Choosing Select Honey Bee Stock

The debate over the access to imported honey bee queens has generated two schools of thought. Some think it is impossible to be profitable if we do not have access to imported queens in early spring and some who believe breeding your own queens is the only way to keep bees. However, there is a way of bridging the gap between the two groups that allow the merits of both schools of thought to create a new way of thinking about purchasing queen honey bees.

Prior to the time when the border was closed to importation of packaged bees from the United States (prior to 1987), some queen breeders in the US asked their Manitoba clients to send them queens from the best colonies. These queen breeders were using the Manitoba environment as part of their selection criteria for queens that would be marketed back to Manitobans. When the border closed that practice stopped and although it was explored with some of the new queen export suppliers, the tight import rules did not allow the transfer of queens from Canada to those countries.
During the early years of border closure the stock coming from countries like New Zealand had some good characteristics. Many of the queens were from Italian stock, which are best known for being gentle and producing brood with very little stimulation (i.e. brooding up quickly). It was not until the pressures of varroa mite took hold on bees in Manitoba that the traits of the imported stock began to demonstrate that unselected stock for the conditions the bees are living in is no longer successful.
Many of the export queen suppliers tried to address the issue by incorporating Carniolian stock into their breeding programs that are more in tune to their environment than their Italian cousins. Although it did help address some of the issues pertaining to starvation and provisioning for winter it did not address all the issues relating to living with varroa mites under Manitoba conditions (i.e. short production season - long winter season). 
Investing in genetics is common practice in most crop and livestock systems. In beekeeping there is huge benefit for having young queens regardless of the genetics but in order for the bee population to thrive in our Manitoba environment selected stock to our conditions would simply give them an advantage. 

My proposal is to work with Manitoba beekeepers that breed their own bees and involve them to produce selections that can be multiplied and sold to local beekeepers. There are two ways to get more of these genetics into the bees managed in Manitoba.
  1. Take queens that demonstrate those characteristics and put them into the breeding programs of major queen exports. A new breeding program will have to be developed to keep the genes pure but also taking care not to create inbreeding problems. Canadian drone mother lines would have to be maintained to try to have enough Canadian genetics in the drone population to mate with the queens with Canadian genetics.
  2. To have more beekeepers make late season splits in order to take full advantage of local queen breeding. A substantial change in the way many Manitoba beekeepers manage bees would have to occur. Currently breeding queens in Manitoba does not start till mid May but more commonly does not start till early June. Meanwhile many Manitoba beekeepers start replacing failing queens and making new colonies before most local queens are available. Most Manitoba beekeepers that raise their own queens do not sell queens because there has been no market and there is no market because many beekeepers feel they cannot wait for local queens to become available. The proverbial what came first the chicken or the egg scenario.

There are several things happening today that may make the timing of this initiative better than it has in the past:

  • There are several countries such as Chile that would be good candidates for incorporating Canadian stock into their programs.
  • The border to US queens is open and many of the queen exporters marketing to Canada have a good working relationship with their Canadian customers.
  • We have more Manitoba beekeepers asking for and wanting to try local queens.

The biggest obstacle will be to get more Manitoba beekeepers to start raising their own queens. Working with the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association and local queen producers, we are going to put on more queen rearing workshops and provide Manitoba beekeepers with more opportunities to purchase local queens. Some of the local bee supply outlets have expressed interest in stocking local queens in their stores. This has generally not been the case.This is Phase One of an ongoing project to get more beekeepers to use selected stock in their beekeeping operations. Phase Two will involve developing pilot projects to quantify the value of using locally selected stock. Phase Three will be looking at what incentives can be implemented to encourage greater use of locally adapted bee stocks. The end goal is to promote greater self sufficiency in the management of honey bee stocks in Manitoba.