Monday, August 31, 2009

Production of Disease and Mite Resistant Queen Honey Bees in Rochester, Illinois

Jacobson pouring liquid nitrogen which is used to test bees for hygienic/disease resistant behavior. – Photo by JP Goguen

In Rochester, IL, Stu Jacobson is attempting to increase interest and understanding among beekeepers in Illinois, eastern Missouri, and southern Wisconsin.

Jacobson has been working with bees for decades. He kept bees in Cape Cod, Massachusetts where he lived from 1970 to 1991. He started beekeeping in central Illinois in 1993. He has a PhD in biology and he did his Post Doc work studying the African bees when they first arrived in Venezuela in 1978.

In 2006, Jacobson submitted a proposal to increase understanding and adoption of disease and mite resistant lines among beekeepers in Illinois, eastern Missouri, and southern Wisconsin and was awarded $4,409 from the North Central Region Sustainable Research and Education Program’s (NCR-SARE) Farmer Rancher Grant Program.

“The project was designed to address the dual problems of a lack of adoption of disease and mite resistant or tolerant lines of bees and an over-reliance on queens from Sunbelt states,” explained Jacobson. “Use of these lines will lessen the industry’s dependence on harsh chemical and antibiotics, which can contaminate honey and cause reproductive problems for the bees, and should be at the core of strategies to address Colony Collapse Disorder.”

A major thrust of the project was comprised of educational presentations to beekeepers on disease and mite resistant lines of bees. During 2007-2008 nine presentations were made to 288 persons. Venues included the Bluegrass Beekeeping School, which draws beekeepers from Indiana and Ohio; the Kankakee Valley, IL Beekeepers Association; an introductory class of the Lincoln Land Beekeepers’ Association; the summer meeting of the Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association; at a State Line Beekeepers Association meeting; and at the Eastern Apicultural Society meeting, among others.

The 2008 Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association (ISBA) and the fall Stateline Beekeepers Association (Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin) meetings served as catalysts for the formation of an Illinois Queen Project (IQP). This initiative’s purpose is to promote the Illinois production of disease and mite resistant queens as well as small colonies adapted to the state’s climate and conditions.

The second part of the project was to produce disease and mite resistant, Minnesota Hygienic queens and to sell them to local beekeepers.

Two operations were involved in this project, a mixed grain farm of 250 acres in Loami, IL, and a 2.6 acre homestead near Rochester, IL. The Loami site has 15 honey bee colonies and sells honey and honey soap; the Rochester site has 50 honey bee colonies in three bee yards and sells honey and since the SARE project began, some queens and small honey bee colonies.

Sustainable beekeeping practices were carried out for the past 4-5 years at both sites; either no treatments or only “soft,” botanically-based ones were used for varroa mites in a given year. Antibiotics were not used for at least 7 years at either site.

For the project, Jacobson used standard “cell grafting” methods to raise queens. The cells were introduced individually into small colonies called mating nuclei, from which the virgin queens take mating flights and remain until they begin laying eggs, at which point they are sold or placed into larger colonies.

During 2007, marketing of the queens occurred first through the annual summer meeting of the local beekeeping association, with about 30 persons attending. Marketing also occurred via calls to beekeepers in the area. During 2008, marketing also occurred during an introductory beekeeping class.

Steven Staley assisted by producing queen bees at his farm for the project; Richard Ramsey, past president of the Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association, provided ongoing advice on marketing and related matters. David Burns, a queen bee producer and beekeeping equipment supplier, and Phil Raines, a commercial beekeeper in Illinois and Wisconsin, made important contributions to the project.

Jacobson believes that bees play a vital role in the sustainability of agricultural systems. “About 1/3 of every bite of food we eat requires insect pollination,” said Jacobson. “Honey bees are he most important pollinators for virtually all fruits and many vegetable crops; these foods high in antioxidants, fiber, etc. Native pollinators are unlikely to regain sufficient importance as long as agriculture relies on large monocultures, insecticides, herbicides, and clean cultivation.”

Since completion of this project, Jacobson has commenced a new SARE project focusing on the Illinois Queen Initiative (formerly Illinois Queen Project). Activities for the new project have included a session on state queen projects and formation of an informal association of queen producers at the Heartland Apicultural Society meeting held in Ohio in July.

Read more about Jacobson’s project online at, or contact the NCR-SARE office for more information at

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