To have healthy honey bee colonies, we want to have a diverse population of drone bees to mate with the queen bees when they make their series of mating flights. A diversity of available genes carried by drones from numerous hives makes for a greater possibility of the queens passing along to their offspring traits that will make them survivable in our constantly changing environment. The queen honey bee’s behavior of mating with a number of drones increases the probability that some of the offspring will be resistant to certain pathogens attacking bees.
As important as it is for bees in nature to have a diverse gene pool, there is a time when diversity is not desired: That is when queen breeders are trying to develop new genetic lines. Here, they are attempting to control the mating of the queen to drones carrying particular genetic traits. This inbreeding in a controlled environment is used to concentrate wanted genes in the population. After evaluating the characteristics of the offspring, the best queens are used to produce new queens. This method is being used to produce honey bees with hygienic behavior traits that can live in the presence of parasitic mites and resist a number of honey bee diseases. Lines of hygienic Russian honey bees were developed in isolation on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. A similar tactic is being employed in the Northwest. Honey bees are being bred in isolation in a “sea of wheat” on the Palouse, the immense rolling farmland of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. The agricultural region primarily produces wheat, a grass that offers no food to honey bees. With no food and few nesting cavities in the area, there are no feral honey bee colonies in the Palouse. Queen bees can be naturally mated in flight with drones from desired colonies. The best queens will become new hygienic honey bee lines. Wes Underhill is attending Washington State University, located in the Palouse at Pullman, Washington.--Richard