Honey Bee Queen Research with Dr. Jeffery Pettis
Every year queen bee producers ship honey bee queens to beekeepers across the USA and Canada. Often people are surprised that bees can be mailed– by both the US Postal Service and UPS. Each box can contain hundreds of queens, and as you might imagine, that's a highly perishable shipment! Queens are vulnerable in transit, especially to temperature extremes. Studies have shown that even though the queens may arrive alive, unseen damage due to temperature exposure will result in lower colony productivity. That means less honey, poor brood patterns, premature supersedure and lower winter survival.
Pick up any beekeeping textbook, and it will confirm that a queen bee may be productive for several years. Unfortunately, in recent years it is not uncommon for a queen to fail much sooner, and beekeepers report re-queening their colonies up to two times per year. This is a growing concern for many beekeepers as it results in increased inputs – the cost of replacement queens and labor, often accompanied with decreased colony productivity.
In addition to the financial consequences linked to reproductive quality, these issues raise interesting research questions about why the reproductive quality of queens and drones may be changing.
Dr. Jeffery S. Pettis, formerly at the USDA ARS in Beltsville, then working from the University of Bern in Bern, Switzerland and now back in the USA doing independent research, has been working on these questions for several years. Recognizing the need for more research about how sperm viability in queens can affect their productivity and even their lifespan, Dr. Pettis has been studying temperature and pesticide exposure impacts on sperm viability and queen quality, colony productivity, health and success.
Along with sperm viability and colony health, Dr. Pettis has been learning and informing us about how shipping environments can affect these factors. By placing sensors in standard packages of queen and worker bees during shipping and reading the data once the queens arrive at their destination, researchers are able to “ride along” with the bees during shipment and analyze the conditions they are exposed to. This data is being collected not only by Dr. Pettis, but also in collaborative studies with with Dr. David Tarpy under a USDA-NIFA grant, and by Drs. Marta Guarna and Steve Pernal of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in Beaverlodge, AB. These conditions can then be recreated in a lab, to measure the impact of these temperature extremes on queens.
While this data provides valuable information to have in our knowledge bank, Dr. Pettis is also thinking about what this means in terms of practical solutions. Gaining the knowledge and ability to provide guidance and tools for shipping, maintenance, and management of queens is one part of the project. By working together with shipping companies like USPS and UPS, Dr. Pettis hopes to provide education to company employees about the importance and how-to of providing optimized care for honey bees during shipping and handling. Additionally, new shipping methods are being developed and tested in this study which provide climate and humidity-control for queen shipment boxes with the intention of mitigating damage from temperature and environmental stressors. All this is being done with close consultation with queen breeders.
Healthier hives and healthier beekeeping businesses need healthy queen bees. Dr. Pettis’ research exemplifies applying scientific research to a problem which is affecting honey bees and agriculture in a tangible way. Having identified a problem which is contributing to honey bee stress, through collaboration with other researchers, and utilizing creative partnerships with shipping companies and beekeepers, Dr. Pettis is working towards finding practical solutions.
This project administered by Project Apis m. is funded by The National Honey Board
Read more about PAm administered queen research here