Scientists at University of British Columbia (UBC) are unraveling the mysteries behind queen bee failure – a problem in commercial beekeeping that is a persistent leading cause of colony mortality.

The Canadian Association of Professional Apiarists cites the queen’s inability to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain a hive as one of the main reasons behind colony mortality.

According to recent research presented in BMC Genomics, researchers from UBC and North Carolina State University identified proteins that are activated in queen bees under different stressful conditions that can affect the viability of sperm stored in the honeybee queen’s body. Extreme temperatures—hot or cold—and exposure to pesticides are such stressors.

A honey bee colony will eventually die out if the queen has insufficient live sperm to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain the necessary population of worker bees.

Queens in British Columbia that had failed in the field had their levels of these markers measured by scientists. It was found that they had higher levels of pesticide protein markers and for heat-shock compared to healthy queens. These results pave the way for development of a diagnostic test to help beekeepers prevent future queen bee failure.

According to lead author Alison McAfee, a biochemist at the Michael Smith Labs at UBC and postdoctoral fellow at NC State, this is a very understudied area, and there isn’t currently a method to figure out why the queen has failed in a colony. She says this is important since there are a number of different ways that it could happen.

This 11:41-minute video by Vino Farm is about identifying a failing queen:



McAfee determined in previous research she conducted with colleagues that queens are safest between 15 and 38 degrees Celsius. They identified five protein markers associated with heat-shock in queens. McAfee recently confirmed the two most identifiable biomarkers for heat-shock, two protein markers for detecting cold-shock, and two associated with sub-lethal levels of pesticides. These findings open the door to testing that will provide beekeepers with information to help them attain long-term viability of their hives.

Developing a diagnostic test that can be done on a failed queen so the beekeeper gets information on what happened to her in the past that has made her fail now is the goal, according to McAfee. A reliable test like this would empower beekeepers to do more to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Instead of just throwing away a failed queen, as is currently the practice, in future they could ship her to a lab to measure the amounts of various markers and send a data report on the likelihood that she was stressed by cause X, Y or Z.  

The British Columbia finding that failed queens from the field had elevated markers associated with heat stress and to a lesser extent, pesticide exposure, surprised researchers. According to McAfee, there was no reason to believe these queens were heat shocked, although many of them had elevated levels of those markets. So either there is more temperature stress going on than expected, or those markers may become elevated due to other sorts of stress that hasn’t been evaluated yet.

Extreme temperatures and their effects on queen bees is a huge concern for Canadian beekeepers, who import 250,000 queen bees annually, mainly from Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Hours spent in cargo holds of airplanes and warehouses subject queens to broad fluctuations in temperature on the journey. McAfee has studied this in her past work.

There is no set of rules about shipping queen bees, like including temperature loggers in each shipment. Producers ship via their preferred courier, and beekeepers are at the mercy of the shipper for proper package handling. Every time McAfee and her team put temperature loggers in queen shipments at least some show that the temperature is outside the Goldilocks zone of 15 to 38 degrees Celsius. She thinks this is a more regular occurrence than anyone was aware was happening.  

This is just another one of many hazardous situations that honey bees face in their survival struggle.

The scientific report can be read here