a frame of honeycomb across the top of several other frames standing upright in the hive. That signals to the bees to make queens.

If all this bee breeding works, today's students will be able to bring home their new queens in about a week. Frazier will be doing her own breeding experiment this winter. Sheís starting a project that will pit northern queens against southern queens.

"What we're trying to do right now is...to actually compare very high quality selected queens that are raised in the south versus very high quality selected queens that are raised in the north."

Frazier's looking for solid scientific evidence that proves it's better to use northern queen bees in the north. She plans to test 2 lines of queen bees from the north and 2 from the south. At the end of the winter she'll see who survived. Frasier says it might take a few years to get conclusive evidence about which queen bee reigns supreme.