BIBBA East Midlands Bee Improvement Group – Nottinghamshire NG13
The aim of the BIBBA East Midlands Bee Improvement Group is to breed near native Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) queens of the best local genetic stock. Then making these queens available to members and ultimately to other beekeepers in the region, who wish to establish this sub species in their own apiaries.
During the Summer of 2020 the Group moved its apiary from Thrumpton to the village of Langar in the Vale of Belvoir, Nottinghamshire. The location has been chosen for its diverse forage, capability to accommodate our full operation on one site, and flexibility to place our drone colonies around an extensive estate. Whilst in 2014 we rediscovered our out-apiary site in a secluded valley and have taken breeder drone colonies and virgin queens there for mating, we are taking a break from the time-consuming use of the out-apiary, so we can concentrate on establishing the Group and the colonies on the new site. The out-apiary is there for the future if we need it.
Key to our bee breeding and queen rearing plan is mapping the linage of each queen, assessing quality according to our own standards, then selecting drone colonies from specific lines and breeding from our best queens each year. We are able to steadily increase the number of colonies in the scheme by using the 200 plus colonies spread across the membership. Members sometimes become custodians of the Group’s excess colonies and agree to use the same assessment procedures so potential breeder queen qualities are comparable across the entire stock.
Our approach is founded on the understanding that within the Amm subspecies there are variants (ecotypes) across the British Isles that have adapted to local climate, forage and seasonal patterns. Given the 50+ year history of the Group we assume that our bees have at least the average (41.9%) Amm DNA linage as documented in recent research papers. Consequently, we have decided not to divert attention away from our current local stock, so will not be introducing pure-bred queens from other UK sources that have adapted to a different environment. The occasional judicious introduction of new genetic material, from another UK source with similar conditions, may be applied when collective agreement determines so.
All those meeting together at the Group Apiary are committed to the same aims. This enables us to share bee keeping experiences and understandings whilst evolving local near enough native bees that can improve the stock in our personal apiaries, and eventually other beekeepers in the Vale of Belvoir and the region.
We have three forms of membership, full, associate and honorary. Active full members, who have the experience and commitment, work directly with the Group’s colonies. Associate members are those who wish to support our endeavours though cannot commit to regular attendance, or are practising beekeepers seeking to develop their competences in bee breeding and bee improvement. For this later group there are opportunities to assist with the bee husbandry and participate in small group informal training sessions on topics such as practical queen rearing, hive manipulation techniques, record keeping and assessment for breeder potential.
The BIBBA East Midlands Bee Improvement Group is participating in The National Bee Improvement Programme – NatBIP
We currently have a committee of six and 8 other members in total (who I’m contacting to see if the new location is still convenient for them) and 4 others whose expressed an interest in joining the group. So we are in flux but very stable given the significance of moving our apiary after 50 years at the other site.
On Sunday we felt at last we were settled in. It was the end of a complex and time-consuming task, especially given the pandemic restrictions and personal health and safety issues. All six committee members were involved. We transferred 27 colonies, all the stands and flagstones, dismantled and rebuilt two large sheds, and moved all contents the 12 miles across Nottinghamshire. Finding a new site, establishing a new relationship with the landowner and designing the new apiary layout were interesting challenges.
Whilst we will no longer have the genetic drone flooding of Thrumpton environs, at the new site we have permission to place independent groups of drone colonies in several locations of our choice over a considerable acreage of land. There is also a more diverse range of forage available at the new apiary site
Given these new circumstances this move presented us with an opportunity to reflect on our learning and ambitions for the Group. The core aspects of our purpose and main objectives remain unchanged. Our bees are dark, have good temper and when checked for weight all seem in good condition to get through the winter. Some samples were sent to Plymouth University during the summer for DNA check and we are awaiting results. Next February we will start building up the drone colonies placed already in two sets of 3 across the estate. We are currently starting to locate and contact beekeepers who have colonies near by to chat to them about our plans and objectives for the new season with the intention to build up the genetic proportion of Amm around the new location. Whilst this sounds ambitious, we have set our sights on moving further out from our Group Apiary as the centre to include other beekeepers with the intention to establish a local near native Amm strain ‘queen mating zone’ as described in the BIBBA proposal.
The winter months will be spent now sorting and repairing stored gear, and getting equipment ready for the new season. We do wish to continue to be associated with National BIBBA and the NatBIP programme.
A problem that has long been with us, has been to find a mating site that gives reasonable isolation. We have used sites several hundred miles from our base. These include Spurn Point on the East Coast, and the Elan Valley in Wales.
