During my research on queen rearing practices, I came across an interesting article from the February issue of the Catch the Buzz newsletter, part of Bee Culture magazine, about the impact shipping has on the sperm viability in queens. This article, written by Kim Kaplan, outlines the process and results of an experiment conducted by Jeff Pettis from the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.
According to Pettis, inseminated queens that were exposed to temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 hours, or 41 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 4 hours, in lab-simulated shipping, experienced a drop in sperm viability from ninety to twenty percent. That’s a seventy percent decrease in the amount of viable sperm a queen has, and as a beekeeper well knows, when it comes to a mated queen, what you see is what you get. The queen only mates once, early on in her life. Percentage loss in real-world testing was only slightly lower.
In a study just published by the USDA, pathogen levels during shipping may also be a contributing factor in queen failure.
It could be a combination of things that reduces the sperm viability in queens. The stress of travel, extreme temperature fluctuation, improper packaging or handling of the queens, are all factors that affect the strength and longevity of the queen bee. Not to mention all of the variables found in nature and the actual biology of the bees as well. In short, it’s no wonder that most queens only perform well for six to eight months of the year.
The more we learn about the honey bee, the more we become aware of the problems they face, and little things like changing the packaging and shipping practices of queen breeders and distributers could make more of a difference that we might think. From another angle, if more beekeepers could develop a queen rearing program of their own, shipping queens might not be as necessary as it is now, and perhaps we might offset the decline of sperm viability in queens.