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Penn State project aims to revitalize PA’s honey bee colonies one queen at a time

With drones for breeding, workers for gathering food, and a queen for reproducing, traditional honey bee colonies never had much use for a king. But the relatively recent decline in bee populations worldwide, a phenomenon commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has inspired more humans to put themselves at the top of the bee colony hierarchy in hopes of finding a solution.

Penn State is one of the top universities in the world trying to investigate and solve the honey bee crisis. Toward that end, members of Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research are working with Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association president and veteran beekeeper Warren Miller to selectively breed genetically robust queen bees that can thrive most efficiently in the Pennsylvania climate and northeastern region of the United States.

Designated the PA Queen Project, this effort will develop local breeding programs and reduce beekeepers’ dependence on importing bees from other regions in the U.S. Because the queen is the single producer of offspring in a bee colony, the hope is that queens produced through this project will breed hardy stocks of honey bees that are naturally resistant to current threats such as mites and diseases, thereby reducing or completely eliminating the need for chemical pesticides to control these threats.

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A Bee for all Seasons [3:15]
A year in the life of a honey bee hive

Bees in the Food Chain

According to Christina Grozinger, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Center for Pollinator Research, the survival of honey bees is of critical importance, due to their roles in the global food chain as pollinators. The USDA estimates that about one-third of the food we eat (including seed production for plants used in cattle-feed) depends on insect-pollinated plants, and honey bees are responsible for 80 percent of this pollination.

Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate in the Department of Entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, says honey bees are unique as “generalist pollinators,” meaning they pollinate many different crops, making them very commercially viable. In fact, honey bee pollination can be directly attributed to the production of about $60 million of agricultural produce like apples, melons, and pumpkins in Pennsylvania annually.

MaryAnn
“The state's $45 million apple crop—the fourth largest in the country—is completely dependent on insects for pollination, and 90 percent of that pollination comes from bees, mostly honey bees. So the value of honey bee pollination to apples is about $40 million.”
Maryann Frazier
Senior Extension Associate
College of Agricultural Sciences
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Other crops that depend on or benefit from honey bee pollination include alfalfa seed, almonds, peaches, pears, cucumbers, melons, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, and soybeans. Without the honey bees’ pollination work, the quantity and quality of these crops would be reduced, and some would not yield at all, according to Frazier, making the work of the PA Queen Project critical.

“Well-adapted, sustainable bee stock is what we're after in this queen breeding program,” says Frazier. In her office, posters illustrating the life cycle of honey bees, the bounty of food dependent on pollination, and a poem entitled “What is honey?” shroud the walls. Jars of honey line the bookshelves stocked with such titles as Bees of the World, Honey Plants of North America, and The Practical Bee Guide.

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Sitting beside a larger-than-life wooden honey bee model, Frazier admits to being “scared to death of bees” as a child. Her interest in bees was piqued at a youth conservation camp where she learned of a counselor’s brother starting a bee colony by capturing a swarm of bees in a record player case. “You know that they swarm to reproduce,” she says with an air of that childhood wonderment. “And they’re very gentle when they swarm.”

Frazier vowed to someday learn more about the complex world of bees and made good on that vow by coming to Penn State to earn a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and a master's degree in entomology. She remembers her delight upon taking her first beekeeping course. “It was just unbelievable to me that there was actually a beekeeping class taught at a university,” she says.

Frazier would continue learning about these highly cooperative, social insects for the next twenty-five years. “Bees cannot survive outside of their colonies,” she says. Similar to the way a community of people functions to survive and thrive, a bee colony is made up of groups of bees, each with its own specific role to perform. Roles can include cleaning the hive, feeding the larvae, protecting the hive, scouting for nectar and pollen sources, and even communicating specific information to the rest of the hive through a dance Frazier refers to as the “waggle dance.”

“They can communicate exact distance and direction of the food source. They can communicate the amount of food that's available and the quality of food through that dance,“ Frazier says, explaining that through this incredibly precise communication method, bees are able to make and store the more than sixty pounds of honey they will need to survive through the winter.

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Just Dance
Honey bees use a "waggle dance" to communicate to their hive mates.

