PlanBee - Learning About Honeybees

Elizabeth Frost - DPI Technical Specialist on Honeybee and AGBU Masters Student

Honeybees pollinate about two thirds of the food we eat: fruits, nuts, veggies, fodder for mammalian livestock, for example. My role is on research development and extension for the beekeeping industry in NSW. My area of expertise is in queen bee breeding so, just like with dairy cattle where you can produce higher milk production or better temperament or specific body types and colours, you can do that with bees too, for higher honey production or a better temperament.

NSW DPI identified that there's a market failure in Australia's queen breeding sector. NSW produces the most honey and has the most beekeepers in the country so it makes sense that if there were to be some assistance initiative that it would happen here. The seasonal aspects also make it favourable for something to be based here around queen bee breeding and sector development. We have got a breeder nucleus of one producer that keeps the records, and is therefore able to make strategic breeding choices, and can sell those 'elite queens' to queen bee multipliers. With multipliers there is little to no selection; the elite queens simply have some production records. There's a reputation, but there's no data evidence provided with sale.

The drought and subsequent bushfires really laid bare that industry has a number of weak points. The bushfires affected 13% of NSW and the majority of that was timbered country, which is where beekeepers get most of their honey from. The second issue is that access to queens is not readily available. There is one large scale multiplier who gets breeder queens. The drought and the bushfires were really hard on beehives and a lot of them should have had their queens replaced because they were stressed from the drought and smoky conditions through bushfires.

NSW DPI has made a strategic investment in a honeybee research facility at Tocal Ag College, where they maintain about 250 hives (or colonies), and collect detailed records of many aspects of the hives - how much honey they produce, their temperament and disease control, foraging behaviour and so on - and also have control over which queens mate to which drones. This means there is good pedigree data on each hive, and DNA of breeder queens and hives.

This DPI investment has been the basis of successfully obtaining a grant through the federal Rural Research and Development for Profit program, which AgriFutures is managing. AGBU is a key collaborator because the strength of a national queen bee breeding program will be through the data that we generate.

We breed queens ourselves and are testing for specific traits that are both attractive to commercial beekeepers but also to growers who require pollination services. The DPI population is a key study for industry, a neutral case study on how a population can be managed in a commercial way. It is a foundational study but, in the end, we want to have a go at queen bee estimated breeding values to guide selection decisions. NSW DPI is partnering with AGBU to build PlanBee, building off the success of LAMBPLAN, BREEDPLAN, and Treeplan. We've been working closely with AGBU on how the database will look and will be structured, how we can make sure there are unique identifiers for queens as they transit through different hives or different owners.

The ideal is to get data nationally. The project involves a Sydney Uni-managed genotyping survey looking at how diverse or how related are the stocks nationally. Together with Sydney Uni, our stakeholders in WA and the Australian Queen Bee Breeders' Association, I have been working on a standardised selection and recording manual, because we'll be training beekeepers on how to collect the standardised data. While we are only in the establishment phase, we've got cash funding allowing us to build up the database, the reference population, all of our systems for recording, getting data to UNE for analysis and training beekeepers to do the same.

We have had lots of input from industry (pollinator beekeepers, honey producers and queen breeders) on what they value in queen bees and what they think needs to be done. We have been guided by industry pretty much every step of the way.

Doing my Masters with AGBU, is a great opportunity to bring beekeeping up to the level that the dairy, beef, and sheep industries are at now. Genotyping is still really in its infancy for the industry in terms of the cost benefit analysis so we're trialling that out with our program.

Studying at AGBU meant that I can get some connections happening and increase my quantitative skills - there's a need for someone that has an industry background experience and networking connections and passion for industry to be able to bridge the gap between geneticists and farmers. There really is no other training opportunity akin to this in Australia providing that conduit to industry. My Masters focuses on foundational bee breeding background work. My specialty is queen breeding so with this program I'm doing all the queen bee artificial insemination, with my first paper on honeybee fertility traits, what is known, and what could be selectable. My second paper is on the economic value of honey production because we've got a plethora of known bee traits but no economic value for any of them. That is a first step, to be able to justify selection in terms of the value of this trait. It's foundational breeding work generally. The data I've been collecting this season is drone fertility data that's come out of these artificial inseminations. So, providing that background work to give people that are getting into queen breeding more tools and more information so they can make informed decisions on 'is this the path for them' and how to do it better.