Improving Honeybee Queen Quality and Diversity in Ohio

December 6, 2022
Hongmei Li-Byarlay received support from a SARE Partnership grant to improve the quality and quantity of queen bee production in Ohio. Photo courtesy of the Li-Byarlay Lab.

Ohio beekeepers are losing 50-60 percent of their managed bee colonies each year, according to Hongmei Li-Byarlay, Associate Professor of Entomology at Central State University. Li-Byarlay studies the genetics and behavior of honey bees and believes mite-resistant bees could help improve Ohio honeybees. Her research lab focuses on honeybee genetics and behavior, and recently she has been exploring queen bee quality and genetic diversity.

“Promoting mite-resistant bees is one of the most effective ways to mitigate bee decline,” said Li-Byarlay. “We have a collection of bee stocks from feral colonies that are mite resistant with high mite biting behavior. However, the limiting factor is too few queens and nuclei available to fulfill the demand of local beekeepers.”

With support from an NCR-SARE Partnership Grant, Li-Byarlay’s Lab worked with experienced queen producers in Ohio to improve the queen quality of honeybee stocks in Ohio.

“We want to improve the beekeepers’ understanding of the biology of queen bees and help to transfer and distribute favorable genetics to more bee farmers,” said Li-Byarlay. “The outcome is to improve the quality and quantity of queen production in the region.”

The Art of Grafting
beekeeper grafting queen cells
Xaryn Cleare, an alumnus of the
Li-Byarlay Lab, transfers young larvae
from breeder queens into cell cups.
He will place these in a nutrient-rich
starter hive. The queen cells will then
hatch into future queen bees. This
process is called “grafting.”
Photo courtesy of the Li-Byarlay Lab.

Commercial queen bees start their lives through an activity that queen rearers call “grafting.” Grafting is when queen bee producers transfer young larvae from breeder queens into cell-building colonies. The traditional grafting process takes ten days and requires specialized knowledge and resources.

For this SARE project, Li-Byarlay successfully used a relatively new 48-hour method of grafting. This abbreviated 48-hour method is promising because it’s faster and requires fewer resources than traditional queen-rearing.

“For many beekeepers, the bottleneck to diversifying their queen genetics is finding an affordable price for queen purchasing,” said Li-Byarlay. “Our approach is to lower the cost by providing 48-hour queen cells. At the same time, beekeepers can have more diversity in their queen and honeybee colony genetics in their backyard, which will promote more outbreeding and less inbreeding.”

Feral Vs. Commercial Bees

The team studied feral, Russian, and commercial package bees when looking at the egg-laying behavior/rate of queens from different bee stocks. Queen cells from Russian stock, feral colonies, and commercial queen stock emerged, mated, and were placed into new nuc colonies with the same amount of worker bees.

Results showed that the feral bees had a higher egg-laying rate than the commercial bees. The team hosted field days to demonstrate how to do queen rearing and make 48-hr queen cells. 100 queen cells from their mite-resistant stocks went home with workshop participants. They also held several workshops on how to make and use swarm traps to catch feral bee colonies.

“Overall, we have had a broad impact on the change of knowledge in queen rearing, genetics, and breeding in Ohio, especially in South Western Ohio regions,” said Li-Byarlay.

NCR-SARE starts accepting Partnership grant proposals in mid-August. Learn more here.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant:

Topics: Beekeeping, Pollinator Health
Related Locations: North Central, Ohio