Bee Scientifics

Capacity Building

Our second stop on the Varroa Tolerance tour brought us to Western Washington, the land of islands, rivers, mountains, and IPAs. At a friends house, we were directed to the beer fridge in the garage with the disclaimer that “there are several different beers to choose from”. In Washington, it turns out, that this translates to “there are several different IPAs to choose from.” Good luck finding a lager, or worse yet, an amber! Nothing remotely similar to our beloved Toohey’s OLD!

Just south of the town of Coupeville, located on Whidbey Island, we visited with Sue Cobey. Sue is a queen bee breeder specialising in instrumental insemination and contributed greatly to the development of the New World Carniolian.

A map of the United States highlighting Coupeville WA
Coupeville Washington

Sue is one of the world’s experts on Instrumental Insemination (II) /Artificial Insemination (AI) of queen bees. Her courses are highly sought after and participants carefully vetted. We arrived at the tail end of a three day II course attended by people from all over the United States and a few international participants.Instrumental Insemination class participants

Class participants finishing up an Instrumental Insemination course held by Sue Cobey

Courses like this one are essential for teaching skills fundamental to queen bee breeding. These skills are honed in by A LOT of practice. Participants here applied for the course and were chosen based on the likelihood that they will continue using and building upon the skills learned here.

During these travels, I have realised that there are two essential components to breeding for Varroa tolerance (or any other set of traits). One part is the selection criteria and techniques used to identify, measure, quantify, and weigh desired traits. The other aspect is the framework of the breeding program. An important part of program framework is capacity.

In my next post, I’ll lay out some thoughts about these two pillars of breeding programs important to get right in order to play “the long game” of bee breeding.

Lavender flowers with beehives in the distance

So Far, Soooooo Good!

Aloha from the HUB

We are well on our way learning about Varroa tolerance selection techniques.  Our first stop was the big island of Hawaii where we had the privelage of visiting the HUB, a bee research project jointly run by PAm, the Arista Foundation, the USDA-ARS Baton Rouge Lab and David Thomas of Hawaii Island Honey Company.

The HUB is working on developing a commercially viable bee that can handle the rigours of production beekeeping and keep mite levels manageable.  The set up is impressive with bees filing the air and feral chickens scurrying through the apiary.  The breeding program consists of around 700 colonies and is connected to the honey production side of the business that runs 3-4000 colonies in each of two locations: Hawaii and Louisiana.

Queen lines are maintained and through Instrumental Insemination (II) or Artificial Insemination (AI)-same thing.  The drone stock is sourced from open mated queens that prove to have naturally low mite levels in real-life field conditions.

What struck me by this operation is the vast amount of work it takes to develop a selective breeding program that has an end goal of producing a commercially viable product.  It is possible to be hyper vigilant and focusses on a single trait- in this case Varroa tolerance- but in the process loose honey production, or disease resistance in against another pathogen.  

Breeding a bee that stands up to the rigours of our beekeeping industry AND can keep mite levels low is extremely challenging.  The key asset that the HUB has going for it is it’s data management system and the insane amount of organising and fore-thought that goes into each cross, each breeder selection, each pedigree.  This collaborative approach seems to give this program exceptional power.

The challenges here lie in our perceived need for fast results.  Breeding animals as complex as honey bees is a very slow process- the long game.  This process is tedious, time consuming, requires extraordinary organisation, demands a unique combination of practical beekeeping and laboratory skills, and is just plain hard.  Our expectations may squelch the ember before the flame.

The HUB project has been building for only 5 years and has made some great progress toward breeding commercially viable Varroa tolerant lines of bees.  These bees are a cross of various Italian stocks and are unevenly banded and are not uniformly coloured.  In Australia, I realise this would be hard to take.  We want, on top of honey production, nice temperament, disease resistance, Varroa tolerance…..we want our bees to be either yellow or black.  We want even bands, we want sisters to look uniform- at least from our breeding lines. It may be attainable to maintain racially driven breeding lines once Varroa comes, it may not.  Colour might have to go…maybe.

I will have a few more conversations with Danielle Downey from PAm, BartJan Fernhout from Arista, Bob Danka from the USDA, and David Thomas from the Hawaiian Honey Company and work out the finer details of the program and work to develop a grander understanding of this type of breeding structure.  In the mean time, just know that in Hawaii, there is a group of people that are working extremely hard to understand how commercial beekeepers can hop off the chemical bandwagon by breeding bees that can handle the mighty Varroa mite.