“Mite Tolerance in Honey Bees: Breeding Bees for the Small Beekeeper”
Bee Culture (May 2006), Vol. 134 (5): 17-19




Malcolm T. Sanford

In the March 2006 Bee Culture, Willard Phipps of South Bend, IN asks whether it’s possible for the small beekeeper to breed a strain of bees tolerant or immune to mites.  The short answer is yes.  The technology to do it, however, may vary, and can be time-consuming, expensive and difficult.  Two sources of mite tolerance come to mind.  Survivor feral bees that have existed in the wild for several seasons and imported honey bees selected for survival (see the October 2004 Bee Culture).

The Russian bees fall into the latter category and appear to have the most published evidence reflective of success.  The history of the stock is well documented::

According to Glenn Apiaries Web Site1, which offers pure Russian stock:  “In 1905 the trans-Siberian railroad was completed, opening eastern Russia to the rest of Europe. The European honeybee was imported into this area which had only been inhabited by the Asian honey bee Apis cerana, the natural host of Varroa mites.


“The Asian honey bee and Varroa mites have co-evolved into a balanced host/parasite relationship without much harm being done. Varroa only reproduces on drone pupae in these bees, and drones are only available part of the year, so high populations of mites never build up.


“When the European bees encountered Varroa, things were different. Varroa is able to reproduce on worker pupae which allows extremely high numbers of mites to build up. This high infestation eventually kills the colony.


“Feral bees or bees managed without miticides have intense natural selection pressure, allowing only the most mite resistant colonies to survive. There are at least four resistance mechanisms that scientists have identified. They include, bees grooming mites off themselves and each other, hygienic behavior of removing infested pupae, acceleration of brood development, and suppression of mite reproduction. The ultimate goal of bee breeders is to produce bees with all these traits in a single stock of bees.


“It's hoped that the Russian bees will provide resistant genes that will let us take a giant step forward in the breeding effort. An earlier USDA introduction of bees from Yugoslavia did much in enhancing resistance to another serious pest, the tracheal mite.


“Every beekeeper can help in the effort by using some of these Russian bees in their hives. Drones are produced from the queen's unfertilized eggs, so all drones from the Russian queens will be 100% Russian. This fact will greatly help in the spreading of the resistant genes, as drones fly for miles in search of queens to mate. If all goes well we may see the emergence of Varroa resistant bees across the country.


“The USDA scientists, led by Dr. Thomas Rinderer, have done their part, now it's up to breeders and beekeepers to do their part in distributing these resistant bees. It may be our best option for getting off the chemical treadmill.”


Clearly, the above statement exhorts the small beekeeper to get involved at least on a rudimentary level.  In a recent review of the Russian introduction program it was concluded: “One of the key points is that it's public stock. So it's something that anyone can easily work into their own program.”2


A comprehensive program to look at for guidance is the one in Canada using Russian survivor stock.  François Petit, Pilgrim Community Ventures, reports that results are promising after six seasons using these bees, which are continually being imported.3


Mr. Petit lists the objectives of his project to be:


1.      Utilize genetic material acquired through natural selection for resistance to Varroa found in Eastern Russia.

2.      Continue the selection needed to bring this stock to acceptable level of productivity.

3.      Distribute the stock to beekeepers and breeders across Canada.

4.      Provide a long-term solution to the invasion of Varroa mites in honeybee populations across Canada.


The work started in 2000, when stock was first imported by the University of Guelph in Ontario.   The yearly details so far include:


2001 - Drone colonies established.  Eggs from isolated breeder colonies used to produce open-mated queens and pure Russian drones.

2002 - Third importation.  Most production colonies requeened with pure Russians. 

2003 -  Four-frame nuclei (headed by queens that are both open and closed mated) sold to beekeeping public.  Another importation; eleven lines established.  Testing begins on stock raised in 2002 with hygienic and quick test. 

2004 - Only in this year could data from 2002 and 2003 be analyzed.  Distributed open mated queens and nuclei across Canada.  For the first time honey production measured.

Another importation occurred and the 24-hour mite drop test was initiated.

2005 - Encouraging signs seen in wintering, vigor and strength.  Best honey crop since year 2003.


Casual observation heard on the street from beekeepers using Russian bees in the United States is that they might be tolerant to mites, but are lacking in honey production.  Mr. Petit’s results so far show an evenly distributed range of 0 to 176 pounds in 2004 with an average of 83.5 pounds.  In 2005, the range was 0 to 238 pounds with an average of 152 pounds.  Unfortunately, this increase cannot be attributed specifically to the season or genetics.  Canadian colonies of other bees routinely produce more honey, leaving Mr. Petit to conclude: “This shows a need for more selection, to select the genes responsible for higher honey production.”  Many would agree that determining colony productivity on colonies with only two years of data is premature.


This is a chicken or egg sydrome; to show more honey production, while at the same time ensuring bees are tolerant to diseases and pests is a continuing challenge.  Clearly most programs have opted for Mr. Petit’s strategy: tolerance first; production later.  This is where the small beekeeper has more “wiggle room” because his or her income is not solely tied to bee colonies.


