How to Breed Better Bees
With bees, just like all plants and animals, traits — both good and bad — are passed from one generation to the next. With respect to livestock (and your bees can be considered livestock) it is common to select from your “herd” to retain the best traits and minimize or eliminate the worst.
This is how the many different dog breeds came into existence, and it has also shaped the characteristics of our chickens, cows, corn, and so on.
To breed better bees, you need one or more mothers and a whole lot of fathers. So there are two types of colonies you will select to be your breeding stock:
Queen mother colony: Your very best colony and the queen that rules the colony is the one to use to raise more queens. This queen is called the queen mother.
Drone mother colony: Wherever you plan to allow your queens to do their mating, you want to have the most desirable drone (male bee) stock available. You don’t want drones from sub-par colonies contributing their poor genetics to your fine queens.
Unless you live in an area where you can guarantee isolation, you will be unable to control the drone gene pool completely. But you can stack the deck in your favor by doing your best to saturate the area with lots of healthy drones from colonies with desirable traits.
No matter how you go about raising queens, provide your queen-rearing operation with every advantage. Go easy on, or even avoid completely, any chemical treatments, and make sure your bees have plenty of honey and pollen.
Whether you are selecting a queen mother or a drone mother, there are certain traits you will want to consider. Some traits are more hereditary than others. In the case of honey bees, here are some of the most desirable traits to look for when selecting colonies for your breeding project:
Gentleness: Gentleness is an important (and very hereditary) trait for bees to have — no beekeeper wants to be stung. You can test a colony for gentleness by vigorously waving a wand with a black leather patch at the end over an open hive. This will alarm the bees, and they may rush up to sting the leather patch. After a minute or so, count the stingers on the patch. The colonies with the fewest stingers in the patch are the most gentle.
Resistance to disease and pests: Bee breeders and commercial queen producers are making progress with breeding bees that are resistant or more tolerant to disease. You can do this as well by identifying those colonies that are the most robust and require the least treatment. Raise queens using stock from these “super-star” colonies.
Hardiness: Winter hardiness is especially important to beekeepers in climates that have long, cold winters. If you live in a climate where winter’s deep freeze lasts 10 to 12 weeks or more, then you may regard winter as the enemy, at least as far as your bees’ survival goes. Colonies that survive a long cold spell must be healthy and strong.
They must produce and store enough honey to fuel their winter hunker-down. And they should slow down their brood rearing in the fall efficiently, and start up in the spring in time to have their numbers grow to take advantage of the spring nectar flow. It takes a healthy, productive, well-rounded colony to survive a northern winter. These are desirable traits for your colonies.
Productivity: Some say you can’t really select for honey production when breeding queens because there are too many other factors, such as the weather (if it doesn’t rain, then there are fewer flowers, and honey production will be low). So whereas honey production may be more a function of environment than genetics, if one of your colonies consistently produces more honey than another, consider that colony’s queen for breeding.