NatBIP News No11

November 2022

Jo Widdicombe

What qualities do we want in our bees and how do we assess them?

Whether we are working alone to improve our bees, or working with others, in groups, we need to decide what qualities are important for us to have in our bees. This may seem tricky if working with others, given the diversity of beekeepers, but it is surprising how much common ground can usually be found. It is worth remembering that the fewer the qualities that we select for, the simpler it is to make progress and the more chance we have of achieving our goals.

The National Bee Improvement Programme is not prescriptive about what qualities we should strive for in our bees. It is much better if beekeepers decide for themselves what is important to them, and they are far more likely to progress if they work to their own ideas rather than be made to accept the views of others. Having said that the chances are that we will find much common ground between us.

How can the Programme unify beekeepers in a common cause?  

The unifying theme in NatBIP is that we start with our local bees and aim to refine them through their assessment and selection. The starting point does not rule out any beekeepers – the scheme is as inclusive as possible and aims to promote a sustainable system of bee improvement.

However, there is one stipulation and that is that we do not use imported stock of exotic sub-species or the offspring of recently imported stock. The aim is to get the best out of the bees around us through the processes of natural and artificial selection and to develop populations of locally adapted bees. The use of exotic imports does not allow this as it merely introduces genes that are untested in our environment and detracts from the development of local adaptation.

By the adoption of these simple guidelines, whatever our starting point, beekeepers will at least be travelling in the same direction. Unfortunately, if exotic genes are introduced into an apiary, the whole area pays a price with often maladapted or unsuitable genes being passed on to the local population through the drones produced by that queen. The resulting hybridisation of local stock sets back any selection and improvement programmes, as hybridised bees do not breed true, a quality that we can gradually build up in our bees. This allows us to achieve more consistency in our bees whilst maintaining genetic diversity.

Using a Record-card

A record-card can be found in the NatBIP Guide, on the BIBBA website. This can be downloaded for use as it is, or easily modified to suit the particular requirements of individuals or groups. For simplicity, characteristics are marked on a 1 to 5 scale, usually at each inspection. The system is very quick and easy to use but soon builds up a meaningful picture of which queens are best for rearing offspring from.

I will briefly outline the qualities that I assess my colonies for (More details can be found in the NatBIP Guide)

Appearance

May not be a perfect guide to a pure genotype but nonetheless it is a very useful one. A consistent native appearance in my bees allows me to spot any anomalies in the offspring of new queens, that is, it reveals the nature of their matings; whether they have they mated within the strain.

Temperament

Assessment of the temper of a colony on each inspection allows us to get to know the nature of each colony. I give a mark of 4 for acceptably good and reserve the best mark of 5 for very well-behaved colonies which are a pleasure to inspect.

Swarming

A system of swarm control should be carried out as normal.

An assessment only needs to be made when an event occurs such as the production of queen cells, so often nothing to report for this characteristic until the end of the season when a summary assessment can be made. Alternatively, a standard mark of 3 could be given as the norm until something occurs. I give a mark of 2 if colony has built up well with a couple of supers before rearing queen cells, or 1 if it produces queen cells before building up to a reasonable size.

No swarming through the season and good honey production would score 5. Supersedure of queens is taken to be a good trait and can be marked up.

Health (plus Brood Pattern and Over-wintering)

This column can be used for any of the above. For example Chalk Brood or Sac Brood would indicate a lower score according to quantity. A colony with lots of chalk brood, for example, would score 1.

A good solid brood pattern would score more than a spotty one but I would only give a mark if I see something noteworthy and put BP to show what the mark is for. A good brood pattern also indicates that no inbreeding has taken place, so is useful when selecting breeder queens.

On the first inspection in the Spring, I assess the strength of colonies, that is, how well they have over-wintered (OW).

Honey Production

I estimate the quantity of honey I take from the hive. At the end of the season the apiary average can be calculated, and an individual colony’s yield compared to the apiary average, as a ratio.

Conclusion

The use of a record card for each colony gives clear indication of which queen or queens are best for producing further queens from and perhaps which queens should be replaced. Decide what traits are important to you and modify the record card to suit your needs.

The Winter is a great time for getting our plans for bee improvement into place. Work with others, if possible, to achieve strength in numbers. This is particularly important when trying to achieve better matings for our home-reared queens. Also, by working in a group you can support and encourage each other when things do not go according to plan.