BIBBA Monthly – August 2020

BIBBA Monthly – August 2020

BIBBA Monthly August 2020

Welcome to the August Newsletter.
I’ve been increasing my bee stocks this year. Some increase has been via queen rearing from my own stock, some as a very kind donation from a local BIBBA group member and some via posted mated and virgin queens from other parts of the country as part of our NatBIP (National Bee Improvement Programme) pilot trials.

The picture shows some 6 frame nucs that now have a second tier due to the colonies expanding and starting their winter stores. This is how I now overwinter some of my colonies to replace winter losses. Having attended many of Roger’s training and education events, I have learnt to replace my winter losses before they happen. This is actually a very sensible approach as I can make use of my nuc boxes all year round now rather than just during the summer.

Karl Colyer

We’d like to draw your attention to the next round of webinars which start shortly.
BIBBA members get first option on these events; spaces are limited and it’s right that we offer them freely to BIBBA members first.

Webinars – Season Two

List of Presentations

Tuesday 18th August 7:30pm – Roger Patterson – “Dead Bees Don’t Buzz – Surviving the Winter “

Roger Patterson started beekeeping as a teenager in his native West Sussex in 1963, at one stage having 130 colonies. Although he had a short work related break without bees, he continued teaching and demonstrating. On returning, he discovered there were widespread problems with queens that he has publicised widely. He is a prolific writer, speaker and demonstrator of practical beekeeping, where his down to earth approach gained by observation, lateral thinking and being taught by many colonies of honey bees for over 50 years is appreciated.

His travels have allowed him to see different bees being kept in different conditions by different beekeepers, so increasing his knowledge, that he freely passes onto others. He is Apiary Manager of the Wisborough Green BKA.

Roger is passionate about the craft, encouraging beekeepers to learn the “basics” well, so they can understand how to solve their own problems, rather than consult sources that may be unreliable, as many are. He owns and manages Dave Cushman’s website, that is accepted as one of the world’s most comprehensive beekeeping websites.

Presentation:  “Dead Bees Don’t Buzz – Surviving the Winter “

This talk could have simply been called “Wintering”, but so many speakers have that title, often just giving the impression that wintering is something you don’t think about until the autumn. Bees are preparing well before winter and this presentation encourages beekeepers to do the same, but from a position of understanding how a wild colony does it. Before varroa, bees survived the winters very well. They had to, as the survival of the species depended on minimal winter losses.

In managed colonies, winter losses are much higher than they should be. Why is that? Are beekeepers doing something wrong? Are their bees unsuited to our conditions? Are they neglected? Are they misunderstood? Are they unhealthy? What can we do to lessen the chances of losses without “mollycoddling”? Should we try to reduce losses? Are losses a good thing? These are all questions that successful beekeepers should be asking themselves.

There are many things beekeepers can do to help the colony survive into spring, some are mentioned in this thought provoking presentation.

Tuesday 25th August 7:30pm – Lynfa Davies – “The Mystery of Mating”

Lynfa Davies lives in Aberystwyth and has kept bees with her husband, Rob, for 15 years. During this time she has worked her way through the BBKA assessments to become a Master Beekeeper and in 2019 gained the National Diploma in Beekeeping (NDB) which is the highest beekeeping qualification in the UK. She now enjoys sharing the information she has learned with other beekeepers and takes an active role in teaching new beekeepers in her local association and more widely across Wales.

Lynfa is a regular examiner for the BBKA and WBKA and sits on the WBKA Learning and Development Committee.

Lynfa currently has approximately 25 colonies which she mainly manages for honey production, something which often proves challenging in a wet West Wales! In addition she raises her own queens and uses these to produce nucleus colonies and to replace her own stock.

Presentation:  “The Mystery of Mating”.

Mated queens are something we tend to take for granted without giving too much thought as to how this ‘magic’ happens. Understanding when queens are ready for mating and where the action takes place is essential if we want to progress to queen rearing and bee breeding.

In addition the role of the drone is often overlooked and little consideration is given to them. This talk will not cover the complexities of bee breeding but instead will set the scene and describe what happens, where it happens and how we can influence it for our needs.

Tuesday 1st September 7:30pm – Roger Patterson – “Challenge what you are told……….”

