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BIBBA Two Day Course – June 2017: Improve Your Bees by Raising Your Own Queens

A dozen beekeepers, mostly from Wales, attended the first of two BIBBA Bee Improvement Courses conducted by Roger Pattinson and hosted by Steve Rose at his smallholding, Cilgwri, Near Corwen, Denbighshire. Cilgwri is Steve’s home apiary and has excellent teaching facilities so it was an ideal venue for the course. The variable June weather dictated that the first day (of two) was largely spent in the lecture room but it lifted sufficiently to enable us to spend the second day in the apiary.

Roger and Steve are very experienced beekeepers and teachers, whose combined extensive and thorough knowledge of the subject has been acquired by careful study and intelligent observation of bees over many years. That, coupled with an easy ability to communicate and share that knowledge and experience with the students – and the friendly banter, ensured that the seminars in the lecture room were stimulating and informative and proved a solid basis for the practical queen rearing demonstrations that followed on the second day, along with the improved weather.

As the title implies, the course had as its focus bee improvement and its essential partner, queen rearing. However, it was very wide ranging and of value to every beekeeper with some experience and knowledge of beekeeping basics, given that all beekeepers depend on queen rearing in one form or another to keep their colonies going – and, if they want good tempered, quiet bees suited to their locality or other attributes then improvement by careful selection and breeding was the ultimate objective.

For queen rearing to be reliably achievable in practice, Roger emphasised that the beekeeper should have a good understanding of the bees’ lifecycles, swarming, supersedure and emergency queen raising and the management of these processes and of the colonies themselves so that the beekeeper then has the knowledge, and prepared colonies needed, to successfully raise queens, using their natural behaviour, from colonies exhibiting the desired traits selected by the beekeeper and then to mate and breed from those queens to assess whether the traits are exhibited in her brood.

Bee improvement, inevitably, is a long term process, beginning with careful assessment of each colony, comparison of colonies’ behaviour and maintaining proper records. Careful, gentle, handling and avoiding provocation allows colonies to be fairly judged. Other external causes of bad behaviour were also considered for their possible adverse impact on trait assessment. Once assessed, Roger’s practice is, broadly, to allocate colonies into one of two groups: one exhibiting the desired traits and the other less so and then to breed from the former and to cull and replace queens in the latter.

The work in the classroom was followed by a day in the apiary, interspersed with more valuable time in the seminar room to reinforce the practical demonstrations of colony preparation, queen introduction, the selection and grafting of larvae and queen cell raising and queen mating using mini-nucs.

The presentation of the course gave attendees plenty of opportunity for discussion and practice and, without exception, everyone benefitted from the course both in terms of a deeper understanding of the subject and of confidence to practise the skills acquired.

Considerable thanks are due to BIBBA for organising the courses, to Roger and Steve for their presentation and ready willingness to share their knowledge and to Mrs Lynn Rose for her generous hospitality and welcome.

David Spalding

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