NatBIP – June 2020


Bee Improvement for All

Jo Widdicombe

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to improving the quality and consistency of our bees is getting beekeepers to agree on a collective way forward. Although there may be differences of opinion as to which is the best type of bee, if we look at the qualities we want in our bees, it may be surprising how much agreement there can be.
Most people want hardy, docile and productive bees.
How best to achieve this may cause further disagreement amongst beekeepers.

video of queen mating

The mating system of the honey bee, namely the queen mating with multiple drones from several miles radius, has always made improving the quality of our bees a bit problematic. Whilst some beekeepers get around this problem through instrumental insemination, it is never likely to be a ‘mass-market’ technique. This has led to many beekeepers turning to queens reared abroad to get around the issues of inconsistent results.

A queen reared abroad, in the early part of the season, can be introduced to a nucleus in this country to produce a colony that is unlikely to swarm in the same season. This is a system which has gained popularity over the years to the point where imported queen volumes have grown year on year to the present figure of about 22,000 imports per season.

22,000 queens imported per season

Unfortunately, imported queens have a drastic effect on our local bee populations, hybridising the different sub-species of honey bee and making the selection and improvement of our bees more difficult. This random hybridisation means that consistency in improvement programmes is difficult to achieve, with offspring not reliably inheriting the qualities of their parents. The result of importation of honey bees is a poorer quality, hybridised or mongrelised local population. This in turn, fuels the demand for further imports to improve quality.

Some may consider that the added genetic material from imports is an advantage, giving us a more genetically diverse bee population. Genetic diversity is, of course, an important quality in a population, making it resilient and able to withstand a wide range of threats. However, the introduction of maladjusted, or unsuitable, genes, as the SMARTBEES project pointed out, only weakens a population rather than strengthens it.

the mean survival duration of local bee origins was significantly longer than that of foreign ones
American Bee Journal

This system, such as it is, relying on imports for our quality, is what has been considered, by many, as the norm, for decades. It is not a system that has served us well; the evidence is all around us, with bad-tempered, unproductive and swarmy bees being only too common. If we are ever to change our beekeeping for the better, to a more sustainable system, and not relying on outside sources for a tolerable bee, we have got to find a new approach, and unite to achieve that approach.

The time is right for a new approach

As the world population continues to grow, bees and beekeepers assume greater importance for their role in the pollination of crops, than they have ever held. In the natural world, honey bees help to maintain biodiversity in the environment helping plants to set seed for their own benefit and for the creatures that feed on them.

For bees and beekeepers to continue to provide this service in a crowded world, we must develop a sustainable system that produces a docile, robust, and productive bee. It is time to take a fresh look at our beekeeping and commit to a method that produces a better bee for everyone. This will ensure that, in the years to come, we rise to the challenge of maintaining a healthy population that serves the beekeeper, the food producer and the environment well.

Many beekeepers regard the quality of hybrid vigour as an important attribute that produces better performance in bee colonies. It is a well-known technique in plant and animal husbandry producing reliable results which can easily be replicated. Unfortunately, in honey bees, where queens mate with multiple drones from a wide area, control of the resulting population is quickly compromised and we end up with a random genetic mix, making selection and improvement extremely difficult.

Many beekeepers will recognise the scenario of buying in bees of good temper only for things to deteriorate after a generation or two, making further imports necessary. Others, who do not bring in stock, will recognise how the temper of their own stock can deteriorate after neighbours bring in bees of other sub-species. A choice needs to be made between continuing with ever-increasing imports, which ultimately merely seems to add to the problem, or turning our back on imports and making the most of what we have got here already.

where queens mate with multiple drones from a wide area ….
we end up with a random genetic mix, making selection and improvement extremely difficult

Reaching agreement

The biggest obstacle to improving our own bees long-term is the importation of foreign sub-species due to the constant influx of unsuitable and incompatible genes into our bee population. There is some evidence, from various surveys carried out in the last few years that most beekeepers do not favour imports and are aware of the biosecurity risks involved. Many realise that they are a short-term fix that causes longer-term problems. This is where we can find the common ground to unite beekeepers and build a better future for beekeeping in this country.

Once we turn our back on imported stock, that is, bees of non-native sub-species, we stop adding to the problem. Although our bee population may currently be a very hybridised mixture of sub-species, without imports we can start on the road to refining and improving them through a process of natural and artificial selection.

There is a great deal of genetic diversity in the bees already here which will allow us to develop whatever qualities we would like to see in our bees. In some ways there is too much diversity, the population is very hybridised making it difficult to get them to breed true (offspring resembling parents) but these challenges can be overcome.

Maximum Participation

For the National Bee Improvement Programme to achieve success we need to achieve maximum participation from beekeepers. The first rung on the ladder, which beekeepers can unite around, is to commit to not buying imported bees, or offspring of recently imported bees. Only by making this commitment to source home-grown queens can our current bee population develop into a more coherent and useful resource through the processes of natural and artificial selection. A big reduction in the number of imports is the first step to transforming our honey bee population.