Guidance on Buying Hygienic Bees
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Honeybees bred for various characteristics have fascinated beekeepers for decades. Bees can be bred for overwintering, honey production, gentleness, and even hygienic behavior.
The problem is that insects such as bees and wasps have an unusual type of genetic inheritance known as haplodiploidy. In short, it means fertilized eggs become female and unfertilized eggs become male. As a result, the normal model of Mendelian genetics that we use for breeding dogs, cats, goats, and cattle doesn’t work for haplodiploid creatures.
Honeybees in particular have other characteristics that interfere with breeding programs. Queens mate with multiple drones, which means most workers in a colony are half-sisters, not full sisters. In addition, queens mate in large meeting areas that attract drones and queens from great distances, a trait that reduces inbreeding.
In practice, these genetic and behavioral oddities mean that any characteristic bred into a queen quickly disappears from her descendants. A breeder crosses bees using isolation from wild colonies and instrumental insemination. When the desired characteristics emerge after repeated crossing, a stock of new queens is inseminated with selected drone semen. These expensive bees are then sold to queen producers.
The queen producers raise many new queens from the breeder queen. These are mated with specially raised drones and kept isolated from wild stocks as much as possible. These queens, the first generation of bees from the breeder queen, are the ones sold to the public. If best practices are used by the producer, these queens will retain most of the desired traits.
However, once a beekeeper brings the bees to his home apiary, many things can happen. The queen may swarm, die, or get superseded by her offspring. When your queen is replaced and the new queen mates with local stock, nearly all the inbred characteristics will disappear. Hygienic traits in particular are nearly all recessive, so both the new queen and all the drones she mates with would need the hygienic genes in order for the characteristic to manifest.
Geographic isolation is key to maintaining traits from generation to generation. Indeed, many breeder apiaries are on islands or remote breeding grounds where there is little chance of cross breeding with wild stock.
It is fine to buy a hygienic queen, but ask some questions first. Where was the breeder queen-raised and when? Are the drones used for mating the queens isolated or are they wild stock? Is the bee you are buying the first generation offspring of a breeder queen (good) or a distant descendant with questionable genetics?
Unfortunately, there is little or no regulatory oversight related to raising and selling queens, so the buyer must beware. If you can’t find answers to the above questions, ask other beekeepers if they were satisfied with their purchase. And if you decide to buy a hygienic queen, do meticulous mite monitoring in case her colony doesn’t perform as you expected.
For a more in-depth explanation of the factors affecting queen breeding, see my article on “Why Is It So Difficult to Breed Better Bees?”
Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.