Survival rates are declining for imported queen bees

Researchers say developing more domestic breeds to avoid the necessity of importing bees would benefit Canadian producers

BEAVERLODGE, Alta. — Researchers and technicians in northern Alberta have noticed a peculiar trend with imported queen bees.

Some of the international queens aren’t living as long as they used to, they say, suggesting that beekeepers could be better off producing more Canadian breeds.

“Usually imported queens can last three years, but now we are seeing they are only lasting a year or a season,” said Patricia Wolf Veiga, manager of the Grande Prairie Regional College National Bee Diagnostic Centre, a laboratory in Beaverlodge that tests honeybee pests, pathogens and parasites.

“It’s a big investment to replace queens more often, so we wanted to understand the quality of these queens we are getting.”

In partnership with the nearby Agriculture Canada facility, Wolf Veiga began the project by buying imported and Canadian queens from the co-operative, testing them for pathogens and sperm count.

She first noticed some imported queens were carrying lots of dead sperm, which suggested they were exposed to fluctuating temperatures when being shipped.

She said imported bees can come from California, Hawaii, Chile, Australia or New Zealand.

“When they travel a long time and the temperature spikes from hot and cold, it affects sperm,” she said. “We found the queens that had a lot of dead sperm didn’t last long in the hive.”

The team also noticed that some attendant bees, which travel alongside the queen, had spores of Nosema, a pathogen that can severely affect colonies.

Wolf Veiga said it’s possible some of the hives during trials became weak due to these pathogens.

She speculated that either the queens got sick from the pathogen or that the attendants stopped caring for her because they became sick.

While results are preliminary, Wolf Veiga said it seemed Canadian queens were more consistent in sperm viability, though some had higher pathogen levels.

With Canadian queens, she said, beekeepers would have a good sense of the pathogens they carry. With imported queens, however, it could be a mixed bag.

“We don’t know what pathogens we might be bringing in from other countries,” she said. “Some of those attendant bees carry lots of things.”

Along with sperm count and pathogen tests, researchers also looked at ovary count and the number of drone bees that were mated with. Those results will be shared later this year.

Wolf Veiga said the project findings could help support the development of more Canadian queens, considering that imported queens can be highly variable.

“We can look at some of the tools we have and use them to possibly better establish queen production in Canada,” she said.

In fact, there are various country-wide genome projects underway that could help beekeepers grow their own queens.

Stephen Pernal, the officer-in-charge and Ag Canada apiculture research scientist at the Beaverlodge Research Farm, said the tools could help people select better traits and ones that would perform well in Canada’s cold climate.

“It would be great if there was more self-reliance on producing our own queen bees,” Pernal said.

“We are heavily relying on imported stock, which isn’t bad but it means we have less control of our genetics and that can sometimes be precarious.”

With the Genome Canada-funded projects, Pernal has been working with researchers in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario.

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