What are Ankle-Biter Bees?
Ask the Expert!
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Carl L writes:
I’m looking to buy three nucs this spring and saw an ad for ankle biters. Any input on these?
Rusty Burlew replies:
What are Ankle-Biters?
Purdue ankle-biters are a type of honey bee developed at Purdue University after beekeepers noticed that some honey bees bit the legs off dislodged varroa mites. Individual bees with this hygienic trait were inbred in order to increase the incidence of the genetic alleles that produced the behavior. The result of this breeding program yielded the so-called ankle-biters.
Blind studies in which beekeepers didn’t know which breed they kept proved that ankle-biters had better overwintering success than other bees, even without being treated for varroa. This trait is like VSH (varroa sensitive hygiene) and SMR (suppressed mite reproduction) because it provides at least some genetically based defense against varroa.
The thing beekeepers must understand is that these traits are usually the result of double recessive genes, which means inbreeding is necessary to make the trait appear. After inbreeding repeatedly and selecting for the desired traits, special queens—called breeder queens—are instrumentally inseminated from populations of drones that also carry the gene. Inseminated breeder queens, if they are available at all, are very expensive—hundreds or even thousands of dollars apiece, depending on the type.
The queens that beekeepers buy are the offspring of mated breeder queens. These daughter queens are not instrumentally inseminated. Instead, they are open-mated, meaning they fly and mate with random drones.
This means that although your queen has the ankle-biting genes, those genes are unlikely to show up as often as you might like in her offspring. If the queen was open-mated in areas where lots of ankle-biting drones are living (which is likely in breeding yards), a good deal of ankle-biting behavior will show up in your colony.
But if your queen dies, swarms, or becomes superseded, most of that genetic trait will disappear from your colony. It will still exist in the genetics of the daughter bees, but it may simply be a recessive gene that does nothing unless a virgin queen mates with a drone with the same recessive gene. But since a new queen will mate with many far-flung drones, the chances of her mating with an ankle-biting drone are slim. And even if she mates with one or two ankle-biting drones out of, say, 12 matings, that trait will manifest in only a small percentage of the brood nest.
For that reason, isolated apiaries miles away from other honey bees are apt to maintain the desired traits much longer than apiaries that are within flying distance of colonies lacking those traits.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying a unique breeding line. If you want to try it, you should, but it’s important to understand why you might not get the results you’re hoping for.