What You Should Know About Bee Genetics

Certain genetic traits can influence mite resistance, cold tolerance and even temperament of bees, so study up before starting your hive.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: cott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service

There was a time when beekeepers had just a few bee varieties from which to choose. There were golden Italians, dark brown Carniolans, maybe the occasional Buckfast. But, over the last few decades, researchers have gained significant insights into honeybee characteristics, behaviors and associated genetic traits.

Queen breeders have carefully selected for everything from honey and brood production to the honeybees’ ability to combat varroa mites. Best of all, beekeepers increasingly put some of these specialized traits to work for themselves.

Lanie Bilodeau is research leader for the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Unit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The research unit is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

“We’re in this interesting ‘discovery’ phase right now, because we’re looking for new traits to breed for,” Bilodeau says. “We released the Russian stock and the Pol-line stocks a number of years ago. And those are being developed by our commercial cooperators.”

The USDA-ARS facility’s Russian bee stock originally resulted from years of observation and genetic selection. And since the late 1990s, the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association maintained and improved upon these genetic lines. 

As for the Pol-line bees? “We developed that stock off of the varroa-sensitive hygiene trait,” Bilodeau says. “So, they very strongly express that trait. But they also had better production characteristics than just the bees with the VSH trait.”

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Bilodeau’s group subsequently released its Pol-line stock to the Hawaii-based Hilo Bee project, currently conducting field trials in select states. 

Varroa-related Traits

Shop for bees now and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find genetic lines said to be varroa-resistant. Often these come from “VSH queens”—those which express the varroa-sensitive hygiene trait.

“The idea is that the bees can sense the pheromone of the developing varroa mite and then remove that [affected] larvae which also would remove the mites,” says Rachel Morrison, apiary educator with Honey Bee Genetics and Sola Bee Farms in Vacaville, California.

“They do that by uncapping the cell and removing [its contents.]”

Morrison continues, “Part of what we’re also breeding for is varroa mite tolerance—bees that don’t suffer quite to the usual extent with a low threshold of varroa mites. The idea is that they’re better able to contend with those issues.

“But that does not mean that beekeepers can rely only on the bees. They still should be monitoring their varroa load and taking all of those other integrated pest management precautions that help keep bees as healthy as possible.”

Other Possibilities

Varroa-sensitive hygiene isn’t the only trait Honey Bee Genetics purveys. Although each of the companies’ three bee lines is said to exhibit the VSH trait, some critical differences exist.

“We have an Italian hybrid, a Carniolan hybrid and a Russian-Carniolan hybrid,” Morrison says. “We know that our Russian-Carniolan hybrid is also resistant to some other diseases like chalkbrood and foulbrood.”

Genetics from the more docile Carniolan bee make the Russian-Carniolan hybrid temperament a bit milder than that of the pure Russian strain.

“The Carniolan temperament makes them a little more enjoyable—especially for our hobbyists—to work,” Morrison notes. “We want them to still have those traits that make them so special, but to kind of temper that defensive behavior that can make it harder for the humans.” 

Both the Italian and Carniolan VSH hybrids are docile. However, some of their other traits could be make-or-break, depending on your available forage and climate. 

“For example, we know that our Italian hybrid may consume their honey stores a little faster than our Carniolan hybrid might. So, if you’re in an area that you have to worry that you might not have as much available forage for a long period of time, you may want to go with a breed with behavior that is better suited to conserving the honey they’ve stored,” Morrison says.

Different honeybee strains may begin building up their populations at different times as well. Prone to begin laying earlier than other bee varieties, Italians are well-suited to more temperate climates. On the other hand, Morrison says, “Carniolans have more of a moderate population build-up, and they can do well in colder climates. They also have been shown to be better regulators of consumption of their stores.”

What’s Next?

Thanks to researchers such as Bilodeau, you’re apt to have even more choices in the coming years.

