“Susan Cobey and the
Bee Culture (January 2003), Vol. 131 (1): 21-23
There’s something about
Apis mellifera carnica, the Carniolan honey
bee. This child of the Balkans,
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
Sue and I sat down in
her office on the
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
out of one of
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
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
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
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
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/>