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A Visit to VP Queen Bees

VP Queen Bees is a beekeeping business specializing in Artificial Insemination Techniques for isolating the VSH trait in honeybee colonies. I took a trip to Iva, South Carolina to visit Adam Finkelstein and Kelly Rausch the owners of VP Queen Bees. They were kind enough to take the time to show me how their operation works and allowed me to observe the Artificial Insemination process. In this blog post, I will detail some of the knowledge I gained from the experience.

Nucs for Queen Introduction

Adam runs all medium-depth hives to keep his equipment consistent. It is crucial when introducing Artificially Inseminated Queens that the hives are not too strong and that they have plenty of young nurse bees to feed the developing queens. Adam makes up nucs from capped and emerging brood frames. His medium hive bodies are divided in the middle to allow two queens in each hive. He uses roofing shingles to cover each nucleus and to prevent bees from passing from one side to the other.

Using Press-in Cages

The introduction of the Inseminated Queens is done with #8 wire mesh press-in cages. Adam uses cages that measure about 4 x 4 inches. He says that it is not necessary to have a huge press-in cage for the introduction of queens. The key is to place the queen over open honey cells and emerging brood.

Also, Adam manually places a few nurse bees into the press-in cage with the queen. It is important when doing this to monitor the queen for a few minutes to make sure the bees do not act aggressively toward the queen. If they show aggression a little puff of smoke usually calms them down, or else the aggressor can be removed from the cage.

The Inseminated Queens are left in the press-in cages for 24 hours. Then they are given a second treatment of CO2 which help induce egg laying. The queens are returned to their respective cages. Finally, the queens are released from the press-in cages after a total of 3 days. The nucs are then monitored to ensure the queen is laying eggs.

Harvesting Mature Drones for Insemination

I have been struggling with harvesting mature drones for insemination. When I harvest the drones the majority of them are immature. This has been frustrating for me. I spoke with Adam about the problem I was having.

Adam showed me the excluders they use to cover the hive entrances for drone harvesting. They were made from the old zinc metal excluder materials and they were bent in a curve. He explained that they use a 4-inch entrance on their hives and the zinc metal excluders are placed in front of the entrances. The curve in the metal allows drones to continue to exit the hives by crawling up the excluder. However, drones will not be able to enter the hive because the excluder blocks the entrance.

I asked about the timing of the harvest and Adam explained that this varies by location and weather conditions. Unfortunately, there is no set time when the mature drones will return to the hive. Adam referred to this as the “Art” part of beekeeping. You have to discover what works in your own area with the given conditions.

Banking Queen Bees

The banking of queens is necessary for instrumental insemination. This is because the virgin queens should ideally be 7 – 10 days old at the time of insemination. At VP Queen Bees they use JZBZ queen cages to hold the virgins in a queen bank. Adam says that it is best to place a frame of open brood next to the queens in the queen bank. Also, it is important to leave enough room around the cages for the bees to properly tend to the queens.

Insemination of Virgin Queens

The insemination process was straightforward and moved along quickly. Virgin Queens were placed in one-gallon glass jars to allow them to defecate. Adam then placed a virgin queen in a backup tube and loaded her into the insemination holder.

Kelly was in charge of performing the actual inseminations. She placed the holding tube on the end of the CO2 tubing and placed the queen in the insemination device. Kelly uses an insemination instrument with a micro-manipulator that allows her to move the syringe tip in every direction. With this setup, she is able to rapidly insert the syringe tip and bypass the valve fold all in one action. Once the syringe tip was in the oviduct the semen was delivered.

After insemination, each queen had its wings clipped and was marked with an identification number. Adam used Titebond II to adhere the number disk to each queen. Finally, the queens were placed in an incubator after insemination to recover from the anesthesia.

Advantages of VSH Queens

VSH stands for Varroa Sensitive Hygeine. VSH Queens are selected for a unique trait that allows them to remove developing larvae that are infested with varroa mites. This action reduces the overall mite load in the colony.

I believe the VSH trait will be important to beekeepers as a natural alternative to reducing varroa mite populations in production hives. Varroa mites are a vector for numerous pathogens that can infect and weaken a hive. Also, varroa mites are beginning to show signs of resistance to conventional mite treatments.

Isolation of the VSH Trait

In 2013, the USDA established a technology transfer agreement with VP Queen Bees where actual VSH queen stock was received from the USDA Baton Rouge laboratory. VP Queen Bees continues to develop mite-resistant breeder queens with procedures similar to those used by the USDA laboratory in Baton Rouge.  They cooperate with commercial operations that provide queens from select colonies with low mite loads and high honey production. VSH candidate queens are tested and breeding is controlled with instrumental insemination resulting in breeder stock with highly expressed VSH traits.

VSH Germplasm

After my visit, I returned home with VSH drone semen for the instrumental insemination of my own line of queens. I hope to successfully introduce the VSH trait into my own breeding program for all the queens I produce. This may take several seasons to accomplish.

The germplasm is stored in a glass capillary tube. It is important to protect the stored semen from light and also to keep it at a consistent room temperature. When properly stored the drone semen is viable for about 14 days.

Overall Experience

My experience with VP Queen Bees is that they are experts in their field. I feel blessed to have been able to spend a day observing their operation. I have gained many insights that will help me in my own queen-rearing efforts. I hope to incorporate the VSH trait into my breeding program going forward.

You can learn more at the VP Queen Bees website.

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