The objective of the Saskatraz project is to breed gentle, productive honey bee colonies with tolerance to mites and brood diseases. Efforts are also being made to identify genetic diversity and correlate important phenotypes with molecular (microsatellites) markers.
These objectives were approached by assembling a large gene pool at an isolated apiary called Saskatraz. To access a source of honey bees adapted to the Saskatchewan environment and selected for many years for honey production, overwintering ability and good overall hive health, a request was made for Saskatchewan and Manitoba queen breeders to provide their best breeding lines to the program. Fourteen queen breeders provided 35 colonies. To provide breeding stock previously demonstrated to have mite tolerance, a few breeders provided reselected Russian and German breeding lines. All of the colonies at the Saskatraz apiary were normalized for varroa and tracheal mite infestation levels. No synthetic chemical miticides were applied and natural selection was used to identify the most productive and mite tolerant phenotypes. Initial selections were made over three and a half years. In the spring of 2007 varroa mite infestations and the stresses of associated pathogens killed all of the original Saskatraz colonies. Breeding lines selected in 2006 were back crossed at Saskatraz under high varroa mite pressure to generate breeder queens with increased varroa tolerance. The progeny of selected breeders are continually outcrossed and subjected to recurrent selection to preserve the selected gene pool, to maintain genetic diversity, and to enrich for economic traits. Re-selected colonies are returned to the Saskatraz apiary and the natural selection process is repeated in the search for genotypes with increased expression of mite tolerance and honey production without the use of chemical miticides. A model showing the logistics of the Saskatraz breeding program operation is presented in Figure 1.
In general, our approach has been to select for families with balanced traits, with increased honey production as our primary selection criteria. These families show varying degrees of increased honey production, good resistance to tracheal (Acarapis woodi) mites and chalk brood, and some tolerance to varroa (Varroa destructor ) mites. None of the families show complete resistance to varroa mites and continued efforts are required to breed lines with improved varroa tolerance. Varroa infestation in Apis Mellifera is a serious world -wide problem, threatening the existence of the domesticated honey bee and is part of the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD).
Since 2006, the Saskatraz breeding program has released 14 families (SAT -14, 17, 23, 28, 30, 34, 63, 65, 84, 86, 87, 88, 96, 98.) to queen breeders for multiplication. As of October 15, 2009, 4220 queen cells and 67 breeder queens were released to Canadian queen breeders
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