About this Guide
This Guide is intended to be under constant review and will be added to, updated and amended in the light of the latest information and feedback from participants according to their experiences in improving their bees.
Beekeepers may wish to refer to relevant sections of the Guide online or print out all or part of the Guide as appropriate. This can provide a hard copy of the document which can be stored in an A4 binder. Individual sections can be reprinted as necessary to replace sections which have been modified or added to.
The ‘Contents List’ will provide a link to each section and indicate when it was last updated, so that it can be seen, at a glance, when an update has occurred.
The National Bee Improvement Programme is available for all beekeepers, from the geographical area of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, to participate in. The Programme is designed to promote the improvement of local bees and the development of local ecotypes and to avoid further input from imported bees. It is recognised that in many areas our honey bees are a random mix of different sub-species making selection and improvement a slow and difficult process, whilst in other areas less hybridised bees may be readily available and refinement of their qualities may be a simpler process.
Whatever circumstances beekeepers find themselves in, we want them to come together, find common ground and begin to select and improve their local bees. For over 150 years we have been importing bees of other sub-species, often with the aim of obtaining better quality bees. At best, this has only resulted in short-term relief, perhaps with more docile bees but, unfortunately the good qualities cannot be maintained, and it is not long before we have to look around again for more replacements. Rather than continually import bees, often from quite different climatic regions, it is time to try a different approach that will produce more sustainable results and develop bees that are well-suited to thrive under local conditions.
It is important that the Programme is relevant to all beekeepers, whatever their starting position, and the aim is to see sustainable improvement of our bees right across the geographical area. Reconciling different opinions and different conditions facing beekeepers is, perhaps, the greatest challenge that the Programme faces. How do we make the Programme inclusive, so that all beekeepers feel that they are welcome to participate and contribute to improving the quality of our bees? We could make a long list of rules and conditions that beekeepers must abide by, but every rule would merely prevent a few more beekeepers from taking part. For this reason, we have laid down only one rule, or condition, for participation and that is:
‘that beekeepers should aim to avoid the use of imported, or the offspring of recently imported, bees.’
The reason for this rule is that a steady influx of new, untested genes into an area, which is what happens whenever we introduce imported queens, sets back the development of local adaptation in our bees and increases hybridisation of the sub-species, making selection and improvement more difficult. This process of hybridisation has been going on for over 150 years and resulted in our generally poor-quality bees. If we are to move away from this, we need to try to move in a new direction and apply ourselves positively to selecting and improving from what we have got. Participants in the Programme will be expected to select from local stock rather than using imported or recently imported bees and we will then put ourselves on to the road of sustainable improvement.
Some participants will wish to stick to selecting and improving whatever bees are present in their local areas, whilst others may wish to augment their stocks by bringing in bees from the nearby area (perhaps within a 50-mile radius), or perhaps further afield, but within the geographical area of the Programme, namely Britain, Ireland and associated islands. The purpose of bringing bees in from other areas would be to help beekeepers re-enforce their strain and move away from a hybridised population, in their area, and so develop a strain of bee that breeds true. These decisions will be up to individuals, groups or associations to make but bringing in bees of non-native sub-species is not permitted under the Programme agreement.
The maintenance of genetic diversity within our bee population is extremely important for the resilience of our bees and for the ability to cope with whatever climatic or environmental conditions they may have to face in the future. Sub-species have existed for many thousands of years and there is much genetic diversity within each one. There is no necessity to cross different sub-species to maintain or increase genetic diversity as this practice often merely introduces unsuitable genes into an area and makes selection and improvement more difficult. There are beekeepers who advocate the crossing of different sub-species, in order to reap the benefits of hybrid vigour, but the end result is a random mixture of different sub-species which do not breed true, so that the offspring do not consistently resemble their parents. Mixing of the sub-species is not a long-term solution and it is one that we should aim to avoid for the sake of sustainability.
* It is currently illegal to import bees into, (i) the Isle of Man (Varroa-free), (ii) Colonsay and Oronsay (native-bee reserve and varroa-free)
The aims of the Programme are to improve the quality of our honey bees and to provide an alternative to the importation of exotic sub-species, throughout the participating areas. It is believed that, through the selection of local and native honey bees, a hardy, docile and productive bee can result.
This aim will be achieved by sustainable methods that can be maintained indefinitely. Through the combination of natural and artificial selection (that is, selection by nature and the beekeeper), the qualities of the bee can be continually developed to be best-suited to our current conditions. The system will also allow our bees to evolve to cope with changing climatic and environmental conditions. In this way our bees will be ‘future-proofed’ and always tend towards the best ones for the prevailing conditions.
In furtherance of this aim, the Programme will encourage:
- The selection and improvement of local stock
- The reduction in the use of imported bees and the offspring of recently imported bees
- The production, and distribution of native stock to aid local improvement programmes
- The support of beekeepers aiming to develop Varroa resilient bees
The Problem with Imports
Imports of bees have been growing, year on year, and, although currently at record levels, at best, only produce a short-term respite, in terms of quality. In the long-term no consistent improvement in the quality of our bees is achieved, and the system relies on further imports to maintain quality, albeit, with no local adaptation. They represent a serious biosecurity risk through the possibility of introducing new pests and diseases, or variant strains of the ones already here. The damaging effect that these imports have on our local bee populations is also of concern, reversing any development of local adaptation and adding to mongrelisation, that is, the random mixing of the sub-species.