In beekeeping, there are a lot of people who are eager to give information and advice, whether it is verbally or the written word in the form of books, leaflets, newsletters or screen. There are lots of myths and misinformation, often “cut and pasted” from other sources, which may simply be copying someone else’s mistake, who copied someone else’s mistake and so on. The same thing is then seen in many places and because it’s in print it’s believed to be reliable, but is it?

Inexperienced beekeepers may have difficulty separating the wheat from the chaff, but the more experienced a beekeeper gets, the more they realise that some of what they have been told, sometimes quite forcibly, may need reviewing. This presentation highlights a few topics that may not always be as we are told. It doesn’t rubbish the “standard information”, but gives reasons based on experiences that have been acquired during over half a century of practical beekeeping.

Tuesday 8th September 7:30pm – Peter Jenkins – “The KISS Approach”

Peter Jenkins has kept bees since the age of 14, a period of over 50 years. He now keeps around 50 colonies of near native bees in and around the marginal areas of Cardiganshire. Having spent most of his working life as a Chartered Engineer working around the world on marine and naval projects has meant that, for many years, he had little time for regular 7 day hive inspections as advised in text books. Nevertheless he has harvested at least average crops of honey year on year using bees improved over lifetime by his father, a process he is now continuing following his father’s death in 2009.

Many problems in beekeeping are caused by beekeepers reading books and listening to other people who read books, then rigidly following what they are told without understanding what the bees are trying to do. When things go wrong, as they often do in beekeeping, they blame the bees for not reading the book! With a little experience the more astute beekeeper will soon realise that much of what they have been taught in their early days of beekeeping as “fact” may not always be so.

“The KISS Approach” has been developed over many years of finding practical solutions on the hoof to some of the many beekeeping problems that all beekeepers face. Following the books often gets you into trouble but they aren’t very good at getting you out of it. Things that can work or get you out of trouble are rarely covered in standard books, so you have to work solutions out for yourself, but you need knowledge and experience to do it. In short, this presentation is about how to achieve maximum output for minimum input.

Please note: Although the last two presentation may appear to be similar, they won’t be.

Varroa – is the end nigh?

Karl Colyer

On the 11th March 2020, I had the chance to attend a talk by Professor Stephen Martin on varroa.  I was so impressed by what was said that evening and delighted that he had agreed to share this at a BIBBA conference on 24thMay.  Little did I realise at the time that this would be my last bee meeting before lockdown and that the conference would be cancelled despite rapid ticket sales.  This last four months seems to have been an eternity but I thought I would share with you some of the notes I took that evening …

Professor Stephen Martin (Stephen) threw us straight into the deep end explaining that the RO of varroa was 2.4, roughly similar to Covid 19.  Up until the week before the talk, he would have lost me at that point.  Luckily, I now knew that a R0 (reproductive number) of 1 would be in equilibrium, the varroa will not grow or reduce in numbers.  Stephen explained that he often saw an RO of 2.4 which, in simple terms, meant exponential growth. 

His next sentence was just as unnerving – a varroa may lay its first eggs in a sealed cell just 30 hours after the cell was sealed.  He had my attention!

Stephen next gave us all a ray of hope.  In Mexico he had seen a general situation where the Ro was lower so that the varroa population was generally stable in terms of population size.  This didn’t mean the bees were OK though; the varroa are a vector for disease so there was still the chance of the bees being infected and the colony dying.  Importantly, it was not inevitable that death would happen with each colony.  Stephen additionally explained that the virus transmitted by the mites has changed and/or the bees have changed.  The virus is not so lethal to the bees.  Viral infections have swept through the colonies under study but subsequent years had seen fewer colony deaths due to the virus.  He compared it to Covid 19 which was a little disconcerting at the time as the room was packed with people of more ‘mature’ years and a few of them had a persistent cough. 

Stephen explained that, over the last few years, some of the colonies he was studying had become naturally tolerant of varroa.  Viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) are present in nearly all colonies but normally only at very low levels.  Varroa does not cause DWV but DWV is more likely to impact a colony if varroa levels are beyond a sustainable threshold.

For the geeks amongst you, Stephen went on to explain about the ‘A’ strain and how, in Hawaii, thousands of feral colonies were lost due to DWV. 

