Better Bee Genetics with Local Honey Bee Queens

Guest Post – Len Klinker:  Past President, Central Jersey Beekeepers Association

Len and Cheri Klinker

Before I give a few thoughts on long-term solutions for honeybee problems in NJ, I’d like to introduce myself.  I am Len Klinker and have been a backyard beekeeper since 1997.  I don’t have any degrees in Entomology, formal training, or professional experience with Honeybees. However, I have read a considerable amount and I think that I have been quite successful with beekeeping over the years.

My hives usually average about 100 pounds of honey and since 1997 I have only lost a few hives in the winter.  Most of those were lost when I tried Russian bees with no traditional mite treatments.  Most years I don’t lose any hives. I am a very hands-on Beekeeper and currently I use mite trapping in drone comb.  I use Api-guard as a late summer treatment. I personally let most of my hives re-queen themselves and buy a queen if I want to inject new genetics or I have an emergency situation.  I usually do this in the summer when I know that locally produced queens are available and well mated.

At the present time and for the foreseeable future, I think we have two major problems to deal with in New Jersey. The first is Varroa mites that have been plaguing us since the middle 80’s.  Along with the Varroa mite comes a host of diseases and viruses. The second problem is the advent of African genetics and the increasing probability these genetics will find their way to New Jersey.  This is likely to occur because Africanized honeybees are now in Georgia where many of us have traditionally purchased bees and queens.

In New Jersey, the majority of bees and queens are purchased in early Spring.  This is a problem for a beekeeper who needs to restart a hive since local bees and local queens are not available until early May in New Jersey.  So, where does a NJ beekeeper get bees?  Georgia is often the source.  Africanized bees have now moved into Georgia and I think that we might start to see problems with open-mated queens from Georgia sooner rather than later.

I think we can all agree that we need to limit the amount of Africanized genetics we import as much as possible.  I know that I and many of my fellow beekeepers would not keep bees here if they were to turn ‘nasty’ because we have neighbors close by and the potential liability would become too great.  Besides, who wants to keep nasty bees?

What can be done to remedy that situation?  Over-wintered nucleus hives is the only solution I have heard about.  I know Ed and Mary Kosenski  have been overwintering nucleus hives and have basically worked out the kinks. The general idea is to do hive splits in July.  Along with this, you introduce a queen with desirable genetics.  I would suggest a queen that has been selected for mite and disease resistance.  Some research has also suggested that queens selected and bred locally for performance and overwintering are advantageous.  Build this hive up for the rest of the summer and you have a strong new queen that overwinters well, that will resist swarming the following spring, and will likely produce a good honey crop. The nucleus hive can then be used next spring to replace a dead-out or be combined with a weak or queenless colony.

If you use a mite and disease resistant queen, you will help with the long-term goal of building-up good genetics in New Jersey. Most of the genetics we need are recessive. That means that they have to come both from the queen and the drones to be effective.  So, for us to be successful on this front, a majority of beekeepers need to get on board. Otherwise, your homegrown queen will mate with the boy next door with no genetic resistance and resistance will not be observed in the resulting population.

And what about the issue concerning mites and diseases?  There are at least several lines of bees that are being selected for mite and disease resistance.  Three that come to mind are the Russian, Minnesota Hygienic, and the New World Carniolan lines.  Personally, I have always liked the New World Carniolan bees.  As far as I know, Ed and Mary are the only folks that produce New World Carniolan queens on the East coast of the US.   What about queens from Georgia?  I believe they are mass-produced from a few breeder queens and I don’t remember the producers ever suggesting that they are selecting for mite and disease resistance.  My opinion is they are selected for production and are not particularly good at overwintering in NJ. That is not a good path for long-term honeybee viability in NJ. One thing is clear to me. As long as we continue bringing in non-resistant queens that dilute the gene pool, we will not make any headway with our major problems.  A majority of beekeepers need to get on board to make a dent in this problem and move towards a long-term solution.

In summary, I think we need to inject good genetics into our New Jersey gene pool and stop diluting that same gene pool with non-resistant queens. We should start asking our queen producers what their selection criteria is and we should refuse to buy queens that are from non-resistant stock.  We should also stop buying queens from areas where Africanized bees are making in-roads.  And lastly, we should change the way we make up for hive losses or we will be fighting a losing battle that will eventually destroy backyard beekeeping in NJ.