BIBBA believes that the aims set out above will lead to a reduction in the demand for imported bees which will allow beekeepers in every region to further develop a bee ideally suited to their area, regardless of their starting position. There is enough genetic diversity within our honey bee population to develop whatever characteristics we would like to see in our bees. We believe that by continually adding exotic genes to the gene pool, we deny our bees the chance to evolve and adapt to the local conditions. The constant hybridisation of the sub-species makes the selection and improvement of our local bees more difficult as hybrids do not breed true. A reduction in imports of exotic genes will allow beekeepers to select the characteristics that they want in their bees and mould their local bee populations to their needs.
A note on ‘Bee breeding’ and ‘Bee improvement’
Attempts at improving the quality of honey bees have usually been based on ‘bee breeding’, that is where the bee breeder has control over both the male and female lines. This is achieved through instrumental insemination or isolated mating apiaries. Good results can be achieved in this way and beekeepers can buy the resulting queens and rear further generations of queens from them. Unfortunately, the quality achieved by breeding cannot
be maintained in the wider environment. It is not considered a sustainable system as any new queens produced mate with local drones and the quality deteriorates. Quality can only be kept up by regularly buying in further queens and repeating the process. Use of these techniques and facilities are not normally available for the ordinary beekeeper and any bees brought in have not been bred for local conditions, nor have they had the chance to develop any adaptation to local climatic and environmental conditions.
A ‘bee improvement’ system based on improving the quality of our bees, possibly just in one’s own apiary, but ideally in a small area which can be extended over time, can produce sustainable results. A strain of bee can be refined, or developed, in an area, so that all or most colonies are producing drones of the same strain, allowing queens reared in the same area to mate with drones of the same strain.
Whilst good results can be produced by ‘bee breeding’, it is only when used in conjunction with ‘bee improvement’ that a sustainable system can evolve. ‘Bee breeding’ alone, which depends on isolated mating apiaries, or instrumental insemination, does not give us sustainability when the progeny is distributed elsewhere. Only if the distribution of offspring of a bee breeding system is integrated within a bee improvement programme can sustainability be achieved. The National Bee Improvement Programme sets up a system that allows improvements to be sustained and not merely lost to the system after a generation or two and also results of bee breeding to be integrated into the system if desired.
For the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP) to successfully fulfil its aims, we are seeking the support and participation of as many beekeepers as possible. Maximum support for the programme will result in a reduction in the demand for imported stock, as participants avoid the use of imported bees. This will allow easier progress in improving the quality of our bees; the selection process will not be continually diluted by the introduction of new, untested genes. The aim is for the Programme to run indefinitely and we hope beekeepers will, similarly, commit to supporting it for the long-term.
Whilst the aims and principles of the Programme will remain constant, the running of the Programme will be flexible, and will be modified in the light of experience, or as circumstances change to allow continual development and updating of the programme. BIBBA will finance the launch of the programme but financial sustainability must be the eventual goal of the management committee.
We are currently offering two ways to support the Programme:
1. Membership of BIBBA for annual fee (currently £20 per annum, if paid by direct debit)
Join up and support BIBBA’s Objects, that is:
The conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of native honey bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) and near-native honey bees of the British Isles.
- BIBBA Monthly – email newsletter
- BIBBA Annual – Publication with articles from BIBBA Monthly
- Publications and guidance on bee improvement and queen rearing
- Support for local Bee Improvement Groups
- Lectures, demonstrations, workshops on all aspects of bee improvement
Support us in developing a hardy, docile and productive bee.
2. Sign up as a Supporter of the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP). (Free)
- Supporters of the scheme are welcome, whether able to offer active or passive support.
- Receive regular updates of the NatBIP project by email
For details of joining BIBBA or becoming a Supporter of NatBIP Click Here
The Members’ and Supporters’ Agreement
Participants in NatBIP will aim to avoid the use of imported bees, or the offspring of recently imported bees. The focus will be on:
- native bees
- near-native bees
- long-established local bees in an area
This will allow any beekeeper, whatever their circumstances, to avoid the use of imported stock and take part in improving the honey bees in their area.
The Members’ and Supporters’ Agreement
Participants in NatBIP will aim to avoid the use of imported bees, or the offspring of recently imported bees.
The focus will be on:
- native bees
- near-native bees
- long-established local bees in an area
This will allow any beekeeper, whatever their circumstances, to avoid the use of imported stock and take part in improving the honey bees in their area.
The Programme needs to be relevant to beekeepers’ needs and be able to achieve positive results for beekeepers in all circumstances. Bearing in mind the different conditions beekeepers are working in, different skill levels and experience, as well as variations in types of bee across the regions, finding common ground, may appear difficult.
Rather than lay down rules of what is, or is not, permitted in the scheme, it is better to allow individuals or groups to adapt and adjust the Programme to what they feel is appropriate for their circumstances. We have made just one rule for participants to adhere to and that is the rule not to use imported, or the offspring of recently imported, stock. The purpose of this rule is to reduce the biosecurity risks associated with rising levels of imports and to reduce the random hybridisation of the sub-species which makes selection and improvement more difficult.
Ultimately, we would like participants in the Programme to make their own decisions regarding what characteristics they select for, and how they achieve this. Variations in environmental conditions and in the qualities of the available stock in different regions mean that decisions regarding the running of the Programme are best made locally.
