Update of the Apiculture Program at NCSU
The Apiculture Program at NC State has three core missions: Extension, providing information, advice, and other outreach services to help beekeepers at all levels; Research, using the scientific method to test hypotheses about honey bee biology and ways to help improve bee management; and Instruction, teaching and disseminating knowledge about honey bees and apiculture through formal classes and academic training. This past year has involved a great deal of activity in the program in each of these areas.
For extension, we have published nine new or updated extension articles in the last year. Importantly, we co-authored the Pest Management Strategic Plan for Apiculture in the Mid-Atlantic region, a comprehensive overview of all honey bee diseases and pests with recommended treatments. This is an organic document formulated in conjunction with part- and full-time beekeepers, so the priorities generated for research, extension, and regulation are all originated and addressed at the grass-roots level. We have also published monthly online articles that review recent scientific research on honey bees and bee management, as well as other materials that have been posted on our web site. We have been featured in 12 media stories in the last year, including WNC Magazine, Southern Farm Radio Network, and a WRAL piece with NC State's Chancellor! Finally, program members have provided 56 presentations to regional, state, and local beekeeping organizations, including 18 workshops or beekeeping field days. Unfortunately, our ability to attend local chapters will likely be severely curtailed in the coming year due to ongoing budget constraints and travel restrictions.
The Master Beekeeper Program (MBP) now has a total of 5,055 members join since its inception in 1982, with 2,990 having shown some activity within the past 10 years. During the last year, there have been 649 MBP participants who have progressed within the program, 503 of whom are new members. These numbers are at all-time highs, greatly eclipsing the 10-year average of 125 new participants that started prior to 2004. These numbers speak highly of the continuing efforts and hard work of the local chapters, their bee schools, and the tireless work of their instructors. Thank you!! Jean Carter, our Extension Administrative Support Associate, continues to do an outstanding job at coordinating the MBP database and handling the mailing logistics.
We have also been actively involved in our research program, with 10 scientific presentations or posters published within the Our main research project is funded by a large USDA grant to survey the "mating health" of commercially produced queens in the U.S. There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence to suggest that many queens produced in the U.S. may not be adequately mated. We have tested a representative population of queen bees purchased from commercial queen producers for several factors: their physical health (i.e., morphological characteristics—such as weight and thorax width—that are indicative of reproductive quality), their insemination success (by performing sperm counts on the contents of their spermathecae), and their mating numbers (by performing genetic paternity analyses on their offspring). We have found some very interesting trends. Most notably, we have found that while queens seem to be mating with a sufficient number of drones (25.0±13.11; range 6 – 50), their stored sperm counts seem to be a bit lower than the expected 5-7 million (3.99±1.504 million; range 0.20 – 9.03 million). In fact, we found that 18.9% of the queens were 'poorly inseminated' (<3 million stored sperm) and a full 81.1% were 'under-inseminated' (<5 million stored sperm). These results confirm that some—but certainly not all—commercially produced queens may be improperly inseminated and therefore may become premature drone layers. Our next step will be to determine why they seem to be mating adequately but being inseminated inadequately.
We also published a paper in the scientific journal BMC Genomics on the molecular mechanisms of mating by queen honey bees. Together with Dr. Christina Grozinger's lab (now at Penn State), we used state-of-the-art genetic tools to determine which genes get turned on or off in queen bees as a result of mating. Findings from this project will help us answer some very deep and important questions about how queens mate and why they are successful, which may provide valuable insights into ways to improve their insemination success (see above). We have another three scientific papers "in press" (accepted but not yet published), ranging on topics from virgin queen fights, to mating flights, to a new curious conditioned called "entombed pollen".
Our continued contribution to the CCD Working Group has been to publish the results from our collaborative studies. The first of many papers on the subject is currently under peer review, and we hope to have it published this year. It reports a preliminary epidemiological study on Colony Collapse Disorder, investigating various factors such as varroa mites, nosema, pesticides, protein content, and virus loads. Of the 61 quantified variables, no single measure emerged as a most-likely cause of CCD. This suggests that the syndrome is most likely a complex combination of several different factors, which will make it much more difficult to pin down and determine what we can do to prevent it.
Finally, on a bittersweet note, Holly Wantuch, a Masters student in our lab since 2007, has successfully defended her thesis and will be graduating in August. Her project investigated a non-chemical approach to varroa-mite control: using drone-brood trapping of mites but then "rescuing" the drones after removing the mites. In the short term, this approach may be helpful by minimizing the need for chemical treatments of mites, as well as improving colony productivity by reducing the need for the bees to rear additional drones. In the long term, this approach may be helpful by increasing the proportion of mite-tolerant genes in the breeding population. She is busily writing up her findings for publication, which will hopefully be published early next year. We will sorely miss Holly's enthusiasm, collegiality, and infectious optimism, and we wish her nothing but success as she moves on to veterinary school. Good luck Holly!
We continue to fire on all cylinders, and we hope to carry this momentum into next year.