The next part of the talk was brand new to me.  Stephen explained about how the bees uncap and recap the sealed brood.  Firstly, it’s important to understand that ‘virus + varroa = high risk of colony death’.  The virus was pretty much always there to some extent so keeping the mite numbers down would reduce the long term colony losses.  So what about the uncapping?  It turns out that some bees have developed a certain behaviour to uncap worker larvae that are potentially suffering from varroa damage inside the cell and deal with the issue.

By this time, most of us were on the edge of our seats but Stephen then side-tracked us about a Brazilian island that he had studied which had European honeybees, no DFW virus but lots of varroa.  However, with no traces of DFW virus present, there were no colony deaths when they had large varroa numbers.  So, varroa by itself isn’t necessarily a killer.

Back to recapping and Stephen stated that ‘resistant’ bees seemed to have a higher [uncapping and] recapping rate.  The uncapping is detected by seeing that some sealed brood cells have small holes in the centre.  Inside are healthy larvae, typically white-eyed or pink-eyed.  Stephen warned that this could be easily mistaken for bald brood.

Stephen and his research team then looked again at the same cells in the same colony just two days later and noticed one of two things:

  1. Some brood had been completely removed (cell empty)
  2. Some cells had been recapped (cell full)

The recapping was noticeable (with a discerning eye!) and showed a silvery colour to it.   Some of the colour variation was very small – a diameter of less than 1mm. 

But how do the bees know which cells are infected and which are not infected with varroa? Well, it turns out, it’s not that easy for them to correctly detect varroa in a cell.  In some colonies, the bees would open up around 10% of the infected cells and deal with the issues.  But they would also open up about 6% of the cells that were not infected with varroa.  These were resealed.  It takes a scientist (or a group of them) to get into this level of detail.  What was noticeable though was, with varroa resistant/tolerant colonies, 50% of the varroa infected cells were opened and dealt with but only around 20% of the non-infested cells were opened and resealed.  Now, you may think that 50% of the cells may not be enough but it is enough to reduce the R0 values down to around or below one so the mite population either remains stable or reduces.

One thing that Stephen did say that gave us all some hope; the same traits seem to develop over time irrespective of the type of hive, the climate or the sub-species of bee.  What was noticeable was the recapped cells showed the following:

  • Non-infested cells had evidence of a small hole being recapped
  • Infested cells had evidence of a large hole being recapped.

Stephen will be cascading more information out about this.  He did make a very impactful statement though:

“Within 10 years, the majority of UK beekeepers will not need to treat for varroa”

This was exciting! But he gave two further statements as a cautionary note:

  1. “Do not just stop treating – this will result in a lot of early losses”
  2. “Reduce your treatments slowly and increase your varroa monitoring frequency”

The lesson from all of this was relatively simple – there is a way for the bees to develop the behaviours to deal with varroa.  Treating for varroa is not as simple as just doing the chemical or physical treatment at certain times of year.  We all need to stress our bees a bit with raised (but tolerable) varroa levels and some of the colonies will develop a learned behaviour to uncap cells and deal with what they find.  After three decades of varroa in the UK, there are signs that this is happening anyway.  Perhaps our biggest risk is to over-treat our bees with medication when we need them to develop self-treatment techniques.  This is not a sudden learning by the bees.  We need to work with them to be able to work through the varroa challenge.

I hope this has been interesting.  I caution you all that these notes were made during a 45 minute talk by Stephen.  He clearly has a lot more to say on the subject so we all have more to learn and to clarify.  From a personal perspective, there are two things that give me great hope for our British Isles bees:

1.  There are several stories of beekeepers that have not treated for varroa for 10+ years within the UK.  I would love to get hold of some of their bees!

2.  The NatBIP programme will seek to improve our bees locally and nationally and, if enough of us work to the core principles of NatBIP, one outcome will be that we see a positive and permanent change to the way our bees deal with varroa.   

That said, one of my greatest worries is bringing bees into the UK that are not tolerant to varroa (creating varroa ‘bombs’) or having new pests such as small hive beetle with them.  Please rear your own queens or source new queens locally.

NatBIP – selecting within a strain

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.

Jo Widdicombe


*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.

End Of Season Use For Your Mininuc Bees and Frames

in case you missed Ian King’s article last October view the article here

This month’s download is from 1886 and is called “A book about bees – their history, habits and instincts”, written by C Jenyns. Books like this, written about 135 years ago, have insights and early learnings that were somewhat profound at the time.

Have Your Say

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