Russian Honey Bee Earning Its Stripes
An adult female Varroa mite
feeds on a developing bee.
|After a harsh winter, it looks to be
a honey of a year for a sturdy breed of Russian bee that's helping U.S.
apiarists fortify their hives against parasitic tracheal and Varroa
"Last winter was one of the toughest we've had in the Midwest, and also in
the South," notes Manley H. Bigalk, an apiarist in Cresco, Iowa. For
winter-weakened hives, the mites' presence can be a costly, one-two punch.
"Even with all the death-losses in domestic bees this past winter, this
Russian was superb," says Bigalk, of Golden Ridge Honey Farms.
He is one of three commercial apiarists who've been evaluating the Russian bees
since 1999 in cooperation with Agricultural
Research Service scientists at the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and
Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
European honey bee with a Varroa
mite on its back. The mites cause
death and disease in bee colonies.
| The program began in 1996, after ARS
supervisory geneticist Thomas E. Rinderer traveled to a rugged stretch of land
on Russia's Pacific coast called the Primorsky Territory.
Observing how well local honey bee hives fared despite parasitic mites and
prolonged winters, Rinderer requestedand in July 1997
receivedpermission to import into the United States 100 queen bees from
the region. After quarantined monitoring on Grande Terre Island, Louisiana, the
Russian bees were moved to apiaries at ARS' Baton Rouge lab, where scientists
subjected the Russian queens and their offspring to rigorous cycles of
breeding, selection, and testing for mite resistance and other desired traits.
In 1999 those efforts culminated in a cooperative research and development
agreement with Bernard's Apiaries, Inc., of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
Under the agreement, third-generation apiarist Steven S. Bernard is authorized
to raise and sell pure-Russian breeder queen bees on a first-come, first-served
basis. The breeder queens cost $500 each. From each of these, beekeepers breed
thousands of production queens, which are placed in hives for pollination and
honeymaking. Strict mating control of production queens is not done, so they
sell for about $10 to $15 each.
Although this year's domestic orders for Russian queens are about the same as
last year's, Bernard reports high numbers of sales to European apiarists.
Bernard decided to breed the Russian queens commercially after Rinderer
approached him with the idea as a way to transfer the benefits of the ARS lab's
research to U.S. apiarists.
"I was reluctant at first because we had just gotten into producing and
bottling honey," says Bernard. He had been breeding queens until a
tracheal mite infestation in the late 1980s decimated his breeder stock.
"When I realized I could still raise the breeder stock and make a living
at it, the idea just appealed to me," he says.
Although tracheal mites remain a problem, particularly in northeastern states,
Varroa mites pose a broader threat to America's honey bees, whose
pollination is worth $14.6 billion to U.S. agriculture. About 1 millimeter
long, the reddish Varroa mites can kill or weaken adult and larval bees
by sucking their blood or exposing them to diseases.
Fluvalinate is one of two registered chemicals for controlling Varroa
mites, whose attacks can otherwise destroy an entire hive within weeks or
months. Cost, handling concerns, and the mite's ability to develop pesticide
resistance have driven the search for alternatives.
The best long-term solution for both domestic and feral honey bees, experts
say, is to fortify them with mite-resistance traitswhether from Russian
or other bee stock.
"These mites are real good at building resistance, so we're looking at
genetic approaches as a long-term solution," says Richard Adee, president
of the American Honey Producers Association. "We're looking to cut down on
the use of chemicals and chop away at the costs of using them."
Backing that optimism is data from ARS' Baton Rouge lab. Studies there since
1997 show that mite reproduction levels are two to three times higher in
domestic colonies than in Russian colonies.
With lower mite counts comes less reliance on chemicals, notes Hubert D. Tubbs,
an ARS cooperator who manages 3,500 honey bee colonies at Tubbs Apiaries in
Webb, Mississippi. "My test yards are purebred Russian, and we haven't
treated those colonies in 2 years," he reports.
Other than the bees' diligent mite-grooming behaviors, "we don't know all
of the mechanisms of resistance yet," says Rinderer. "In general,
they differ from domestic bees in several small ways acting in concert."
Since 1999, Bigalk, Bernard, and Tubbs have evaluated the bees' mettle against
the mites, as well as their temperament, pollination habits, and honey
Like Bigalk in Iowa, Tubbs had an opportunity to witness the Russian bees'
durability thanks to a harsh winter. Of his 1,500 domestic colonies, 1,200 to
1,400 were lost, whereas of his 2,000 Russian-bred colonies, only 2 didn't
Based on test-yard evaluations, Tubbs reports average honey yields of 130 to
150 pounds per hive. The usual yield is about 84 pounds per hive.
"This bee is a real nice bee. It's very hygenic, very gentle," Tubbs
says. "Matter of fact, we pulled honey off them last year wearing shorts
and T-shirts. They're excellent pollen gathers; they just hoard pollen."
Bigalk suspects that a similar miserliness with honey also helps carry the bees
through the winter better than domestic hives.
Rinderer also attributes their "superior winter survival to being highly
resistant to tracheal mites, something that's still uncommon for standard
Involved with the ARS program since it began, Tubbs and Bigalk both acknowledge
that other apiarists may be more cautious about the breed's commercial
potential, particularly if their hives aren't fully "Russianized."
For Andrew L. Webb, of Calvert Apiaries near Mobile, Alabama, mite resistance
is a lesser question than whether the bees will earn their stripes
commercially. "I've got the Russians around mainly for their
genetics," says the queen bee breeder. "But as to their honey
production, the jury's still out on it," he adds. To find out, Webb teamed
up with the ARS scientists this past summer to compare the Russians with an
elite bee line and an English breed called Buckfast. Along with such
evaluations, they'll continue importing Russian queens to further improve and
diversify the existing bee stock, Rinderer says.
Over the next 5 to 8 years, the goal is to furnish apiarists with up to 40
different, elite genetic lines of Russian queens. By using them sequentially,
bee breeders can avoid inbred colonies. On a broader front, this will help
ensure that the best of the Russian breed's traits reach the U.S. honey bee
population in a uniform manner.
"We originally got into the program to deliver Varroa mite
resistance," says Rinderer. "But since Russian bees are also
resistant to tracheal mites and are good honey producers and good winter
survivors, the program is now focused on producing a stock improved for all
Adds Bigalk, "We're seeing improvements in stock each year. One of the key
points is that it's public stock. So it's something that anyone can easily work
into their own program."By
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
The research is part of Crop Production, an ARS National Program (#305)
described on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Thomas E. Rinderer, USDA-ARS
Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Laboratory, 1157 Ben Hur Road,
Baton Rouge, LA 70820; phone (225) 767-9281, fax (225) 766-9212.
"Russian Honey Bee Earning Its Stripes"
was published in the October 2001
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.