December 2002

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

Queens, Queens, Queens!

You don’t have to tell me that I am TOO long winded, but scientists like to “cover all bases”; and, who knows, I might tell you something that you did NOT know. If so, then I feel good, because I have helped you LEARN; and in today’s times, successful beekeeping requires more beekeeper KNOWLEDGE than what was adequate before the mites arrived.

All of you know that the queen is the only bee who lays worker eggs, and that her RACE (ancestry) has very specific genetic differences from other races, some good and others bad. I don’t think any of us want apis mellifera scutellata, the “killer bee” in our apiary or even in our state. Contrasting, a colony headed by an Italian queen, apis mellifera ligustica , or a Carniolan queen, apis mellifera carnica, is an excellent choice for almost any place in the U.S. Perhaps the best features of the Italians are their high yields of honey production and their “golden” color, and the Carniolan is best known for its “explosive”, early spring buildup and the most gentle of all bees. Even these fine races have some faults, e.g., Italians are noted for being intense ROBBERS, and even killing a weak colony when robbing it; and the Carniolans are noted for their high propensity to SWARM. The use of a Caucasian queen, apis mellifera caucasian, is rare because it does not start intense brood rearing until quite late, like May or June, and hence is useful only on nectar sources that yield in late summer or early fall. Regarding the HYBRID lines, Buckfast, Midnite, and Starline, since these are the result of a manmade breeding of two different genetically different bees, they “cannot reproduce themselves”, and were designed for a VERY SPECIFIC PURPOSE rather than a bee for the average hobbyist.

Aside from laying 1500 eggs per day (one at a time – equals 1 every minute) during the height of the egg laying period, the queen has numerous other necessary qualities that determine the quality of a colony (similar to the performance of a working mother being a soccer “mom” today). Why one queen is golden and another is almost black, or the progeny of one queen are nasty and mean while the progeny of another queen are calm and gentle, or why one group of workers winters well and another group winters poorly, or the fact that one group of bees might be disease resistant whereas another group of bees is disease prone, or any of another thousand deviations is all due to the GENETIC makeup of the queen plus the drones that mated with her. SUDDENLY, IT SHOULD BE IMPORTANT TO YOU TO KNOW WHO THESE DRONES WERE! If you purchase a “pedigreed” Carniolan queen from Sue Cobey, and one of her daughter virgin queens “runs off” and mates with all the “neighborhood boys”, your bees are no longer Carniolan nor have the attributes of the Carniolan race of bees. You might as well have wild honey bees that swarmed from Aunt Suzie’s big old oak tree that have had bees in it for the past 30 years, which surely has a “league of nations” ancestry. Has it occurred to you that ONLY THOROUGHBRED horses have won the Kentucky Derby, and all the other races of horses like Hanovarian, quarter horse, or Clydesdale (and you never saw thoroughbred horses pulling a Budweiser Beer Wagon) just don’t have the speed and endurance of the thoroughbred? Different horses for different types of use, and different honey bees for different types of use.

What are these other important qualities of a queen bee? The most important “new” finding is the queen PHEROMONES, first mentioned by Dr. Free in 1974, and heavily researched during the last 25 years. Many of the bee scientists think that we have only “scratched the surface” in our knowledge of honey bee pheromones; and they play an extremely important part in the life of a colony. What is a queen PHEROMONE? It is a chemical substance produced by the queen and released externally which stimulates a specific response by other honey bees. This group of very complex chemicals is received by the other honey bees as an odor or a taste and is microscopic in quantity, but highly active on the bees. The Queen PHEROMONE identifies the queen as THE QUEEN and that she is PRESENT among all of HER bees. It maintains the MORALE of the colony, or “keeping it CALM”. (A queenLESS colony is easily identified because it is NOT calm, but noisy, and easily agitated.) The pheromone prevents worker bee’s ovaries from developing so no eggs are laid. The pheromone is a sex attractant to drones when the virgin queen takes her mating flight. It suppresses the worker bees from building queen cells until the necessity to swarm cannot be overlooked. The pheromone ATTRACTS worker bees to function 100% in behalf of colony survival. The pheromone produces swarm cohesion, i. e., bees will NOT swarm without a queen present in the swarm. The queen pheromone has a role in hive functions too, e. g., comb building, foraging, and food storage. Further, the pheromone affects worker bee longevity. Small colony units, such as new swarms or new splits, receive more pheromone per bee than full size colonies, which may cause them to work faster, harder, and longer, which is important to insure survival. Again, most bee scientists, in 2002, feel that our knowledge of honey bee pheromones is minuscule, and there is so MUCH MORE to be learned about them.

