East Midlands Bee Breeding Group

East Midlands Bee Breeding Group

East Midlands Bee Breeding Group

The East Midlands BIBBA group have, for many years, worked together in a bee breeding programme on the Derbyshire Nottinghamshire border.
In 2015 BIBBA East Midlands will meet at the Thrumpton Apiary throughout the season from mid Spring, at 2pm on a Sunday

The following notes are based on conversations held at the apiary on Sundays, journeys to our out apiary and meetings at the village hall. We now have a clear sense of purpose for next year. Understanding this requires some consideration of what has been achieved in 2015.

Looking back on our achievements in 2015

1               Improving our bees

Our main aim in 2015 was to increase the number and quality of our colonies. We now have 15 very healthy and viable colonies. All set for getting through the winter ready for supporting our breeding programme for next year.

2               Re-establishing the out apiary at the Dams

Our old isolated mating site in the Derbyshire Peak District was a success in the past and we decided to resurrect it to use rather than, or in addition to, the Yorkshire site used in recent years. The Derbyshire site is nearer and available throughout the season to produce more queens. More members can now be involved in this breeding work. The Thrumpton site is not sufficiently isolated to produce controlled matings as at least three other nearby apiaries are providing out crossed drones to local congregation areas. Various groups of members have been servicing the site with two drone colonies; nuclei have been placed there and 3 of the 5 mated queens that returned survived and are now in full stocks.

In November 2015 we identified a further site within 2 miles of our existing site and access has been negotiated with the land owner. We can now saturate that geographical location with our drones to populate local drone congregations.

3               Locating new queens to improve the genetic balance of our future queens.

Two members have bought in queens from Amm breeders in the United Kingdom and made this stock available for the BIBBA group. This has accelerated our ability to establish drone stock for next year. Five colonies will be the focus on our efforts.

4               Consolidating BIBBA group membership – building our competencies and maintaining an apiary to be proud of

There are 25 members and a core set are making considerable effort to keep equipment in good order, keep the apiary site tidy and keeping the grass cut. The apiary is a magical place and we all appreciate the opportunity to meet there to share our bee keeping experiences and understandings.

4               Record keeping

We have improved our way of recording our management of each colony and the tracking queens. We designed a composite form derived from designs from BIBBA, BBKA and others sources. We now have a pilot system that is beginning to work.

5               Morphometry

Building our competences with the morphometry analysis of our own bees, Thrumpton and individual member’s colonies. A workshop was run that established an approach that we will continue to develop.

Our plans for 2016

1               Core purpose

We are clear that everything we do is focussed on breeding Apis mellifera mellifera queens of the best genetic stock and to make these queens available to our members to establish this bee in their own apiaries.

To achieve this we intend to do the following

2               Out apiary mating sites

During 2016 the new site will be established with new drone colonies. In February a schedule of tasks with approximate times will be drafted to enable all who wish to help with the complexities. It will be a collective effort. We will over the year try to locate one more site in that area.

3               Pure breed queens

Our existing 5 colonies with pure bred Amm queens will be the source of our future drone colonies. To this we will add queens located in Scotland and Northern Ireland to bring the best queens available into our apiary. These will be the source of new virgins to be taken to the out apiary. These will populate hives at the Thrumpton site and others will be handed on to members involved in the development of this process across 2016.

4               Building competences and understanding

Our group is very inclusive and welcomes all who wish to support our core purpose. Our intention is to run informal training workshops to ensure those who wish to become involved have opportunities to develop their skills to take part. Currently a queen rearing workshop is planned for mid April. A morphometry workshop will be arranged. Other sessions related to manipulation of the bees, record keeping, tasks for managing the two sites and taking nucleases to the out apiary will happen alongside those activities as the year unfolds.

5               Analysing the quality of our bees

To do this we will be keeping appropriate records and refer to morphometrical data to guide our practice. We will review the pilot system to ensure that relevant data is kept as colony records and queen records.

6               Other possibilities

6.1 Artificial insemination – The group possesses equipment and two members have been trained. We are considering the feasibility on introducing this dimension to our programme in 2016. No decision has been made yet.

6.2 Building the member base – we do not want to be distracted by a membership drive this year. We want to consolidate the members we already have. Once these new practices have been established and the quality and number of queens available improved, then the membership will naturally expand as other bee keepers begin to understand why and what we are doing.

A problem that has long been with us, has been to find a mating site that gives reasonable isolation. We have used sites several hundred miles from our base. These include Spurn Point on the East Coast, and the Elan Valley in Wales.