The Case of the Disappearing Bees

Along with other experienced beekeepers and researchers, Frazier, Grozinger, and Miller have all witnessed dramatic shifts in the beekeeping industry over the years. “There are not nearly as many wild colonies as there used to be, and we have seen a dramatic reduction in beekeepers and hives being managed since the 1980s,” says Frazier, pointing out that these losses are primarily due to the introduction of parasitic mites. “Further reductions in the number of managed colonies have occurred since 2007, with much of this loss attributed to CCD,” she says.

The exact cause of CCD is unknown, but experts point to several contributing factors including mites, diseases mites carry, stress, poor nutrition, and pesticides. Ironically, pesticides were the answer to the mite problem that began in the late 1980s. The mites were threatening to decimate honey bee populations and, at the time, chemical pesticides were the fastest known solution.

Though pesticides were originally successful at controlling the mites that threatened the bees, and in turn, critical food supplies for humans, it is now known that mites have developed a resistance to those pesticides. According to Grozinger, one out of every three bee colonies in the United States has been lost each winter over the past four years. In her research, Grozinger has observed that it has gotten harder and harder for beekeepers to keep healthy colonies.

Christina
“You think about how many resources that you are putting into these animals and then you lose 30 percent of your stock every winter; it’s very difficult for beekeepers to be able to maintain their operations.”
Christina Grozinger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Entomology
College of Agricultural Sciences

By selectively breeding honey bees that are naturally resistant to mites and associated viruses, the PA Queen Project team hopes to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the need for chemical intervention, thereby reducing the overall levels of pesticides to which honey bees are exposed.

“One of our goals of the project is to bring together a core group of beekeepers in the Commonwealth who would be interested in trying to rear and breed their own queens and their own bee stocks and then share those stocks between each other,” says Grozinger.

A Cocktail of Pesticides

Though eliminating the chemicals associated with controlling mites is a step in the right direction, Frazier admits that bees are exposed to many more threats than just that, including agricultural and homeowner uses of pesticides. “Our concern is no longer just about exposure to one or two pesticides. It’s about a cocktail of pesticides,” she says, claiming to have witnessed as many as twenty-nine different pesticides in a single pollen sample.

“Without a doubt, the results of our work show that honey bees are exposed to a wide variety and sometimes high levels of pesticide—both pesticides that the beekeepers are putting into the colonies to control the mites as well as agricultural and home use chemicals that bees are exposed to as they go out and forage and bring nectar and pollen back to the hive,” says Frazier.

Researchers are trying to understand what effect this “cocktail of pesticides” is having on the colony as a whole. Pesticides can interfere with a honey bee’s ability to navigate, to learn, and to resist diseases, according to Frazier. “We think pesticides are having a sublethal effect on bees to interfere with their immune function and make them very susceptible to diseases, and this may lead to the weakening and possibly the demise of the colony,” she says.

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Potent Pesticides
Chemical contamination is one of the possible contributing factors to CCD.

An Offer of Hope from the King Bee

Warren Miller has been raising bees successfully without chemicals for about ten years. Having been a beekeeper since 1987, Miller saw first-hand what mites and the use of chemicals did to bee colonies over the years. “Like most beekeepers, I suffered some pretty significant losses in those days. At the time, I tried to combat my losses with chemicals,” says Miller.

One year, Miller was not able to purchase miticides, pesticide strips developed to kill mites, for all of his colonies. He was forced to treat some of his bee hives with chemicals while not treating others. To his surprise, similar numbers of hives survived and died in the group that had been treated with chemicals as compared to the group that had not been treated by the chemicals. “I noticed that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in the hives that were treated with chemicals as opposed to the hives that weren’t. In both cases, some hives died and some hives lived,” Miller says.

Warren
“A lot of people have been paying attention to sick hives. I think there’s something to be said for paying attention to healthy hives as well.”
Warren Miller, President
Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association

The next year, Miller decided not to use chemicals in any of his hives, and in doing so, he lost 75 percent of his hives. Rather than focusing on the hives that failed, however, Miller focused on the 25 percent of hives that had survived without chemicals. “A lot of people have been paying attention to sick hives,” he says. “I think there’s something to be said for paying attention to healthy hives as well.”

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This was Miller’s inception into the process of queen rearing. He began to replace queens with those that had come through the winter most successfully, so the worker bees produced by that new queen would have her resilient genes.

