“That’s why gains are so slow,” said Susan Cobey, a bee geneticist at the University of California and Washington State University. “I would say we are just in the infancy of bee breeding.”
Finkelstein, however, says he thinks he is close to achieving his primary aim of creating a bee that can survive with just basic husbandry. He says he hasn’t medicated his hives in 14 years.
Another challenge is that unlike with apple or cattle breeding, for example, the average bee breeder cannot control the male line. The queen mates on the wing with 2o or so drones from surrounding colonies. The most able breeders are getting around this by artificially inseminating virgin queens with the semen from known drone stock, a technique perfected by Cobey. Only a handful of hybridizers can do it. Glenn is one. Rausch is another.
Creating a superbee is one thing, getting professional beekeepers to accept it is another. For now at least, there is enormous resistance by the commercial beekeeping industry to using improved bee stock without the continued regimen of medication and supplemental feeding.
“The large commercial beekeepers are essentially farmers, and they’re risk averse,” said Robert Danka, a research entomologist at the government’s Baton Rouge lab. “This is a very dangerous parasite we’re dealing with, and a vast majority believe if you stopped treating with chemicals, their bees will die,” he said.
Pat Heitkam, a major queen producer in Orland, Calif. said he spends “in excess of $40,000” a year medicating his queens against gut disease. “I’m not sure it’s necessary,” he said, but he can’t risk selling diseased bees to his customers.
Under a new initiative, entomologists are working with queen producers in California to evaluate colonies for the strongest stock. Organizers hope that this, in turn, will lead to the selection of hardier bees and, ultimately, less reliance by beekeepers on chemical treatments. The 20 producers in the program raise about half the queen bees sold in the United States.
Near-term salvation may come from backyard hobbyists, who are more willing to risk losing an unmedicated colony.
Karla Eisen of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association tracked the fortunes of more than 40 hives over two years and found the survival rate of locally sourced hives and queens — most of them from Rausch and Finkelstein — significantly outperformed traditionally sourced queens and bee packages from the South.
After two winters, 74 percent of the local colonies were still alive compared with 40 percent of the Southern bees.
“They call it the James Bond approach,” Spivak said. “Live and let die. You keep colonies without any medications. In theory it sounds good, except you reduce the gene pool” by losing bees that might have other valuable breeding traits.
Everyone agrees that a bee that could survive pests without the stresses of chemicals “would make beekeeping a lot easier,” said Reed M. Johnson, an entomologist at Ohio State University. In the nightmarish maze that the honeybee has found herself, breeding, he said, “is really our way out.”