NatBIP – Selecting our Breeder Queens

Assessment of Colonies

A fundamental part of the National Bee Improvement Programme will be the assessment of our colonies.  A quick and easy system of recording qualities is vital to the selection of our breeder queens.  Selection of these breeders not only allows us to raise the next generation of queens but also plays an important role in producing a large number of ‘good’ drones in an area.  Whatever our newly reared queens mate with, these new queens will produce drones directly related to the breeder queens that they were reared from.  It is therefore important that we make the correct choice of queens to be our ‘breeders’.

In the next article I will discuss the importance of breeding within a strain which allows us to get consistency into our improvement programmes and therefore allows more rapid progress.  This article will be concerned with the qualities that we need to assess, and how we build these into a system of record-keeping.

The more qualities we consider, the more complicated and difficult it becomes to achieve our aims.  For example, if we were only looking at one quality in our bees, it would be relatively straightforward to make progress.  Limiting the number of qualities that we want means compromises may have to be made, especially in the early years of an improvement programme, but more refinement of our stock can be introduced later on, once a few basic qualities have been achieved.

Different beekeepers, or groups of beekeepers, may place different emphasis on achieving certain qualities, and the freedom to do that may be necessary.  Surprisingly, though, there tends to be a lot of agreement on what beekeepers like to see in their bees.  A standard record-card that is suitable for all beekeepers is needed, even if the emphasis on some qualities varies a little between individuals or groups.


Survival

Although often ignored in our assessments, the most important quality in our bees is ‘survival’.  Those that do not survive are automatically lost from the selection process and although we do not like to lose bees, the positive result is that the stock we are left with is the hardiest and most resilient.

There are two aspects worth considering regarding this quality:

  1. Over-wintering
    A colony that comes through the winter well and is poised to develop strongly during the spring is deemed to have over-wintered well. We can assess this trait for all surviving colonies at the first spring inspection.
  2. Varroa Treatments
    Another aspect relating to survival is to record what varroa treatments the bees have received, be it artificial or natural chemicals, biotechnical controls or no treatment at all. We need to record treatments received in previous and current seasons.

In the long term we would like to see the development of a resilient population with regard to varroa.  We would like to see a population that can survive well by its own means and not be destroyed or severely weakened by varroa and associated viruses.

A number of beekeepers are already practising treatment-free beekeeping, and varroa tolerant or resistant bees may be closer than we realise.  We want to encourage this trait as it is crucial to attaining a sustainable system of beekeeping.  This is clearly an area where different beekeepers will have different approaches and policy must be left to individual beekeepers, or local groups.  Conditions may vary in different parts of the country which may influence decisions on treatments, but the important thing is that we record what we do.


Temper

Beekeeping is much more enjoyable and less-stressful with good-tempered bees, as well as being safer for the general public, an important factor in a crowded landscape.  There are many factors affecting the temper of a colony such as, the weather, the stage in the swarming cycle or the effect of robbing by wasps.  We can build up a good picture of how placid a colony is by assessing the bees each time we carry out an inspection.  Over the season, whilst we expect variations at times, a pattern builds up of what we can expect from a certain colony.

Normally this is an important factor in selecting our breeder queens.  If the mother is docile, the chances are that the offspring will also have that trait.


Swarming propensity

Swarming in colonies is their natural means of reproducing and, in the wild, is essential to survival of the species.  It also carries risks for the colony; too much swarming and the chances of survival for the swarms or the parent colony are reduced.  From the beekeeper’s point of view, swarming means a reduction in honey yield and perhaps more feeding required for swarm or parent colony.

Beekeeping is a partnership and it may be in the interests of the bees and the beekeeper if the swarming propensity is low.  Colonies which are reluctant to make preparations for swarming are generally looked on more favourably than those which swarm very readily.  Also, colonies which tend to produce a new queen by supersedure are regarded as advantageous.

A colony which produces a good crop of honey without attempting to swarm will be marked more highly than one that makes swarming preparations before it produces much of a surplus.


Health and brood pattern

There is no doubt that a colony that produces good blocks of healthy brood will develop more rapidly and produce more honey than one with patchy and perhaps unhealthy brood.  A significant amount of chalk brood, for example, takes its toll on a colony’s development.  The amount of chalk brood in a colony may well be related to the colony’s hygienic behaviour so it pays to breed from queens that have healthy brood.


Honey production

We are all beekeeping in different conditions; some areas are much more productive than others, so to achieve a more representative assessment, the honey production of a colony is compared to the average production for the apiary.  Thus, if a colony produces twice the average amount for the apiary it will score 2.0; if it produces half as much it will score 0.5.

There are numerous factors affecting honey production and we may not even be aware of some of these factors or they may be too difficult to assess.  Honey production gives us a snapshot, or a summary, of how a colony has performed and can be an important factor in selecting our breeder queens.  We need to estimate, or guesstimate, honey yields as the honey is removed from the hive.


Assessment methods, marking systems

Over the years there have been many attempts to produce a system for assessing our colonies.  Different systems use 1-10, 1-5 or 1-4 to mark the qualities.  Systems have been devised where the number of qualities to be assessed are too numerous and too time-consuming to be practical for the average beekeeper.

For many years, I have settled on a 1-5 system but recently I have experimented with an alternative version which I think makes assessment even easier.  It is a system which runs from -2 to +2, so there are still five categories, but it is easier to reach a decision.  For example, when assessing a colony for temper, one can decide whether the colony is good or bad to handle.  If good, one just has to decide if good or very good, +1 or +2; if bad is it bad or very bad, -1 or -2.  There is a useful ‘0’ if it is neither good nor bad.

On the record card this system could have 5 columns for each characteristic and just use a tick-box system for the grades -2 to +2.

photographs
© 2020
Roger Patterson

Conclusion

The record card will also have space for ‘comments’ and ‘needs’ so no other card should be necessary.  It is ideal for day to day management as well as providing simple information for the selection of breeder queens.

Jo Widdicombe