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Proposal by the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) to:
(1) reduce the level of honey bee imports into the UK, and
(2) to improve the quality of our honey bees
The National Pollinator Strategy (The National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England, November 2014) highlights the importance of insect pollinators in our environment and in our food production. The honey bee, Apis mellifera, ranks amongst the most important of pollinators due to the number of colonies, the number of individuals in each colony, their early spring build-up and the fact that colonies can be moved to crops for pollination.
Whilst the importation of honey bees into this country is not a new thing, in recent years we have seen a big increase in the numbers of these imports
See EU Import report for figures). Concerns have been raised for the biosecurity of our honey bee population by DEFRA, by beekeepers and by beekeeping organisations. It is the official policy of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to discourage the import of honey bee colonies and queens partly because of this risk.
There is also growing concern about the loss, through introgression, of locally adapted strains of honey bee due to the continuous introduction of honey bees that may not be accustomed to our climate and conditions. The Rural Network for Sustainable Bee Breeding (RNSBB) (the taskforce within COLOSS for breeding and conservation) https://www.beebreeding.net/ states, ‘We believe that the safeguarding of bee biodiversity, beyond its ethical and scientific dimensions, is also of high economic interest, because in the long run locally adapted populations are better suited than imported ones to cope with prevailing environmental conditions and health threats, and thus to survive’ .
A key remit of the National Bee Unit (NBU), is stated in its “Healthy Bees Plan”, (published in 2009 by DEFRA and the Welsh Government), is
“to respond effectively to pest and disease threats and to put in place programmes to ensure a sustainable and productive future for beekeeping In England and Wales”.
The current situation with ever increasing imports of bees and queens into the UK seems to be contrary to the aims of the Healthy Bees Plan and against the interests and advice of scientists and beekeeping associations. The question must be asked as to whether anything can be done to reduce the flow of imports and to satisfy the goals of reducing biosecurity risks at the same time as increasing the quality and sustainability of our bees nationwide. An added incentive to reducing imports would be provided if a system of improving our local honey bee populations was adopted and available to all beekeepers.
Reasons for the popularity of imports
Whilst, for a long time, there has been a body of opinion wishing to see a reduction in honey bee imports, there is still an appetite and a market for imported bees, particularly queens. It is a fact that some bee farmers and other beekeepers, favour the use of imported queens in their operations.
A more developed queen rearing and breeding industry has grown up in Europe and around the world than in the UK, partly due to more favourable weather conditions, but also perhaps due to a lack of initiative by UK Government and beekeeping organizations.
DEFRA formed a committee in 2018, known as the “Queen Rearing Working Group”, with representatives of various beekeeping organisations in England, to investigate the possibilities of increasing home queen production in order to reduce the demand for imported queens. In 2018 a survey of English beekeepers was carried out to get a better understanding of the reasons for importing stock and to find out more about beekeepers’ attitudes to queen rearing.
The DEFRA committee concluded that some of the reasons that beekeepers have for imports were as follows:
• Queens are readily available
• Queens can be produced more cheaply than in UK
• Queens are available earlier in the season
• Queens are regarded as of better quality than those available in the UK
It should be noted that not all imports are checked for biosecurity risks and that they may not be checked for all possible risks.
The problems of importing bees and offering an alternative
Increased home production of queens could lessen the demand for imported queens and thus reduce the biosecurity risk of bringing in more pests and diseases. However, given the advantages that foreign producers enjoy, particularly with regard to climate and length of season, how much can we realistically expect to reduce the level of imports? Are there other advantages to home reared queens which would make them more desirable than imported ones?
150 years of imports of queens, of various sub-species, have shown that, whilst a short-term improvement in quality may be experienced, over the long-term, no improvement is achieved. On the contrary, in most areas our honey bee population is generally viewed as hybridised or, perhaps more accurately, mongrelised. The argument that importation is good for the genetic diversity of our population has been shown, by the COLOSS experiment comparing the survival of imported stock with local stock, to be unbeneficial as we are merely importing genes which may be less suited to our environment and therefore of no real benefit.
