Few things are as mysterious and amazing as the life of the queen bee, says bee breeder Sue Cobey. Just a few days after she hatches from her cell, the queen’s fertility is optimal and she has just a brief time to mate for the rest of her four-year life.

The timing is critical, says Cobey, as she describes the process to a roomful of rapt Puget Sound-area beekeepers. If the weather is warm and mild, she leaves the hive, flying low at first to avoid her own colony’s drones before heading to a place where drones from other hives are waiting for a queen to fly by.

As many as 25,000 drones from 300 colonies could be in an area waiting for a queen, says Cobey, who splits her time between Washington State University and the University of California at Davis, where she manages the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.

Over her first few days the queen will make several flights, mating with up to 15 drones a trip, Cobey tells the beekeepers who, even with their years of bee experience, are still amazed to learn these new details. This takes place at least 60 feet above ground and supplies the queen with enough sperm to produce eggs for about four years. “She saves a little bit of sperm from all the drones she mated with,” Cobey explains.

Then, in about six more days, the queen is ready to lay eggs and start producing a new diverse generation of worker bees to tend to her and her hive. All this is complicated enough, but then there are impediments provided by humankind.

One of the biggest challenges is the Honeybee Act, introduced by the U.S. government in 1922 to stop all importation of honey bees to the United States for the purpose of preventing the introduction of the tracheal mite. “So all we have is this little population from 1922 that has established our honey bee stock,” says Cobey. She doesn’t think there’s enough genetic diversity for the bees to deal with the new issues they face—from life-threatening parasites to colony collapse.

In addition, because we are so reliant on queen bee breeders, we’re losing genetic diversity from our queens, she says. There are only a few queen breeders in the United States and they’ve been using the same stock and selecting for certain traits for decades. The lemony yellow Italian bees bred in California are, by far, the most popular, but they are sometimes more vulnerable. Cobey’s solution is to make new queens with new genetic backgrounds, and at the same time encourage more local beekeepers to raise their own queens.

Cobey, who joined WSU in 2010, is world-famous for her bee work. In the 1980s she developed the New World Carniolan stock by backcrossing bees from around North America displaying Carniolan traits. Originally from the Austrian Alps and the Balkans, they are darker than the popular Italian honey bees, are known for their gentle behavior, and may be more suited to cooler weather and more populated areas. Besides backcrossing to create new stock, Cobey has worked with WSU entomologist Steve Sheppard to increase the bee gene pool by importing bee semen from Europe. After decades of seeking government approval to bring in new genetic material, they made their first collecting trip in 2006. “It took me 22 years to get that first tube of semen into the United States,” says Cobey.

To ensure no new diseases would be introduced, the semen they collected from drones in Europe, sometimes in remote mountain areas, was tested for viruses. Virgin queens from the New Carniolans were inseminated with semen from the Old World bees to create offspring. The progeny was also tested for virus, and the offspring bees were kept in quarantine over winter in the Palouse, miles away from most honey bee enterprises. By doing this, Cobey hopes to improve the bee stock, with more resistance to diseases and less susceptibility to virus, mites, and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.

She is also trying to breed bees better suited for the Northwest. The few queen breeding operations in this country are for the most part working for large-scale beekeepers in warmer climates, says Cobey. If you’re a small-scale beekeeper, the queen breeders aren’t as apt to provide you with queens, she says. Even at $20 to $30 a queen, they want to sell in bulk, filling orders in the thousands, not dozens.

So you should produce your own queens instead of buying them, she tells the beekeepers, mapping out exactly what to do. You want a crowded hive and lots of food, a high ratio of nurse bees (the youngest of the worker bees who tend the queen and maintain the hive), and either a restricted or absent queen. “Stuff the box with lots of bees,” Cobey tells the beekeepers. “I want a beard out the front.”

Detecting the lack of a queen, the nurse bees will feed royal jelly to the newly hatched eggs. As Cobey explains the process, the beauty and complexity become clear. Using tiny tools, beekeepers can place their selected larvae in queen cups, larger cells created by the worker bees especially for raising queens. Then, “it’s all about the food she is given,” says Cobey. The workers have four days to feed the queen larvae an exclusive diet of royal jelly, a bee-produced food that is much higher in nutrition than the meal that is usually fed to the larval worker bees. The queen larva will require up to 1,600 feedings in the four days before she pupates. The workers, by contrast, each receive only 140 feedings over five days.

The queen emerges in 16 days and soon after is ready to mate and start producing her own larvae. After she lays some eggs, the beekeeper can move those larvae to the queen cups and move the queen to a new hive stocked with bees. Then the process of feeding royal jelly in the queen breeding set-up can start all over again. It’s not that difficult, says Cobey. “There seems to be kind of a mystique about raising queens,” she says. “But it’s worth doing. You learn so much more about bee biology.”

With increasing challenges of pests and disease, selective breeding and genetic diversity offer the best long-term solutions, says Cobey. She says she will share some of the new lines she collected in Europe like the Caucasian subspecies, which gets most active in full summer and may be suited to cooler springs, she says. It’s not ideal for the California pollination season, which is earlier and warmer than ours, but on cooler or foggy days when the Italian bees wouldn’t think of leaving the hive, these bees will head out and hunt for flowers. “The goal is to get a bee that does well in the Pacific Northwest.”


Web extra

Video:  Sue Cobey describes instrumental insemination of honey bee queens.


On the web

Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility  (University of California Davis)

Apis Molecular Systematics Laboratory  (WSU bee research)