The NatBIP Guide, however, will offer suggestions of methods and techniques that have proved successful to beekeepers pursuing the improvement of their bees. This will be continually updated and added to, with feedback and suggestions from participants in the Programme, in the light of their experience.
To achieve the maximum number of supporters, we also welcome beekeepers who feel they cannot actively take part in the Programme but are in favour of the basic principles, that is, they favour the use of home reared bees over imports. We hope these beekeepers will show their belief in the Programme by joining BIBBA or by registering as a ‘supporter’ (see BIBBA website). As a ‘passive’ supporter, you will aim to avoid the use of imported bees and will be kept informed of progress and developments in the Programme. Occasions may arise, in the future, when you can benefit from the Programme, for example, through the purchase of locally reared queens.
It is hoped that many beekeepers will wish to become actively involved in the Programme and join the growing movement of beekeepers who would like to see a sustainable improvement in the quality of our bees. This may be individuals working on their own, groups of like-minded beekeepers or local associations, often with useful facilities such as a ‘group apiary’. Commercial beekeepers or bee farmers will be especially welcome as they often exert a big influence in an area due to the number of colonies that they run.
The Improvement Process
Put simply, the improvement process is about increasing the frequency of favourable genes in a population and decreasing the frequency of unfavourable ones, whilst at the same time maintaining a high level of genetic diversity. The constant introduction of genes from sub-species, which evolved in quite different conditions to our own, does not help the process, ‘maladapted’ genes being of no real benefit. As Giles Fert explains (Fert, 2020, Raising Honeybee Queens), “Selection is only possible within the framework of a well-defined population – for example, within a given race, or, even better, a fairly large local population that will be disrupted as little as possible by the introduction of foreign bees”.
Assessment of Colonies using Record Cards
To help us select which queens are worth producing offspring from and which queens should be replaced, or at least removed from the ‘breeding area’, we need to assess the qualities of our colonies. An assessment of qualities can be made every time we inspect a colony during the active season and recorded on the Record Card.
Whether we are working on bee improvement as an individual, or as a group, we must decide which qualities are important to us. The fewer the qualities we wish to select, the easier it is to make progress. In this NatBIP Guide, there is an example of a record card where colonies are assessed for 5 main qualities, native appearance (to help us move away from a hybridized or mongrelised population), temperament, swarming propensity, health/brood pattern (including over-wintering) and honey production or relative honey production (that is, compared to other colonies in the same apiary).
A simple system of recording these qualities is used, which allows easy assessment and selection of our colonies.
Producing the next generation
From our completed record cards, we can choose the queen or queens to rear further queens from. Some will want to rear numerous queens from a few selected queens, others may prefer just one or two offspring from numerous queens, perhaps up to half of available stocks. It is important not to narrow the gene pool too much by using too few queens or by failing to use unrelated queens from time to time. Queens that have been selected as worthy of rearing further stock from are commonly known as ‘breeder queens’ and the key to bee improvement lies in these breeder queens, whether we are producing one or two queens from each one or numerous queens. The importance of the breeder queens is that, regardless of what their daughters mate with, the drones produced by these daughters, being from unfertilised eggs, will be directly related to our selected breeder queens, and so of good genetic quality.
Particularly in the early stages of an improvement programme, we may have little control over what drones our newly reared queens mate with. The workers produced from our newly reared queens may appear to be very hybridized, with a range of different appearances within each colony. However, the drones, produced from unfertilised eggs, will be genetically good quality and help to us to develop better stock by providing drones for the next generation of queens to mate with. By choosing ‘good’ breeder queens we can produce ‘good’ drones which, when the new queens produce full colonies in the following season, will provide a plentiful supply of drones to mate with our next batch of (unrelated) reared queens.
By repeating the process, the selection of breeder queens and producing new queens which, in turn, will produce good drones, we can gradually have a big influence on the quality of bees in our area, and we can develop a suitable local strain. This is a process that should be repeated year on year, allowing us to gradually get more consistency into our bee improvement, particularly if we are able to work with others and dominate an area to get reliable matings.
Record-keeping: the selection of local stock
The honey bee colonies in our area should be viewed as our resources for selection and improvement. We may only be responsible for a handful of those colonies so there is a great incentive to co-operate and work with other beekeepers in the area to increase our sphere of influence. By refraining from the use of imported stock we are already on the way to developing a local strain, shaped by ‘natural selection’ and also by ‘artificial selection’ or selection by the beekeeper.
The process of improvement depends on propagating the genes of the best colonies and replacing, or removing from the area, the queens of the worst colonies, thus reducing the genetic influence of these genes in the population. This process must be carried out with an awareness of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity within the population. The honey bee, with its system of the queen mating with numerous drones, is well-adapted to avoiding the problems of ‘inbreeding’ and maintaining genetic diversity.
To allow us to select the most desirable queens to rear a new generation of queens from, and to replace, or remove from the area, undesirable queens, we need to use a system of record-keeping that allows us, over time, to build up a picture of the qualities of each queen. Beekeepers are often quite used to keeping records for the general management of their colonies but perhaps less used to record-keeping for assessing the qualities of their bees. There is no single correct way to do this task and beekeepers may wish to devise their own system. The system should be quick and easy to use but provide useful and relevant data that shows, at a glance, the relative qualities of each queen.
Some may like to use one card for management and one for assessing their qualities, while others may wish to combine the two and have everything on one card. In this NatBIP Guide we have one or more examples which can be downloaded and printed out for use by participants. There will also be the option for beekeepers to modify the ‘standard’ card to suit variations that an individual, or group, may prefer.