The resulting long-term effect of imports on our bee population are that they set up a vicious circle of poor-quality and often aggressive mongrelised bees that fuel the demand for more imports, providing a short-term fix but not a long-term solution.
If, as an alternative to the importation of queens, we established a National Bee Improvement Programme which selected and propagated the best local bees, a good reason could then be made for not using imported bees. Beekeepers would benefit in two ways, that is, in a reduction in the biosecurity risks associated with imports, and through the opportunity of supporting and participating in a project that could deliver a better-quality bee. Taking part in a scheme to sustainably improve our bees would provide a definite reason to refrain from the use of imported bees.
BIBBA’s Proposal for a
National Bee Improvement Programme
In January BIBBA published a document outlining its proposal for a national bee improvement programme. This document is available to be viewed on the BIBBA website. It was written with a view to informing other beekeeping associations of our plans and inviting them to contribute to the finer details of the programme.
The aims of the programme are twofold; to improve the quality of our own honey bee population and to reduce the number of imported bees into this country. Currently, many beekeepers see the use of imported stock as the only way to get a better-quality bee.
Whilst a temporary improvement in quality may be experienced, the net effect is the continual mixing of the sub-species, resulting in a randomly hybridised population that does not breed true, making selection and improvement difficult. In effect, imports set up a vicious circle where quality cannot be maintained, deterioration sets in, creating further demand for more imports in a vain attempt to improve quality.
BIBBA has always promoted a more sustainable system of bee improvement, one in which the quality of our bees can be steadily improved over time. Unfortunately, the import of other sub-species has a negative effect on our efforts through the constant introduction of genes not tried and tested in our environment. This is irrespective of the biosecurity risks which these imports also pose.
How the Programme would work
Participants in the improvement programme would keep a record of every colony’s performance and characteristics, using a standardized record card. The record of performance for the previous season plus a few checks in the current season, such as how the colony has over-wintered, health of the colony, etc. will allow the choice of the best queens for breeding from, that is the ‘breeder queens’ which will be used to produce the next generation. Beekeepers may work on their own or form local groups to share efforts and achieve greater influence. New queens will be reared from these breeder queens and irrespective of the drones that these queens mate with, the drones produced by these new queens will be ‘good’, as produced from unfertilised eggs and thus be directly related to the original breeder queens.
The aim will be to develop queen mating zones, in which ‘good’ drones produced in the area can dominate and mate with our newly produced queens. Over time the effects of hybridization of our bees can be reduced and we can develop local strains based on the native bee. Why the native bee? The natural advantages it enjoys in our environment make this the easiest strain to refine and maintain. Aren’t there better strains available? The genetic diversity within any strain contain all the qualities we could want. By working within a single strain, one that is favoured by natural selection, we can produce a hardy, docile and productive bee.
Development of the Programme
The details of the Programme are being worked on and will be collated in a guidebook ready to be put into action in 2021. This will be issued with all the information required for supporters to participate in the programme. It will be designed in sections that can be modified, updated and added to in the light of experience gained. It will cover such things as the record card and record-keeping, selecting breeder queens, queen rearing techniques, working in groups/Group Handbook, dominating an area with the selected strain/establishing a strain, selection of local stock/refining the native strain, and availability and distribution of surplus queens from other beekeepers.
In the meantime, the Programme is being piloted at various apiaries around the country to test the principles and practices that will be detailed in the guidebook.
This is an ambitious project for BIBBA and for general beekeeping in this country. We feel it will attract support from a wide range of beekeepers, not just BIBBA members. It is important to view it as a long-term project and to make it flexible so that it can be constantly modified and updated and kept relevant to current situation and events facing beekeepers. It will provide a framework for a better more sustainable future for beekeeping in this country, something never attempted before.