Albert Knight examining a frame of native bees
The restriction on movement of bees when varroa arrived put an end to such travelling, and over the last few years our stocks have become more hybridised. The spread of varroa throughout England and Wales has meant there are now no restrictions on movement. During the winter of 1997 it was suggested we set up a mating site in a remote valley in Derbyshire, and at the same time offer queens mated there free of charge to the beekeepers nearest to the site. This was an attempt to carry out a mono-straining exercise similar to the one in Tipperary by Micheál MacGiolla Coda, where approximately 1,600 square miles have been mono-strained with his gentle black Galtee bees. These are Apis mellifera mellifera bees, the Dark European honeybee.

With our first two seasons at this new site now over, we can look back on the efforts and the results with some satisfaction. Over a hundred queens raised the first year and 70 the second year, and successfully mated and distributed. Most of those raised the first year went to beekeepers in the locality of the mating site, and some have been used to requeen some of the group apiary stocks. We sold some of the second year’s queens, and we plan to raise larger numbers in future years.

The one aspect that has disappointed us has been the losses on introduction of queens we have given to beekeepers nearest to our mating site, losses being about 40%. Of the 20 queens we used to re-queen stocks in the group apiary, we lost 3 on introduction.

The work involved has been considerable, for us it is a round trip of 100 miles to the site, and 150 if we have to go to the group apiary first. With visits at least weekly, and sometimes twice weekly, the mileage had shot up to well over 1,000 miles during the season.

We use Apidea mini-nucs, and these are mounted on a stake with a crossbar on which the mini-nuc rests. A thick band of rubber cut from a car inner tube straps the nuc to the stake. The mini-nucs are sited so as to give the bees something to help them orient on to the site, such as a bush or small tree. This reduces losses due to queens returning to the wrong nuc. In normal weather conditions we expect queens to be mated and laying within two weeks. Planning based on this presumption, means having more queen cells ready to put in the same mini-nucs two weeks after the queens have been on site. So a mated queen is removed and a ripe queen cell due to hatch within 24 hours is put in the nuc.

Themostatically controlled cell transporter box, Photo... Albert Knight
Transporting ripe queen cells 75 miles from our apiary to the mating site poses problems regarding keeping them at hive temperature. This has been solved by the use of a thermostatically controlled heater unit run off the cigar lighter in the car. The unit housed in a box fitted out with polystyrene blocks that have holes made to hold the queen cells. A digital thermometer on the lid giving the temperature reading.

Record keeping is a vital part of queen rearing and distribution of queens. Not least among the problems in this, is in actually getting information on the queens afterwards. Notes on introduction, colony behaviour and performance with the new queens are the basics of what are required to allow meaningful assessment to be made. We know from past experience that many beekeepers just don’t observe their colonies with a view to recording what they see, and it is difficult to see where you’re going if you are not looking. We live in hope.

During the course of our work with the beekeepers of the area, we have met and made new beekeeping friends. Among these we are fortunate in having Dr. Francis Ratnieks, who at that time headed a research laboratory at Sheffield University on social insects. His particular interest is honeybees, and he spent some years in America where he got his degree at Cornell University, and where he was involved in the practical side of beekeeping, running 200 colonies in New York state, so in addition to his academic attributes, he also a very practical beekeeper. We have found him to be most helpful, and he has not been slow to offer help in our breeding work. He introduced us to some American plastic foundation that is much thicker, and with deeper indentations than normal wax foundation. We are fitting all our Apidea mini-nucs with it this winter, ready to use it next season. This he has cut up to size for cementing into the plastic frames of the mini-nucs, and having made up a sample I am impressed with its strength. At the end of each season, all that will be required is to scrape the wax comb off, back to the plastic foundation.

In his laboratory at Sheffield Dr. Ratnieks has set up a DNA testing facility, and one of our members (Angus Stokes) who was studying under Dr. Ratnieks for his PhD and carried out DNA work on larvae from the queens we are raising, and the drone larvae of the colonies we are using at the mating site. This gave valuable information on the purity of mating there.

We had planned to make a video of the work involved in this project, but the work seemed to push the video making into a lower priority. However some footage has been done showing the grafting, and quite a lot on the management of the nucs on site among some really wonderful scenery. We plan to add to this next season, showing work on making up mini-nucs, fitting the plastic foundation, finding queens in colonies, introducing queens, and the recording methods used in the breeding programme.

In our craft, the norm is for beekeepers to work alone with their bees. In this project, where the planning and practical work is shared with others, one has the feeling we are participating in something really worthwhile and of real value to beekeeping in the area, that we are doing rather than talking. The enthusiasm of everyone involved in this project has been excellent, and I know I am not alone in looking forward to the next beekeeping season with keen anticipation.

Albert Knight