The restriction on movement of bees when varroa arrived put an end to such travelling, and over the last few years our stocks have become more hybridised. The spread of varroa throughout England and Wales has meant there are now no restrictions on movement. During the winter of 1997 it was suggested we set up a mating site in a remote valley in Derbyshire, and at the same time offer queens mated there free of charge to the beekeepers nearest to the site. This was an attempt to carry out a mono-straining exercise similar to the one in Tipperary by Micheál MacGiolla Coda, where approximately 1,600 square miles have been mono-strained with his gentle black Galtee bees. These are Apis mellifera mellifera bees, the Dark European honeybee.
With our first two seasons at this new site now over, we can look back on the efforts and the results with some satisfaction. Over a hundred queens raised the first year and 70 the second year, and successfully mated and distributed. Most of those raised the first year went to beekeepers in the locality of the mating site, and some have been used to requeen some of the group apiary stocks. We sold some of the second year’s queens, and we plan to raise larger numbers in future years.
The one aspect that has disappointed us has been the losses on introduction of queens we have given to beekeepers nearest to our mating site, losses being about 40%. Of the 20 queens we used to re-queen stocks in the group apiary, we lost 3 on introduction.
The work involved has been considerable, for us it is a round trip of 100 miles to the site, and 150 if we have to go to the group apiary first. With visits at least weekly, and sometimes twice weekly, the mileage had shot up to well over 1,000 miles during the season.
We use Apidea mini-nucs, and these are mounted on a stake with a crossbar on which the mini-nuc rests. A thick band of rubber cut from a car inner tube straps the nuc to the stake. The mini-nucs are sited so as to give the bees something to help them orient on to the site, such as a bush or small tree. This reduces losses due to queens returning to the wrong nuc. In normal weather conditions we expect queens to be mated and laying within two weeks. Planning based on this presumption, means having more queen cells ready to put in the same mini-nucs two weeks after the queens have been on site. So a mated queen is removed and a ripe queen cell due to hatch within 24 hours is put in the nuc.
Transporting ripe queen cells 75 miles from our apiary to the mating site poses problems regarding keeping them at hive temperature. This has been solved by the use of a thermostatically controlled heater unit run off the cigar lighter in the car. The unit housed in a box fitted out with polystyrene blocks that have holes made to hold the queen cells. A digital thermometer on the lid giving the temperature reading.
Record keeping is a vital part of queen rearing and distribution of queens. Not least among the problems in this, is in actually getting information on the queens afterwards. Notes on introduction, colony behaviour and performance with the new queens are the basics of what are required to allow meaningful assessment to be made. We know from past experience that many beekeepers just don’t observe their colonies with a view to recording what they see, and it is difficult to see where you’re going if you are not looking. We live in hope.
During the course of our work with the beekeepers of the area, we have met and made new beekeeping friends. Among these we are fortunate in having Dr. Francis Ratnieks, who at that time headed a research laboratory at Sheffield University on social insects. His particular interest is honeybees, and he spent some years in America where he got his degree at Cornell University, and where he was involved in the practical side of beekeeping, running 200 colonies in New York state, so in addition to his academic attributes, he also a very practical beekeeper. We have found him to be most helpful, and he has not been slow to offer help in our breeding work. He introduced us to some American plastic foundation that is much thicker, and with deeper indentations than normal wax foundation. We are fitting all our Apidea mini-nucs with it this winter, ready to use it next season. This he has cut up to size for cementing into the plastic frames of the mini-nucs, and having made up a sample I am impressed with its strength. At the end of each season, all that will be required is to scrape the wax comb off, back to the plastic foundation.
In his laboratory at Sheffield Dr. Ratnieks has set up a DNA testing facility, and one of our members (Angus Stokes) who was studying under Dr. Ratnieks for his PhD and carried out DNA work on larvae from the queens we are raising, and the drone larvae of the colonies we are using at the mating site. This gave valuable information on the purity of mating there.
We had planned to make a video of the work involved in this project, but the work seemed to push the video making into a lower priority. However some footage has been done showing the grafting, and quite a lot on the management of the nucs on site among some really wonderful scenery. We plan to add to this next season, showing work on making up mini-nucs, fitting the plastic foundation, finding queens in colonies, introducing queens, and the recording methods used in the breeding programme.
In our craft, the norm is for beekeepers to work alone with their bees. In this project, where the planning and practical work is shared with others, one has the feeling we are participating in something really worthwhile and of real value to beekeeping in the area, that we are doing rather than talking. The enthusiasm of everyone involved in this project has been excellent, and I know I am not alone in looking forward to the next beekeeping season with keen anticipation.