NATIONAL BEE IMPROVEMENT PROGRAMME (NatBIP)
Bee Improvement for All
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Assessment of Colonies
A fundamental part of the National Bee Improvement Programme will be the assessment of our colonies. A quick and easy system of recording qualities is vital to the selection of our breeder queens. Selection of these breeders not only allows us to raise the next generation of queens but also plays an important role in producing a large number of ‘good’ drones in an area. Whatever our newly reared queens mate with, these new queens will produce drones directly related to the breeder queens that they were reared from. It is therefore important that we make the correct choice of queens to be our ‘breeders’.
In the next article I will discuss the importance of breeding within a strain which allows us to get consistency into our improvement programmes and therefore allows more rapid progress. This article will be concerned with the qualities that we need to assess, and how we build these into a system of record-keeping.
The more qualities we consider, the more complicated and difficult it becomes to achieve our aims. For example, if we were only looking at one quality in our bees, it would be relatively straightforward to make progress. Limiting the number of qualities that we want means compromises may have to be made, especially in the early years of an improvement programme, but more refinement of our stock can be introduced later on, once a few basic qualities have been achieved.
Different beekeepers, or groups of beekeepers, may place different emphasis on achieving certain qualities, and the freedom to do that may be necessary. Surprisingly, though, there tends to be a lot of agreement on what beekeepers like to see in their bees. A standard record-card that is suitable for all beekeepers is needed, even if the emphasis on some qualities varies a little between individuals or groups.
Although often ignored in our assessments, the most important quality in our bees is ‘survival’. Those that do not survive are automatically lost from the selection process and although we do not like to lose bees, the positive result is that the stock we are left with is the hardiest and most resilient.
There are two aspects worth considering regarding this quality:
A colony that comes through the winter well and is poised to develop strongly during the spring is deemed to have over-wintered well. We can assess this trait for all surviving colonies at the first spring inspection.
- Varroa Treatments
Another aspect relating to survival is to record what varroa treatments the bees have received, be it artificial or natural chemicals, biotechnical controls or no treatment at all. We need to record treatments received in previous and current seasons.
In the long term we would like to see the development of a resilient population with regard to varroa. We would like to see a population that can survive well by its own means and not be destroyed or severely weakened by varroa and associated viruses.
A number of beekeepers are already practising treatment-free beekeeping, and varroa tolerant or resistant bees may be closer than we realise. We want to encourage this trait as it is crucial to attaining a sustainable system of beekeeping. This is clearly an area where different beekeepers will have different approaches and policy must be left to individual beekeepers, or local groups. Conditions may vary in different parts of the country which may influence decisions on treatments, but the important thing is that we record what we do.
Beekeeping is much more enjoyable and less-stressful with good-tempered bees, as well as being safer for the general public, an important factor in a crowded landscape. There are many factors affecting the temper of a colony such as, the weather, the stage in the swarming cycle or the effect of robbing by wasps. We can build up a good picture of how placid a colony is by assessing the bees each time we carry out an inspection. Over the season, whilst we expect variations at times, a pattern builds up of what we can expect from a certain colony.
Normally this is an important factor in selecting our breeder queens. If the mother is docile, the chances are that the offspring will also have that trait.
Swarming in colonies is their natural means of reproducing and, in the wild, is essential to survival of the species. It also carries risks for the colony; too much swarming and the chances of survival for the swarms or the parent colony are reduced. From the beekeeper’s point of view, swarming means a reduction in honey yield and perhaps more feeding required for swarm or parent colony.
Beekeeping is a partnership and it may be in the interests of the bees and the beekeeper if the swarming propensity is low. Colonies which are reluctant to make preparations for swarming are generally looked on more favourably than those which swarm very readily. Also, colonies which tend to produce a new queen by supersedure are regarded as advantageous.
A colony which produces a good crop of honey without attempting to swarm will be marked more highly than one that makes swarming preparations before it produces much of a surplus.
