Laesoe 2004

Laesoe Conference 2004 BIBBA and SICAMM Combined

Laesoe Conference 2004

denmark4aTen delegates from Ireland and the UK decided to approach the Danish island of Laeso, venue of the 2004 SICAMM/BIBBA Dark Bee Conference, from Gothenburg in Sweden. The chosen conveyance, Mr. Börjeson’s “sea taxi”, provided an efficient though very choppy passage. Once on the island we joined other BIBBA members along with dark bee enthusiasts from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Finland, Poland, Austria and Switzerland, including many old friends. The Conference was based around the Gammelgaard leisure centre amid fields and woods near the centre of the island.

Læsø (pronounced approximately “lesser”) is 20 km long and 10 km at its widest. It is mostly flat with a few sand dunes, and was formerly heavily forested. The forests were eliminated by the late middle ages, largely for use as fuel in the island’s saltworks, leaving areas of heather moor and saltmarsh with its distinctive flora, along with agricultural land. A single salt works survives, still run on medieval lines, of which we had a fascinating tour. In modern times large parts of the island have been reforested with coniferous woodland. Other attractions are the single-storeyed farmhouses, some still thatched with seaweed, and birdwatching.

To bee breeders of course, islands mean mating isolation. The Danish speakers at the Conference explained that Laeso was declared a conservation area for the Dark Bee, Apis mellifera mellifera in 1993, with only Dark Bees allowed and no imports permitted. A queen raising programme was started. A few beekeepers questioned the basis of the regulation, but after several years of battles the European Court and local courts finally declared the conservation area legal. A change of government brought a new minister of agriculture (later to be responsible for agriculture in the whole of the EU!) who was basically against the conservation. A ministry report concluded that the conservation of the dark bee was justified, but proposed several alternative solutions:

  1. The status quo as a conservation area;
  2. A protected mating station in the east of the island with all races allowed on other parts;
  3. Suspension of the conservation area but keep a Dark Bee mating station;
  4. Abolish the protection of the Dark Bee completely. The ministry proposed to implement solution 2, but had not actually done so at the time of the Conference.

The Danish Beekeepers’ Association and many individuals doubt the legality of the government’s decision and continue to campaign for the whole of Laeso as a Dark Bee conservation area. Our conservation officer Dorian Pritchard gave an interview on Danish television to present a BIBBA point of view.

At present there are some 30 beekeepers keeping 250 dark bee colonies on the island, and seven others with 200 colonies of crosses. On the Danish mainland, bees are mainly hybrids, with some Buckfast breeders. On Laeso no varroa has been found to date, though tracheal mite exists.
denmark5aA tour of the island included a visit to a Dark Bee apiary with about a dozen trough hives of the type found right across the North European plain into Russia. Figs. 2 and 3 will give an idea of the extreme docility, non-jumpiness and steadiness of the bees on the comb. It was the same in Sweden 2000 and Poland 2002; and yet we still see the dark bee castigated for its bad temper! Cool-air clustering for heat conservation, a well-known Dark Bee character, was also demonstrated (Fig. 3).

In a short but packed programme of talks, Danish researcher Klaus Langschwager gave some observations on the mating behaviour of the Danish dark bee, which is better adapted to the heather than other races and gives the best crops. Drones are produced early in large numbers, are full of semen and are kept in the hives very late. Thus the race is well placed to maintain its genetic presence even with other races around. Queens are often raised in August or later when no yellow drones are about. Experiments showed that introducing dark Danish queens into Carniolan and Italian colonies is difficult. Workers of these two latter races often build queencells even when an introduced A. m. mellifera queen is laying, and will remove her eggs from the cells.

Nils Drivdal from Norway sketched out his view of the long-term history of bees in Northern Europe. The forests in which honey hunting and log hive beekeeping were practised in prehistoric times were in many areas cleared and replaced by heather moors (as on Laeso). Thus log hives were replaced by skeps, and heather/skep management favoured swarmy bees – which were actually imported into Sweden from at least the 15th century. When sugar became cheap and movable-frame hives were adopted, swarminess fell out of favour again. Thus the bees have continually been selected by both nature and man in various directions.