The amount of queen pheromone that a queen can produce each day of her life is at its peak just after the queen is mated, and DIMINISHES a little bit each day thereafter as long as she lives. Hence, a very young queen has the ability to produce enough of her queen pheromone to spread over all the bees in a large population; and this is the VERY REASON that a colony headed by a VERY YOUNG QUEEN rarely swarms. It is estimated that a 13 month old queen is twice as likely to swarm as a 1 month old queen, and a 24 month old queen is three times more likely to swarm than the 1 month old queen. THIS FACT alone is the reason that today most commercial beekeepers requeen a colony EVERY YEAR!

More and more enlightened hobbyist beekeepers are requeening annually. I requeen all my colonies every September 1st; and this not only gives me a fine YOUNG queen for the early spring buildup, but it also gives me a whole bunch of new bees in October to be the winter bees of the colony. Since our central Maryland nectar flow arrives in April and is over for the year by about June 10th (only about 6 weeks long), I don’t like spring re- queening, because it may damage my honey crop; and selected delivery times for queen bees are much harder to secure in the spring than August or September.

I want to mention RUSSIAN queens here, because there are many beekeepers that think the Russian bees are some new race or even some new species of a bee. The Russian bee is a Carniolan, but of a different “stock”. This is identical to saying that Wooten’s bees in California and Wilbanks bees in Georgia are BOTH Italian race, but different “stocks”, i.e., Wootens Italians are a stock of Italian bees developed over 70 years by the Homer Park family, and Wilbanks Italians are a stock of Italian bees developed over 70 years by the Wilbanks family. What do queen breeders do to develop a STOCK of their own choosing? There are many different characteristics of honey bees such as: gentleness, not prone to swarm, winters well, ripens nectar into honey rapidly, excels in honey production, caps the honey white, uses minimum burr comb, uses propolis sparingly, and disease resistance. Maybe a given breeder’s interest is maximum honey production, while a second breeder’s interest is gentleness, and a third breeder’s major interest is minimum use of propolis. Each year, these breeders select their new breeder queens and select their queens for drone production (bet some did not know that) based on the previous year knowledge of the performance of their stock in regard to that characteristic that they value as most important. As I have written and stated many times, in the U. S. there are many great queen breeders, but, unfortunately, there are a bundle of queen producers with limited knowledge of characteristic selection and control. I suspect that a queen breeder whose primary business is the sale of queens to commercial beekeepers produces queens whose principal quality is high honey production, whereas queen breeders who sell to a large number of hobbyist beekeepers over a wide area of our country produces queens whose bees are noted for gentleness.

Now I want to mention two relatively new findings about queen bee genetics that I feel are going to be the ultimate answer to our problems with mite infection and colony death from mites, and these are bees with high Hygienic Behavior, and bees with Suppressed Mite Resistance (SMR). I have written a good bit about both of these qualities recently, but I will briefly explain each of these “geno-types’ here. Fifty years ago, while trying to find a cure for American Foul Brood, Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler found that certain stocks of bees, irrespective of race, were “super nest cleaners” that cleaned out diseased brood and carried it away outside the hive before it could infect the colony with American Foul Brood. Unfortunately, the “discovery” of Terramycin at the same time caused the research of Rothenbuhler to be “put on the back burner”. About 10-15 years ago, Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota wondered if this nest cleaning quality of certain stocks of bees would cause them to remove and destroy varroa mites like a monkey picking fleas off another monkey. She has intensely researched this for the last decade, and has developed a hygienically clean stock of bees that is sold today by Glenn Apiaries in California. Perhaps more important however, is Dr. Spivak has published a paper describing how YOU can test your OWN bees for their Hygienic Behavior and how YOU can develop YOUR OWN STOCK of hygienic bees. Regarding the SMR bees, Drs. Harbo and Harris of the Baton Rouge Lab determined that some varroa mites can NOT reproduce and this characteristic is INHERITABLE! By intensive selection of bees, bees can be raised (irrespective of race) that do not allow the growth of a mite population which would eventually destroy the colony. Unfortunately, the development of SMR bees is still in the hands of highly knowledgeable scientists and is not ready for beekeepers to develop SMR bees themselves. However, as more and more queen breeders become skilled in the production of SMR queens, perhaps some future day SMR queens might be readily available on the market for a reasonable price that could put a halt to the wide existence of the varroa mite. Meanwhile, why don’t you look for Dr. Marla Spivak’s paper about how YOU can raise your own hygienically clean bees!

