Apis mellifera Genetic trials for Commercial Almond Pollination

Hello and thank you for stopping by. My name is Marcel Mueller and I am a Sophomore Plant Protection Science student here at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo whose interests go beyond the field. Mainly I am interested in symbiotic relationships between organisms, such as a pollinator and a flower or a fungus breaking down nitrogenous waste to be integrated into the soil. They all interest me! I've had a passion for agriculture ever since I can remember and started keeping bees when I was 12 years old. I wanted to connect with my grandfather a passionate beekeeper who passed away before I had the chance to meet him. Since then I have been working with bees off and on and attempting to be a farmer. Now that I am studying crop production, keeping bees on a larger scale and helping teach the apiculture course at Poly, I have become increasingly aware of voids within the ecology of agriculture. By far the most complex of these is the genetic improvement of bees for commercial pollination. This page will share my queen selection processes and the steps I plan on taking to become a better farmer, student, and steward of the earth.

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Examining Neocaridina heteropoda in a Polyponic's aquaponic system

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Speaking on bee health at the California Rare Fruit Growers end year meeting. Photo by Joe Sabol

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Students opening up a hive with Dr. Wardell during a Spring lab

Photo taken of me removing hives from almonds. Photo by Jeremy Rose

Disclaimer: The following writing is the rough outline and reasoning for a 4-year queen breeding project not funded by Cal Poly or Scientifically endorsed. The accompanying writing may contain personally held beliefs that hold little to no scientific reasoning or research to support their claim. This being said, these are the values that I hold dear in May 2017 after 5 years of beekeeping experience and observations

Issues associated with commercial almond pollination

In the United States, almond pollination is king. In terms of commercial pollination on a typical annual span, the almond bloom occurs at the beginning of the pollination season (Valentine's day). Almond growers are the largest user of honey bees, and thus offer the greatest economic benefit to beekeepers (ranging from 180-210 dollars per hive). In the last sentence, the key details were: the time of year almond pollination occurs and economic viability. Because the greatest pollination event is so early in the year and so lucrative, beekeepers have selected predominantly Italian queens because these queens have ideal traits to maintain large colony populations year around (ideal for pollination in late winter). They are docile and therefore easily manipulated and transported from warmer regions of the US where the climate favor bee propagation. One drawback of the Italian queen type is that they are highly predisposed to the Varroa destructor mite, which acts as a vector to disease and weakens overall colony health. This mite problem is further amplified by the fact that the commercial bee propagation model dictates that any colony that possesses a reproduction opportunity must be utilized to the fullest to increase profit. This has the unintended consequence of eliminating breaks in brood cycles that reduce mite numbers. To combat these unintended consequence hives are treated for mites. Combined with preference to select queen stock strictly for their purpose in pollination, while disregarding the issue of disease and mite resistance, commercial Italian bees will most likely die if left alone. Commercial bees are systematically treated to mask the effects of disease and pest pressures (a genetic test in nature), effectively eliminating the natural process that ensures that only superior genetics survive. In sum, commercial beekeepers and queen breeders have put bees at a distinct evolutionary disadvantage by selecting for traits that do not follow the demands of natural selection. To address this problem the answer is not to simply let all the bees die and make new hives from the ones that are survivor stock. This would cause a deficit in pollination services and a global food crisis would occur. The answer, rather, is to let individuals who recognize the risk and responsibility as queen breeders to produce better and supply better genetic stock to commercial pollinators.

What I'm attempting to do

My goal is to create a hybrid queen genetic line that produces a consistent, dependable queen that can survive without manufactured chemical aids, is comparable to an Italian colony in terms of size during February given supplemental feed, is economically viable and is not highly aggressive.

Why San Luis Obispo is ideal for breeding improved commercial bees.

San Luis Obispo is located in a Mediterranean climate ideal for growing citrus, grapes, avocado and plenty of bee forage year around. Given that the Italian honey bee evolved in a climate very similar to SLO and demands constant simulation in order to produce a booming Almond pollination ready colony in February, SLO is perfect for Italians. But Italian bees are not perfect by any means. Prone to robbing and disease issues selective breeding and hybridization can help. SLO's forage makes it a destination for overwintering colonies that send out prime pre-almond swarms very early. Many of these swarms become feral and are subjected to natural selection's processes of refining genetics. Given that, the characteristics of many of these feral hives are similar to Italians, as is demanded in order to survive in the Mediterranean climate. An issue that does influence wild honey bees in SLO is African genetics. I have dealt with hives where they were simply unworkable due to aggression but many are workable and gain the viral, pathological defenses scutellata posses. While many see Africanization as a queen breeding deal breaker, I feel quite the opposite. There are many benefits to these bees that I have had the pleasure to seen on numerous occasions. An example of this is was in a bee yard in Perfumo Canyon near the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. In a yard with 24 colonies all plagued with Varroa earlier that year and struggling to survive with no flow, minimal stores left, and freak 80 degree days in December, all but one looked like they were going to die. The one thriving colony had a solid 12 frames of brood and a super full of fresh nectar. The queen was said to have been mated in a scutellata rich area near the Huasna valley of Arroyo Grande south of SLO. I don't expect the previous example to change anyone's thoughts about scutellata, especially without any real data. Simply, scutellata, if bred back to themselves, are a menace, but if hybridized and carefully selected they work harder, longer, forage farther and are not affected as grossly as the standard commercial Italian bee. How much of this resistance and tolerance is due to swarming is still up for debate but I believe that pissier bees may save the entire bee industry.

