Bee Improvement Strategies – Kevin Thorn -part one

Bee Improvement Strategies – Kevin Thorn -part one

A key question any individual or group should consider is what method should I/we follow to Improve our bees and to produce queens. There are a few key choices depending on your aims, capacity (time and equipment) and capabilities. I’m assuming the reader is looking for a bee that is native and/or locally adapted.

The first thing for a new beekeeper to understand is that honey bee mating biology is very different from that of mammals and breeding “pedigree” queens is hard when in nature they fly 3+ miles to mate with up to 35 males from random hives (sources differ on these numbers). So, if controlling the male line is so difficult what can I do?

Simple Bee Improvement – controlling the female line.

Anyone who has had the opportunity of hearing Roger Patterson speak at his Bee Improvement for All days will know that there is a lot you can achieve with a small number of hives (as few as 2) and, either on your own, or with a few likeminded beekeepers.


Starting Stock

There is a general belief that it is best to start with a pure strain of bee and so buying in AMM queen(s) is often favoured. Selecting and propagating within a pure strain gives more reliability, offspring more closely resembling their parents, but usually little thought is given to how this strain can be maintained. Inevitably, it may be almost impossible to keep them pure and you will need to buy in new stock regularly just to keep them going.

An alternative to buying in queens is to start with a frame of eggs from a good hive (or a bar of grafted larvae, if you have someone capable of doing this) and put this in a queen-less colony. The bees will produce queen cells. The same problem will need to be faced, how to keep the strain going.

Another way of approaching bee improvement is to start with local stock, perhaps your own, collected from swarms, your BKA or from a local beekeeper with a good reputation. This has the advantage of using stock that is already developing some local adaptation. If imports or offspring of recently imported stock are avoided, this can give good results. The beekeeper, through careful selection, can witness a steady improvement in stock and a tendency for stock to tend towards native over time.

Perhaps the of occasional purchase of AMM queens, in this situation will help to consolidate the strain and make progress more rapid.

Assessment of stock

Roger’s recommendation is to simply split your colonies into two groups, roughly half and half and propagate queens from your best half colonies when opportunity presents e.g. swarming and replace your poor half queens with the queens you produce. Deciding which are your better colonies can be as simple as which do you enjoy handling the most and which the least?

Use few selection criteria – most agree that temper is the most important and great news is this has been found to be one of the most heritable traits of honeybees so you can see improvement very quickly. The ideal stock to propagate from are those that largely ignore the beekeeper when opened and the queen carries on laying even when the frame she is on is removed from the hive.


Assessment of stock

Roger’s recommendation is to simply split your colonies into two groups, roughly half and half and propagate queens from your best half colonies when opportunity presents e.g. swarming and replace your poor half queens with the queens you produce. Deciding which are your better colonies can be as simple as which do you enjoy handling the most and which the least?

Use few selection criteria – most agree that temper is the most important and great news is this has been found to be one of the most heritable traits of honeybees so you can see improvement very quickly. The ideal stock to propagate from are those that largely ignore the beekeeper when opened and the queen carries on laying even when the frame she is on is removed from the hive.

The key to improving your stock in addition to propagating from your best is culling the worst. The more you are prepared to replace, the quicker the progress you will make.


Propagating queens

Take the opportunities the bees present. If a colony is trying to swarm – if it’s a good colony you can split as the books recommend, if it is a poor colony you need to find the queen and destroy her – don’t be tempted to make up a nuc or let the bees raise a new queen from their own stock. Destroy any queen cells, wait 7 days and destroy any more they produce. They are now hopelessly queenless and you can give them a frame of eggs from one of your best colonies – remember to reduce the queen cells to one or they may still swarm!

Simple queen propagation – there’s no need to worry initially, about complex methods of queen rearing (unless you want to). Simple splits can raise a lot of queens. When I first became a commercial Beekeeper, I had only 6 colonies but by splitting each of these, I had 32 by the end of the season (not much honey though)!

The best method for splitting is to find the queen and make up a nuc with her (Frame of brood, shake 2 frames of bees in if staying in same apiary, frame of food and make up with spare empty comb or foundation, feed next day.) The bees in the now queenless colony will create emergency queen cells on the comb. Each frame which has a queen cell can potentially now be a nucleus colony for the queen cell to emerge and mate.

Even if you can’t find the queen you can simply split a colony into two, the one without the queen will produce queen cells that can be used. Not necessarily the ideal method but it is the simplest. Remember to reduce the queen cells to one.


Propagating Drones

It is always a good idea to produce drones, for even though these are unlikely to mate with your queens, they will mate with your neighbour’s queens and you may influence their bees and get better stock in your area. I find colonies given drone foundation use it and tend not to build drone comb elsewhere which keeps your comb tidy (although one of my colonies builds three frames of drone comb regardless!). Just put one frame of drone foundation, one in from the outside frame or in your best colonies two frames – one in from either end.

Introducing Queens

Simple queen introduction – rather than picking a queen off the frame and putting her in a cage, with or without attendants, it is far simpler to use the newspaper method to combine a queenless colony with a nucleus with a newly mated queen and the success rate is pretty much 100%. Top tip for newer beekeepers is to always check your queenless colony is definitely queenless by giving a test frame of eggs – if they draw queen cells its queenless. Many good queens are lost by introducing to a colony that already has a queen..

Equipment needed

Other than a couple of extra nucs, depending on your ambition, you should be able to use your existing equipment so additional costs should be minimal.

All of the above are accessible to all beekeepers of any level of knowledge and experience (except an absolute beginner of course). When you have mastered the simple techniques above you may wish to try some more advanced techniques which I will cover in parts 2 and 3.


PART TWO ->