The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Natural vs. artificial bee reproduction

Queen bee breedingOver the last three years, I've gotten good at swarm prevention, and even splitting hives to reproduce them without buying new bees.  However, David Heaf makes a good argument for such manipulations being bad for bees and posits that our honeybees would be healthier if we stayed closer to their natural reproductive system.

Heaf explains that the queens in commercially purchased hives are problematic for several reasons.  First, there's the issue of low genetic diversity since most hives in the U.S. are the offspring of only 500 breeder queens.  There's a genetic bottleneck on the male side too since traditional beekeepers believe in cutting out drone comb so the excess males won't be a drain on the hive, and since some commercial operations artificially inseminate their breeder queens.

Mating honeybeesSince you probably didn't learn about bee sex in high school, let me back up here.  When a queen bee matures in nature, she flies out of the hive to a drone congregation area, where all of the male bees from the surrounding region are hanging out and drinking beer...ahem, waiting for a queen to appear.  They fly after her and several drones will usually mate with the queen (dying in the process).  The queen stores all of that sperm and uses it over the course of her life to fertilize eggs.  Despite the fact that there are plenty of drones in her hive, the queen never mates again after having her youthful fling.

Multiply mated queens seem to result in healthier hives, perhaps because the workers produced by the queen are more genetically diverse.  (Many of them are half sisters, with different fathers who provided different traits to their offpsring.)  Perhaps that's why Honeybee swarmworkers prefer multiply mated queens and may supersede a queen who wasn't promiscuous enough during her Rumspringa.

Another issue with mainstream beekeeping genetics is a lack of culling.  When a commercial operation raises bees, they keep all of the normal-looking queens to send out to customers, but nature is much more relentless.  When a hive decides to swarm, the workers produce several queens, but only 10% or so are allowed to survive and take over the colony.  Then there's another round of culling in the winter when 80% of new swarms die in the wild.  The result is that only the toughest colonies survive, in stark contrast to our mainstream beekeeping system that props up weak hives with chemicals and feeding.  True, we would lose lots of colonies if we simply deleted the chemicals and culled weak hives, but we'd also slowly breed for bees that are more self-sufficient and less prone to succumb to disease.

Bait hiveWhich is all a long way of explaining why David Heaf believes the potential of Warre hives to swarm is a feature, not a bug.  Letting the bees reproduce naturally via swarming helps increase the genetic diversity of your bees, while also culling weak hives before they start.  You may lose some bees to the surrounding area, but if you build bait hives, you will capture some as well.  Swarming cuts down on your honey harvest for the year, but the theme of Warre beekeeping is healthy bees not maximum honey yields.

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This post is part of our Warre Hive lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Have I already posted a link to Rowan & Martin's sketch about bee (and flower) reproduction?
Comment by irilyth [] Thu Mar 22 14:37:23 2012
Josh --- That's pretty funny! I'm surprised they didn't go into how the queen bee mates with 15 to 20 drones during her flight, but maybe that would have been too racy? :-)
Comment by anna Thu Mar 22 17:07:26 2012
When a hive swarms, the remaining colony has a break in brood rearing until the new queen gets going. This interrupts the varroa reproductive cycle, dropping the mite load of the colony. Nature's way lets the bees coexist with varroa.
Comment by Caryn Thu Jun 14 22:40:50 2012
Caryn --- Yep, that was the gist of Heaf's argument, and also of Michael Bush's when he recommends splitting hives aggressively.
Comment by anna Fri Jun 15 07:17:19 2012

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