Traits for Selecting Breeder Colonies
I found a very insightful post on Beesource.com and decided to repost it
here. The original author is a guy who uses the handle
Fusion_Power and whose name is Darrel Jones. He says its genesis was
Brother Adam. I thank them both, though Brother Adam is no longer
with us. Some of it is borrowed directly from Mr. Jones, and some I
have reworded, edited, changed, and added to as I have seen fit.
If you're breeding your own queens (and you should be) it's helpful to
know what you're looking for. Breeding for production is good, but
production alone do not bees make. Read this and use it to help
select the best colonies to breed from, then replace hives with
unacceptable performance with those new queens. This is by no
means and exhaustive list, nor is it in any order. Typically, bees
are bred for the top three traits, disease resistance, honey
production, and gentleness, usually in that order, but not always.
I let winter handle the first one, and generally bees that aren't very
disease resistant don't produce well. So my focus is honey
production and gentleness. Anyway, enjoy.
Traits for Selecting Breeder Colonies
This is not an exhaustive list and its a bit dated. I'm posting it at a
request on the chat forum. There is a LOT more that should be in this.
Over the course of several years, I have wished for but never seen a
good list of the various traits that can be influenced by a bee breeding
program. Following is a list I have compiled of some of the traits of
importance to beekeepers. Keep in mind that this is a list of
genetically influenced traits, with some comparison of races of bees,
not a list of management procedures.
1. EGG LAYING RATE
2. EGG VIABILITY RATE
3. BROOD CYCLE TIME
4. BROOD NURTURING
5. FORAGING AGGRESSIVENESS
6. TIME OF FORAGING
7. DISEASE RESISTANCE
8. PEST RESISTANCE
9. DEFENSIVE BEHAVIOR
10. SWARMING TENDENCY
11. WINTER HARDINESS
12. LIFE SPAN
13. BODY SIZE
14. SENSE OF SMELL
15. HYGIENIC CLEANING BEHAVIOR
16. TIME OF BROOD DEVELOPMENT
18. HONEY ARRANGEMENT
19. POLLEN COLLECTION
20. TYPE OF HONEY COLLECTED
21. COMB BUILDING
22. CAPPING STRUCTURE
23. PROPOLIS COLLECTION
24. BRACE COMB CONSTRUCTION
25. ABDOMINAL COLOR
26. ANTENNAE STRUCTURE
Colony strength affects productivity because of the high level of
correlation between hive strength and honey production. Egg laying rate,
egg viability rate, brood care, brood development time, life span, and
several other factors affect colony strength.
A prolific Italian queen can lay about 2,000 viable eggs per day during
peak brood rearing. Rates of up to 5,000 eggs per day have been reported
for African queens. After watching a colony build up from just a
handful of bees in the winter to occupy seven or eight deep brood
chambers in the spring, one begins to appreciate just how many eggs are
Egg viability is affected by inbreeding because of parthenogenesis and
the concentration of genetic defects. Only 15 variants of the sex allele
have been identified to date. Since a queen mates with 17 drones on the
average, at least one or two of them will have identical sex alleles
with the queen. When an egg has identical sex alleles, the result is a
diploid drone egg that the bees normally destroy shortly after hatching.
Genetic code defects cause otherwise normal eggs to be non-viable. This
is especially detectable in drone eggs because they contain only one
set of chromosomes. Genetic selection must control inbreeding so the egg
viability rate does not become abnormally low.
Brood care includes feeding and climate control in the brood nest. Most
strains of bees used commercially today show good brood care
characteristics. Worker brood development takes 21 days from egg laying
to adult. For comparison, African bees take about 19 days. The shorter
brood cycle helps explain their rapid colony buildup.
The average worker lives about 35 days during summer. If the average
life span were increased to 45 days, colony strength would rise by 20 to
30 percent. Several colonies have been found with above average life
spans, but very little work has been done to select long-lived bees.
Disease resistance to brood diseases has been found for the following;
American foulbrood, European foulbrood, Sacbrood, and Chalkbrood. There
are several other brood diseases caused by viral, bacterial, and fungal
agents, but none have as much effect as the first four. Resistance seems
to center around hive cleanliness and brood nutrition with emphasis on
hygienic behavior which is a tendency to uncap and remove diseased
brood. Carniolans have a high average level of resistance to brood
diseases and African bees show a similar capacity. Italians show
resistance to varying degrees and respond readily to genetic selection.
Nosema, Paralysis, and Septicema are the primary diseases of adult bees.
Nosema is especially bad because it affects wintering colonies causing
serious damage in Canada and most of the northern United States. Factors
affecting resistance include the total number of bees in the colony and
the size of the hindgut of individual bees. Italians on average tend to
be slightly susceptible to nosema and resistant to paralysis and
septicema. Brother Adam indicates that he has found no obvious
resistance to nosema except possibly in the Egyptian bee (Apis Mellifera
lamarckii). Caucasians tend to be very susceptible to nosema though
selected strains exhibit some resistance. Several researchers have noted
that the eastern honeybee (Apis Cerana) seems to be almost immune to
nosema. Regrettably, Apis Cerana and Apis Mellifera cannot crossbreed.
