News for non-members – August 2020

BIBBA News for Non-Members August 2020

Welcome to the August News.
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 FREE webinars which start shortly.
BIBBA members get first option on these events, for which pre-registration is necessary; spaces are limited and we are offering them to BIBBA members from 7th August and non-members from 11th August.

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.

BIBBA members can read the full article

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

Ian King’s article last October is on the website

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.

Benefits of BIBBA membership