Queen Breeding

Thursday 27 May 2021

Our blog today brings us back to the queen series! In our last post we introduced queen rearing, the steps and techniques used to propagate queen honey bees. This week, we will explore queen breeding. Queen breeding goes a step beyond merely technique and aims to not only produce queen bees, but produce honey bee colonies with desired characteristics.

Queen Breeding

Honey bee breeding programs are distinguished by an intense selection process, prior to production, and controlled mating after the queens have emerged. In doing this, breeders work to improve honey bee stock by increasing desired traits in a population and reducing undesirable traits. This is based on the condition that those preferred traits are heritable from parent to offspring. For example, queen producers will often strive to raise gentle queens. To do this, queen breeders first select gentle colonies from which to obtain larvae for rearing. Potential breeder colonies are put through rigorous testing and record keeping to ensure that they demonstrate traits breeders have identified as superior.

The next essential phase of honey bee breeding occurs after the steps of rearing queens have been completed and the developed queens are ready to emerge. Breeders must control the mating of newly emerged queens. To produce the best colonies, top quality queens need to be mated with top quality drones. Therefore, breeders must also carry out rigorous testing and record keeping to select drone mother colonies. Colonies who pass the selection process are provided with ample food resources and stocked with drone frames so that the colony will produce many drones in time to mate with the virgin queens. Timing is crucial here, as it takes a drone about five weeks to achieve sexual maturity, from the time it is laid as an egg, and it takes a queen bee only three.

The actual mating of these desirable drones and queens is the most challenging step of queen breeding. Honey bees mate while flying and a well mated queen will mate with upwards of 15 drones. There are a few techniques that breeders implement to control mating. The most intensive and absolute method is to artificially inseminate queens with drone sperm. Another method is to create geographically isolated mating yards for the produced queens and drones, ensuring that no outside drones can gain access. The most typical way is called drone flooding. In this technique, breeders ensure that drone mother colonies produce an overwhelming number of drones within the mating yard, thereby increasing the odds of these drones mating with the virgin queens.

Canadian honey bee breeding programs have helped to make great improvements to our national honey bee stock. For example, the Ontario Bee Breeders Association has been very successful in incorporating tracheal mite resistance into their breeding programs.  Breeding could also be an important tool in improving Varroa mite resistance and overwintering ability in our cooler climate.

Understanding the basics of queen breeding can help improve the success of queen producers of all levels. Breeding and rearing are complimentary processes. After all, the first step of queen production is to select your larvae and this is a topic we will dive into in our next queen blog!

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