What qualities to assess
The first thing an individual or a group must decide is what qualities to select for. The less qualities we wish to maintain or improve, the more chance we have of making progress and achieving our aim. The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP) does not dictate what qualities to select or how to assess those qualities. NatBIP will make suggestions of tried and tested methods that have been shown to produce results, but individuals and groups will be free to make their own decisions. Nothing is set in stone and things can, and will, be modified over time according to beekeepers’ experience. In the system described, using the suggested record card, the following qualities are selected:
- Native appearance
- Swarming propensity
- Health and brood pattern (also over-wintering)
- Relative honey yield
Individuals, or groups, around the country may prefer a different set of qualities and are free to adjust accordingly. What follows are the reasons for choosing these qualities, and how we assess each colony for them.
Various systems of scoring have been tried over the years and the favourites, and easiest to use, are a 1 to 5 system (5 being the top mark) or a -2 to +2 system with 0 representing a neutral point.
The 1 to 5 system is the one described in the following text.
1. Native appearance
Most of us will be starting with randomly hybridised bees, that is bees that are a mixture of various sub-species. This is the result of over 150 years of importing bees that originated in different climatic zones around Europe. Some people view importing bees as a positive, citing genetic diversity, docility and prolificacy as welcome qualities, but the fact is that the docility cannot be maintained over succeeding generations, and bees from quite different geographical areas have a genetic make-up not suited to our particular environmental and climatic conditions.
Perhaps, more importantly, this continual mixing of the sub-species produces bees which do not breed true, making selection and improvement more difficult, and therefore making progress in improving the quality of our stock becomes slower.
To get more consistency into our improvement programmes and to speed up progress, it helps if we select within a strain or sub-species. Individuals or groups can make their own decisions about the best way forward, in this respect, but without the constant input of new genes from imported bees, and with the effect of natural and artificial selection, local populations of bees will gradually evolve to form a strain, that is a more homogenous population that is more likely to breed true.
There is a belief that the native strain, Apis mellifera mellifera, is most likely to dominate in the long term and many involved in bee improvement will actively encourage this tendency by selecting for this strain. The simplest way to do this is to this is to assess the appearance of the worker bees in a colony on a 1 to 5 scale; 5 being given for a colony whose workers are uniform and native in appearance.
Some may question whether assessing a quality on their appearance is in fact a useful and reliable method. Other techniques that can be used include ‘morphometry’ and ‘DNA analysis’. Assessment by visual appearance remains the simplest and cheapest method, and DNA analysis seems to validate its usefulness in achieving a more consistent strain of bee.
A good temperament is the quality that beekeepers commonly cite as the most important quality that they want in their bees. Apart from actual ‘survival’, there is no doubt of its importance for the pleasure of beekeeping and for the safety of the public.
The temperament of a colony should be assessed at each inspection. A 1 to 5 scale works well, making assessment easy and accurate. One should ask if the colony is good or bad to work with. If good they can be given a mark of 4 or 5, depending on how good. If difficult, or unpleasant, to handle we can give them a mark of 1 or 2 depending on whether we rate them bad or very bad, or a mark of 3 if neither particularly good nor bad.
There may be considerable variation on different occasions over the season, often depending on the weather, available nectar, or the state of play regarding swarming, for example, but quite quickly a picture is built up of which colonies are pleasant to work with, or vice versa.
Breeder queens will normally be selected from those that head colonies showing exceptional docility.
3. Swarming propensity
Whilst swarming is a natural part of the bee’s life-cycle, there can be considerable variation in the propensity to swarm between different colonies, as well as variation between different sub-species. Swarming is the bees’ natural method of reproduction, a means to increasing the number of colonies, and in the wild is essential to the survival of the species. Swarming is also a risky strategy resulting in a colony headed by an old queen and one or more colonies with young queens which must successfully mate and start laying.
From the beekeeper’s point of view, a colony which swarms, apart from the associated risks to the swarm and the parent colony, will result in a great reduction in honey production. Also, in a crowded environment, swarming can be a nuisance factor with the public. For these reasons, beekeepers normally prefer bees which swarm less frequently. Although swarm cells generally produce good queens, being the result of flourishing colonies producing well-fed cells, repeated use of such cells may result in bees which tend to swarm more than the average.
Some bees tend to supersede rather than swarm. This is a process where the colony produces a replacement queen without the risks involved in swarming and is regarded by beekeepers as a favourable quality. To produce bees with a lower propensity for swarming, and perhaps a greater tendency to supersede, we can assess swarming propensity on a 1 to 5 scale. A colony is only assessed, or given a mark, if, and when, preparations for swarming are observed. Thus, if the production of queen cells, beyond the egg stage, is observed, the queen will be rated accordingly.
The usual methods of swarm control should be carried out by the beekeeper.
The marking system could be as follows:
- If swarm cells are observed, either unsealed with royal jelly, or sealed cells, a score of 2 should be given. This can be adjusted up or down (to 3 or 1) according
to the strength of the colony and/or likely honey production. So, a strong colony perhaps with some honey production could be adjusted to 3, whilst a weak
colony with no likely production would be rounded to 1.
- If no swarm cells are observed throughout the season, a score of 4 should be given. This can be adjusted up or down (to 5 or 3) according to the strength of
the colony and/or likely honey production. So, a strong colony with good honey production would score 5 whilst a weaker one with little or no production would be rounded down to 3.
