Breeder Queen Selection
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Here’s a short guide for breeder queen selection: what to look for when assessing and what you can expect along the way.
Whether you need one or several, raising honeybee queens is an exciting adventure that anyone can master with some practice. However, raising quality, well-mated queens capable of carrying a colony through the seasons with vigor requires careful attention to a few details. The trick is to determine which qualities are the most important to you and then locate a queen that meets most, if not all, of those items on your wish list. Here’s a short guide to what to look for when assessing for a breeder queen and what you can expect along the way.
What is a Breeder Queen?
A true breeder queen is a queen reared under highly controlled conditions and is bred for particular traits such as hygienic behavior and varroa resistance. Artificial insemination is commonly employed in mating to ensure the resultant queens carry these specific traits. Genetics are also controlled by flooding the areas surrounding mating yards with concrete gene pools in what is often a highly orchestrated management program. The resultant queens typically have price tags running into the hundreds or more; this is not what we are talking about here.
Instead, this guide is for beekeepers interested in raising anywhere from a handful of queens to a few hundred. So while your area may not have a controlled gene pool as most of us keep our bees in everyday locations, that is ok because high-quality queens are readily reared each season in just these locations across the country.
Don’t believe you have to buy a fancy breeder queen — although that would always be nice! — to raise your high-quality queens. Instead, you can use your own personally selected breeder queen from your colonies.
So, you can’t custom-select genetic traits without a lot of high maintenance management. But what you can do is control the queen you select. Luckily, some of her daughters will carry the specific genetics for which you selected the queen mother. Then, if mated with drones also carrying the genetic material needed (if a drone is required to activate the desired trait), the daughter queen will produce offspring that exhibit at least one or more of these traits. And if she doesn’t, you can always raise replacement queens until you raise the one you decide is a keeper. That’s a significant part of the enjoyment of raising queens — this variability and the quest for the nicest queen.
When selecting any trait, I prefer watching a colony for an entire year before deciding. This complete cycle automatically tests for winter hardiness and winter food consumption. However, most importantly, this time allows me to assess each desired trait under every condition thrown at them during the year under our local conditions.
For instance, when selecting for temperament, I want to know if they are docile when they have plenty of food stores. Then I determine how they respond to dearths, no smoke, and even rough handling as I sell bees to many newbie beekeepers. Should a colony emit too many guards, warnings, or stings for my liking on any given day when food stores and all other elements are intact, they get a little note written on the lid with the date. If this action is repeated twice, the queen is culled and replaced with much glee. Again, this is part of the beauty of raising your own queens.
First or second on most beekeepers’ preference list, honey production is often a non-issue for others. The reason is simple — these folks raise bees to assist with the pollinator troubles. So if this is you, no worries. This is not a trait that is necessary to assess for in a colony, provided that colony is still capable of bringing in good food stores for that area to get them through each season with the amount of supplemental feeding you are willing to assume.
However, if honey production is a concern, it’s a good idea to allow potential queens to produce honey for an entire season before selecting a queen based on honey production. Some queens, such as Russians, will naturally reduce brood rearing and thus food consumption during dearths, while others will eat through several boxes of honey before the next honey flow begins. This feast and famine cycle determines a colony’s overall harvestable honey production, so I like to keep careful tabs on how much each potential mother colony is producing from spring through fall before making my decision.
The speed that a queen grows her colony is of utmost importance to those in honey production and those in nucleus production. After all, large colonies produce the most honey and produce the most bees for nuclei. This spring buildup is often the final determining factor when selecting for queen production.
However, selecting for buildup isn’t as ‘simple’ as choosing a queen from a large colony because genetics only play a partial role in a queen’s laying ability. This is where location comes into play and is the part of the queen rearing process most out of the smaller beekeeper’s range. Because if an area doesn’t have a sufficient drone pool flying to the Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) to mate with virgin queens, then those queens will not have enough sperm to lay large quantities of fertile worker eggs for any length of time. Those queens will falter and be superseded within a very short time. So while you most certainly can select for buildup, be aware that you control only a portion of the trait.
Varroa Resistance/Hygienic Behavior
Resistance to varroa and hygienic behavior are the two most difficult traits to select for when raising queens on a small scale. These two traits require the queen and the drone to carry the genes to become active. But since drone pools are not typically flooded with these genetics in most regions, the assurance of displaying these traits is limited at best. However, by bringing in the desired stock to the area, the chances of hitting the lottery with varroa resistance and hygienic behavior without artificial insemination or massive drone flooding could become a more reliable possibility. But this is where management systems change, and queen-rearing operations become more complicated.
Raising your queens from your stock is one of the most enjoyable tasks in beekeeping. With careful selection, you can play a crucial role in determining how your operation responds to the seasons without needing expensive, specialized breeder queens. So take good notes and raise a few queens, and you may find you have the best bees for your operation.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas, where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. You can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops and articles when she’s not busy with the critters and veggies.
Originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.