A moderate level of infestation with tracheal mites results in poor
wintering ability. If more than about 30 percent of the workers are
infested going into winter, the colony will probably die. Resistance
appears to be based on behavioral and anatomical differences. Bees with
the highest level of resistance currently are from England where bee
populations were decimated in the early 1920's. As the highly
susceptible bees were killed, only the resistant colonies survived. The
net result is that bees of English origin have a high level of genetic
tolerance to tracheal mites. The typical pattern seen when a colony dies
from tracheal mites is a colony with a handful of dead bees and almost
all the honey stored for wintering still in the hive. What happened to
the huge cluster of bees that went into winter? They flew out and died
when the temperature was above about 40 degrees. It is heartbreaking to
see a huge cluster on the ground in front of a hive with bees crawling
slowly away, wings disjointed. After losing most of the adult bees, the
few remaining start rearing brood in a desperate attempt to survive.
Then comes severe cold weather and the bees won't move from the brood to
food located only inches away. The result is a handful of starved bees
covering a small patch of brood with a hive still nearly full of honey.
Varroa mites are from Asia where colonies of Apis cerana were the
original hosts. Varroa will kill an infested colony within a few years.
Only African bees (Apis Mellifera Scutellata) show a high level of
resistance. This resistance comes from a shorter brood development time
and from actively seeking and killing the mites in a form of grooming
behavior. Varroa causes newly emerged bees to be physically smaller than
normal and to have short, abnormal wings. Other symptoms include
excessive fall swarming, and brood that does not emerge from the cells.
Tropilaelaps Clarae is an external mite that also originated in Asia
where they are hosted by Apis dorsata. Though not currently in the
United States, we will probably have to deal with them eventually though
only in the southern states. Resistance will probably be the same as
for Varroa, though this has not yet been tested.
Wax moths can destroy the combs in a weak colony in a short time.
Italians tend to be highly resistant because they maintain very strong
colonies and aggressively clean the hive interior. They sting and remove
wax moth larvae.
Parasitic insects such as hornets, wasps, and members of closely related
genera such as spiders actively prey on honeybees by waiting near the
hive entrance and grabbing a bee on its way in or out of the hive. Most
colonies that aggressively guard and defend the hive will be resistant,
but tend to sting beekeepers more often. African bees have developed a
unique behavior of flying straight into the hive entrance instead of
landing outside and walking in. This reduces their exposure to predators
waiting at the entrance. While animals such as frogs, birds, skunks,
and bears prey on honeybees, the only resistance bees show is based on
strong hive defensive behavior. Guard bees and soldier bees tend to
sting more than younger house bees. Guard bees normally stand near the
hive entrance and challenge intruders. Soldier bees forage part of the
time, then wait in the hive for the unwary intruder - whether man or
beast. There is a large variation in the percentage of soldier bees in
different colonies and there is some correlation between the percentage
of soldier bees and the amount of honey produced. The more often a bee
flies outside to forage, the more honey gathered. Regular bee selection
has tended to increase the percentage and quantity of active foragers in
commercially available strains of bees.
Foraging behavior shows up most in the amount of honey a colony gathers.
In some colonies, the bees rush in with a load of nectar, unload, and
then rush back out for another load. The bees in other colonies could
best be described as lazy. They gather nectar, then return to the hive
and lounge around for a while eventually getting around to another
foraging trip. A good selection program can rapidly affect this level of
genetic variation. African bees forage earlier in the morning, later in
the evening, and more aggressively than European types.
Swarming is the natural means of reproduction for honeybees. Crowding is
a primary cause of swarming and some colonies show more tolerance to
crowding than others. Swarming is also influenced to a great degree by
the climate and nectar flow characteristics. In general, areas having a
long warm period in early spring with intermittent nectar flows and
rainy periods that confine the bees to the hive will have the most
intense swarming. By contrast, those areas having a long and cool
buildup period and a sudden, intense nectar flow will experience
swarming to a lesser degree. Regardless of location, swarming is one of
the unique activities of bees that must be controlled to produce honey.
According to Brother Adam, Greek bees (Apis Mellifera Cecropia) show the
least inclination to swarm.
Winter hardiness is required in all areas of the United States and
Canada but is of less importance in the southern United States.
Carniolans show a good wintering ability as also does the intermissa
race group. Brother Adam reports that Anatolian and cyprian bees show
the best winter hardiness which is surprising because of their
mediterranean origin. Italians have a less developed wintering ability
which has prevented them from being imported into areas that experience
extremes of cold in winter. Bees of the intermissa race group range up
to the Arctic Circle which indicates that crossbreeding and selection
with these hardy bees could dramatically improve wintering ability.
Body size and anatomical structure varies among different race groups.