Dr. Dorian Pritchard gave a talk on the new tools and new approaches in bee genetics pioneered by Prof. Bo Vest Pedersen and colleagues at Copenhagen University, focussing on DNA-based technology. He showed how these techniques had been applied to honeybees in the UK. He also gave a short report on conservation activities in the UK. Bo Vest Pedersen himself explored the DNA techniques in greater detail, showing how they have recently revolutionised all kinds of biological studies. Nuclear DNA in the chromosomes can tell us something about the genotype of the father and the mother and is therefore useful in establishing paternity and analysing gene flow (hybridisation) and inbreeding. Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted through maternal lines without recombination. Offspring, female and male, have exactly the same mtDNA as the mother. Therefore it is useful in descriptions of evolutionary history.

Research has shown that it is obvious that the Dark Bee differs from other bees, and must have split off perhaps half to one million years ago. Because of this early differentiation it has developed more variation and local strains than any other subspecies. A recent finding is that the Iberian bee of Spain and Portugal is not a subspecies, but a hybrid between A. m. mellifera and A. m. intermissa (the North African honeybee).

Prof. Pedersen’s colleague Dr. Annette Bruun Jensen, who started her career in forensic DNA but has moved from tracking down criminals to investigating bee genes, gave further details on genetic investigations into A. m. mellifera populations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Scotland and Ireland. Some introgression of genes from commercial Italian strains was observed in all of them, the most introgressed being the Laeso bees.

Ole Herz of Danish Arctic Ecological Research brought us up to date on progress in the establishment of beekeeping in South Greenland since his previous talk in 2000. Three private apiaries have now been established and an apiary for experiments and education. Beekeeping is now self-sustaining and a viable source of additional income for the local sheep farmers.

From Ireland, Micheál Mac Giolla Coda reported on the activities of the Galtee Bee Breeding Group. Dr. Jacob Kahn discussed his work on bee wing morphometry based on 40 colonies in the Irish Republic. He has applied some sophisticated statistical techniques to explore, for example, the close correlation between discoidal shift and cubital index. By analysing the differences between the morphometry of left and right wings he claims to be able to use the results in partitioning the phenotype (physical form of the bee) into genetic and environmental components.

Andrew Abrahams from Scotland illustrated the background, geography, climate, topography and flora of the island of Colonsay where he keeps some 60 stocks of A. m. mellifera which have been isolated for 20 years from their nearest neighbours 15 km away. After many years of isolation breeding a very uniform population has resulted which is productive in a very harsh environment, fairly gentle and with few disease problems. The lecture highlighted the problems of stock improvement and avoidance of inbreeding from the strictly practical point of view of a man who depends only on his bees and oyster farming for his livelihood.

From Switzerland Balser Fried described the situation of the dark bee in his country: it makes up 90,000 of the total 200,000 colonies. The A.m. mellifera Association has 180 members who make use of both 25 regional (non-isolated) and five isolated alpine mating stations, mating some 6,000 queens per annum. Breeding stock is selected on behavioural and morphometric criteria. One canton, Glarus in the east of the country, has granted A. m. mellifera protected status; the federal government has refused to extend this status nationwide but has recognised A. m. mellifera as an endangered subspecies and supports certain programmes related to it. The other bees kept in Switzerland are Carniolans, Italians and Buckfasts.

Other presentations were given from Latvia, Poland, Austria and Sweden, updating information presented in 2000 and 2002.

It was heartening to see the continuing widely-based support for the Dark European Bee, and especially the cooperation between beekeepers, amateur and commercial, and scientists. The papers will be published in due course.

After Mr. Börjeson’s prognostications on the weather, for the return trip the Irish delegates decided to fly direct to Copenhagen by light aircraft, and the UK party by car ferry to Gothenburg via the Danish mainland. Such are the complications of travelling to small islands – in this case well worth the trouble.

Philip Denwood