4. Health, brood pattern and ‘over-wintering’
Over-wintering is a once only assessment taken on the first full inspection of the year usually in April and it is a measure of the relative strength of colonies as the
spring gets going. An average strength colony would be given a mark of 3, strong or very strong 4 or 5, and weak or very weak 2 or 1. There is no definitive size, seasons will vary, it is just a comparison between colonies.
Many beekeepers like their colonies to be strong in the spring to benefit from oil-seed rape crops and other spring flows early in the season. This is a trait that could be selected for.
Health and Brood pattern are usually only assessed if something of note is spotted, for example, an extra good brood pattern with large quantities of healthy brood could be given a 4 or 5. Any health issues, of adult bee or brood could be noted and may warrant a mark of 2 or 1. For example, the presence of chalk brood may warrant giving a mark of 2 or 1.
5. Relative honey yield
We are all operating under different conditions, some areas are more productive than others and seasons vary tremendously. The best way to make ‘honey yields’
more meaningful is by converting them into ‘relative honey yields’ (RHY), that is a colony’s honey yield as compared to the apiary average. To calculate the apiary
average, we add up the yields of all the honey producing colonies and divide by the number of those colonies. An individual colony’s yield can then be divided by the apiary average. The resulting figure gives a ratio for each colony, as compared to the average.
Thus: Relative honey yield (RHY) = Colony yield ÷ Apiary average
A figure of 2.0 would indicate the colony has produced twice the apiary average, whilst one of 0.5 would mean it has produced half of the apiary average.
Many variables affect a colony’s ability to produce a crop of honey. It may be difficult to know which are the most important factors affecting this but by converting the figures for honey production into a relative honey yield (RHY) we can show that a colony is productive, even if we do not know all the reasons why.
Good and bad colonies as resources
By keeping accurate records, we can work out which colonies, or queens, we should be using for producing more queens, or for drone production, for example, and which should be disposed of in some way. All our colonies are our assets to be used in the most suitable way, so anything of poor quality that we would not want to pass genes on to future generations can be dealt with in various ways. It could be re-queened or moved out of the ‘mating area’ for use as a honey producer or built up on a double brood box for splitting into nucs. It then becomes a useful resource for making more colonies.
Colony Record Card – NatBIP 1
This card is designed to be a multipurpose card that can be used for normal hive management as well as for bee improvement in one apiary, multiple apiaries, or in a bee improvement group.
The data collected on each card is for one colony. The summaries at the end of the season can be collated onto the Apiary Record Card (4.18) which will have one row per colony giving an overview of apiary performance and any outstanding colonies.
This card allows a consistent recording system to be set up using multiple apiaries involved in an improvement group.
The cards are designed around the desirable traits of: Native Appearance, Temperament, Swarming Propensity, Health/Brood Pattern/Over-wintering and Honey or Relative Honey Yield (RHY).
It is available in Word format and can be adjusted or changed according to your own preference.
Top table Box
- Beekeeper/Group: Name of beeper and/or Group or Association
- Queen or Colony Origin: Source or origin of Queen and/or Colony
- Name or No. of Strain:
- Queen Name or No.: Name/no. if breeder
- Queen Mark/Age: Letter for year colour. Circled if marked
- Queen description: Colour, stripes, clipped?
- Apiary Name: Name or location of apiary
- Hive No.: Number or ID of hive
- Hive Type: Type of hive + Brood box system e.g. brood and half
Main Table Box:
General scales are 1 to 5 (5 being best).
The first two rows (above) are the scores brought forward from the previous year. This allows an at-a-glance reference to the colony’s history and past performance. These two rows are only relevant if the colony has the same queen as previous year or is a daughter queen from the previous year.
Over-Wintering Score 1-5 (Weak – Strong)
Relative strength in spring. 1 and 2 weaker than average; 3 is average; 4 and 5 stronger than average.
This is usually assessed on first inspection in April and is compared to either an apiary average or to your own choice of standard.
*To assess this score, the strength going into winter may need to be assessed. A nuc will probably be weaker in spring than full-size colony.
Some columns can be assessed at each inspection, but others need only be used when appropriate.
- 2021: Date of inspection
- Insp. by: Inspected by – useful if working in a group or there are different beekeepers involved.
- Col. Size: Colony Size – In terms of bees covering frames in brood box and super e.g 0.7 + 0.3 would be bees covering ≅ 2/3 of brood box + ≅ 1/3 super, or can be expressed as no. of frames
- BIAS Amount: Brood in all stages. No. of frames with brood on both sides. One side only is 0.5. Enter the number of frames that have brood on both sides. Frames with brood on one side only mark as 0.5. (S,M or L can be used to indicate approximate amount of brood the frames).
- Native Appearance* 1-5 (Non-native -> Native) Assess on each visit. Summary is an average of last 3 assessments. This measure is assessed by looking at a sample of bees on the face of a comb, for example.
1 - virtually no bees of native appearance
2 – about 25% native app
3 - about 50% native app
4 – about 75% native app
5 – virtually all native app.
*Native appearance is a dark abdomen, a thin Tomenta or a light coloured stripe, with yellow, ginger or brown hairs around the thorax.A non-native bee is indicated by yellow, orange or brown band/s on the abdomen; a wide tomenta or light stripe on the abdomen (as wide as the dark part), with white or creamy hairs around the thorax. An Italian (Ligurian) influence would be lighter coloured, orangey bands on the abdomen. Carniolan (carnica) influence would give the impression of white or grey hairs. They can be dark bodied but often have a brown and very stripy abdomen, wide stripes, not narrow.
