“Susan Cobey and the New World Carniolan® Breeding Progam
Bee Culture (January 2003), Vol. 131 (1): 21-23


M.T. Sanford

There’s something about Apis mellifera carnica, the Carniolan honey bee.  This child of the Balkans, originally from Slovenia, the future site of the 2003 Apimondia Congress, holds a special place in the hearts of many beekeepers.  Although a minor component of U.S. bee stock, it is the majority in other parts of the world from Egypt to Chile.  It has a panopoly of characteristics that are increasingly important to beekeepers, including gentleness, less-than-average propolis collection, and little inclination to rob, the real bugaboo of its cousin, Apis mellifera ligustica, the Italian honey bee.  It is known as the “spring” bee for it builds population rapidly early in the active season.  More importantly it closes down its brood rearing quickly when environmental conditions deteriorate, resulting in less food consumption and a potentially increased winter survival.  It is considered in many parts of the world as the best bee stock in which to find resistance or tolerance to the Varroa mite.  Some of the first evidence of Varroa tolerance, in fact, came from a population of Carniolan bees in Yugoslavia described by Dr. Jovan Kulincevic, an associate of the late Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler of The Ohio State University.  This bee was subsequently introduced into the U.S. and is known as the “Yugo” bee.

Carniolan behavior, therefore, is equivalent to the “holy grail” in some beekeeping circles, and the raison d’etre of the New World Carniolan® Breeding Program, run by Susan W. Cobey at The Ohio State University.  Sue is easily spotted in a crowd, as I recently noticed at the airport in Santiago, Chile.  She is tall.  This and her long blond locks stand out in Latin America, but it is her expertise and enthusiasm for bee breeding that beekeepers of that region and around the world really take notice of,  and with good reason.  Not only does she run one of the premier honey bee breeding programs in the U.S., but she is also the only person to my knowledge who is training others in this important arena.

Sue and I sat down in her office on the Ohio State University campus and her home in the environs of Hilliard, OH to discuss her career and aspirations.  It is immediately apparent that, although greatly influenced by those at institutions of higher learning, she is not an “academic.”  Sue is one of those rare people who easily spans the gap between the ivory tower of higher education and down-to-earth beekeeping.  Her entomological career began early, when tent caterpillars she collected escaped to terrorize kindergarten class.  She switched majors at the University of Delaware and graduated with a B.S. in entomology, her only academic degree.  A student exchange program provided her first honey bee experience with Dr. Michael Burgett at Oregon State University, where she was able to first work outside and actually rear insects, instead of focusing on killing them with pesticides. 

Her training really began by doing grunt beekeeping work at Wenner Apiaries, where she learned practical beekeeping management from Clarence Wenner himself, who she says was “a true naturalist.”  Sue’s mentors in bee breeding include Dr. John Harbo, who taught her instrumental insemination, and Drs. Robert Page and Harry H. Laidlaw, who inculcated her with the philosophy of the closed population honey bee-breeding protocol that bears their name.1  She also had ample opportunity to participate in practical breeding programs as a technician at the now defunct Genetic Systems, Inc. in Labelle, FL, as well as those of  the University of California at Davis and the USDA Bee Breeding and Stock Center at Baton Rouge, LA.

Enter her husband, Tim Lawrence.  His influence was important to her career in that he helped “push” Sue out of her shell of “shyness.”  He continues to support her as she travels the world teaching queen production and instrumental insemination.   Together they developed the “idealistic dream” of their own beekeeping and fruit producing business in California’s Vaca Valley.  However, they were victimized by unpredictable change that so often afflicts agriculture.  Closure of the Canadian border in the 1980s because of discovery in the U.S. of both tracheal and Varroa mites meant loss of many key customers.  At the same time, the Kiwi fruit market collapsed.  By then, Sue had developed her passion for instrumental insemination, the basis for true bee breeding, and began to do and teach this on a limited basis, identifying a “niche market” for this activity.  She assisted Dr. Orley (Chip) Taylor at the University of Kansas in his efforts to understand honey bee mating behavior, and was invited several times to Mexico, as that country attempted to confront the challenges of the introduced Africanized honey bee.

