What's the Buzz with ATTTA #116

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Queen production is an important aspect of beekeeping. By buying or producing queens, beekeepers are able to expand more quickly, recover from winter losses, and influence the characteristics of their managed colonies. Instrumental insemination is a non-traditional style of queen production which is little practiced in Atlantic Canada. The intention of this blog is to expand our view of queen production by looking at a recently published review article about the quality of instrumentally inseminated honey bee queens*.

Instrumental insemination of honey bee queens 

Instrumental insemination is a controlled laboratory practice, in which technicians manually transfer sperm from drone honey bees into virgin queen honey bees. It is done in attempt to mitigate the problems associated with natural mating. Honey bee mating is unique in livestock production, because a queen will only engage in one mating event during her life, she mates with many males during this single event, and the mating is done in midair. As such, it is challenging for queen producers to control the breeding stock with which virgin queens mate. Aside from controlling genetics, the conditions in which a queen is mated impacts her lifelong productivity. For example, a queen will be most productive if she is mated with a 5 to 13 days of adult life. With instrumental insemination, breeders have greater control over the semen which will contribute to the genetics of the progeny as well as the physical factors which influence mating success.

Instrumental insemination of a queen honey bee. Photo credit Melissa Girard (Bixby et al. 2019).

An article has been published which reviews worldwide research on instrumental insemination of queens compared to naturally mated queens (Khan et al. 2022). The practice dates back to the 1920s, but this publication focuses on the period between 1946 and 2022. The authors’ review reveals that the process requires intense precision for the greatest success. Skill of the inseminator, temperature, nutrition, semen stock, stress factors, and more have all demonstrated to be influential on the quality of queens produced. This would be unsurprising to beekeepers who have practice queen rearing, as the conditions and techniques involved in traditional queen rearing practices are also extremely important to the quality of subsequent queens. However, the conclusion from the evidence gathered in this review is that, overall, instrumentally inseminated queens have demonstrated to be more productive compared to naturally mated queens as measured by the weight of the queen, brood, and honey yield. There is also a reduced risk of mating related disease transmission, such as Deformed Wing Virus, with instrumental mating, given care is taken to screen the drones before mating. For these reasons, it is an interesting option to explore.

As where countries in warmer climates, such as New Zealand, are leaders in queen exports, Poland is the leading country in instrumental queen insemination. Environmental conditions, including temperature, are essential for successful queen production regardless of technique. In traditional queen production, Atlantic Canada is limited climatically due to our shorter beekeeping season. In a controlled laboratory environment, this limitation would not be a factor. Instrumental insemination has the potential to expand the queen production capacity in cooler regions, such as our own. However, it is important to recognize that queen production using artificial insemination will not be a replacement for more traditional forms of mass queen production any time soon. Rather, it is a valuable tool for generating superior queen mothers, which could then be used in a queen production facility.

In previous blogs, we have considered the recent overwintering losses report from CAPA. In the 2022 survey, all four Atlantic provinces listed “poor queens” among their top causes for hive loss. In the Maritimes, “poor queens” was consistently listed as the second most likely reason for hive loss (CAPA 2022). As such, it is important to continue developing our regional queen production. As it stands, Instrumental insemination is rarely practiced. Outside of Ontario, there is very little organized collaboration between commercial queen breeders and apicultural specialists, nationwide (Bixby et al. 2019). Encouraging more collaboration between these parties holds great potential and could be advantageous to the Atlantic Canadian beekeeping industry. 


References

Bixby, M., M.M. Guarna, S.E. Hoover, and S.F. Pernal. 2019. Canadian Honey Bee Queen Breeders’ Reference Guide. Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists Publication 55 pp.

Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists Statement on Honey Bee Wintering Losses in Canada (2022). CAPA, 2022.

*Khan, Khalid Ali et al. “Instrumental insemination: A nontraditional technique to produce superior quality honey bee (Apis mellifera) queens.” Journal of King Saud University – Science, 34, 5, 2022.


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