Minnesota bee experts launch pilot certification program for hygienic queens

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- She really doesn't care whether they are Western, Russian, Caucasian or Golden Italian honeybees. Their behavior is what interests University of Minnesota bee researcher Marla Spivak. If they are exceptional housekeepers, t...

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- She really doesn't care whether they are Western, Russian, Caucasian or Golden Italian honeybees. Their behavior is what interests University of Minnesota bee researcher Marla Spivak. If they are exceptional housekeepers, then she wants to be able to certify their queens and put them to work breeding more like them in hives around the country.

Sound odd? Not in the least, when you consider the worker bees these queens produce work hard to rid their colonies of disease and parasites -- all serious threats to bee colonies and considered by some experts to be contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious anomaly that is killing off colonies all over the world.

"This is a totally new and innovative project -- never been done," the researcher says. "People have tried to certify races of bees. This is not about that. I don't care what the race of bees is, I just want to see if it has certain characteristics."

Hygienic bees

In beekeeping vernacular, those characteristics are called "hygienic behavior" and are something of a marvel of nature.


About 10 percent of all honeybees, regardless of race or lineage, carry the genetic trait that compels the worker bees to maintain clean broods, the honeycombed cells in which bee eggs grow until they are mature enough to emerge and go to work as nurses, workers, drones or pollen gatherers.

Pathogens like American foul brood, a bacterial disease, and chalk brood, a fungal disease, take hold of and feed on the larval bees while they are growing inside the brood cells. Parasitic mites, aptly named "Varroa destructors," also attack the larvae, feeding on them and growing to reproductive maturity in the brood cells.

Chemical treatment of colonies became accepted practice for the diseases and mites, but even those were suspected as adding to the stress within colonies that may have been con-tributing to Colony Collapse Disorder, besides costing more time and expense to beekeepers.

But the hygienic worker bees take care of their colonies by themselves. They sense diseased and parasitized larvae in the brood cells and immediately open the cells, remove and discard the larvae, effectively cleaning out the diseases and parasites with them.

It's possible that nature eventually would have selected the hygienic bees for survival over nonhygienic bees, but with one-third of all U.S. food crops depending on healthy bee colonies for pollination and ominous colony collapses occurring everywhere, Spivak decided to give the Darwinian process a little help.

Spreading good hygiene

In 1994, she and colleague Gary Reuter began breeding hygienic bee queens. Working with Minnesota and North Dakota beekeepers, they were able to demonstrate that these queens established colonies that "rarely, if ever, displayed clinical symptoms of American foul-brood or chalkbrood, and had significantly fewer Varroa mites," she says.

Contrary to early suspicions by honey producers that propagating hygienic behavior would somehow lead to aggressive bees with less interest in making honey, the Minnesota bees turned out to be both gentle and productive honey-makers.


"I've been giving queens to the Minnesota honey producers and then they would auction them off every summer. These are artificially-inseminated breeder queens," Spivak says.

The bees became known as the "Minnesota Hygienic" bee, and several beekeepers began buying them. They noticed an overall improvement in the health of their colonies and kept going back for more.

The Minnesota Hygienic now is one of the top lines of bred queen bees in the U.S. Several apiaries have programs that promote and advertise Spivak's queens to beekeepers.

But some of the breeders were failing to ensure that their new queens were actually pass-ing on the hygienic gene to their new colonies. The gene is recessive, so the hygienic queen must mate with a drone bee that also carries the gene. This is not always the case.

"As a result, the colonies produced by those queens are not showing the hygienic traits," she says. "If the queens mate with 20 males, at least half the males need to have the genes for hygienic behavior."

Spivak says some California breeders are not ensuring this, so the "Minnesota Hygienic" queens they sell may or may not lay hygienic eggs. The queens she'd been supplying were not able to do their job, that is, create colonies of hygienic bees for those who wanted to buy them.

"Last year, I decided I'm not doing that anymore," she says.

She will focus her efforts on supporting three Minnesota breeders, Jeff Hull, Mike Rufer and Mark Sundberg, who have been carefully managing their hygienic queens for several years now. Spivak says the hygienic trait now is fixed in their populations.


"When these guys go down south to raise their queens and they raise daughter queens and they let them mate naturally with their drones in that area, those queens are encountering drones from other hygienic colonies," she says. "The workers she produces carry the hygi-enic trait. Therefore, the colonies are hygienic."

Best of the best

Spivak's goal is to have them propagate the line themselves without artificial insemina-tion.

"They've been using my queens as breeders for so many years that the trait is what I would call 'fixed' in their population of bees," she says.

To ensure this, she sent a team of her students to each of the three apiaries to test the level of their hygienic behavior.

"They identified really good colonies that (the breeders) could use as breeder stock," Spivak says.

The final data have not yet been compiled, but she is confident that the three Minnesota breeders will be able to provide genuinely hygienic bees to their buyers.

And the testing will continue, she says.


"That's how we're going to be doing some quality control. Every year we can be testing their colonies and then identifying breeder stock for them so we can keep the high level of hygienic behavior in there and improve it," she says.

Spivak will "certify" these as Minnesota Hygienic bees, which she hopes will be able to create healthier colonies anywhere honeybees are used in commercial operations.

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