Canadian bee breeders’ perspectives on growing a domestic queen industry

To best understand how marker-assisted selection (MAS) can be used by the industry, we solicited information from queen breeders about their experience with breeding and selling queens. In early 2016, we developed and launched a queen breeder survey and by early 2017 we had responses from 51 queen breeders, representing approximately 6-12% of our estimated breeder pool. Here is what they told us.

The majority of survey respondents keep their bees in Ontario and British Columbia (Figure 1). They keep a range of different honey bee strains, with the three most common being Carniolan, Buckfast and Italian. The vast majority of survey respondents perform some form of selective breeding, indicating that investment in this process is worthwhile for breeders.

Figure 1. An overview of survey participants, showing their locations (A; brackets indicate absolute numbers of survey participants) and the strains of bees they breed (B).

We wanted to know what qualities breeders actively select in their breeding programs. As you know, one of our goals in the Beeomics project is to expand our marker panel to enable selective breeding for additional traits. Now, we see that the traits we’re developing markers for overlap with the top four that bee breeders are interested in (Figure 2). No doubt some of the other traits we’re working on (grooming, mite resistance, other disease resistance) would be farther up the list if there were currently tools to select for them.

willingness to select
Figure 2. Summary of bee breeders’ interest in selective breeding, including their current experience, desired traits and interest in MAS.

Over two-thirds of the surveyed breeders indicated that they would consider sending their bees for lab testing if it means they can select for these important economic traits. We aim for the cost of this service to be approximately ~$30 per sample, which is around the average price breeders have indicated they’re willing to pay for MAS testing (Figure 3).

Surprisingly, only 22% of the surveyed breeders indicated that they negotiate queen prices with their buyers, with the majority of breeders setting their price ahead of the transaction either independently or based on other local breeders’ prices. Breeders are therefore in a position to set a price that reflects the actual value of their queens. According to 117 surveyed beekeepers (queen buyers), the value they’re willing to pay for a local queen with their top two most desirable traits is $68.

queen prices
Figure 3. The queen breeding business. A) Queen prices amongst survey responders. B) Factors affecting queen price.

One of the barriers to expanding the Canadian queen industry frequently cited by beekeepers and breeders are our prohibitively long and cold winters, necessitating a large number of bee imports to feed our early spring demand. This rigid concept of timing was called into question when beekeepers were asked when they needed their queens (Figure 4). Seventy-five percent of beekeepers need queens between May and June. Surprisingly, when breeders were asked when they could have queens ready for sale, they were largely able to meet the beekeepers’ timeline with 68% of breeders indicating that their queens could be ready for the spring wave. The significant overlap between the supply and demand for Canadian queens directly contradicts the idea that winter and timing is a real barrier to developing our Canadian queen industry further.

queen availability
Figure 4. Queen supply and demand dynamics and other barriers to expanding the breeding industry. A) Bubble size is proportional to queen supply (green) and demand (blue), which largely correlate throughout the season. B) Despite being able to match early queen demand, weather and timing are viewed as significant barriers to expanding the queen breeding industry.

Canada’s agricultural and economic prosperity depends on healthy and productive bee colonies, which in turn depend on healthy and productive queens. Excitingly, this is the first year that queens produced by MAS are on the market. The queens are currently only available in British Columbia, but we hope to expand our services soon and we’re looking forward to using these informative survey results from beekeepers and bee breeders to help us solidify the MAS breeding model, creating a tool that best addresses the industry’s needs. Thank you all for your continued support.

Spring 2017 update

We are approaching our goal of finding gene and protein markers for economically beneficial characteristics, albeit at a somewhat glacial pace! In the last update, protein extraction was about to begin; now, it has been extracted from well over half the antenna samples, which means there are only several weeks left until we can start the analysis. This will let us finally start finding which proteins (markers) correlate with the suite of different traits that were meticulously recorded for each colony last summer. Some people began the important task of optimizing the protein analysis step (which will currently take about 8 months) to cut the time down to a more reasonable length. This is important because when this analysis is offered as a service to beekeepers – our ultimate end-goal – we want the turn-around time to be as fast as possible. The actual time will depend on a combination of demand, optimization and the requirements of queen breeders, but our target is about 2-3 weeks.

Keep an eye out for a new article authored by the BeeOmics team which describes the economic benefits to beekeepers who adopt the marker-assisted selection model. Conveniently, marker-selected hygienic queens are available for purchase this year from four BC queen breeders. If you missed the advertisement you can still find it here, along with the queen breeders’ contact information.