Q&A with Leonard Foster

ljfOct. 15th, 2016

Leonard Foster, the leader of Project BeeOmics, talked to beekeepers and scientists at this year’s BC Honey Producers Association annual conference. A lively discussion with the audience ensued.

Q: Are you worried about breeding a bee that is too hygienic?

A: Being too hygienic is not likely a problem, but what we do need to be thinking about is that we don’t want to select too strongly in one direction to the detriment of other traits. That’s one reason why we’re expanding the marker panel to include things like honey production and gentleness, so that we can find out if this is happening and hopefully balance it if it does.

Q: Will this kind of selective breeding reduce genetic diversity?

A: Theoretically, but our goal is not to create a single hygienic stock. Instead, we are creating the tools for queen breeders to use themselves – if breeders across the country use the tool, rather than a common stock, then diversity should be maintained. Bees have been selectively bred for many hundreds of years, but domestic honey bees do not have unusually low genetic diversity.

Q: Are projects like this being done in other places?

A: As far as we know, this is the only marker-assisted selection work being done with protein markers. There are some groups interested in similar topics in the States but we try to work with them, rather than compete.

Q: Your hygienic bees had much better overwintering survival even with very high Varroa levels going into winter. Were the surviving colonies thriving or were they just treading water?

A: The surviving colonies were actually quite strong and the Varroa levels had gone back down in the spring.

Q: You are using protein markers for breeding. Have you considered micro RNA too?

A: Not yet, but that is something that’s in progress.

Q: Using diagnostics for selective breeding sounds attractive, but would a “let it be” selective method based on survival achieve similar results?

A: Maybe, but a queen breeder can’t afford to lose that many colonies. Using markers would also let you do more than one round of selection per year and look at many traits at once. Survival is the bottom line but once that’s under control, it would be great to select for other traits as well, which may or may not influence survival (e.g. gentleness, surplus honey).