Though “manager” might be a more accurate term than “king” with regard to Miller’s role in bee colonies, he does jokingly admit to being designated by his colleagues as the “king bee.” He currently has approximately 125 hives spread across Centre and Clinton counties. “About the late 1990s is the last I used any chemicals in my hives,” Miller says, “and it’s been a pretty good, successful road since.”

Miller says that he is fortunate to live in Centre County and be in such close proximity to a university that has become such a worldwide leader in pollinator research. He lends his expertise to the PA Queen Project through which he will work with Grozinger and Frazier to establish and train a consortium of beekeepers on effective queen rearing. This will limit the need for beekeepers to purchase queen bees from southern states with warmer climates, now a common practice due to earlier availability.

“By rearing bees in the Northeast, we are selecting for stock that is adapted for that particular environment as opposed to stock that’s been reared in the South or in the West and is better adapted for those particular environments,” says Frazier. Through this multiyear program, successful stock will be shared between beekeepers to ensure the best chance of bee colonies’ survival throughout the winter months when colonies are most vulnerable.

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Bee Breeding
The art of building a better bee through queen-rearing.

Communications Technology is the Key to Success

While Grozinger’s research in honey bee genes and behavior typically involves bioinformatics and computations requiring high-performance statistical technologies, requirements for the PA Queen Project are much less specialized. In fact, many of the technologies that will prove critical to the project's success are those now commonly used in society for everyday communication and information sharing. “This could be something as basic as a listserv, blog, or a Facebook page,” Grozinger says. “I think a lot of these new Internet technologies are going to be really crucial for maintaining cohesion across a large group of people that are spread throughout the state.”

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According to Grozinger, the multistep PA Queen Project will begin with a hands-on workshop, parts of which will be recorded for webcasts, to train beginners on queen rearing. More advanced training will be conducted to teach those interested in the breeding process, and a consortium of beekeepers will be established for purposes of sharing both information and successful bee stocks.

“Communication will really be the key to getting this whole project to work,” says Grozinger, whose role is to provide training and information to the consortium of beekeepers. She will develop a hands-on queen rearing workshop scheduled to run in May. Email lists and social media tools like Facebook will help facilitate communication among the project participants, and training materials like videocasts, podcasts, and information packets will be accessible through the Center for Pollinator Research website.

In her role as extension specialist, Frazier will serve as a liaison, helping with communication among beekeepers, queen breeders, and scientists and potentially garnering interest in the queen breeding program. Frazier admits that in the past, extension specialists spent a lot of time on the telephone and also traveled all over the state to meet with groups and individuals. “Now, instead of having to go to a location to give a presentation, we use webinars and video technologies,” says Frazier, adding that a lot of communication is done through email, text messaging, and websites.

While technology might not be as efficient as the honey bees’ waggle dance, it does significantly help to increase the number of people the PA Queen Project members can reach at any given time through a wide array of available channels. Technology will allow the community to “keep in touch without having to actually physically meet with each other,” says Grozinger.

Bitten by the Bug

Frazier points out that although CCD has succeeded in putting many commercial and hobbyist beekeepers out of business, it has also had the opposite effect of actually drawing new people into the world of beekeeping. “In the last two years we've seen an incredible increase in the number of people interested in taking up beekeeping, particularly as a hobby,” she says.

Judging by their own stories of being drawn into the world of bees, the team members are confident that once interest is generated, it will continue to grow. “Fascinating” is the word most often expressed when these team members are asked to describe the source of their passion for bees, though further explanation may come less quickly to mind. “It’s just something that draws you in,” says Miller. “I don’t know what drives me to do it—but I know I just can’t stop.”

Frazier hopes that more people get “bitten by the bug,” as she did that day at the youth conservation camp. “Their natural history and their biology is unbelievable—it’s just something you fall in love with,” she says, pointing out that she now teaches the very course at Penn State that helped her fall in love with bees in the first place.

Future Plans, Resources, and Opportunities

In terms of measuring results, Grozinger feels that successes will emerge once people stop using the chemical treatments. “I suspect probably within the first two or three years we should be able to get bees that are much hardier and more able to deal with all the stressors and challenges both from parasites and pathogens and also our own environment,” she says.

Along with the queen rearing workshop, future outreach plans and educational opportunities provided by the Center for Pollinator Research include developing a pollinator garden in the Arboretum where people can observe pollinators in action and also learn about incorporating pollinator-friendly plants into their own gardens and farms. ■

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