Summary is average of last 3 assessments.
- Temperament 1-5 (Aggressive to docile) Assess at each visit. This trait can vary over the season according to conditions.
1 – Unpleasant to work with in every way. Difficult to control with smoke. Defensive as you approach the hive/apiary. Followers as you leave.
2 – Very excitable. Aggressive, pinging the veil a lot. Determined to sting. Needs considerable smoke control.
3 – Lot of movement on the comb and may be a few stings without due reason.
4 – Fairly calm but some running on the comb. A bit excitable but no direct aggression.
5 – Very gentle and calm on comb. A pleasure to work with.Tip for assessment: Are bees pleasant or unpleasant to work with. Think 4 or 2. Then adjust up or down, as appropriate, to reach final assessment. Summary is arrived at by calculating average of the last 6 visits, which levels out variations.
- Swarming Propensity 1-5 (Swarmy –> non Swarmy) Only mark if event relating to a swarming tendency occurs, or does not occur through season. Use last assessment at end of season.
1 – Unproductive and produces swarm cells
2 – Small to medium honey crop and produces swarm cells
3 – Moderate to good honey production but produces swarm cells, or unproductive but no cells.
4 – Goes through season without swarm cells with average crop of honey
5 – Goes through full season with no attempt to swarm. No swarm cells produced. Good honey crop.Practice usual swarm control methods.
- Health and Brood Pattern 1-5 (Poor brood pattern & health –> good brood & health) Assess brood pattern and/or observable diseases or pathogens (brood or adult bees). Identify disease if present, record action if any in notes.
1 – Very poor brood pattern. Very slow brood build up. May be Identifiable diseases present.
2 – Poor brood pattern. Pepper-pot brood and/or quantity &/or health
3 – Average brood.
4 – Above average brood
5 – Very good brood pattern and amount + healthy
- Honey Yield- The quantity of honey should be recorded whenever any is removed from colony. This can be estimated at time of removal or mark the supers and calculate upon extraction. To estimate on removal, a BS/National super frame fully capped is about 2.75 lb If 10 frames in a super. Full National super about 28lbs. Round up or down according to how well filled each frame is. If using different size frames, weigh them to be accurate or work out own estimating system.
- Amount Fed. In this column, enter any feed given with quantity and date of feed in preferred units.
- Mite drop – Record average daily mite drop at any stage through the season
Summaries (at foot of table)
Native Appearance – Average of last 3 recordings
Temperament - Average of last 6 recordings
Swarming Propensity - Last assessment of season
Brood pattern/health - Average of any recordings
Honey yield - Total for season
Amount fed - Total for season
- RHY - Relative honey yield Allows more meaningful comparison between colonies in different apiaries. RHY = Colony Honey yield divided apiary average honey yield This is expressed as a decimal, so 1.0 = average, 2.0 is double the average yield, 0.5 is half of average yield.
- Over-wintering – Assessment in spring compared to average. 1-5 scale.
- Varroa treatment – Record treatment given, if any.
Assessment of breeding potential.
The beekeeper will have to decide what the priorities are regarding the desirable qualities. A general rule may be to only breed from queens which have exceptional temperament or some may feel strongly about working within a strain, to increase the chances of breeding true, so, for example, native appearance of the offspring may be high on the list. Or beekeepers may wish to experiment with giving priority to different characteristics.
The summaries for each colony can be forwarded to an ‘Apiary Summary’ card which has one row for each colony, so an apiary with 12 colonies in it would have 12 rows. This card is used to hold summaries of all colonies in the apiary. It makes comparison between the colonies simpler and therefore selection easier.
Queen Rearing Methods
There are so many techniques of queen rearing, and so much has been written about them, that it may seem unwise to add any more. Studying too many methods can be a source of much confusion and leave one overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed.
Like most things in beekeeping, the best way to learn is to have a go, find out what works or does not work, and then try to refine or improve the technique over time.
Although there is an enormous array of information available on queen rearing, it is appropriate to include a few techniques that beekeepers have found work well for them, from the simplest methods to the more advanced ones.
There are a few simple rules to rearing good queens and these should be adhered to regardless of which method one uses. It is no good getting the genetics right if the queens are not well reared, as their performance may be severely impaired.
- Careful attention should be paid to the health of the colonies being used to rear new
queens, particularly with regard to the notifiable diseases of American Foul Brood (AFB) and European Foul Brood (EFB). Bees and equipment may be moved around in the production of queens, so it is easy to spread diseases within the apiary and between apiaries.
- The best queens are produced by strong colonies of well-fed bees. The nurse bees are able to produce copious amounts of royal jelly and thus feed the queen larvae adequately. Rearing from poor weak colonies without adequate feeding will result in inferior queens.
- Queens can possibly be reared from mid-April to mid-September in many areas, with probably May and June being the best times, as long as adequate food is provided.
- A queen rearing colony should be provided fed unless the weather is fine and an abundance of nectar and pollen are available.
Splitting a colony to produce queen cells
There are numerous ways of producing queen cells with this method. One method is described below.
- A queen has been selected as suitable to rear queens from, that is, to be used as a ‘breeder queen’.
