A tweet from the Sheffield Honey Company reminded me that I should clarify the difference between queen rearing and queen breeding–and they are absolutely right.
Most of us who rear queens do it to provide serviceable queens for ourselves or others. We need queens to replace those that are failing or those that have died. We need queens to increase the number of colonies or to re-queen defensive hives. We are usually happy with a queen who produces a good brood pattern and gives rise to gentle workers. Sometimes–especially when they are scarce–nearly any queen will do.
But breeding queens is much more complex than simply rearing them. Breeders select stock based on genetic traits they want to enhance. Breeders usually have a specific goal in mind. They may want to increase honey production, decrease propolis collection, improve overwintering, or increase disease resistance. Recently, many queen breeders are looking for breeding stock that is resistant to the ravages of the Varroa mite.
In addition to selecting good queens, breeders must also select drones from colonies with specific traits. A “sperm donor” with desirable traits is just as important as the queen herself. Controlled crosses between selected queens and drones is beyond the capabilities of most beekeepers, so we rely on the breeders to do the laborious work of producing better bees.
The work breeders perform should not be underestimated. Breeders must select and maintain breeding stock, keep meticulous records, and record statistics about the offspring of the crosses. In addition, they must guard against inbreeding and always be on the lookout for negative as well as positive outcomes.
Most breeders use instrumental insemination to assure that the desired crosses occur. Instrumental insemination requires special equipment and training in addition to adequate time and financial resources. It is not easy.
So while most of us can raise a few queens as we need them, we must keep in mind that the unique lines with desirable characteristics that appear every so often are the result of dedicated breeders with special knowledge and resources, and most importantly, the wherewithal to succeed.