Buzzing towards a bright future

AbacusBio is part of a new five-year research programme led by Professor Peter Dearden from the University of Otago’s department of biochemistry.

The research programme is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment through the Endeavour Fund, and builds on the work done by PhD student Gertje Petersen at AbacusBio and the University of Otago, working with Peter Dearden and AbacusBio consultant Peter Fennessy.

Gertje’s work on honeybee breeding has been focused on getting the highest impact out of elite queens in a commercial environment. Honey producers commonly buy queens bred by elite queen breeders and multiply these by using their daughters as production queens.

Over the past two years, as part of her PhD project, Gertje has been working with Taylor Pass Honey Company in Marlborough. She has been developing tools to understand the traits, and to understand the genetic relationships within and between various sources of bees. The focus is on ways to improve the population, health, and viability of these bees, and generate genotypes for queens of interest.

“However, we still need to get a handle on what happens on the ‘stud level’, where the elite queens themselves are selected and bred,“ Gertje says.

“We have this incredible wealth of knowledge and experience that we gathered from working alongside other livestock species; we just need to figure out how to transfer it onto bees.”

Breeding honeybees can be challenging. Queens fly out of the hives to mate with up to 20 or 25 drones in the cloud – out of the control of the beekeeper and breeder.

“Artificial insemination of queen bees is tricky, but possible, and we are lucky to have several people in the country that are quite good at it, but it is only practical at the ‘elite or stud queen’ level,” Peter Fennessy remarks.

With this new research programme up and running, we have the opportunity to marry the findings from the past two years with everything that we know about genetic improvement in animals, and work with a strong group of beekeeping companies and research organisations.

“It is a huge step towards a nationally sustainable honeybee breeding strategy,” Peter adds.