August 2022 BIBBA Monthly

August 2022 BIBBA Monthly

August 2022 BIBBA Monthly

Terry Hitchman


The July edition of BBKA NEWS contained three articles addressing the issue of Varroa Treatment- free beekeeping.

The following article sets out my beekeeping journey and is based on the knowledge gained on this journey and my conclusions about treatment free beekeeping.

Honey bees are recognised as livestock and require good husbandry to thrive, the same principles apply to all livestock.  Since I was a young boy growing up in South Warwickshire I have been involved in various types of agriculture, mainly with livestock.  In my early years my family kept pigs, we then expanded into cattle, sheep and poultry.   I began keeping honey bees in the mid 1970’s and horses followed in 1980.  In my early years 1945-60 there was no antibiotics and little medication for animal ailments, most of the remedies for ailments were handed down by your elders. Good husbandry was recognised as the key to healthy livestock.

Natural resistance to disease was achieved by the closed herd/flock policy.  This is where the livestock on the farm are not allowed to mix with neighbouring animals and overtime they developed their own immunity to the various ailments, once this aim was achieved, they would generally be reasonably healthy providing no viruses, diseases or ailments were not introduced from elsewhere.  I, e, closed herd/flock.

When I began beekeeping in the mid 1970’s I initially stocked up with locally adapted bees and decided to adopt the closed herd/flock principle as far as possible with my beekeeping.  By the 1980’s I was becoming frustrated with the lack of Heritable Performance in my local bees, so I decided to purchase a Buckfast Abbey queen, this proved to be a mistake, my local bees outperformed the Buckfast and in the second generation Chalk brood became a major problem.

At this time, I became aware of the native honeybee Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm), and was able to purchase an Amm virgin queen from a Bibba event at Locko Park, Derbyshire.  This queen formed the foundation of my present-day colonies. The area I live in has overtime been populated mainly by this strain of locally adapted bee, by propagating the strain and my swarms setting up feral colonies in the area,  the local population of honeybees have become genetically stable and it is my proposition that Genetic Stability is the key to healthy sustainable colonies which develop varroa tolerance. This genetic stability is achieved by the bees developing their natural resistance to the various viruses and ailments which varroa has inflicted upon them.  Once this resistance is achieved the only threat to your bees is the introduction of undesirable genetics which have the ability to dilute their genetic stability to the point where they lose their Varroa tolerance and become susceptible to viruses again.

Varroosis arrived in the area I live in 1995/6, the treatment I used initially was pyrethroid strips once a year in the autumn.  When the mites became resistant to Pyrethroid I used Apiguard once a year in the Autumn, I only once used Oxalic Acid treatment.  Throughout the period since varroa arrived, I have used solid floors.  The last  varroa treatment I gave my bees was in 2016,  I have not treated my colonies since 2016.  When I stopped treating all of my 25/30 colonies my losses did not increased from previous years, if anything losses have reduced since I have been treatment free.

It is noticeable that the treatment free beekeepers featured in the articles mentioned by Prof. Stephen Martin in his BBKA NEWS July 2022 article, would appear in the main to be using locally adapted or Native type honey bees.  It is my proposition that the development of natural resistance to the Varroa mite can be attributed to stable genetics in a population of honeybees, and that the modern phenomenon of using imported queens or British bred queens produced from imported breeder queens, which are neither locally adapted to our climate, varroa tolerant or guaranteed to be disease free. It is therefore reasonable to propose that the development of natural resistance to the varroa mite is hindered by the continued dilution of a  locally adapted Virgin queens genetic stability, when she mates with drones produced from queens which have not been selected for their varroa tolerance and that the continued introduction of undesirable genetics into our Islands will only delay the arrival of treatment free beekeeping.

The longer you keep bees, the more you realise there are things that are difficult to explain and you often haven’t seen before. For over 20 years there have been problems with queens, some of which I have written and spoken about, with a page on Dave Cushman’s website

Queen Bee Performance Problems (

I see many of these problems every summer, seeing some in three out of the four apiaries I recently used for the BIBBA Bee Improvement and Queen Rearing courses. At one of them, the first two colonies I inspected had problems. I have recently found something that is connected but slightly different in one of my colonies called Violet. As a keen amateur naturalist, I name my colonies after plants, trees, birds, etc.

Violet had a 2021 queen that overwintered well and was doing well in early 2022, with the early crop good. On 27th June I noted the queen was failing. On 26th July the queen had disappeared and there were emergency cells, which I reduced to one. On 12th August there were eggs and larvae, the oldest being 5 days. There were also two queen cups close together with eggs in, so probably supersedure and a queen with what appeared to be a mating sign. I suspect the eggs are infertile, but they need a few more days yet. The timing is right for the queen I saw to have laid the eggs and I only saw one queen. It is easy to say the queen mated again after commencing laying, but that isn’t what we are told.

I’m baffled, so if anyone has a possible explanation, please email me .

BIBBA represented at Sandringham Flower Show

Members will be aware from our previous BM issues that BIBBA has Special Apiary Projects in Abberton and Sandringham. These projects are an exciting BIBBA initiative offering a fantastic opportunity to develop and establish an Amm enclave which, given time, will grow to benefit the local honeybee population initially, then, hopefully, the honeybees on a county-wide scale.