The tests employed by Mr. Petit deserve attention:


1.      Hygienic test:  Measuring how well colonies detect, open and uncap larvae affected by brood diseases (American foulbrood)  or Varroa .  A full description of this technique is available through the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)  program.4

2.      Quick test for tracheal mites (Acarapis woodi):  Introducing newly emerged worker bees (not infected with honey bee tracheal mite) into infested colonies and a week later examining how infested these bees become.  This is used in the Ontario (Canada) Bee Breeding program.5

3.       24-Hour mite drop:  Counting the number of Varroa falling off a cluster of bees over a 2- to 3-day period.  A description of this test has been published by United Kingdom’s Central Science Library.6


There’s little question the Russian stock is hygienic according to Mr. Petit.  The quick test did not show as strong a result for the Russians when compared to other Ontario stock, but it was still better than average, and Russians began with lower tracheal mite levels than local stock.  Mite drop was also not as clear cut as that for hygienic behavior, partly because colonies were treated for Varroa in 2004 but not 2005.  Both years reveal, however, that in general there were fewer “problem” (heavily infested) colonies; identifying and removing these few, therefore, could make a difference when looking at the entire apiary.  Mr. Petit concludes that he is encouraged by these results and wants beekeepers across the nation to be aware of the potential of this stock.  The program is on track to end in 2008.


Meanwhile in the United States Russian bees continue to be available from a number of sources.  Those interested in this project have a good deal of documentation available to them on the World Wide Web.  Besides the California site mentioned above, a blow-by-blow description of the chronology of the project can be found at the USDA ARS Web Site.7 


1995 - First trip to Russia. These would end in 2005.

1997 - First importation of queens from Russia’s Primorski area to quarantine on a Louisiana barrier island.

1999 - Six selected Russian lines from the long term resistance test are propagated.

2002 - Test yards set up with cooperators in Iowa  (M. Bigalk) and Mississippi (H.Tubbs).

2005 - Beginning of Phase III of project; Lines selected for release in 2006 are 05A-618:
White/Orange  05A-663: White/DkBlue.

2006 - Breeders will be selected in the fall for release in the spring of 2007 for Block “B”.  Block “C” cooperators will be selected next year.


According to the USDA,  The scope of the Russian honey bee trials is large, involving several cooperators. There are two reasons for needing these cooperators. First, the trials require more honey bee colonies than the laboratory can possibly maintain on its own. Each year the tests require more than 500 colonies of honey bees. Second, in order to produce a stock of commercially valuable honey bees, tests need to be conducted in several different beekeeping environments so that lines selected for inclusion in the program are known to have value in more than one location.”


Cooperators include Manley Bigalk, Golden Ridge Honey Farm, Cresco, Iowa; Charlie Harper, Carencro, Louisiana; and Hubert Tubbs, Tubbs Apiaries, Mize, Mississippi.8 Charlie Harper’s operation has a Web site that says in part: “In cooperation with the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, LA, we are pleased to offer the 2006 release of Russian breeder queens. There are (2) lines available, White Blue and White Orange.  They are available now until July 2006.”9  Scanning the two major bee journals reveals a host of advertisers for this stock, suggesting the vision of those to distribute this stock across the country is becoming a reality.


Russian bees are not the only game in town that the smaller beekeeper can take advantage of to begin a breeding effort.   An almost bewildering variety of stock is also touted in the bee press, such as New World Carniolan® (see the January 2003 Bee Culture), SMR, Minnesota Hygienics, and other selected survivor stock, advertised as not treated for Varroa.  Those contemplating using stock should ask for documentation (data) that corroborates the claims.  Survivor stock from untreated apiaries in localized areas may also provide good possibilities for breeding efforts.  


To repeat what was earlier stated, it is possible for the small beekeeper to take on a program of breeding mite-tolerant bees.  This situation reminds me of educational programs that seek to make the average investor a trader in his own securities, including mutual funds, bonds, stocks and most risky, stock options, currency and futures.  The successful stock and options trader must have a trading program consisting of entry and exit strategies, and be able to employ a number of tools from charting to using computational skills to ensure that trades have the most potential for success.


It is hoped that this article will provide the fledgling small bee breeder with some of the options that are currently available in terms of obtaining stock for a breeding program..  In addition, tests have been described, which are currently in use to determine if a breeding program is achieving some manner of success.




1.      Glenn Apiaries, Fallbrook, California <http://members.aol.com/queenb95/russian.html>, accessed March 9, 2006.

2.      "Russian Honey Bee Earning Its Stripes," October 2001 issue of Agricultural Research <http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/oct01/bee1001.htm>, accessed March 9, 2006.

3.      Petit, F.  2006.  “Russian Bee Project:  Results are Promising,” HiveLights, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 15, 20, 24, published by the Canadian Honey Council <http://www.honeycouncil/ca>, accessed March 9, 2006.  One can contact Mr. Petit by e-mail  <pilgrimventures@cnwl.igs.net> or on the Web <http://www.igs.net/~pilgrimventures/>, accessed March 10, 2006.

4.      USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research an Education Program <http://www.sare.org/publications/factsheet/0305_02.htm>, accessed March 10, 2006

5.      Ontario Bee Breeding Model <http://www.ontariobee.com/6_queen_nuc/ontario_bee_breeding_model.htm>, accessed March 10, 2006.

6.      United Kingdom Central Science Library <http://www.csl.gov.uk/science/organ/environ/bee/diseases/varroa/monitoringvarroa.cfm>, accessed March 10, 2006.

7.      Russian Queen Project Chronology <http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=6444>, accessed March 10, 2006.

8.      Cooperators in the Russian Queen Project <http://www.ars.usda.gov/Business/docs.htm?docid=4083>, accessed March 10, 2006.

9.      <http://russianbreeder.com/index.html>, accessed March 10, 2006.