The Global Bee Breeders Initiative

Bee Culture (March 2007) Vol. 135 (3): 21-24.




Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford



In my last column (Bee Culture, February 2007), I reported on a new nosema that has been detected in Europe and could be responsible in part for some of “disappearing disease” being reported there.  This new variation of a traditional disease makes it more difficult for scientists to nail down specific causes of colony collapse.  In the United States, for example, a spate of what was called “fall-dwindle disease,”1 now renamed “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD,2 has investigators befuddled and is leading to some research initiatives that we should be hearing more about in the future.


One of the issues that might be lost in the cacophony surrounding these collapses is the inexorable decline in feral bee populations caused principally by Varroa, and subsequent loss of genetic variability.  This brings into focus Dr. Larry Connor’s article in the January 2007 Bee Culture, which discussed “curiously promiscuous” queens, and concluded that “Diversity, it seems, is all it’s cracked up to be.”  In that article, he said “I was trained to develop large numbers of colonies of genetically uniform hives.  I suspect they…had no tolerance against either the tracheal mite or Varroa mite.  We have lost a lot of colonies, and while I have argued that while we lost a great deal of genetic diversity, we certainly lost a huge number of very uniform, highly susceptible stocks.”  He concluded with the hope that individual beekeepers, or some of the new bee breeding groups that are developing around the country, will be able to increase this diversity in the next decade or so.


I wrote about this same issue almost a decade ago and it is worth revisiting.3  Ever since introduction of the Varroa mite in 1987, the press has become sensitized to the fact that the bee population is being threatened by this parasite. As with most issues of this sort, reports range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some have been justifiably criticized for their lack of investigative rigor and sensationalistic fervor. Although wild honey bees are being lost, commercial agriculture continues to prosper because treated, managed colonies are still available for pollination. The beekeeping industry should also be gratified that honey bees are at last getting some of the respect they have so long deserved as pollinators in helping to produce a bountiful food supply.

“Lost in most of these reports is a major effect the reduction of the feral bee population may have on genetic diversity of the managed honey bee population.4.  Nature has built into honey bee behavior elaborate mechanisms to prevent a narrowing of the genetic base. Most significant is the fact that queens mate with 10 to 17 drones in the air.5. Effectively controlling mating activity has been a goal of many queen breeders, but often is impossible unless some degree of isolation is established. This usually has been accomplished on islands.6

“The United States' production of honey bee queens and package bees like many crops is based on a few individuals. Because of this, genetic variation in the drone population provided by wild or feral nests has been considered beneficial. It keeps the genetic base in commercially available queens and bees from becoming too small. With less genetic material generally available, however, the probability of inbreeding increases. The consequences of this have been well described in other crop- and animal-breeding systems. They include susceptibility to diseases and pests, expression of harmful recessive traits, or a general lack of vigor. In humans, the possibility has led to prohibitions in most cultures of marriage within immediate families.

“In honey bees, there is also another risk when the genetic base narrows. It is known that as inbreeding occurs there is more chance for diploid drones to be produced. These individuals are homozygous (have the same gene form or allele) at the sex locus; only those with different alleles become females. All diploid drones are destroyed by the colony in the larval stage and the queen is then obliged to lay another egg to replace each. Colonies suffering this condition, called "inbreeding depression," may have 50 percent less developing brood. As a consequence, they cannot build enough population to produce surpluses, and in some cases may not survive.7

“Dr. Marion Ellis estimates that the entire United States' commercial queen population is the result of five hundred individual breeder queens.8  If this is so, there is the possibility that inbreeding depression may be reaching epidemic proportions, and some of the weaknesses seen in bee populations attributed to a variety of causes may in fact be due to this condition. Unfortunately, little is known about the genetic history of many queen mothers used in commercial operations. Nevertheless, it is important to know about the situation and its possible implications.