Health and brood pattern
There is no doubt that a colony that produces good blocks of healthy brood will develop more rapidly and produce more honey than one with patchy and perhaps unhealthy brood. A significant amount of chalk brood, for example, takes its toll on a colony’s development. The amount of chalk brood in a colony may well be related to the colony’s hygienic behaviour so it pays to breed from queens that have healthy brood.
We are all beekeeping in different conditions; some areas are much more productive than others, so to achieve a more representative assessment, the honey production of a colony is compared to the average production for the apiary. Thus, if a colony produces twice the average amount for the apiary it will score 2.0; if it produces half as much it will score 0.5.
There are numerous factors affecting honey production and we may not even be aware of some of these factors or they may be too difficult to assess. Honey production gives us a snapshot, or a summary, of how a colony has performed and can be an important factor in selecting our breeder queens. We need to estimate, or guesstimate, honey yields as the honey is removed from the hive.
Assessment methods, marking systems
Over the years there have been many attempts to produce a system for assessing our colonies. Different systems use 1-10, 1-5 or 1-4 to mark the qualities. Systems have been devised where the number of qualities to be assessed are too numerous and too time-consuming to be practical for the average beekeeper.
For many years, I have settled on a 1-5 system but recently I have experimented with an alternative version which I think makes assessment even easier. It is a system which runs from -2 to +2, so there are still five categories, but it is easier to reach a decision. For example, when assessing a colony for temper, one can decide whether the colony is good or bad to handle. If good, one just has to decide if good or very good, +1 or +2; if bad is it bad or very bad, -1 or -2. There is a useful ‘0’ if it is neither good nor bad.
On the record card this system could have 5 columns for each characteristic and just use a tick-box system for the grades -2 to +2.
The record card will also have space for ‘comments’ and ‘needs’ so no other card should be necessary. It is ideal for day to day management as well as providing simple information for the selection of breeder queens.
Hardy, Docile, Productive
The problem with hybridisation
It is interesting to speculate how the bee population in Britain and Ireland would develop without further human intervention. If the processes of natural selection could operate freely, what would happen to the hybridised population that we see in many areas?
Around 28 sub-species of honey bee have been identified in the original habitat of Europe, the Near East and Africa. In many areas of the world, and perhaps particularly in the Britain, we have mixed up these sub-species to produce a random assortment of hybrids. In some cases, for example with the Buckfast bee, the crossing of different sub-species has been a deliberate breeding policy, as the hybrid vigour achieved is considered a worthwhile attribute.
In the honey bee, unlike with other livestock, we are unable to control matings, except with the use of isolated mating apiaries or instrumental insemination, and queens mate with numerous drones from up to a 10km (6m) radius. Selection and improvement of our bees from hybridised stock is difficult due to very variable offspring and progress in any improvement programme can be considerably slowed down. Many beekeepers have concluded that the only way to get good quality bees is to repeatedly buy in good quality stock. The problems with this approach are that the bees we buy in are not tailored to our conditions, and that future offspring merely contributes to further hybridisation of our stock.
Some people may query what is wrong with a hybridised population, given the advantages of hybrid vigour and greater genetic diversity but the problems of breeding from hybridized stock have been known for a long time. When Mendel started theorizing about the laws of inheritance, he found that when species became hybridised, they ceased to produce reliable offspring, that is, the offspring no longer consistently resembled their parents. It used to be common to see seed packets of F1 varieties print a warning not to save seed from hybrid varieties, as they would not breed true.
BIBBA has long campaigned for a different approach and that is what the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP) is aiming to do. We feel that the current system is getting us nowhere and we should be aiming for a sustainable system that produces a hardy, docile and productive bee. If we can achieve steady improvement and a bee that is geared to our conditions, it will be a major step forward. With the world’s human population at an all-time high, and pressure on food production and the natural environment greater than ever, the time is ripe for our apiculture to play its part in the development of sustainable agricultural systems and care for natural environments.