Sandringham offers BIBBA a superb location because our conservation credentials align with Her Majesty’s principles that the Sandringham Estate supports native breeds and fits in with HRH the Prince of Wales’s objectives to manage the Estate as a fully organic enterprise, farming naturally and sustainably.

The seeds were sown when BIBBA Trustee Nick Bentham-Green had discussions with Edward Parsons, the Sandringham Land Steward, and proposed that a similar project be run at Sandringham to that at Restormel in Cornwall. The idea being that if honey bees were to be kept on Duchy or Royal Estate then the preference should be for the native bee (Amm).  Success of the Sandringham Project should then allow us to ‘springboard’ onto other Duchy or Royal Estates such as Buckingham Palace and Balmoral.

The initial aim was to get suitable apiary sites identified on the Estate and move colonies onto the site. Cooperation from the Estate Manager allowed two sites to be identified in November 2020, with one being used initially in the 2021 season.

The Sandringham Flower Show provided a unique opportunity for BIBBA to showcase the project to locals and visitors alike. I had the privilege to join BIBBA member, and project leader, Eric Marshall and his team Chris, Joanne, John and Marion on the Sandringham Special Apiary stand. The team had two observation hives for members of the public to view; one with a dark, daughter queen, born and mated on the Sandringham Estate, the other containing a yellowy-orange queen from imported lineage. This allowed the public to really appreciate the differences in stock. Of course, the fact that this years’ international marking colour is yellow made for a great talking point as our daughter queen was wearing a “yellow crown”.

There is a great appetite amongst the non-beekeeping public for the idea of sustainable beekeeping, which is not a new concept for BIBBA. Beowulf Cooper talked about an “ecological approach” in the early 60’s and this is what BIBBA has always been committed to; we just refer to it now as sustainable bees and beekeeping based on the native or near native honey bee. Unfortunately, honey bees now have many more challenges in the first half of the 21st Century and projects such as the ones at Abberton and Sandringham are very important.

I’d like to acknowledge the amount of worth that Eric and his team have put into the project and convey our thanks to other BIBBA members who have given their time, resources, and contacts in support of the Sandringham Project.

Richard Senior, BIBBA Secretary

Practical Bee Improvement and Queen Rearing

Richard Senior reports that BIBBA ran a series of  courses again after what seemed like a long period of movement restrictions.

Originally aimed to be six events over six days, the courses were obviously in demand so four additional days were added to the programme covering North Wales, mid-Wales, Yorkshire and West Sussex.

Thanks must be extended to all attendees, a full range of beekeepers with 1-30+ years experience and 2-200 colonies of their own. 

A significant part of sustainable beekeeping and bee improvement is to assess your own bees and propagate from what you feel is your best stock and replace the poorer ones.  Each day, several colonies were inspected and attendees had an appreciation of the way Roger Patterson assesses his bees to improve his stock. It was interesting to understand factors such as how the bees responded when hovering a hand over them after opening the hive. Over the course of the ten days,  around 80 colonies opened for longer than normal, looking at all frames, passing frames around and manipulating bees for demonstration and detailed inspection purposes. Roger only had 4 non-accidental stings, apart from one colony which had been acquired as a swarm and showed colouration typical of imports. Not bad whilst not wearing a beesuit or gloves. Most of us appreciate that a variety of colourations of worker bees is an indication of the queen having mated with several drones of differing strains. This course showed other indicators such as looking at the colouration of the drones abdomen (on the side of the abdomen) to get a better understanding of the genetics of the queen. All in all, the different groups seemed to be in a collective agreement on how to assess the bees and which of the colonies each day would be a good nomination for obtaining queen rearing larvae and which to replace.

The latter part of the day covered four approaches to raising queens; The Miller method, Punched Cell method, larval transfer (grafting) and using Cupkit (or similar) equipment. Your approach, if you choose to raise queens, will help you to save money, improve your bees and experience the satisfaction of queen rearing for yourself. One host grafted for the first time on the day and 8 out of the 10 larvae formed into sealed queen cells. An excellent result! 

It was clear that grafting was seen as a commonly known approach and everybody had a go at larval transfer using a Chinese tool, the Swiss-style tool and even a paintbrush for those that wanted to experiment.  90%+ had typically not done grafting before but 90%+ got the hang of it with their preferred tool within a few attempts. 

For those with shaky hands or eyesight challenges, the Punched Cell approach was demonstrated and seemed to receive universal nods as a simple way to transfer larvae with the added benefit that the larva isn't touched and is transferred with its supply of brood food. Further announcements will be made shortly about a BIBBA source of cell punches.

Bigger groups would have meant that individual questions and practical experiments would not have been possible. Interestingly, each of the 10 days covered the same objectives but the outcomes were different depending upon which colonies were assessed, what was found in them and the dynamics of the group on each day. 


This course, prior to travel restrictions, used to be delivered as a two day course. With the use of five preliminary webinars to preview the 'classroom' side of things, it allowed the same to be delivered as a one-day event.

Thanks must be given to Roger for his tireless efforts over the 10 days, for the preparation and delivery of the course and for adapting the approach each day depending upon what was discovered during the hive inspections. All hosts were also very helpful and supportive each day and I did my part to help things flow smoothly.

OBITUARY: Ken Ibbotson

Ken was a director of BIBBA in the early 1990's.  Click to see his obituary on the BBKA website