Has anyone else had problems getting queens mated this year? I have heard stories from local beekeepers of supersedures following queen introductions, and mating failures this season. I found that a couple of queens in my own apiary didn’t get mated because the weather in July was so cold, wet, and poor for mating flights.
Introducing queens can be tricky unless you understand honey bee reproductive biology and work with the bees to replace a queen with what they are expecting. For example, a beekeeper near here thought he would change his stock with 8 bought -in Carniolan queens. When he saw swarm signs, he removed the queens from each colony to a nucleus box and knocked down all the swarm cells in the parent colonies till they were hopelessly queenless. He thought it would be quicker to requeen all these parent colonies with Carniolan queens rather than wait 3 weeks for the colonies to produce their own queens which they were planning on doing after losing their queens. 6 out of the 8 expensive queens were given the thumbs down by the colonies and killed off as soon as they laid eggs. So, these colonies had to make new queens delaying the process even more. The weather was poor at the crucial mating time of these supersedure queens to compound the issues.
A Pro at Work.
Had the beekeeper used Ian Anderson’s method of swarm prevention he would have had better success. Ian is a local bee farmer with 150 colonies and many years of experience and experimentation under his belt. He was raised on a farm with a keen sense of animal husbandry and welfare, and a deep knowledge of how things work. He has a sure -fire way of swarm prevention and requeening at the same time.
Before the colonies prepare to swarm, Ian removes brood and nurse bees with pollen and honey stores to nuclei and requeens with, preferably, his own recently reared queens from grafting. However, realistically is not possible to produce the numbers of queens required so he does import queens.
A Global Problem?
What is happening around the world I wonder? Are queens living shorter productive lives than we expect? What are the reasons? I looked at some of the literature from the U.S.
Clarence Collison3 (2016) writes, “In the U.S. in recent years, queens have been failing at a high rate; with 50% or greater of queens replaced in colonies within six months when historically a queen might live one to two years or even longer”.
Beekeepers themselves have reported increased queen failure rates in recent Bee Informed Partnership surveys https://beeinformed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/BIP-2022-23-Loss-Abstract.pdf. Across the U.S., Backyard (hobbyists), Sideline (making some income from beekeeping), and Commercial beekeepers have been surveyed annually with interesting results. This year, 2023, Varroa is the main problem for all three groups which is not a surprise. Backyarders reported weather as the second main cause, with starvation and queenlessness third equal. Commercial beekeepers reported queen issues as their second main problem but starvation was lowest on their list as a perceived cause of loss. Given the importance of nutrition, its’ impact on queen health, and that maintenance is mainly within beekeeper control, it is shocking that so many managed colonies starve to death. Other sources documenting and discussing queen failure include; McAfee1, ,Repas2, and Collison3.
The Pesticide Problem.
Many scientists have investigated pesticides and their effect on queens given that wax absorbs chemicals and queens are exposed every day as they walk on combs. Traynor et al 20164 showed that pesticides used by beekeepers for treating varroa were associated with supersedure and queen loss. A subsequent study by Mc Afee5 showed that direct contact with pesticides did not reduce queen quality directly, rather, pesticide exposure somehow alters worker hypopharyngeal secretions which means that they are unable to adequately nourish and raise viable queens. Queens exposed to coumaphos are most likely to die and, if they survive, they are smaller but fluvalinate is the most hazardous residue1.
How well the queen is raised affects quality and performance. Rangel6 discovered that queens raised from larvae grafted on the day of hatching (day o) were larger than those grafted from larvae from 2 days old. This is important information because, for every day from day 0 that grafting is delayed, the body weight of the queen decreases along with size of spermatheca, number of ovaries, and stored sperm.
Another fascinating thing I discovered is that poor insemination causes early supersedure. Good quality insemination positively affects the queen’s hypopharyngeal gland and its chemical profile which in turn affects queen brain gene expression and how she interacts with the workers. So, a poorly inseminated queen performs poorly in interactions with the workers and the colony is dissatisfied with her.
In separate studies, McAfee1, and Rhodes & Somerville7 studied transportation of queens looking at temperature variations and age of queens respectively. We now know that extremes of heat and cold affect sperm negatively so mail order queens might fail due to those factors. Studies by Rhodes and Somerville showed that performance and survival of queens imported from Australia to the U.S. increased with the age of the queen at the time of introduction to the new colony. The highest survival rate was for queens of 28 days at introduction. So, perhaps queens are shipped out by breeders too early in the rush to fulfil orders on some cases of failure.
Queen failure is influenced by many other factors such as geography, disease, weather, climate, forage and nutrition, race of queen, drone quality, adaption of bees to local area, stress (transporting to pollination contracts) and beekeeper incompetence, so all need to be investigated further. Apart from studying the performance of locally adapted queens versus imported, I think that one of the most important areas to be investigated is beekeeper education. Despite, the increase in number of colonies of honey bees globally since 1950, they still face the collective challenges of climate change, changes in agricultural practices, reduced forage, pesticides, and pests and diseases, both old and emerging.
The media has not really done honey bees any favours by hyping up the need to save bees. Until, perhaps, now, the public has largely not understood the message and assumed that they should keep honey bees rather than be mindful and provide safe forage for all insects. The result has been many more new beekeepers starting up, some of whom have not taken the time, or had the opportunity, to learn the life cycle of honey bees and how to care for them properly. Disease is a big problem to deal with, especially the foulbroods. All these factors undoubtedly contribute to the problems faced by honey bees today including queen quality.
1 McAfee, A., (2021) Demystifying Queen Stress, American Bee Journal, October 2021, pp.1107-1109.
2Repas, T., (2017) Strategies For Small-Scale Queen Breeders To Improve Queen Quality, American Bee Journal, June 2017, pp.657-661.
3Collison, C., (2016) Sperm Viability, Bee Culture, October 2016, pp.25-29.
4Traynor, K., (2016) In-Hive Pesticide Exposome: Assessing Risks To Migratory Honey Bees From In-Hive Pesticide Contamination In The Eastern United States. 6:33207.
5McAfee et al, (2021) Honey Bee Queen Health Is Unaffected By Contact Exposure To Pesticides Commonly Found In Beeswax. Scientific Reports. 11:15151
6Rangel et al (2013) The Effects Of Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera.L)) Queen Reproduction Potential On Colony Growth. Insect Soc.:65-73.
7Rhodes, J. and Somerville, D. (2003) Introduction And Early Performance Of Queen Bees-some factors affecting success.Publication No. 03/049, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra, ACT, Australia. 214.