In this paper called Queens, Queens, Queens!, it would be unfair not to mention how many queens are superseded every year, including YOUR queens, and why successful beekeepers use MARKED queens. To the surprise of many beekeepers, research has indicated that OVER HALF of all new queens are superseded before 12 months have expired! Unless a queen has some very distinguishing appearance, it is pretty safe to say that all queens of the same race look pretty much alike, and hence are very difficult to tell apart. Regardless of how good your eyesight is or how smart you are, I question how many unmarked queens that a beekeeper sees in his hive in September are the same queen that was present in April. Some beekeepers are going to say “So What?” If you have purchased a pedigreed, hygienic or SMR queen from a skilled queen breeder of Italian bees and she leaves in a swarm or is superseded before September, WHAT IS THE BREEDING OF THIS NEW QUEEN IN YOUR COLONY? Did the drones that she bred with have any “killer bee” blood in them? or Carniolan blood? or Uncle Tom’s old German bee blood? Shucks, maybe your new queen bred with ALL of these strange drones, and don’t think that could not happen. After all, a virgin queen mates with 7-17 drones, averaging about 12 different drones. The great majority of informed beekeepers use MARKED queens. There are those who will tell you that marked queens cause them to be superseded early. Maybe these same beekeepers still ring bells and pound pans to bring down a swarm. Bee scientists and researchers have proven for years that a properly marked queen is not unfavorably selected for supersedure. Marked with some “junk” like WHITE OUT or fingernail polish is unsatisfactory because it either does not last or injures the queen. Good marking is to use Tester’s quick drying hobby paint and put a dot on the thorax ONLY, not on the head, legs, or wings. There is an International Code of Colors to use denoting years: years ending in 1 & 6 is white, 2 & 7 is yellow, 3 & 8 is red, 4 & 8 is green, and 5 & 0 is blue. You can remember the sequence by thinking of this line: Will You Read Good Books. If I find a strange queen in one of my colonies, I mark her with light GRAY paint temporarily until I replace her with a pedigreed Carniolan queen. Another advantage of a marked queen is FINDING the queen in your colony, because a MARKED queen stands out like a sore thumb.

I have heard the old story many times that “There are NO ‘pure’ Italian, Carniolan, or Caucasian bees today because the bees of the U. S. have ‘run wild’ for 100 + years with the queens breeding with every drone that came down the highway”. This is not exactly correct. Some highly scientific bee researchers and/or queen breeders who had great genetic knowledge of honey bees have bred thousands of queens with those drones that exhibited a genetic trait that was historically known to exist in that particular race of honey bees. In so doing, these breeders have established a line of Italian bees that is about as true as the original Italian bee first brought to the U. S. about 1851. Sue Cobey and/or Al Dietz have done exactly this using artificial insemination for “purification” of the Carniolan race. Queen breeders such as Reg Wilbanks or Fred Rossman have done exactly the same thing for the Italian race of bees. I have just used these names as examples, but there are other highly knowledgeable and dedicated breeders out there. Unfortunately, it is YOUR job to locate these “princes of ‘pedigree’ breeding of queens” in contrast to that great number of queen producers who have limited knowledge of the genetic make-up of a particular race of honey bees.

There is an old adage that is still true: “The proof is in the eating.” or one can say: “The proof is in the breeding.” If you use MARKED PEDIGREED queens, annually requeen with them, forget the bee management techniques prior to 1984, and use the newer bee management techniques that have been developed in these past 18 years, you will have healthier bees, less swarming, higher honey production, and a lot MORE BEEKEEPER JOY!

