When endeavouring on such as a quest as varroa resistant bee stock there must be a selection of criteria on which to develop a breeding program. Instead of reinventing the wheel, lets take the case of a successful bee breeder who undertook such a task –Brother Adam. Brother Adam has a series of criteria in which to determine which candidates were acceptable for breeding purposes:
- Primary qualities are those qualities essential for any maximum honey production.
- Fecundity - maintaining at least 9 frames of brood May - July
- Foraging zeal - a boundless capacity for foraging work, close inbreeding to intensify this quality can be counterproductive.
- Resistance to disease
- Disinclination to swarm
- Keen sense of smell
- Defensive characteristics
- Hardiness and ability to overwinter
- Spring development
- Instinct of self-provisioning
- Arrangement of honey stores
- Wax production and comb building
- Gathering of pollen
- Good temper
- Calm behaviour
- Disinclination to propolize
- No brace combs
- Honey capping
- Sense of orientation
His criteria is based on both economical, survival, and a keen sense of observation only acquired by a lifetime spent with bees. Such an in depth criteria is not totally necessary for my purposes but rather lays a frame work. Also, further research has indicated that some of these criteria’s may or may not be as important as once thought. Some are purely for practical purposes.
One benefit of living in such a cold climate is that many of these factors will be taken care of simply by overwintering. Overwintering should be the main criteria, as you cannot breed from dead bees.
Disease resistance is also a factor as bees are now the host to an array of diseases, parasites, virus, and fungi’s. Hygienic behaviour can take care of a majority of these problems including foulbrood, Chalkbrood, and other brood related illnesses. Mites are the largest problem, and although hygienic and VSH bees will combat them they are not there yet. Some bees also seem to have a tolerance for mite loads which is not totally understood.
Honey gathering I feel is important economical speaking –it’s the main reason bees are kept. This is based on many facets both inherent in the bee, and manipulated by the beekeeper. The bees fecundity (the rearing of brood) creates more bees and therefore more honey. If those bees are Italian in origin it was also allow them to keep a large cluster through the winter. Foraging zeal is also important but can be caused by several things: breed, Russians are known for not keeping additional stores; demoralization; colony strength; weather conditions; spring buildup, to take advantage of early nectar sources. Excessive swarming may be breed related, and is a factor for selection. It is also an important beekeeper manipulation. The cause of the swarming must be established before any potential breeder is ruled out.
Many other facets that Brother Adam outlines is simply underscores of these three things. Lets evaluate and eliminate those other factors. This list is quite reminiscent of Michael Palmer’s criteria.
Gentleness is extremely important –no one wants to fight with their bees.
Propolis has been discovered to be the bee’s immune system. By breeding this out we are essentially making our bees more susceptible to diseases. For this reason I am not only striking this from the list, but actually encouraging it.
Everything else seems to be rather superficial, or simply to hard to really account for.
This leaves us with our criteria:
Overwinter Ability: survives tough winters, maintains a tight cluster, cluster moves to food stores, does not require a unreasonable amount of fall feed.
Disease Resistance: Hygienic/VSH (measure in the 75+ percentile), tracheal mite resistance (as observed with a dissection microscope), nosema resistant (tested with a microscope), shows survival instincts.
Honey Production: Produces good yields, takes nectar gathering flights during lower spring temperatures.
Gentleness: Does not become unreasonably angry during inspections, can wear a veil only except during honey harvest. Gentle on the comb (does not get too nervous). Some bees are known for aggressive F1 crossing (Buckfast) and that will also be accounted for.
Propolis: Produces propolis, seals hive tight for the winter, builds own entrance reducer.
In order to quantify these requirements a metric must be made.
Overwintering: PASS / FAIL
- Hygienic: Liquid Nitrogen Test
- Mite Count: Sticky board, Sugar Roll
- Microscopy: Trachael mite, Nosema Spores
- General Survivability/Resistance
- Amount of honey produced relative to other similar sized colonies
- Amount of feed consumed relative to honey produced
Gentleness: PASS / FAIL
Propolis: PASS / FAIL
Because this breeding program will be conducted in a modified treatment free regime, the pressures on the bees will be enormous. However to mitigate mite drift, and the spread of diseases susceptible colonies will be treated with Oxalic Acid and be moved to a non-treatment free apiary (see previous posts). Those combs will be decontaminated over a cycle (wax/honey removed and sold to treatment beekeepers) and reinstituted. Bees will be used for populating dead outs, nucs, mating nucs. Queens will be disposed of, unless they prove other desirable qualities or were under performing due to extreme circumstances or keeper error. For economic purposes the "live and let die" method does not seem advantageous, nor reasonable for a growing apiary. Those bees which are not performing but do not appear to need treatment will be allowed to live through a winter and/or requeened.
Queens will be procured from many sources deemed acceptable, both locally and internationally. Ontario has many good breeders of stock including hygienic, Buckfast, Russian, etc. Locally acclimated bees are known for their abilities. Some stock is to be gotten from US sources such as Minnesota VSH hygienics, as well as any promising queens.
The first order of business will be injecting hygienic genetics, and from those colonies demonstrating good survival (cant breed from dead bees). It will take years to develop these bees.