On this blog, I will share the work I am doing with bee breeders in Northern California. However, I would to give a more complete story through a three-part blog of how I got here, what I am doing now, and where I hope this project will go.
Bee breeding if the most interesting part of beekeeping. There is so much to learn with all the complexities of how to choose breeder queens, how to maintain lines, and different ways to use the bee’s biology to raise new queen bees. I was one of Dr. Marla Spivak’s students at the University of Minnesota, and I suppose it shows. Queen breeding is a specialty of hers and the development and propagation of her Minnesota Hygienic line is probably how she is best known (that and being a MacArthur Genius grant winner). Her interest in Northern California was natural since it is one of the ultimate bee breeding locations responsible for about half the queen bees sold across the States.
Marla knew that this group of N. Californian beekeepers had the most potential to change the honey bee genetics of this country for the better. Helping these bee breeders select and propagate lines of bees resistant to diseases and mites could result in healthier bees across the nation. While the bee breeders are a super competent group, to do this type of selection they would need a team of people to run the testing and provide them with timely results. This concept came from the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association in Canada. In the early 1990’s, they established a Technology Transfer program with the mandate to “conduct research for Ontario’s beekeeping industry, facilitate a honey bee breeding program in Ontario and to transfer information, skills and methodologies to the beekeepers.”
To explore the possibility of establishing a Tech Team in California, Marla wanted to visit with the bee breeders to show them what a team could do and gauge interest in a permanent program. In March of 2008, Marla secured funding from the University of Minnesota to go to N. California and work one-on-one with 17 commercial queen producers. She invited Alison van Alten, the Ontario Tech-Transfer Team Leader (now former team member – she raises her own queen bees now), Gary-of-all-trades Reuter (Marla’s technician and right hand), and graduate students (including myself). In California, we tested for hygienic behavior, a trait that helps bees defend themselves against Varroa mites, American foulbrood, and chalkbrood. We demonstrated how to sample colonies for Nosema disease by vacuuming up bees and examining them for Nosema spores with a microscope set-up in kitchens and outbuildings. We spent time talking to the bee breeders about their operations, if they were interested in a Bee Team, and what services would be most helpful. The beekeepers provided feedback that encouraged Marla to go to CA again and do the same type of testing in March of 2009 and 2010.
As Marla says, two things became very evident about the bee breeders during our time in California: 1) They are extremely competent and produce high quality, well-mated queens to supply beekeepers throughout the nation; 2) the complexity of breeding for pathogenic resistance, while maintaining productive characteristics and pollination efficiency, requires professional assistance to help bee breeders improve stock selection, enhance genetic diversity, and to perform disease diagnostics.
The idea for the Bee Team came together. The bee breeders were interested in having a Bee Team in CA full time to do testing for them and expressed a willingness to help fund it. Marla wrote grants to the National Honey and Almond Board for salary money, which they generously granted, and thus, the first Tech-Transfer Bee Team in the US was born. Marla asked me to be a part of it, and I happily agreed.