What’s in Plan Bee for bee breeders

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Bee breeders have a vital role to play in Plan Bee, a national program designed to boost the quality of Australia’s honey bee stocks through genetic improvement.

Plan Bee addresses some frequently asked questions from queen breeders about the program.

What is Plan Bee?

Plan Bee is a new system for implementing modern animal breeding methods into the beekeeping industry. It consists of a breeding manual, assistance with trait assessment and recording (phenotyping), genetic testing services, development of a common database, and a team of researchers across NSW Department of Primary Industries, the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit, and the University of Sydney.

Our steering committee consists of members from the Australian Queen Bee Breeders Association, Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, Monson’s Honey and Pollination, Beechworth Honey, the Wheen Bee Foundation, Olam Orchards Australia, Costa Group, and South Pacific Seeds.

The project is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and administered by AgriFutures Australia.

How is Plan Bee different from previous breeding programs?

You can be involved. Individual bee breeders can use the Plan Bee database and systems to improve their stock, rather than efforts being focused on a single population. This means that more diverse stock, which has been selected in different environments, will be available for industry. For bee breeders it means that they can use modern methods in their own business.

The methods are different. Plan Bee uses modern animal breeding techniques that have been used in other industries including dairy and beef cattle, sheep and pigs for decades. In all cases, this has led to exponential growth in production traits in those industries, boosting productivity and profitability. Standardisation of evaluation protocols and use of pedigrees mean that we will better be able to separate out genetic effects from environmental/other effects on performance. This will speed up selection for traits.

Already supplied data to Plan Bee, why haven’t I received any information about my queens yet?

Plan Bee researchers need a certain number of records for each trait with pedigree data in the system before the analysis that measures genetic merit can occur.

That’s why Plan Bee is encouraging queen breeders to share any existing records you have about the pedigree of your queens and their performance so the threshold can be achieved, and analysis can begin.

We are also awaiting an appropriate genetic testing service. In the absence of pedigree records we require genetic testing to determine pedigrees. We have been working hard to get this to happen, but new systems take time to develop. We are currently working with a new service provider to design a system better suited to honey bees.

What does Plan Bee need from queen breeders?

Any existing records you have that include pedigree and trait data can be shared with the Plan Bee team to help build the database and get us to the critical point at which we can begin producing breeding values. If you keep records on pedigree (queen mother) and performance, then we’d like to hear from you!

Why does Plan Bee need my records when it has a research population?

Plan Bee maintains a research population at NSW Department of Primary Industries; however, the population exists as a facility for developing and testing colony trait evaluation protocols.

While pedigree information from the population is providing essential data to the Plan Bee database, it is not big enough to meet the threshold, and was never intended to be the sole source of data for the database.

A small number of queens have also been released back to bee breeders. The population was in the Varroa eradication zone. A small number of queens were preserved under strict biosecurity protocols. They continue to be maintained but are presently not being expanded while we focus on other aspects of the program.

How will Plan Bee help my business?

Bee breeders around the country collect data which is sent to the Plan Bee database. Once we have enough data, it will be analysed to determine the genetic merit (performance) of the queens.

Once systems are up and running, results will be sent to the bee breeder who collected the data, to help them with their breeding decisions in producing elite queens. The use of these methods has sped up selection for traits in honey bees overseas. Breeders could also use this information in advertising to assure their customers that their stock has the traits as advertised, which will likely have impacts on the amount that can be charged.

What traits are the focus of Plan Bee?

Pest and disease resistance, brood pattern, population, honey production and aggression.

Most of these traits are required recording twice a year as part of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice (the Code).

By sharing the data that you already have with Plan Bee, you can increase your breeding success and contribute to this industry wide initiative to improve profitability and sustainability.

How do I share my data currently with Plan Bee?

You can email your records or send paper copies to Plan Bee and researchers will enter the data into the system for you.

Is data I provide to Plan Bee confidential?

Yes. When you supply data to Plan Bee, the genetic merit of your queens is not shared with anyone outside the research team.
From time to time, we may publish industry wide results. These will not identify you or your queens.

Is Plan Bee planning on importing genetic material?

Plan Bee is focused on designing the systems needed to implement modern animal breeding techniques. Importation is not part of this grant. If imports take place in future, the Plan Bee systems can be used to assess the suitability of the stock for the Australian climate and continue selection on the traits that the imported stock has.

How will Plan Bee help pollination dependent industries?

Plan Bee is the first time honey bee pollination dependent industries have been involved in an Australian honey bee genetic improvement program.

Improvements in honey bee health and productivity will benefit honey bee-dependent horticultural industries by ensuring beekeeping remains a profitable enterprise that can attract and retain beekeepers, so our bee population remains strong, and by improving the economic basis of pollination for both the horticultural industries and beekeeping generally.

The traits we focus on (pest and disease resistance, brood pattern, population, aggression and honey production) benefit both the beekeeping and pollination dependent industries. Strong, healthy colonies are better foragers, resulting in more honey and more pollination. If other traits that are beneficial to pollination are identified, then these can be added to our protocols.

Who do I talk to for more information about Plan Bee?

If you want to know more about modern genetic selection procedures and how you can get involved in Plan Bee, get in touch with the project team today:

Paul Blackshaw
AgriFutures Australia

Nadine Chapman
University of Sydney

You can also sign up to the Plan Bee Newsletter here

Plan Bee is supported by AgriFutures Australia, through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program.

Plan Bee project partners include NSW Department of Primary Industries, University of Sydney, Better Bees (WA), Wheen Bee Foundation, Commercial beekeepers, Olam International, Monson’s Honey and Pollination, Costa Group, South Pacific Seeds Pty Ltd and AgriFutures Australia.

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