- In the Spring, when the brood box is nearly full of bees, add a second brood box to allow the queen access to both boxes. Raise at least one frame of brood from the original box to the middle of new second box and replace below with empty comb/foundation. This will encourage the queen to lay in both boxes. The new brood box may have empty combs or frames with foundation.
- The bees can be fed steadily until foundation is drawn out as comb. When the bees have nearly filled both boxes with bees, they are ready to rear queen cells.
- One brood box should be moved to new site in the apiary and spare floor, crown board and roof to be added.
- Queen needs to be found and put in box on new site.
- Brood box on old site should be ‘queenless’, with frames containing eggs or very young larvae. Many ‘flying’ bees from new site will return to old site which should also be fed with syrup. It may be helpful if still one or two combs of foundation to draw out.
- Hive 1 on original site is queenless, well populated and well fed. Bees will proceed to rear quean cells on any combs with eggs or very young larvae.
- Hive 2 will be queenright, have adequate stores (feed if necessary) and depleted of flying bees, so will be a viable unit.
- Seven days later sealed queen cells can be utilised as one wishes.
- For example, Hive 1 could be split into 2, 3 or 4 nucs making sure each nuc has a comb with at least one sealed queen cell, some brood and stores (feed as necessary). Nucs unlikely to swarm as relatively weak.
- Or, cells could be harvested by carefully cutting out of combs with a craft knife. These cells could be placed in an incubator, with water for humidity, at 34.5°C. or transferred, one each to nucs, mininucs or mini+nucs.
Queen Rearing Method without grafting (or finding the queen)
This queen rearing method does not require the queen to be found or larvae to be grafted. If the bees do not raise any queen cells nothing is lost, the colony remains queen right and you just need to have another go.
- Make up the two nuc boxes with combs from the brood box and drawn comb. Combs from the brood box should be shaken free of bees to ensure the queen is not accidently moved above the queen excluder.
- If there are not enough drawn combs available put frames of foundation in the boxes and wait a few days for the bees to draw it out.
- The cell raising nuc needs to have at least one frame of sealed brood, two frames of stores with ample pollen and a frame of open brood including eggs. Place the open brood and eggs next to the frames of pollen stores.
- Put a strip of wood down the middle of the framed Q excluder, or use two half sized framed excluders, to ensure that there is no route through between the bottoms of the two nuc boxes.
- Leave for an hour or so to allow nurse bees to move up to attend the open brood then place a sheet of heavy gauge plastic sheet under the cell raising nuc box and place a super on top.
- Check after 10 days for queen cells and, if present, gently move nuc away ensuring there are plenty of bees present.
- If more than one queen cell is present and other colonies are available to supply frames of sealed brood and stores, make up additional nucs. Alternatively, offer spare cells to nearby beekeepers.
- Replace cell raiser nuc with another nuc box containing a frame of eggs, two frames of stores and a frame of sealed brood and repeat the process.
- It should be possible to repeat the process every 10 days whilst there is nectar coming in.
The Queenright Method of Queen Rearing
The ‘queen-right method’ is advocated by the NBU and an article explaining the method can be found on the BeeBase website (see Link at end of this article) It seems too simple to be true, only a queen excluder separating the queen from the reared cells, but it works.
The main advantages of the method are that it is a more spontaneous than some, not much advanced preparation is needed and, after the initial set-up, requires little work but, most importantly, the temper of the colony is not tested as it is queenright throughout. The colony can be set up one day and queen-rearing can begin the next day, or even set up in the morning and grafted cells added in the afternoon.
It is usually done with grafted larvae but works equally well with a Jenter or Cupkit larval transfer system, but this requires more planning and preparation. Like any method, results can vary a lot, but it is not uncommon to get around 18 successes out of 20.
Any type of hive can be used that allows for two brood boxes to be used on top of each other. National hives are ideal for this method of queen rearing. The designated queen rearing colony (not necessarily the same as the ‘breeder queen’) is built up in the spring, perhaps by stimulative feeding, and when nearly occupying the whole brood box, a second brood box is added, without a queen excluder. One or two frames of brood are raised into the top box to get the bees immediately working in two boxes and a couple of empty frames of comb or foundation put below as replacements.
Feeding is particularly important during spells of poor weather, or if no flow is expected. If the colony is not strong enough, or the weather is poor, with little coming into the hive, the numbers and quality of cells will be reduced. A strong and well-fed colony will complete better-quality cells and more of them. A frame feeder is ideal for use with this method of queen rearing. It allows a super of foundation to be put on top above the excluder for bees to occupy themselves with drawing out extra comb, rather than building brace comb or ‘webbing’ around the queen cells together.
A grafting frame with two rows of 10 plastic queen cups, as used in the Cupkit method, or JZBZ cups, can be used for holding the transferred young larvae.
When the colony is strong enough, that is, it has filled two brood boxes with bees, then I can set up the hive for rearing. As with many things in beekeeping it is easier with two people as one can be assigned to each brood box. The two brood boxes are separated to look for the queen whilst, at the same time, looking for suitable frames to surround the grafts when introduced. What is required in the top box is the frame feeder plus a frame or two of stores, a frame or two of pollen and a frame or two of open brood to attract the nurse bees, and a gap in the middle of these, for the grafting frame. This will encourage well-fed nurse bees to congregate around the grafts so that when introduced there will be plenty of bees to immediately tend to the grafts.