Working with nature to get the best of both worlds
Back to the hypothetical question of what would happen if human influence ceased to play a part in our honey bee population. One must assume that nature would, through the process of ‘natural selection’, evolve a strain similar to our original native sub-species, Apis mellifera mellifera. Genes which are not suited to the bees in our environment would gradually disappear from the gene pool, and the genes most suited to our conditions would soon dominate in the population. Why is this important? It gives us a pointer to which way we should be going with the development of our bees.
That is not to say that we should be aiming to put the clock back to the 1850s, before the advent of imports. Beekeeping is a partnership between the bee and the beekeeper, and to be sustainable it is important that the system is beneficial to both. Nature is interested in the survival of the species and is ‘designed’ to produce a hardy and genetically diverse bee that can cope with the variable risks that it may face. The beekeeper, on the other hand, has other needs, such as docile behaviour and productivity. A sustainable system is one that can cater for the demands of the bee, and of the beekeeper. By working with what is good for the both, we can build a system that can keep evolving to cope with any changes in climatic, or environmental, conditions.
Developing a ‘strain’ from our selected breeder queens
Bee breeders around the world recognise the importance of breeding within a strain. As Gilles Fert* says, “Selection is only possible within the framework of a well-defined population – for example, within a given race or a fairly large local population”. We cannot change our starting position which, for many of us, is a randomly hybridised population, so we need to find a system that is appropriate for beekeepers in all circumstances.
Last month, in BIBBA Monthly (July 2020), ‘Selecting our Breeder Queens’, we discussed the qualities that we wish to see in our bees and how to assess these qualities in our colonies, in order to select the best queens to breed from. The importance of selecting our ‘breeder queens’ cannot be over-emphasised, as not only do they provide the next generation of queens, but also, the new generation of queens reared will produce ‘good’ drones directly related to our original breeder queens. We may worry about how to get our new queens mated with good drones but by rearing new queens every year, from selected breeders, a supply of good drones will be produced. The queens we reared last year will produce the drones to mate with the queens we rear this year. Over time, we can dominate an area, particularly if the influence of imported bees can be ruled out, and we will see an increase in ‘good’ matings of our queens. We can begin to develop a local strain, one that is more homogenous and yet still maintains much genetic diversity.
One system for all
It is a fact that we all face slightly different beekeeping circumstances and different starting positions, so is it possible to find one system that suits all?
It may be that some beekeepers will always want to import bees and, unfortunately, this method of bee improvement will never be compatible with selecting and improving what we have got. However, for those who want to work in a more sustainable way that seems to be more in tune with nature’s way of doing things, and with a reduction in the biosecurity risks to our bees, NatBIP offers a way forward.
For this programme to be a success in achieving its twin aims of reducing imports and improving the quality of our bees, we need as many beekeepers as possible to support it and also actively take part in the programme. The only requirements are that supporters and participants aim to refrain from using imported or offspring of recently imported bees of other sub-species, and aim to select and improve the bees in their neighbourhood. They can, if they so wish, bring in bees from other areas but this should be with aim of helping to refine the native strain of bee in their area.
So how does selecting and improving whatever the local bees are, in an area, fit in with the aims of BIBBA? BIBBA’s aims are: “The conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of the native and near-native honey bees of Britain and Ireland”. Beekeepers in some areas have often remarked that there is little evidence of native bees in their area, so how can they satisfy the aims of BIBBA? The biggest barrier to BIBBA achieving its aims has always been the import of other sub-species and with imports at a record high, a fundamental change in outlook is required. By BIBBA offering a serious alternative to imports, which all beekeepers can take part in, we have the chance to make a new beginning.
*Fert, Gilles, Dr. Leo Sharashkin (editor), Raising Honeybee Queens: An Illustrated Guide to Success. Ava, Missouri, Deep Snow Press 2020. ISBN 978-0-9842873-8-3.