COVER STORY: Minnesota beekeeper explains his queen breeding program

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Every hive needs its queen, and with 2.3 million honeybee hives engaged in commercial pollination and honey production in the U.S., queen breeders like Mark Sundberg are enjoying a solid market.

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Every hive needs its queen, and with 2.3 million honeybee hives engaged in commercial pollination and honey production in the U.S., queen breeders like Mark Sundberg are enjoying a solid market.

And in his business, he really can crank out the quality.

"We probably only need about eight queens that we select the best traits from and we can take the young larvae from each of those eight queens and make tens of thousands of queens," he says.

These queens have been husbanded carefully for several years to distil colonies of bees called "Minnesota Hygienics," which may be prove to be the best first line of defense against Colony Collapse Disorder, the hive-killing phenomenon that has been devastating colonies around the world.

Mississippi queens


Sundberg Apiaries is a third-generation beekeeping business, situated among the rolling hills just north of Fergus Falls.

"My grandfather really started it, but my great-grandfather had started an orchard here, so he brought some bees in," Sundberg says.

The earliest record of bees on the property was in 1907. His great-grandfather was raising apples and plums and kept hives there throughout the year to move the pollen from tree to tree. He had three sons, all of whom became interested in the bees. Mark's grandfather began raising bees commercially, though as a sideline to the family's main concerns, being crops, some cows, pigs and laying hens.

Marks' father expanded the operation into a full-time commercial apiary, or bee farm. Mark inherited the business from him.

Sundberg Apiaries usually keeps from 5,000 to 6,000 colonies of honeybees. Most of them make a journey by truck to California to help pollinate the state's expansive almond crops each spring. Once they're done there, they are trucked back to Sundberg's place in Minnesota, where they produce close to 500,000 pounds of honey each year.

But a small portion of his bees don't cross the Rocky Mountains at all. Instead, they are trucked south in the fall to spend the winter in Mississippi. These are his breeder stock, and beekeepers and honey producers around the country call him each year for replenishment.

"Queens have a shelf life," Sundberg says. "They're really best for about one to two years, and after that, their egg production starts to go down dramatically to hundreds or less."



Sundberg says most commercial beekeepers re-queen their outfits every year or every other year, at a minimum. The more bees one has, the more beekeepers can draw income through pollination and honey production.

"At this stage of the game, about 100 percent of my queen production happens in south Mississippi," he says. "About the middle of February, I basically move down there. That's when I start working in my queen yard and get the whole queen-raising process going."

Honeybee queens lay fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The unfertilized eggs will emerge as drones, the only males in the colony. Their sole job is to provide sperm for queens, typically from other colonies.

The first duty of any new queen is to fly out of the colony and find these drones.

"She does that during just one period in her life, and that can happen over the course of three to five days," Sundberg says. "Weather permitting, she will mate with as many as 15 to 20 drones."

The drones fill a sperm sack inside the queen, from which she will internally fertilize her eggs for the rest of her productive life. She takes no refills. Sundberg keeps eight to 12 breeder queens and several colonies available in Mississippi to supply their attendant drones.

Grafting queens

Once she has mated, she returns to her colony, where she reigns as sole benefactress. She then will begin filling special honeycombs, the brood, with her fertilized eggs, each of which can become a worker bee or a queen bee. And the numbers are like anything else in American livestock agriculture.


"When the queens get busy in the spring, they can lay a couple of thousands eggs a day," Sundberg says. "I usually end up grafting around 18,000 larvae every year."

Grafting queens is the process of taking, with a small needle, a young larva out of its brood cell and placing it into special individual cups, just roomy enough inside for the royal larva to grow into young adulthood.

All 18,000 of these are set aside until the colony's young worker bees, serving a term as nurse bees, are "ready" for them.

The nurse bees determine whether any fertilized eggs should be made into queens. They first must think they are without a queen, and a queen breeder's job is to convince them of this.

"There are a number of ways to do this, but I separate the queen and her brood cells from most of the remainder of the colony by placing a double-screen between them," he says.

Royal treatment

The queen is left in the upper portion of the colony with a handful of worker bees and enough open brood cells to keep her busy laying. Below the screen, the rest of the bees are effectively queenless, as the distance from her severs the pheromone-based connection they had. Thus, they begin to think they need a new queen, and are ready for the grafted larvae to be inserted into their section of the hive.

