Sustainable Apiary Breeding

To maintain a sustainable apiary the beekeeper must be well trained, the colonies must be on a management plan of continuous renewal and rebuilding, and the beekeeper must adapt a program of bringing in mite and disease tolerant stock.
By: Larry Connor

One hopes that there is general agreement that the concept of sustainable beekeeping incorporates the minimum use of chemicals in and around bee colonies. As beekeepers attempt to set up and maintain a sustainable apiary, they will want it to employ as few miticides, insecticides and antibiotics as possible, using the framework of integrated pest management (IPM). There are a few critics of the sustainable concept that argue that going pesticide- and drug-free means that the beekeeper is simply condemning her or his colonies to death. I disagree. The entire concept of a sustainable beekeeping operation is to keep the bees alive and healthy.

To maintain a sustainable apiary, several factors need to be in alignment. First, the beekeeper must be well trained and mentored in concepts slightly beyond the beginner stage. This will ensure the knowledge base considered necessary to keep the entire operation going successfully. Second, the colonies must be on a management plan of continuous renewal and rebuilding, either through an intensive program of making increase nuclei or using systems like the Doolittle Increase method we have discussed in other articles (July 2014, American Bee Journal and Increase Essentials Second Edition) as a means of making new colonies within the apiary location, and eliminating the need to move bees to a distant location. Third, the beekeeper must adapt a program of bringing in mite and disease tolerant or resistant stock into the apiary, and making every effort to keep these stocks present and full functioning.

Keeping an apiary up and running will depend upon the constant replacement of lost colonies – from Winter starvation, requeening and supersedure failure or part of a constant culling and removal of poor performing colonies – by the rebuilding of colonies and having desired queens on hand at all times to form a system of maintaining backup nuclei.

Here is where I part ways with a few beekeepers who preach about sustainable beekeeping requiring minimum beekeeper involvement and a hands-off approach to apiary management. For a successful sustainable operation to exist, the beekeeper must be proactive as well as fully able to recognize problems and deal with them when first noticed. For example, a beekeeper may find a colony that clearly is in trouble due to routine events that happen to bee colonies, like drone-laying worker bees. Once this is discovered, it should be dealt with quickly and effectively. Either combine the bees with another colony or combine the hive with nucleus with a strong, vigorous queen from a mite-tolerant stock that you have prepared for such an event. Instead of lamenting the loss of the colony, adapt a plan and follow it through. This is the key to long-term sustainable beekeeping using good practices of animal husbandry.

Sustainable Breeding
There are bee stocks available that do not require mite controls. I recently had and email exchange with Dr. John Harbo about the Varroa Sensitive Hygienic (VSH) stock he produces in Baton Rouge, LA. Harbo is retired from a life-time career with USDA in bee breeding. He and his wife Carol run the Harbo Bee Company. Here is what he wrote:

Dear Larry, 
As you probably know, we can breed the VSH trait into any stock. Except for the expression of the VSH trait, my stocks of bees are genetically variable. I like to keep them that way to avoid inbreeding. Some colonies with 100% of the VSH alleles look very good and some do not, so we still need to cull some of the breeder queens that we produce. VSH queens that are free-mated to unselected drones usually produce more productive colonies (while retaining an adequate level of resistance that is sometimes equal to that of colonies known to have all of the VSH alleles).  Therefore, a beekeeper can get adequate mite resistance without having 100% of the VSH alleles in each of his colonies. Because of this additive affect of the VSH alleles, a beekeeper can get mite resistance without using controlled mating and without discarding his existing bee population. Therefore, beekeepers are able to retain many of the beekeeping qualities that may be adaptive to his area, and our national bee population retains its genetic diversity.

You asked about improvements or modifications that I have made in the past seven years. The VSH trait has not changed. However, I have learned that one can produce colonies with 100% of the VSH trait that are very good colonies, but I haven’t been able to completely avoid the poor ones. This shows that the VSH trait is not necessarily linked with susceptibility to EFB or poor brood production. Secondly, I have defined the VSH trait as two measurable components: (1) VSH hygienic behavior; the removal of mite infested cells, and (2) non removal of infested cells if the mite has not laid eggs. Because VSH hygienic behavior is only expressed on cells that are aged four to six days post capping, I evaluate cells that are aged at least seven days post capping. By comparing the number of infested cells with reproductive vs. non reproductive cells in worker brood, one can estimate the level of VSH that is expressed by the worker bees. Not counting the time required to collect a frame of capped brood, a VSH evaluation takes about 20 minutes.

Best regards,
John Harbo

Looking at Harbo’s website, we read this:

The objective of our company is to perfect Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH trait) of the honey bee through selective breeding. This mite-resistant trait has proven to be desirable in every way except that full expression of the trait (VSH x VSH) often was accompanied by poor brood production. At Harbo Bee Company this problem has been solved through selective breeding. Our artificially inseminated VSH x VSH queens produce colonies with excellent brood and honey production.