How am I attempting accomplishing my goal
From April 2017 to current (Nov 12th 2017) I performed queen trials from queen stock obtained from ButtsBees-Mississippi (VSH Italian), Wooten Queens-California (Italian), Old Sol-Oregon (survivor stock Russian hybrid), Henry Storch Old Blue Raw-Oregon (Russian survivor stock/feral), Perdue Mite bitter (donated by Henry Storch), Sam Comfort- New York (Russian/feral) survivor stock, Olympic Wilderness apiary-Washington (Russian-survivor stock/feral), Tim Mcfarline-New York (Russian survivor stock),Chips Bees John Wilson- California (Italians) and Bee Weaver-Texas (hybrid buckfast,russian,Italian, scutellata survivor stock).

Cultural Techniques Used: Basic hive layout consists of standard 10 frame Langstroths with #8 screen bottom boards. There's a fair amount of controversy surrounding the issue of cell size and foundation vs. no foundation. Mimicking a "natural" hive in the commercial setting is seemingly contradictory, but my fall back is to lean towards the natural hive design. To accomplish this I'm using Kelley bees foundationless frames and checkerboarding with Mannlake PF-100 and using multiple 1/2 inch diameter entrances covered with mating nuc disks. I prefer to not use the plastic PF-100 small cell frames because I dislike plastic frames but they prevent cross-combing. One benefit of using foundationless is the lack of brace comb (seen in the image below). I suspect this relates to the bees focusing their attention on drawing out comb without structure. It must be emphasized that there are a variety of drawbacks with foundationless frames like blowouts during extractions, increased labor for beekeepers and bees alike. This makes foundationless not commercially viable. Though I intend for my queens to serve industrial purposes they will not, unless I increase the cultural pressures to more commercially realistic levels (No breaks in brood cycle, standard cell size, high-density yards etc). Being in the beginning stages of this breeding project I am hesitant to apply any more environmental stresses on the breeder stock as the risk and subsequent failures so far have been so severe. Once the gene pool grows with the desirable base stock acquired in 2017 I will consider increasing environmental pressures. file-1[4353].jpeg

Who should adapt? Beekeeper, bees, both?
Forcing bees to adapt is most easily accomplished by allowing hive structures to be as naturally design and sought out by bees. These characteristics are displayed by cell size, brood nest volume, drone brood amount, location and reproductive strategies. The Langstroth hive is not a tree hive by any means. In my experience, the commercial beekeeping industry has held the attitude that the long-term success of Apis mellifera is dependent on breeding bees selected for pest/pathogen resistance and tolerance while continuing to perform the same production model used for the last 50 years. Frequently erroneous logic is manifested in beekeepers testing TF bees in a commercial setting and then experiencing high losses. It is a shame to hear beekeepers attacking each other's stock when there are so many factors contributing to TF bees success. My selection process killed many bees, but that does not imply that the queen lines lost where bad or ineffective, they just didn't succeed for me. The only treatment free queen that succeeds is the one that is grafted, hatched, mated and superseded in your own apiaries. Beekeeping is animal husbandry and is not a one-sided relationship. If beekeepers expect to survive along with the creatures they depend on, we need to knowingly structure cultural choices whether that may be equipment selection or maintenance to best suit the bees. While the same argument can be made about applying miticides or antibiotics it comes down to personal preference, my tendency is to lean towards mimicking natural hives.

Results of Trial as of Nov 12th 2017

After significant loses, the stock that has shown the most promise as been Bee Weaver stock. This has also come with the sight catch that they come with an increased level of aggression. While the term Africanized is overused and Africanized bees are prevalent in my county, I do contribute a large amount of success to the fact that these bees hyper-alertness to their surrounds. This group of 6 queens originally and now 5 have an interesting story of being delayed by USPS for 2 days and still having 100% acceptance rate and outperforming all other queens groups. The genetic diversity in Bee Weaver's line is very apparent with the mix of bee coloration from the 4 colonies. I look forward to continuing to work with this line as they fend off ants like no other and have many positive traits. The only times I have found them to display aggression is will minimal smoke, otherwise very workable. Besides Bee Weaver, Sam comfort's #2 line performed the 2nd best, followed by Olympic Wilderness and Old Sol.