“As inbreeding becomes more probable, the concept of making the 1922 bee importation law more relevant to current conditions takes on greater significance.9  The beekeeping industry may have to accept more risk in importing bee stock in exchange for widening the genetic base of commercially available queens and bees.”10  Since I wrote those words, the Canadians and Australians have cracked the U.S. market and are importing stock on a controlled basis.11 

Recently, I visited Argentina and had some discussions about this issue with Mr. Martín Braunstein, an Argentine breeder..  We are proposing that at the next Apimondia meeting in Australia (September 9-14, 2007) a Global Bee Breeders Initiative be established.  At the present time, it appears that this activity will be part of Sue Cobey’s symposium on instrumental insemination and bee breeding.  I have installed a web page on the issue, which in part states:12

“There continues to be promising research in Varroa tolerance and resistance through finding and selecting ‘survivor’ stocks, and also by looking at the biology of both the mite and the bee to understand interactions that reduce the virulence of Varroa in stocks.  An example of the former is the introduction of Russian (Primorski) stock into the U.S., and the latter is the work on Varroa-sensitive hygiene (VSH), previously called suppressed mite reproduction (SMR). Some of these efforts are cataloged at the queen production, breeding and producer lens.13

.“In the future, the above activity will also be enhanced by the presence of new technologies such as DNA analysis (the honey bee genome has been completed) and cryopreservation of sperm.  These, coupled with new genetic knowledge about both honey bees and their pests and parasites, promise to revolutionize bee breeding.

“The effects of Africanized honey bees in the Americas, and the spread across the globe of Varroa and more recently small hive beetle reveal that moving bee stock is not without risk.  In spite of this, however, the practice continues whether it be illegal movement (i.e. in a beekeeper's pocket) or legal through an elaborate process as was done with Russian stock, first introduced to a barrier island off Louisiana.  A recent example of each has been found in Canada.  A beekeeper who attempted to cross the Alberta border with a load of queens was intercepted.  The country subsequently has opened its borders to U.S. queens on a limited basis.

“All this leads to the question of how do beekeepers, beekeeping organizations, breeders and others deal with the inevitable fact that the honey bee's genetic material is not only currently being distributed around the world, but also that this activity may be of vital importance for many regions of the globe ravaged by bee diseases or human activity like warfare.  Therefore, it appears the time has come to develop a global effort in an attempt to get agreement on technologies to formally and officially exchange honey bee genetic material with a minimum of risk.

“The genesis of ‘The Global Bee Breeder's Initiative:  Increasing the Honey Bee's Genetic Variability With Minimal Risk’ is a presentation made by Martín Braunstein, a queen breeder in Argentina during the recent Apimondia Congress on queen breeding in Bulgaria.”14 

According to Mr. Braunstein several things are coming into play that might contribute to the current situation.  Specifically, much like most business activities around the world, beekeeping is a global enterprise, but with unique characteristics because it is tied to the seasons of the year.  These are different yet complement each other.  The queen-rearing season in the Northern hemisphere, for example, corresponding to March through September is reversed in the Southern hemisphere where it corresponds to September through March.  Key players in the supply and demand chain exist in both hemispheres: Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina in the south and Canada, U.S.A, and Europe in the north.  Thus, there appear to be some interesting possibilities to exchange genetic material through importing/exporting queens counterseasonally.

General negotiations continue with reference to all kinds of trade that also affect beekeeping from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now the World Trade Organization (WTO) to deliberations by USDA Aphis in the U.S. and the European integrated approach to food safety and animal welfare.15  A number of international standards setting organizations exist to tap into as well.  One example is the OI.E. (World Organization for Animal Health).16

Globalization of honey bee diseases and pests over the last two decades is a reality and must be confronted by the world beekeeping community, including spread of tracheal and Varroa mites, small hive beetle, and now Nosema cerana.  Several other situations exist that are causing some sleepless nights for regulators, scientists and beekeepers, including arrival of Tropilaelaps claraea17 and Apis mellifera capensis.18

In an unregulated world, everyone loses, according to Mr. Braunstein, and this has certainly been the case with indiscriminant dispersal of mites and beetles.  The same is true for what he calls a “reactive” policy, where regulators wait until some problem arises and then attempt to control it.  By then it’s usually too late.  A more productive approach is “proactive,” managing risk up front through the use of agreed-upon standards and, inspections.  The best chance of this happening is that it be championed by a breeders organization. 

Setting up a global bee breeders initiative will not be easy because so many competing entities are involved, but it is worth a try.  Mr. Braunstein counsels that the first few steps, specifically creating a vision and mission based on fundamental scientific and regulatory principles, will be extremely important.  That will be the charge to those attending Apimondia 2007 in Australia.  Your feedback is solicited.



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