"I'm giving them just what they need at the right time and at the right age. I've got a window of maybe 48 hours that they can take a larva and turn it into a young queen," he says.


To do this, the nurse bees feed the queen larva a diet of pure royal jelly, excreted from glands in their mouths. This is like Power Bars for bees, packed with crude protein, sugars, vitamins and antibacterial and antibiotic components.

"They use the royal jelly to feed all the larvae," Sundberg say. "The first three days, everything is fed the royal jelly, and then after the third day, the worker bee larvae get a mix of royal jelly and pollen. That's what determines whether it becomes a worker or a queen."

The nurses will raise as many as 100 queens at a time. On about the eighth day, they are done feeding the queen larva. They fill her cup with royal jelly and seal her inside with a layer of beeswax.

Meanwhile, Sundberg's new queens will need their own colonies to rule, so he also is splitting out queenless colonies from large, healthy "queened" colonies.

"We'll go through those and they will be to the point that they are so big that what they want to do is swarm," he says. "That's how bees reproduce, so we want to get in there before they swarm."

He will make three or four or even five colonies with the bees from one.

"So at the same time we're raising queens, we're all making 'nucs,'" he says.

To bee or not to bee


Sundberg then introduces one of the new queens into each of the "nucs," completing the colonies. He must place the cell cups there just before the queens emerge because if they were all left to emerge in the same colony, they would kill each other. The new queens eventually will chew their way out of the cups and emerge into their colonies.

"And then she'll go out and mate and come back, and it will be a new colony that will start from that," he says.

But the colony's bees don't always accept a new queen.

"They do it because they think she's an intruder," he says. "Usually they'll do it because they think they already have a queen or they have something going and they don't want that new queen."

It also will happen if he waits too long to re-queen a hive.

"If you go a week or two weeks and then try to introduce a queen to the hive, forget it. They won't take a queen, even though they need one more than anything."

To get rid of her, the bees will pile around her and literally suffocate and sting her to death.

Though Sundberg has five employees to help with all this, including a cousin and a stepbrother, it still is a very busy time, making queens and building new colonies.


Sundberg and his queen team will process about 50 colonies this way, building the size of his colonies up and breeding new queens at the same time. He sells his queens to beekeepers all over the country.


Queens can't lay fertilized eggs indefinitely. Somewhere along their second or third year, their sperm sacks will run dry and their unfertilized offspring will create only drones.

"They're called a drone layer, and at that point, the queen is worthless because you can't do anything with drones," Sundberg says.

He tries to remove those queens before they get to that stage because it becomes very difficult to "re-queen" a hive that's become a drone layer. This affects the number overall colonies that produce honey and fertilize orchards, and though this may not have been as much of an issue before Colony Collapse Disorder arrived, it certainly is now.

"It used to be we'd lose 5 percent a year and it would be a piece of cake to make up our losses, and we'd always have extra bees," he says. "Now we're losing 30 percent to 40 percent. This year, we had 40 percent loss."

CCD has been on the rise around the world since 2006. It is characterized by the worker bees suddenly abandoning their colony, leaving those behind, including their queen, to starve and die. And since commercial beekeepers are counted on for pollinating one-third of all U.S. food crops, researchers are working hard at solving the problem.


No one knows for sure what causes it, but many think it is related to a "piling up" of stressors on a colony, including disease, parasites and availability of pollen, a large part of a bee's diet. Sundberg's bees get a lot of theirs from basswood trees.

"Last year was bad," he says. "That was a weather-related issue. We're not sure what happened to the basswood trees, but they just didn't bloom."

That meant his bees didn't make any basswood honey last year.

"I attribute a lot of our losses to that, just from stress, because the bees just didn't make the honey and they didn't get the nutrition that they should have all through the summer."

So when it came time to split out new colonies this year, he tried to split out more colonies by using slightly fewer bees in each nuc.

"There is a limit to how far you can go with it, but that's one of the things you try to do," he says. "Or you can purchase bees, too. If your neighbor had good luck and didn't have as many losses, you can usually get some to help fill in a little bit."

But each year, he makes the trek south, away from his wife and young daughters, to see that Sundberg Apiaries has a ready supply of good queens to sell.

"I'm a third-generation beekeeper," he says. "After all these years, I'm still never really bored with bees."

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