Contributing factors that lead to significant failures

  • Shipping: delays in shipping caused entire sets of queens to be forfeited as none were accepted by the colonies after delays, these included the Purdue's and Old Blue Raw Honey's queens.
  • Ants: Ant problems led to the collapse of multiple colonies particularly Italians who seemed the least defensive, ant problems were further amplified through the use of screen bottom boards.
  • Packages: All hives were started from queen-less packages, I regret using this method greatly because many packages contained virgins or a mated queen.
  • Absconding
  • robbing: The worst robbing occurred in Italian colonies, this was further perpetuated by the surrounding areas having 120 Italian colonies within one mile.
  • Busy student: I paid for this trial by my own dollar and because of it I had to work. Sometimes being forced to choose between work & school over bees

Future goals (Year 2)

-I plan on spreading ant bait throughout my yard to combat ants and have the spring rains water it in (I will apply it properly according to CA regulations).
-Graft off surviving and divide colonies around March 15 to make up for loses
-Re-coop lost money from honey sales
-Purchase more non-Italian queens possibly more Bee Weaver
-Take hives to Tahoe area for flow during coastal dearth/ for isolated queen mating
-Incorporate queens from feral colonies shown to have a large Italian like colony size year around
Making swarm traps to be placed around campus

a view of San Luis Obispo from the top of the avocado hillside orchard

Swarm trap in place

One of the CP campus's thriving bee trees. Notice the large cluster size for December with a flow of eucalyptus,avocado, citrus and manzanita blooming.

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removing feral colony from abandoned RV in Half Moon bay CA

Future goals (Year 3)

-reintroduce survivor Italian stock
-reach 100 hives

Future goals (Year 4)

-Almond pollination tests

Thanks and Contributors

I would like to thank Henry Storch, Sam Comfort, John Wilson of Chip's Bees and Wooten's Queen Bees for their generosity and donations of bees. In addition, I wish to thank Jeremy Rose of California Bee Company, Alisha Taft of Rock Front Ranch Honey Company and Dr. Gordon Wardell for aiding in my attempts to enter the apiculture industry, for providing locations, supporting and introducing me to many great apiculturists. Special thanks to Dr. Schwartz for fighting on behalf of the student body to continue Student Experimental Farm. I greatly appreciate the industry support I have received. Without it, I would not be able to further select ideal queens for the Central California Climate and commercial pollination.

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installing packages May 2017

receiving a queen group in the mail
Flight after 2nd October rain and beginning of late Fall/Winter flow Eucalyptus/Manzanita/Citrus ( dead out equipment in background)

Feeding Megabee in heavy syrup mixture during September dearth

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October view after heavy losses due to mites and starvation of mostly Italians

Playing around with a mating nuc design. This holds two deep frames, costs 8 dollars to produce and uses rebar rods as an ant-proof stand.

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Visiting queen producer John Wilson in Piru CA for Italian stock selection

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The Louisiana Bee Research station where work on VSH and Russian genetic selection is currently underway. Thank you Dr. Danka for meeting with me!

Hello, my name is Marcel Mueller. I am an undergraduate Crop Science student and apiculturist at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo California. At the university level I'm a TA under Dr. Gordan Wardell of The Wonderful Company, who instructs the beekeeping course (Course Code), and an avid farmer outside of the university setting. It may be ambitious to start to prepare for a senior project with many more years of academia ahead, but I see a need for better colony genetics. My goal is to improve genetic traits in colonies that do not require chemical intervention, and make them commercially applicable, but this is a task that takes years to see significant improvements. Armed with a passion, concern, beehives and a supportive university that fosters hands on learning, I plan on making improvements in the queen genetics industry given enough time and resources.

While my perspectives continue to evolve with the more I learn, I strongly believe that there are certain practices that should be discontinued in commercial apiculture for the betterment of agriculture. One observation in beekeeping and agriculture in general has been that people are quick to jump to conclusions and deem something right or wrong, frequently segregating themselves and alienating each other for the use of different problem-solving techniques or views of how nature should be incorporated into our food supply. I would like to stop this practice and I highly discourage people for holding any opinion too closely. It does not aid in education or critical thinking but further debilitates improvements. That is why I recognize that some of the techniques and approaches I utilize are not applicable to commercial apiculture, and that is an issue that will need to be solved in the future if I am going to be able to succeed in my endeavors around bees and sustainability. Throughout this project I need to be cognizant that people's livelihood and abilities to feed their children are dependent on keeping volatile insects in boxes. And while it is easy to completely write off commercial apiculture as harmful, and say we need to rethink industrial farming, commercial apiculture is a contemporary reality: it is how we feed the world. We must remember that all beekeepers want the same thing at the end of the day: bees that can take care of themselves with less human intervention, while still serving the purpose of pollinators and honey producers. My belief is that improved genetic selection techniques and improved cultural practices are the best long term solutions.