Alberta research project focuses on improving queen bee health

Shelley Hoover of the University of Lethbridge receives a grant 
to examine ways to re-queen hives and store locally produced queens

The queen bee is crucial to honeybee hive production, health and pollination activity.

A funding grant of $496,513 from Alberta’s Results Driven Agricultural Research (RDAR) will allow bee researcher Shelley Hoover to undertake a four-year project on queen bees and their colonies.

Hoover is a biological sciences researcher at the University of Lethbridge. Her project is focused on improving honeybee queen health, which is designed to assist Alberta beekeepers in raising and replacing queens and protecting hive health and viability. About 40 percent of Canada’s honeybee colonies are in Alberta.

Hoover plans to examine ways of re-queening hives, methods of storing locally produced queens and the links between queen health, reproduction and worker bee behaviour.

Winter bee losses have been high in the province over the last two years and pandemic-related import challenges have prevented some beekeepers from obtaining new queens. That has revived interest in producing queens domestically.

“If a beekeeper loses their colony, they really have only three options. One is to buy another colony of bees from somewhere in Canada, two is to import bees and three is to split one of their own colonies,” said Hoover.

“In terms of biosecurity, the safest thing to do, that minimizes risk of introducing any diseases to your operation, is to split your own colonies. But to do that you need a queen.”

Some Alberta beekeepers raise their own queens and have done so for years, but it is a specialized skill that takes time away from other bee and honey operations so the practice is not widespread.

To mate queens, mature drones are needed and they take two weeks to mature after emergence, said Hoover.

“They also have the longest development time, so you really need about six weeks from the start of the spring before you have mature drones. … That gives beekeepers in Alberta a really narrow window that they can actually mate queens.”

Hoover is studying methods of re-queening hives and methods of overwintering queens so beekeepers have access to them when needed.

Queen bees only last a certain amount of time so beekeepers sometimes want to replace a queen so the colony doesn’t become queenless. The most effective way to do that is to find and remove the existing queen and replace it with a younger, vigorous queen.

That isn’t easy, said Hoover, so she and her team are experimenting with placing a queen pupa in the hive and then determining whether the new queen takes over.

She has also overwintered many queens, indoors and in cages, to gauge survival rates and their subsequent performance in a colony.

Good queens have numerous attributes, said Hoover.

“The queen herself, is she healthy and pathogen free? What are the pheromones that she produces? Does she produce a bouquet that the workers perceive as being that of a strong healthy mated queen?

“There’s also her reproductive system … is she well mated? Does she have a lot of sperm and is that sperm still viable?”

Clint Dobson, research director with RDAR, said his organization is partnering with the Alberta Beekeepers Commission to accelerate the research.

Hoover has about 100 colonies of bees on the U of L campus.

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