Russian Stock – Practical Uses

Practical Aspects of Russian Stock

François Petit – Russian stock breeder

March 2007

The Russian stock has been available to Canadian beekeepers for a number of years now. For a while it was much talked about at beekeepers’ meetings, as well as bee magazines and newsletters. Some studies were published in several provinces about this strain of bee, showing its qualities and weaknesses. Many beekeepers have made up their minds from the beginning, and others are still observing and listening, to see if it is a worthwhile stock.

 

Personally, I have come to appreciate the Russian bees for what they are. They are not the same as other strains of bees common to North America. I adapted my management scheme. Taking advantage of the hygienic behaviour, and Varroa resistance demonstrated in trials, I am able to manage these bees to the point of skipping spring and/or fall mite treatment altogether, thus reducing labour time and cost. Of course, this must be accompanied with regular spring summer, and fall mite surveys.   Additionally, we reduced considerably the use of antibiotics in the prevention of AFB, EFB, and Nosema; thanks to the Russian bee genetics.

 

Having worked with this type of bees for 5 whole seasons now, I have acquired a sense of how one can utilize this stock in his or her operation. Talking with bee breeders on numerous occasions, I came to realize the need for some practical advice on this subject.

 

Success in beekeeping is a combination of 3 main factors, namely : weather, management, and genetics. The regular beekeeper usually exercise control over management; which include mite and disease prevention treatment, inspection of colonies, splitting, supering, feeding, and overwintering. But there is another aspect of management that is often overlooked, and that is queen management, and the bringing of new or improved genetics into their operation. 

 

GENETICS predispose the bees to behave in a certain way.  If the beekeeper applies selection to his bee stock, he can over time obtain a stock with more desirable traits. But how to do this is sometimes puzzling, as you consider the many options being offered. Should I use queen cells, open mated queens, closed mated queens, select queens, or breeder queens? Let me clarify these different kind of queens available from the Russian stock.

 

The simplest and cheapest way is to use Russian queen cells to requeen colonies, splits or nucs. This will result in bi-racial strain of bees, half Russian and half your stock. You get half the Russian genetics the first time, but if you repeat the same procedure for subsequent seasons, you will actually obtain open mated Russian colonies. This is because the first Russian queen you introduced, even though it is mated with other type of drones, will produce pure Russian drones of her own. Drones get their chromosomes from their mother only, and are not affected by the sperm of the queen, used to fertilize worker eggs. These Russian drones will mate with the next round of Russian virgins and produce Russian colonies. Some beekeepers have adopted this method of requeening with queen cells, and are reporting great success.

By definition, an open mated Russian queen will produce a colony of bees which should be in majority of Russian type. The genetic of the colony should be at least 50% or more Russian, depending on the % of Russian drones mated with the queen.

%RUSSIAN DRONES MATED WITH RUSSIAN VIRGIN 0 25 50 75 100
%RUSSIAN GENETICS IN THE COLONY 50 62.5 75 87.5 100

 

Several large and small Quebec beekeeping operations use large number of Russian open mated queens to requeen, make splits and nucs.   One Quebec queen producer reported selling 6000 Russian queens in 2006! The advantage is that queens are not as fragile, can be mailed, the queens start laying faster, and you get the full genetic advantage immediately. In areas, where season are short, this can be advantageous.

A Russian closed mated queen is a daughter of a Select Queen mated in an isolated mating apiary with Russian drones from  Select Queens used as drone mothers.  They are considered “pure” Russian queens because the % of drones mated with the virgin queen is almost 100%. The only way to guarantee 100% is through artificial insemination. These queens are usually purchased to be evaluated for 1 or 2 seasons, after which they are selected by the beekeeper or bee breeder for raising daughter queens or as a drone source for mating. These queens can also be used by some hobbyists to get the full advantage of genetic selection. But it must be stated that just because a queen is rated as purebred, it does not guarantee its performance to be superior. Mating is still random, the combination of genes that occur at fertilization is simply a matter of statistics. What we are trying to do with isolated mating is to increase the probability of getting good combinations, and therefore superior stock. The rule of selection is about 1 :15, meaning that out of 15 pure sister queens, you will be able to find 1 superior queen. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect superior results from a 1 queen shipment!   The serious bee breeder, the one who makes observations to select breeders, would acquire several of them and diligently observe their performance over a period of 1 to 2 years, before making a final selection.

A Russian Tested Queen is a ½ year old queen sold as a 4-frame nuc in the early spring (May).  These queens are called Tested simply because their purity has been established by letting the new queen lay until her offspring emerge.  That way we can see by the consistent colour of the workers and drones, if she is pure Russian, and not open mated with drones from other strains (Italians…).  They are overwintered as a 4-frame nuc outside inside a wintering pack, so overwintering ability is tested as well.  Finally, other traits like brood viability and resistance to brood disease is also checked.  These queens have not been observed for honey production, or any of the tests mentioned below for the Select Queens.   You can start producing queens right away, because they are overwintered and ready to go in the spring.

A Russian Select Queen is 1½ year old queen sold as a 4-frame nuc in the early spring (May).  These queens have been observed 1 complete season for desired traits: overwintering, disinclination to swarming, housecleaning, gentleness, brood viability, absence of brood diseases, and honey production.  Additionally, these queens have been submitted to Hygienic Behaviour test, 24-Hour Natural Mite Drop test, and/or Honey Bee Tracheal MIte Resistance test (Quick-Test), and have scored high enough to be selected for breeding purposes.  They have not been used for breeding yet.  They should last an entire season as breeders, if properly taken care of.  They are used for mass production of queens.   This type of queen should be used by the serious bee breeder, who is willing to invest a lot of time in his operation for producing queens, but does not have the time or willingness to make selection observations. The cost is actually less than purchasing 10 closed mated queens!

A Russian Breeder Queen is a 2½ years old queen sold as a 4-frame nuc in the early spring (May).  These queens have been used extensively for breeding purposes as mothers, and have been found to produce consistent daughters of superior stock.  They are at the end of their life.  They are sold only to provide superior genetic, and are usually good for 1 graft guarantee.   They are not good to graft all summer, although a large number of queen may be produced at once, before the queen is supersedured. These queens are the best and should be used in a serious breeding program which takes into account the drone side. It is important to consider the source of drones to be mated with the virgins produced.

The Russian stock can also be used as a drone source to mate with other strains of bees, or to be incorporated into an existing breeding program. The Russian Breeding Program follows the Closed Population system, using breeders as queen mothers OR drone mothers.

Whatever the method or approach you choose, keep in mind that results are not always quick and easy. Perseverance and hard work will produce desired results, but you must be patient. Don’t give up at the first setback, keep at it. It took me 3 years to visibly see results in the Russian stock. Now, I am excited about this stock, and the popularity it is getting all over. Happy beekeeping!