When the lightning-sparked Hennessey Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, swept through rural Vacaville, California, in August 2020, queen bee breeder and beekeeper Caroline Yelle thought she had lost her entire business.
“The fire destroyed everything in its path: the bees, my hives, the whole farm,” says the 29-year-old owner of Pope Canyon Queens (PCQ), who lost more than 400 hives. But out of the ashes, Yelle—and a new set of bees—have risen. “It was a huge bump in the road for us, but it has allowed us to do better.”
Now, almost two years later, and thanks to the support of her community, Yelle is back to breeding queens. She works with Carniolans, or Apis mellifera carnica, a hybrid she selected back home in Canada and reproduces in California in hopes that their genetic strengths can make them resilient to the many challenges facing honey bees today. Today, she has about 580 hives.
Pollinators, most often honey bees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food we take, and they help increase U.S. crop values by more than $15 billion each year. However, critical honey bee populations have been in serious decline for more than three decades in the U.S. due to high rates of colony loss, which stems from many factors, including habitat loss, decreasing crop diversity, increased use of pesticides and other toxins, climate change, and pests and pathogens. Other factors include industrial beekeeping practices—particularly in the large-scale almond industry.
This year alone, 2 million beehives—containing about 42 billion bees—were brought into the state to pollinate almond blossoms.
“If there are no bees, there is no food,” says Yelle. “To save ourselves, we have to save the bees.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers commercial honeybees to be livestock, due to their crucial role in food production. However, more bees die every year in the U.S. than all other animals raised for slaughter combined; during the winter of 2020–21, an estimated 32 percent of managed colonies in the U.S. were lost.
‘Give Bees a Chance’
In 2018, Yelle purchased PCQ from her mentor and business partner, veteran beekeeper Rick Schubert, for whom she began working in 2012. She had studied to be a lawyer in Canada, but after receiving her degree, moved to California to follow her dreams to help the bees. Between March and June every year, Yelle breeds roughly 25,000 queen bees. Since building back her business, she says the number of requests for her queens has been on the rise, and beekeepers who’ve received them tell her that their hives are now thriving.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who has worked with Yelle, is a former manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw, Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at U.C. Davis. She has worked with Carniolan honey bees for more than 40 years, and has run one of the longest-running breeding programs in the world. Numerous studies clearly show that genetic diversity improves bee colony survival, and Cobey now incorporates honey bee germplasm from several European subspecies into U.S. breeding stocks to increase colony vitality and resistance to pests and diseases.
“Bees are probably one of the most complex animals to work with because they mate in flight, which is difficult to control,” says Cobey, noting that honey bees are sensitive to inbreeding and also at risk of population loss through the breeding process.
Queen bees mate with an average of 15 to 20 drones (male honey bees), so breeders like Yelle and Cobey mate the bees artificially under a microscope by anesthetizing the queens with carbon dioxide. They use a pool of genetic material from numerous drones to provide diversity.
The Carniolan honey bee, originally from Slovenia, a hotbed of successful beekeeping, holds a special place in the hearts of many beekeepers. Also known as a spring bee for its activity early in the season, it is also sought after for its gentleness and productivity, and is also considered highly resistant to the Varroa mite, which has become a major contributor to the demise of bee colonies worldwide.