I want to discuss two concepts Harbo has included in these quotes:

Because of this additive affect of the VSH alleles, a beekeeper can get mite resistance without using controlled mating and without discarding his existing bee population.

This seems to be a key feature of establishing a sustainable apiary.  If we are able to obtain VSH breeder stock (aka grafting mothers) from Harbo and other like-minded breeders, we will be able to graft daughters to mate with our local drone population (remember, we are talking about all the drones in a several mile radius around your apiary). Genes the drones have that contribute to mite tolerance, and any other characteristic of this nature, will be ADDED to the genes of the VSH stock. It would be the goal of every sustainable apiary operator to seek to saturate the area around the apiary with colonies that produce these queens. More on that in a minute.

Second, Harbo states:

Our artificially inseminated VSH x VSH queens produce colonies with excellent brood and honey production.

Every bee breeding program has critics, and the VSH stock has been criticized for several weaknesses. It appears that Harbo has been working on this since his retirement from USDA to correct some deficiencies. Likewise, I hear criticisms of Russian, Minnesota Hygienic and other queen families.

Using An Old Concept
The Starline and Midnite hybrid bees were the state of the bee breeding art from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. Developed by Dr. G.H. Bud Cale Jr of Dadant and Sons, Inc. the hybrids were based on a simple bee production and breeding scheme called the crisscross mating system. During my four-year involvement with that program, we would produce two different breeder queens for cooperators to use as grafting mothers. The first, we will call A x B, where A line virgins are instrumentally inseminated mated to B line drones. Once they were ready to be shipped, they were sent to the cooperators throughout the United States who produced tens of thousands of daughter queens to be used in mating yards and in the production of increase nuclei. As one of the wonderful benefits of the haploid-diploid genetics of the honey bee, this means that all the drones produced by these daughter queens (that were open mated with whatever drones were in the neighborhood), would still produce pure AB drones unless they had been superseded.

The second year all the colonies in the operation were producing AB drones. In that year we produced grafting mothers from two other unrelated lines, C x D. When these queens were used to produce daughters and mated to the AB drones, the resulting bee hive contained bees that were the combination of four different genetic lines: CD x AB. The next year the breeder queens went back to the original A x B breeder, and all the resulting hives were AB x CD hybrids.

Now, about 35 years later, I want to go back to this system on a community-wide basis by using two different breeder stocks in an annual rotation so that the queens in the mating area are replaced with new queens every year and will be available to produce drones the next season. Putting it into a table, it will look something like this:

Year/Grafting Stock Grafting Mother Drone Stock Resulting Cross
2015 Harbo VSH Local Stock VSH x Local
2016 Purdue Grooming behavior stock Harbo VSH GB x VSH
2017 Harbo VSH Purdue Grooming behavior stock VSH x GB

This program will be in its third year for the grafting stock to repeat itself. I have selected the second stock to be the Purdue University Grooming Behavior stock called Mite Chewers and Ankle Biters (cute name, but mites do not have ankles). This line incorporated different behaviors of mite tolerance, and, hoping these attributes are all additive, they should provide excellent results. The resulting hives could have several features:

All the local colonies will be involved in the first cross with local drones entering into the cross. These may be evaluated and some kept aside for further evaluation.

Because young queens and drones from the same apiary are less likely to mate as an inbreeding prevention mechanism, some effort will be needed the second year to saturate the area with the desired target drones – in this model, the VSH stock. Take a map and draw a two or three mile radius around your apiary and try to find all the beekeepers within that circle. Then offer a ripe queen cell or virgin queen from the VSH stock to all the beekeepers within that area to use to requeen their colonies. Unless you are within three miles of a large commercial beekeeper, this will provide you with an inexpensive method of obtaining some drone saturation around your area. Repeat annually with the new drone line.

Because the Harbo VSH stock is based on bees from Louisiana and elsewhere, and the Purdue stock is based on bees from around the Midwest, keep an eye on the local adaptability of the resulting hives, especially in the second and third years.

Should one of these stocks not work out (for any reason), you are free to replace the next year’s grafting mother with another queen family. There are many stocks available, and I would try to obtain instrumentally inseminated breeders wherever possible in order to speed the impact of the genes on the local mating area.

Test colonies for mite levels, using a system you know you will use. If you are looking at grooming behavior, do some research on the nature of this stock, or stocks like it, and learn to test colonies for Varroa mite removal. Some of these mite chewers are known to chew on the small hive beetles as well.

The second edition of Increase Essentials is available from your local bee supply dealer and at Also check out the new book by G. and N. Koeniger, Jamie Ellis and Lawrence Connor on Mating Biology of Honey bees. Watch for the new second edition of Queen Rearing Essentials by Lawrence Connor.