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.