“We are trying to continue to select on the POL-line and the Russian honeybees. Use them to look for traits that we can work with next,” Bilodeau says. “We want to develop a multitrait selection program, so that we’re not just selecting for varroa resistance or virus resistance or whatever, but so that we can match multiple traits together, including bees that will be productive.

“You can get a really disease-resistant bee. But it might not make a lot of honey or it might keep a colony small. We want to develop a bee with this multitrait selection. It’s a more comprehensive approach.”

To that end, one USDA-ARS researcher investigates the ways some viruses affect foraging behavior. Another explores the production of vitellogenin—a specific kind of storage protein—in honeybees.

“Vitellogenin affects nutrient assimilation from pollen,” Bilodeau says. Honeybees can use the storage protein in many ways. “There’s a lot of diversity there for how [honeybees] convert it—like muscle mass,” she says.

Read more: Thinking about honeybees? Consider these things before getting bees.

Daunting Decisions

Whether available now or in the near future, knowing just which combination of traits to choose can be a little daunting. Morrison suggests first considering your location, your climate and your personal goals.

“People keep bees for various reasons—to harvest honey, for pollination purposes, just to enjoy nature and have bees as purely a hobby,” she says. “Some different breeds of bees—their temperaments and their behaviors—are better for one or more of those goals.”

Your personal beekeeping philosophy is another factor. “How often do you feel comfortable—or want to think about—treating for different diseases and parasites like the varroa mite?” Morrison asks. “Think about the time you have, the expense that you’re willing to put into it, and your own feelings about treating.

“Some bees are better at eliminating those things on their own. Others take more human intervention.”

Regarding some of the extra-docile bee strains, Morrison says, “You might have to feed them, if there’s not enough forage, or be extra careful with diseases and Varroa mites. If you have the time to do that and you want to have docile bees, then that’s a good trade-off if you’re doing it as a hobby.”

cott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service

Bee Bona Fides

Once you ultimately decide on the best bee strain for you, you’ll want to ensure you actually get the genetics you pay for. In the case of varroa mite-resistant bees, for instance, Bilodeau suggests asking potential suppliers a few key questions.

“Ask what kind of mite levels the producers typically find in their colonies and how often they have to treat [for mites]” she says. “Also, how vigorous are their bees generally? You want a colony that’s going to produce.

“You want a colony that’s going to stay active.”

And, if you’re specifically seeking genetically pure Russian stock—known to exhibit multiple varroa-resistant behaviors—start with the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association. In addition to exhibiting robust VSH behavior, the group’s Russian bees tend to mangle and bite varroa mites they find on one another.

These specialty bees are also judicious with their resources and can overwinter fairly well. 

For its part, Honey Bee Genetics has its queens audited by a third party—the Bee Informed Partnership—each year. “They come out and test to make sure that our hybrid queens that have been bred from our really special breeder queens have retained those traits and behaviors that we’re breeding for,” Morrison says. “We want to make sure that we are providing our customers with the traits and behaviors that we guaranteed to them.”

Read more: Seasonal changes mean specific tasks for beekeepers.

Protecting Your Investment

As you might expect, specialty queens and packages typically cost more than, say, plain old Italians. To get the most out of your investment, swarm control is essential. “If your hive re-queens itself, you do have the offspring of your queen,” Morrison says. “But with each subsequent generation, all of that selective breeding becomes diluted.”

You can mitigate swarming by offering your bees plenty of brood space for their growing population. “Or you can proactively make early spring splits and then queen your split with the desired breed that you want,” Morrison says. “Also, you can re-queen a little more frequently than you might otherwise.”

Using a marked queen is also a good idea. “Marking your queen, so that you know that it’s the same queen, can help you to keep those same genetic traits in your colonies,” Morrison says.

Marked queens are easier to spot, too. “You need to know where that queen is when you close the colony,” Bilodeau says. “Make sure she didn’t run out or you don’t squish her. Be gentle with the colonies. And be careful with her!”  

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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