Currently, the largest bee is from the Rif Mountains of Morocco (Apis
Mellifera major nova). Some of the African races tend to be the
smallest. Tongue length, leg length, abdominal size, wing size, and
virtually all anatomical features show some variation.
Tongue length and wing size have a significant effect on the honey crop.
Antennae structure affects the sense of smell and touch and possibly
other senses that we do not fully understand. This affects the bee's
sense of orientation in finding the right hive, and affects foraging
behavior because the bee can smell nectar at a greater distance. Drone
antennae are much more sensitive than worker antennae. Most other
anatomical features are of little importance because they do not
significantly influence the honey crop.
The time of brood development is genetically determined with races such
as carniolans having an abrupt spring buildup and caucasians having a
long slow summer buildup. This is of importance because a strain that
reaches peak development at the beginning of the major nectar flow
gathers the most honey.
Thrift is the tendency to raise brood at the right time to gather honey
and to slow down or stop brood rearing when there is no nectar flow.
Most parts of the United States experience a major spring nectar flow
followed later by a fall flow. This requires a corresponding spring peak
of brood rearing and another peak in the fall. Italians show a tendency
to such a development cycle but are unthrifty because they continue to
raise large amounts of brood through the summer between flows. Bees
adapt rapidly to an area when selection is used, or adapt more slowly
when natural selection occurs. By one estimate, about 50 to 100 years of
living and surviving in a given area results in an adapted strain.
Maximum thrift is obtained when bees are genetically adapted to the
local nectar flow conditions.
Honey arrangement and type of honey collected vary considerably with
Italians tending to collect light colored honey and to store it above
and out of the brood nest. In one instance, I had a colony of Italians
beside a colony of german descent. The Italians gathered three shallow
supers of beautiful golden honey while the germans gathered two supers
of dark bad tasting honey. Carniolans also tend to collect lighter
Some races of bees hoard pollen more aggressively. This is of importance
where bees are used for pollination. The previously mentioned german
bees collected and stored twice as much pollen as the Italians. They
crowded the brood nest with pollen and stored pollen in every super of
honey rendering it unfit for use as chunk comb honey. If pollination
were of primary importance, then these bees would have been excellent.
This trait can be selected for fairly rapidly by simply measuring the
amount of pollen collected by a colony relative to the amount of brood
in the colony and comparing with other similar colonies.
Comb and capping structure vary considerably. Size and length and cell
angle from horizontal all vary by race and by strain. Cappings range in
color from gray to white and in shape from flat to ridged to domed.
Italian cappings are generally flat and white with raised ridges over
the surface of the comb. Brother Adam's buckfast bees build white
slightly dome shaped cells which improves the appearance of comb and
chunk comb honey. White cappings are a result of an air gap between the
cell cap and the honey in the cell. Dark cappings result when there is
no air gap. Brood cappings and drone cell cappings for most races are
dome shaped although there is considerable variation on this point. Some
members of the intermissa race group add propolis to the wax used for
cappings. This gives a dirty gray capping which ruins comb honey.
Calmness is the ability to stay fast on a comb during examination
without nervous motion. Carniolans tend to be very calm with Italians
less so. German black bees tend to be very nervous and jittery. I have
opened hives that no amount of smoke would calm and I have opened others
so calm that smoke was not even needed. Selection work for good temper
shows conclusively that bees can be gentle and outstandingly productive.
Note that the buckfast strain currently available in the United States
is more aggressive than the strain Brother Adam was propagating 30 years
ago. This appears to be the result of a greater focus on breeding for
productivity and disease resistance.
Propolis collection and use varies considerably with Caucasians being
heavy users and Egyptian bees using none. The average Italian or
carniolan colony collects much more propolis than beekeepers would like.
There is some conjecture that propolis collection may be connected to
wintering ability. One of the greatest improvements we could make in
bees today would be to reduce the amount of propolis collected.
Unfortunately, very few selection programs have emphasized this
Brace and bridge comb is built between combs and causes headaches for
beekeepers because moveable combs become almost unmovable. This can be
especially messy during spring inspection when brood combs have to be
scraped and pried out of position. There is enough variation in this
tendency that selection results in significant reduction in these
structures. Brother Adam records that cyprian bees build very little
bridge and brace comb.
Bee color varies from very light yellow to orange to brown to black. Bee
hair color ranges from white to gray to yellow to black. Bees that are
selected with color being a major emphasis invariably lose
characteristics of greater importance such as honey gathering ability. A
strain descended from Italians and known as golden Italians was
developed several years ago but never achieved commercial importance
because they didn't produce enough honey and didn't winter well. I have a
much greater preference for productive bees than for pretty bees.
This list is by no means complete. According to one reference, the
honeybee genome contains over 30,000 genes and each gene could have
innumerable variations. Almost all the items I have listed are
controlled by large numbers of genes. Bees adapt genetically to an area
over a period of years based on survival of the fittest. The amount of
genetic variation in honeybees shows that nature is a very harsh
taskmaster. There is no absolute best bee, just a better adapted bee.