Michigan beekeepers breeding hardier "survivor bees"

Apr 8, 2014

It’s been a tough winter for honeybees. Bees already face several obstacles, including parasitic mites, habitat loss, and pesticides.

Those factors and others are believed to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where bees disappear from the hive in large numbers. 

In the face of all these things, beekeepers in Michigan are trying to breed a hardier bee.

And you thought it was a difficult winter... try being a bee

Northern Michigan beekeeper Greg Griswold walks out to his bee yard. Twenty of his bee boxes are blanketed in snow.

“See the icicles? That indicates there's live bees in there melting the snow. They generate heat all winter long,” he says.

Griswold runs Champion Hill Farm in Benzie County. He sells honey locally, and keeps 200 bee colonies on-site year-round. That means his bees are in boxes for several months at a time during winter.

Commercial migratory beekeepers, on the other hand, usually move their bees south.

Griswold says it’s tough for his bees to get through the winter.

“The subzero weather is a little concerning especially in the month of March, late in the season like this. But the plus side of this winter is that my hives are deep in the snow. The snow actually insulates the hives from the colder temperatures,” he explains.

In the past decade, beekeepers have typically lost 30% of their bees each winter. This year, those losses look to be much higher. 

Griswold wants to make a stronger bee. He is breeding survivor bees: bees that have already proven they can withstand Michigan winters.

“My goal is to take a hive that survived two winters and then raise queens from that stock. And then as I continue to do that, the genetics of the bees will tend to be more winter hardy,” he says.

Locally-raised bees

He is not alone in breeding survivor bees.

Meghan Milbrath is a member of the Northern Bee Network.

She says they’re trying to develop a northern-bred bee that’s adapted to Michigan. So beekeepers can buy locally adapted bees.

That’s not how it currently works.

"Right now, the standard is that people buy bees in the spring and they get a package from California or Georgia and most likely those bees die over the winter."

“Right now, the standard is that people buy bees in the spring and they get a package from California or Georgia and most likely those bees die over the winter. And then they have to buy bees again in the spring. So you get on this annual cycle and we just want to break that annual cycle,” she says.

A mighty bad mite

Michigan has 150,000 bee colonies. Most of them come from states with milder climates.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The varroa mite was introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s. It’s devastating to bee colonies. So much so, that it actually changed beekeeping practices.

Before then, most Michigan beekeepers did not move their bees around.

Mike Hansen is the state apiarist with Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“That's the time when the mites came in, and we started having such losses. So beekeepers took their bees south so they could treat their bees and repopulate the colonies,” Hansen says. 

But creating a northern-raised bee might not be an easy task.

Zachary Huang is a bee expert at Michigan State University.

“There's so many factors affecting colony survival, but if you eventually do it long enough, you probably will pick the right mixture of traits that make the bees survive through the long winter,” he says.

Huang says beekeepers run the risk of losing genetic diversity if they only breed from small numbers. But if enough beekeepers in northern states work together to produce survivor bees, he believes it’s doable.

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