When the queen has been found, she could be temporarily caged, and when re-assembling placed in the bottom box and confined on 11 frames in this box with the queen excluder. The top box will then be placed above the excluder with the selected frames. A gap for the ‘graft frame’ is left between a frame containing pollen and some open brood. A super can be added, perhaps with foundation, at this point.
The day after setting up the colony to receive the grafts (or it could be the afternoon if hive is prepared in the morning), we go to the colony of our selected ‘breeder queen’ and select a frame with very young larvae suitable for grafting. This may be in a different apiary so we may graft on the spot and transport the grafted larvae, wrapped in a damp towel, to the Tearing colony, or take to Rearing colony and graft there. To graft, our preference is to use a Chinese grafting tool which makes depositing the larvae easy. Good eyesight and a steady hand are the main requirements, and the ability to select day old larvae. Larvae all receive the same diet up to 48 hours old so this allows some leeway. We have also experimented with putting new cups, or primed cups (that is ones that have been in the hive for a least a day), in every other position on the grafting bar, and found that it makes no difference to acceptance.
The next stage
At some point in the following days, we will check for acceptance, to satisfy our curiosity, and so we know how many homes need to be found. The crucial date is 10 days after grafting, or for calculation, one week and 3 days after grafting, when the cells are ready for removal. This is Day 14 from when the egg was laid; we often find that some hatch on Day 15, so timing is crucial.
The ripe queen cells can be put straight into nucs or mini-nucs, or into an incubator for hatching and then virgin queens introduced. If introducing virgin queens into a nuc we like to introduce them, at least, one day after the previous queen has been removed. We use a piece of marshmallow to block the cage and slow down the release of the queen.
Conclusion, and what can go wrong
The queenright method of queen rearing is not a fool proof system that is guaranteed to work every time, but it seems to be relatively stress-free for the bees and the same colony can be used several times for queen rearing during the season. After the ripe queen cells have been taken out, the queen excluder should be removed allowing the queen to have access to both brood boxes again, unless immediately inserting another graft, in which case the frames may need re-arranging, as before.
Alternatively, a week or two later the colony can be set up again for queen rearing, as described earlier under ‘Set-up Day’. By having a series of colonies, in this condition, we can achieve a mini-production line for raising new queens.
There is no guarantee how many cells they rear but we are happy with 15-18 in a batch. If fewer, say 8-12 we are also happy as it is a lot better than zero, and it is a relief not to have so many homes to find. Below this number we consider a bit of a failure, but it is not always easy to guess why. The weather may have gone off or the nectar flow reduced (as often happens in June), or the rearing colony may be too weak.
The ‘burying’ of queen cells in brace comb can be a problem and once this happens it seems some of the cells may get neglected. It is still possible to cut the cells out but sometimes they do not all hatch. Giving the bees some comb to draw out helps to prevent this problem and that is why I often add a super with at least some foundation.
The classic mistake is to fail to take cells out on Day 14. By the time you get there they have all hatched and killed each other.
- Cook, Vince - Queen Rearing Simplified (1986)
- Wilkinson, Dave and Brown, Mike - Rearing Queen Honey Bees in a Queenright Colony (1989)
- Shaw, Wally - Simple Methods of Making Increase
- BBKA News, Special Issue Series - Queen Rearing (2019)
BIBBA Articles on Queen Rearing
As we progress through the NatBIP programme to improve our bee stocks it pays to give some thought to how we are going to consolidate any improvements we may have gained through our efforts to establish our selected strain.
We have been monitoring our colonies and keeping accurate records to enable us to see at a glance our progress (see using NatBIP record card). We can then select and cull the queens that we consider don’t display the chosen traits and replace them with ones that do.
We then have our colonies headed by queens we have selected. From these we can produce daughter queens through our queen breeding programme….…. this is an ongoing process which is repeated each season.
The daughter queens play a key part in bee improvement and establishing our selected strain in an area because irrespective of her open mating with its mixed mating possibilities the drones she produces will carry only her mother’s genes. This is because drones have only half of the chromosomes which come from their mother’s side. So, if we can produce enough drones from our daughter queens eventually we increase the possibility of future virgin queens mating with drones of the same strain. This approach is called “Drone Flooding”.
To gain a modicum of success with drone flooding there is a need to have a reasonably high number of colonies.
If you only have a few hives then the desired outcome may be difficult to achieve. This short fall in colonies can be overcome by beekeepers coming together to pool their resources. The more daughter queens that produce drones with the desired genetics, distributed throughout an area, the greater the chance of establishing a selected strain.
The native /near native strain tend to fly and it is believed mate at lower temperatures to the exotic strains. Therefore, a small amount of warm syrup given as a 1/1 mix in a contact feeder or an upside-down honey jar with a few small holes in the lid can help with drone production. This is termed stimulative feeding and is particularly useful at the start of the season.
The drones take around thirty-eight days to go from egg to sexually mature adult. Whereas the queen takes about twenty-one days. This means there is a difference of seventeen days. So, it is suggested that feeding is started three weeks prior to the start of your first round of queen rearing.
Also, a frame of drone comb or foundation can be inserted in the breeder colonies. Once it has been laid up it can be removed and replaced with another frame of drone comb or foundation. The laid up frame is then placed in one of your less desirable colonies to be brought on and finished . This could reduce the number of undesirable drones produced by the adoptive colony.
Finally, this is not a quick process but improvement in small increments will start to happen if you are diligent, avoid importation of exotic stocks and work to a plan.
Edited by Brian Holdcroft, BIBBA GROUP SECRETARY