Uprooting themselves out of one of California’s finest valleys and moving to the U.S. heartland was difficult for both Tim and Sue.  But a steady income and the opportunity to continue her breeding program at the Ohio State University as apiary technician was not easy to pass up.  So in 1990, Sue became the Staff Apiarist at the Walter C. Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory, where she coordinates research projects and also is able to continue her passion by producing New World Carniolan (NWC®) queens, as well as conducting classes in queen rearing and instrumental insemination.  It seems somehow fitting that one of the best honey bee breeding programs in the U.S. is now administered from a building that bears the name of perhaps the greatest of apiculture’s genetic pioneers. 

Indeed, as we discussed the status of breeding programs around the world, I thought Walter would have been proud that many of the necessary links he described in his seminal paper on the topic have been put in place in the facility that bears his name.2  In addition, he would also be happy that the University he worked at for over two decades now supports an innovative bee breeding program that is available nowhere else.  And that it could be a model for a “new wave” of queen production, via true breeding, that might help the beekeeping industry recover Phoenix-like from the ashes of a potentially disastrous session on the pesticide treadmill. 

Sue and I agree that the vast majority of queen producers do little breeding.  This is not a criticism; producers must concentrate on production as their livelihood depends on sales out the front door.  The driving force in the market is price.  Beekeepers have been lulled into a false sense of security that good queens should be available relatively inexpensively.  Although economical queens were readily available when there was a relatively large genetic base, which also included feral honey bees, and no exotic mites, that is no longer the case.  The appearance of antibiotic tolerance (Terramycin®-resistant American foulbrood) and resistance by Varroa to fluvalinate and coumaphos, along with appearance of a totally new organism, the small hive beetle (Aethina tumida), has turned U.S. apiculture on its ear.  The long-range solution to these problems must come from bee genetics (breeding) and the resulting queens will not be cheap.

The results of Sue’s New World Carniolan® Progam are positive and encouraging.  She has been able to develop bees that require no fumigillin for nosema control, no tracheal mite treatment with minimal chemical application for Varroa, and no antibiotic treatment for foulbrood.  Sue and I agree that Varroa is the biggest problem facing beekeepers today.  The most important task for any beekeeper in the present environment is to control this mite first.  All other concerns must take a back seat.

The basis for any breeding program is stock selection.  Thus, Sue and Tim, originally collected bees from across the U.S. and Canada to establish their base population in the Vaca Valley of California.  This initial genetic collection was moved to Ohio, a very different environment with harsh winters.  The stock has now become adapted to those specific conditions over time, and Sue continues to search out genetic material to be incorporated into the program. 

It is important to realize that Sue’s program is based on traditional Carniolan behavior, not the vaunted Carniolan honey bee itself.  This at first seems confusing, given the name.  No morphometric, allozyme, cuticular hydrocarbon, nor DNA analysis is performed to verify the bee she uses is indeed Apis mellifera carnica.  Nevertheless, Sue continues to select for darker bees in general, an indication of the Carniolan race, to ensure that the stock has a different look than that regarded generally as Italian (yellow).  The primary focus of selection is general performance, not specific individual traits, like hygienic behavior or SMR (suppressed mite reproduction), although these have been added to the criteria in the selection process.  As she says, when describing her stock “there’s no Russian, no Yugo and no SMR.” 

Again, it is the behavior that Carniolan honey bees are known for that is of utmost importance in the New World Carniolan® Breeding Program.  These include productivity, gentleness, and specifically for Ohio, winter hardiness.  Since traits for “mite resistance” or “tolerance” are common, but often rarely expressed or shown, they can be selected for in almost any stock, and so this has also been incorporated into the program.  Sue feels it is important for the industry to have choices via a variety of specialty stocks, of which hers is but one.  A description of several, including New World Carniolan®, is found in an article by Dr. Stu Jacobson in the November 2002 issue of Bee Culture. 

