Russian Stock Realistic Expectations


by François Petit-Bee Breeder – 2003

Much have been said about the Russian stock from many sources. Contradictory observations, remarks and opinions, ranging from commercial bee breeders to hobbyists. Some are enthusiastic and have great hopes and expectations for this stock, while others are disappointed and are not impressed at all. In these troubled times of fluvalinate-resistant mites, one may wonder if this strain of bees is not one of the answers to our problems. I think positivism is a good thing when it is based on facts, as opposed to hasty conclusions based on one negative experience.

Let us look at the facts concerning the Russian bee. First of all, we do not have a lot of factual information compared to other stocks. This stock is fairly new in North America, in fact the only place where it is well known is Primorksy. It began from scratch in 1997 in the US and its distribution commenced in 1999.

Secondly, this honeybee was left untouched (in the modern sense of breeding) for close to a century. This is why it became valuable in the first place: it was left with Varroa and developed a natural resistance over the years. Now, we want to utilize this advantage in our modern beekeeping industry.

So now, we have this untamed stock from the forgotten region of Russia with one single trait: Varroa resistance.   No one over there had the opportunity to breed this bee like we do over here in North America, with our extensive technology and vast experience. There are no extension services like we have at our disposition over here, such as the University of Guelph.

The work ahead of us is cut out for us. No one said it was going to be easy. It takes time and patience, trial and error, to arrive at something worthwhile, in any endeavour. The reliable stock of bees we have today did not materialize overnight either. It took years, even a lifetime in the case of the Buckfast bee, to arrive where it is today.

We ought to give the Russian bee the time it needs to improve on all sides, before making a final and decisive conclusion.

The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association conducted a project to evaluate the Russian stock, with Geoff Wilson, graduate student under the supervision of Dr. Medhat Nasr, Researcher presently working in Alberta as the Provincial Apiarist. They arrived at certain conclusions. They tested the stock for Varroa resistance extensively. It showed some real resistance, superior to the Ontario strain of bees used in the test. The study was also able to evaluate other characteristics such as honey production, swarming disinclination, gentleness and overwintering.   The results are published and we know now that this stock has potential; it is comparable to our North American stock.   It is not superior on all aspects.   Nevertheless some breeding was done during the study which lasted 3 years in Guelph, and they selected the best of what they had at the time.

Now the stock has been turned over to a commercial operation where more extensive selection can be done. Over the years, we should see improvements in other areas as well.

One fact I want to clarify about the genetics aspect of Varroa resistance. The fact that this stock showed greater resistance to varroa mites does not make it the “magic bullet” or the “super bee”. What does this mean in terms of breeding? It means that the trait is there for resistance, when you mate a Russian virgin with Russian drones. But this trait does not transmit equally if you cross the Russian stock with another strain. You will lose this advantage after the 2nd generation. You can obtain resistant F1, but subsequent matings with other strains will dilute the genetic base that constitutes the resistance to Varroa.   Only an experienced breeder can work with different cross and select the proper generation successfully.

So, what am I saying? Am I saying you need to buy the pure Russian stock only, if you want to achieve improvements in your operation? Not necessarily so. The Ontario study has already established the fact that crossing with Ontario bees still retains the majority of the resistance advantage. So it is therefore logical to conclude that using Russian queen cells or open mated queens to requeen, make increase, splits and nucs would be beneficial. That is why one of the objectives of the Russian Bee Program calls for distributing this stock to all interested across Canada, so that other bee breeders can produce Russian queens and cells. All they need to do is to purchase closed (pure) mated queens from tested breeders (also pure) and begin their own production of Russian queens and cells. They could also purchase tested breeder queens when they become available. So you see, all hope is not lost after all.

This stock is new to me also. When people ask me what I think about this stock I do not know what to answer yet. Here is what I did so far. In 2001, we established about 60 drone colonies started with Russian queen cells,   as well as about 8 pure Russian queens (not selected) to be able to graft the next year. They overwintered well.

In 2002, we selected 8 drone colonies from one line and set up our isolated mating apiary about 100 miles from our home yard.   We grafted from the 8 pure queens to produce pure stock and open stock. The pure queens were mated with the drones from our drone colonies selected previously in our isolated apiary, and were used to requeen most of our colonies; and to produce a limited number of 4-frame nucs with pure Russian queen, for those queen breeders and producers who wished to get an early start at grafting next spring. The open mated queens were mated with Ontario drones from our own apiaries, where we produce 4-frame nucs destined for next spring sales. I did not evaluate this stock extensively yet. This will be the task laid out for me in 2003. So you can see that it takes 3 or 4 seasons to really get going and begin to anticipate some improvements results.

For now, all I can say is that the Russian stock shows some promise and right now, it is behaving normally, or average, concerning the general traits desirable for a colonies of bees. You may get some bad colonies and some excellent colonies.   The traits are not fixed like with other stable strains. This is what I observed in my operation with the Russian stock: some queens were below expectations, some performed surprisingly well, especially the open mated with Ontario drones (cross). I even tested some of those mix-strain queens, because they were so good in terms of honey production and gentleness. This is part of the deal, we have to be patient and give it some time.

Hopefully, we can benefit from this extensive research project. It is there for all Canadian beekeepers to utilize. Enjoy if you dare!