Some history of the East Midlands group

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.

Albert Knight examining a frame of native bees
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.

Themostatically controlled cell transporter box, Photo... Albert Knight
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.

Albert Knight