Sue’s secrets are simple.  The keys are assiduously keeping records and controlling gene flow through instrumental insemination and a closed breeding population.  The selected traits that are part of the New World Carniolan® Bee Breeding Progam are the following:

Industry:  Honey producers and pollinators.  Those found susceptible to disease or mites are eliminated, as are those that dwindle in winter, which is a final selecting criterion.

Rapid Spring Buildup:  The signal trait of the Carniolan honey bee.

Gentleness: Calm, gentle and a pleasure to work with no matter the size of the population.

Overwintering: Efficient use of winter stores and winter clusters having a high tolerance for severe cold.  Those that dwindle and do not survive winter are automatically eliminated.

Pollen Collection:  Efficient pollinators that work in cool and drizzly weather.

Brood Viability:  Solid brood patterns to maintain the integrity of the breeding population.

Resistance to Parasitic Mites: Undetectable levels of tracheal mites; reduced levels of Varroa.

Hygienic Behavior:  High uncapping and removing of brood killed by freezing.

Sue looks at the above criteria at a rather gross level.  These estimates or evaluations are something any beekeeper can do.  She has and continues to give her talk on the specific details of her system at many different venues across the world.  These are also available on the World Wide Web.3  Importantly, they are done continuously so that each year a new generation of New World Carniolan® queens is instrumentally inseminated and then evaluated in the field.  The top performing colonies are selected as breeders to establish the next generation in accordance with the Page-Laidlaw Closed Population Breeding Program.4

The bottom line, according to Sue, is annually producing a test population of 200 instrumentally inseminated queens. The better performers are then used as breeders and provided to cooperating New World Carniolan® producers, who sell open-mated daughters to the beekeeping public.  This brings in about $25,000 gross income each year, which the University allows Sue to spend in further developing the program.  Clearly, it is heavily supported by the University, which in the final analysis is providing a subsidy to the beekeeping industry.

Sue knows that there is no way her program can supply the necessary quantity of stock to an industry hungry for a selected honey bee that will enable it to gracefully exit an increasing chemical dependency.  Thus, she sees her future in educating a cadre of individuals who will take on the task using the tools she and others have developed.  Surprisingly, her message has been heard in other countries far more than in the U.S.  Thus, she has worked mostly with producers in Mexico (Enrique Estrada, Ernesto Guzman), Chile (Alberto Poch), Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Egypt, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Canada.

The cornerstone of Sue’s training program continues to be the courses she has developed in queen rearing, instrumental insemination and bee breeding offered each summer at The Ohio State University.  These have been well attended by an able and willing corps of students, again mostly from outside the country, presumably aided by advertisement via the World Wide Web.4  In the future, she hopes to be able to deliver packaged courses on site that incorporate all of the pieces that now comprise her breeding program

In conclusion, Sue Cobey’s goal is to help beekeepers develop a more professional and responsible beekeeping.  As she said at the latest Eastern Apicultural Society meeting at Cornell University (August 2002), step-by-step beekeepers are emerging from the “hype” and “hyperbole” of crisis management, which has resulted in maintaining susceptible bees through chemical treatment.  In the future, therefore, they will increasingly let the honey bee rely much more on its own devices through the results of conscious, committed breeding like those of the New World Carniolan®  Bee Breeding Progam.


1.      R.E. Page and H.H. Laidlaw.  1985.  Closed Population Honey Bee Breeding Program.  Bee World, Vol. 66, pp. 63-72.

2.      W. C. Rothenbuhler. 1980.  Necessary Links in the Chain of Honey-Bee Stock Improvement.  American Bee Journal, Vol. 120, pp. 223-225, 304-305.

3.      New World Carniolan Breeding Program, accessed November 12, 2002 <http://www174.pair.com/birdland/Breeding/NWC.html>

4.      Cobey S. and T. Lawrence.  1988.  Commercial Application and Practical Use of The Page-Laidlaw Closed Population Breeding Program.  American Bee Journal, Vol. 128, Vol. 5, pp. 341-344.

5.      The Ohio State University Honey Bee Breeding Program, accessed November 12, 2002 <http://www174.pair.com/birdland/Breeding/>