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The making of a queen

A strong monarch with desirable disposition and characteristics, such as a resilient and capable honeybee queen, means the survival of a sentinel species. The queen is the single most important bee in each colony, and she produces all the eggs that every member of the colony hatches from.

So, when it comes down to bee genetics, you want to develop the strongest and best-adapted queens for a particular region, like the Pacific Northwest.

Breeding a better bee is one of the major goals of the Washington State University bee program.

“We’re looking for bees that can handle our cooler temperatures,” said Brandon Hopkins, a research associate in the WSU Department of Entomology. “We’re also looking for bees that are more hygienic, that fight off diseases and varroa mites better. These traits come from choosing the right queens and drones to mate.”

WSU scientists look for colonies that have combinations of those traits. The researchers then remove the one-day-old larvae produced by the selected queens and place them into small colonies called cell-builders. The cell-builders are setup with lots of young nurse bees, plenty of pollen and nectar for food, and no queen.

Steve Sheppard stands in a field looking at a honey bee colony looking for the queen.
WSU’s Steve Sheppard looks for the queen in a WSU honey bee colony. He was ‘tagging’ queens so they would know her age and colony.

This atmosphere stimulates the colony’s worker bees to produce new queens. New queens emerge from normal female embryos that are fed a special diet, called ‘royal jelly,’ once they hatch into larvae.

“The reason why we go to all the effort to make queens is because we can transfer larvae from known genetic sources,” Hopkins said. “We get to select larvae based on an assessment of the mother colony, the queen, and the overall production value of that colony. We can assess various behaviors, like defensiveness, and then select for bees that are not likely to sting without provocation or exhibit good overwintering ability, disease resistance, and brood and honey production.”

The researchers aren’t just focused on the queen, though. It takes two sets of genetic material to construct new generations, and that second set comes from drones, or male bees. So they’re either inseminating new queens or releasing queens to mate in areas where the only potential mates are derived from “drone mother” colonies selected by WSU researchers.

Initial bee breeding efforts at WSU began over a decade ago and have resulted in stronger, more resilient honey bees. But the work is far from done.

“The main reason we’re producing queens here at WSU, and devoting so much to the breeding effort, is the urgent need to counteract colony loses that US beekeepers are experiencing,” Hopkins said. “We feel that the long-term solution to improved honey bee colony health in the US must include attention to genetic improvement.”

Media Contacts

Brandon Hopkins, WSU Apiary Program, 509-335-8598