I get a real bang out of these silly oafs that say: “Why should I spend $15 to requeen when I can raise my own queens?” or those who say: “Why should I spend $15 to requeen when my present queen is only 12 months old and is a terrific brood producing queen?” If you sell your honey for a cheap $3.00/pound jar, $15 is only equivalent to 5 pounds of honey. Don’t you believe what the bee scientists and researchers have PROVEN that a very young queen is a better laying queen than an older queen and is much less likely to swarm? If $15 is that important to you, how do you justify that new SUV you drive with those fancy (expensive) hubcaps? How do you digest that expensive $30 dinner of filet mignon, when you could have had the roast beef for just $12? I know honey producers that have 10,000 colonies of bees and BUY queens to requeen these colonies every 12 months. There has to be GOOD REASON for them to spend that much money every year on their bees! WHY DON’T YOU REQUEEN, and ONLY with a PEDIGREED MARKED queen bought from a skilled queen breeder rather than that “good ole boy” queen “producer” who has difficulty spelling GENETICS.

I’d like to tell a true personal story about “changing times”. My maternal grandfather was born in 1857 and died in 1953 and had been a farmer his entire life on property that has been in my family since 1736. Papa was a highly successful farmer plowing his 100 acres with a 3 horse team (never had a fancy tractor). After I came home from building the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, my new wife and I rented a house until we got our new home custom built, and I grew tomatoes and trained them to “climb up poles” as was done in the Victory Gardens during World War II. Wow, did I get LOTS of beautiful BIG tomatoes! I told my grandfather about them, how many were ripe on a vine and how big they were, and he did NOT believe me, saying he had grown tomatoes for over 70 years and they were grown on the ground, not on a pole and you always had some that were blemished. In total frustration, I persuaded him to get in my car and travel 4 miles to my rented home and see my tomatoes for himself and my 20 colonies of honey bees. This was 1947 when he was 90 years old. When he saw my “poled” tomatoes heavily laden with big, fat, red tomatoes with no blemishes, he was dumbfounded; and told his friends and neighbors about George’s POLED tomatoes when they visited him. World War II caused new management techniques for raising tomatoes from the time honored acceptable ways of the past. Of course, he got some of my fancy comb honey as my reward for him to come and see my tomatoes. 55 years ago – FOND MEMORIES! By the way, all of this was in Bethesda, Maryland, which is just 10 miles north of the White House and U. S. Capitol, and home of the National Institutes of Health.

Ending now, I am greatly concerned about beeHAVERS and even beeKEEPERS changing queen lines like changing socks, or the Redskins football team changing quarterbacks almost every game, or Elizabeth Taylor changing husbands eight times. Not only is this practice foolish, but it clearly demonstrates that the apiarist is grasping for a “life-preserver” and has no idea of just what he is doing.

Most are just following persuasive advertising or the lead of one of the local “good ole boys”, just spending money foolishly. Come on guys, you have a brain, STUDY the latest findings of bee scientists and/or bee researchers, talk to one or more MASTER BEEKEEPERS, and then USE YOUR OWN BRAIN to make a decision. The latest queens in the news are the Russian queens and the SMR queens. The Russian queens are just a hybridized queen descendant from an imported queen that was CARNIOLAN from a stock of bees in Eastern Russia; and the SMR queen is nothing more than a descendant from a queen that exhibited the ability to live among mites who did not breed very well. What makes you think that the Russian or SMR queen you buy for $15-$20 is going to have these qualities? Sooner or later, after more queen breeders raise a “slew” of these critters and select the best for their breeder queens, hopefully maybe the Russian queens or the SMR queens will, in fact, be mite resistant. Won’t that be wonderful? However, who knows whether these Russian queens or SMR queens are good brood producers, good honey producers, disease resistant, winter well, and what about their gentleness? Do you know? Of course not. When buying a Russian queen or an SMR queen right now, you are buying the proverbial “pig in a poke”! START USING YOUR BRAIN! Of course, if you don’t want to do any WORK or STUDY, but just spend money, go ahead, buy the moon if you want. However, if you really want to save your bees from mites and the use of chemicals to kill the mites, buy a new pedigreed, marked queen from a knowledgeable queen breeder and study Dr. Marla Spivak’s directions for testing bees for their HYGIENIC BEHAVIOR, and TEST your bees YOURSELF! If you find the new queen that you bought produces bees with great hygienic behavior, try raising some queens from her, or making splits using swarm cells. You will be the “talk of the town” and the most respected beekeeper in your state if you wind up with a whole bunch of colonies that survive mites without chemical treatment. I wish I was 10 years younger so I could try before I die. You do it, and just say that you were “challenged” by George Imirie to give it a try; and that would make me VERY HAPPY!

George W. Imirie, Jr.
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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