NatBIP News No10

October 2022

Jo Widdicombe

Many beekeepers are interested in improving the quality of their bees but feel that they are limited by the number of colonies at their disposal. This limitation particularly effects the quality of matings and the ability to establish a local strain. Our Groups Secretary, Brian Holdcroft, has written the following article to encourage members to work together to achieve their aims. This time of year is the perfect time for beekeepers to get together and make their plans for next season.

Establishing a BIBBA Bee Improvement Group using NatBIP

When it comes to bee improvement, I believe the suggested approach offered by BIBBA’s NatBIP programme is worth careful consideration. It is a programme of bee improvement for all beekeepers of all the nations that make up the UK plus Ireland. The more that sign up to it the more successful it is likely to be.

It encourages beekeepers to work together in Groups. Eventually the Groups’ circle of influence can gradually be widened to include other improvement Groups, BKA’s and beekeepers in the area, and carries the full support of BIBBA.

Brian, Lead Trustee for groups.
Brian, Lead Trustee for groups.

Bees developed using local stocks of the native or near-native sub-species will offer a more sustainable type of bee than those brought in from other regions. By working with the best of our locally adapted bees and not resorting to importation, we can start on the path of improvement rather than one of constantly having to deal with the merry-go-round of undesirable traits and recurring problems that importation presents us with.

The development of a strain that will breed true is desirable if progress is to be made. This requires selective queen rearing, and using the best and culling the worst, to establish a line of continuity in subsequent generations of bee stocks. The NatBIP way to achieve this is to work with the strain which naturally dominates in a given area or, at least, would dominate in the absence of further imports.

DNA analysis, carried out on random samples from colonies in England and Wales indicated that the largest proportion of genes were derived from the native subspecies, Apis mellifera mellifera. Natural selection seems to favour this strain, and this is of great advantage when looking for sustainability in our stocks.

Putting it into practice as a small-scale beekeeper

How can we implement the above approach, and be effective, if we are a small-scale beekeeper operating with limited bee stocks and equipment? One way is to come together and pool your resources...this, in essence, is Group activity.

Teaming up to co-operate and work with other like-minded beekeepers enables you to share resources, labour and skills, offering the possibility of developing a hardy, docile and productive bee that is conditioned to survive and thrive in your locality.

When considering starting a group it is worth checking that there is not one already established in your area. If there is, then it is worth exploring this first. One of the first tasks in bringing a Group together is to engage in conversation about bee improvement with your local beekeeping community.

Photo courtesy of Richard Senior

Use opportunities such as your Regional BKA’s monthly meetings or social media to chat about your aims and the possibilities that NatBIP offers to achieve them. Invite those with a similar outlook on bee improvement to join your discussions. Remember that in beekeeping for every question there can be many answers so do not expect to agree on everything.

Establishing your Group

Having gauged the level of interest and identified those who show a similar desire in working with local bee stocks, you can then consider how you can work together. Assuming you have an apiary site at your disposal your Group can consider your bee stocks, how they are going to be sited in your apiary and what improvements you would like to see in your bees as you move forward. Always be mindful of apiary biosecurity. The health of colonies and good hygiene is most important, particularly when moving bees around.

Records are also an important item to enable the Group to monitor their progress. You can use a record system that you are familiar with and suits your way of working or you can adopt the NatBIP record card which is available on the BIBBA website:

Start small it’s not a race. Initially two beekeepers can start a Group, but it will require three, four or more to enable a Group to move forward. You can always invite others to join as your Group becomes more established.

The skill set of those in the Group needs to be considered but try not to be over zealous with regard to this. Such an approach can put many off and be a real stumbling block before your Group has had a chance to get up and running. We all have something to offer.

Enthusiasm itself is a wonderful tool which can be utilised to the benefit of the Group, so if it is recognised, use it.

Also, because of the nature of our craft the majority of beekeepers are able to turn their hand to most things. Again, this is a bonus and worth noting. There is room for beekeepers with differing levels of beekeeping experience too. Even a beginner beekeeper can carry out work under instruction and be developing their personal beekeeping skills along the way.

Also, the non-beekeeping partners and friends of the Group can help with organisational duties or equipment repairs, if willing. However, it goes without saying that there needs to be at least one beekeeper with enough experience to deal with the more involved aspects of beekeeping management, bee improvement, disease recognition and queen rearing, etc.

BIBBA is an excellent resource at your disposal and is there to support you, so use it to stay informed. Sound information can be found on the website, and you can always email if you have a particular issue you would like to discuss.

Look out for the various BIBBA webinars and practical workshops that run throughout the year.

For more information on Groups and details about registering yourselves on the BIBBA Groups Web page go to

Your Group needs to be organised, but I would suggest you develop a structure that is not too rigid. Try to have a more organic approach which allows for adjustments. Remain focused but relaxed and things will develop in a more natural way.

Finally, if you have started or you already run a Bee Improvement Group using NatBIP and we are not aware of you then drop us a line; it would be great to hear your story.

Brian Holdcroft
BIBBA Groups Secretary

Now is a great time to get together with like-minded beekeepers and form your improvement group!

In future issues we will look at record-keeping and the use of record-cards and how we can improve the chances of better matings for our home-reared queens.

NatBIP Supporters and BIBBA Members

Encourage fellow beekeepers to sign up to receive NatBIP news by registering, for free, on the BIBBA website as a ‘NatBIP Supporter’ or, take out a BIBBA (The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) subscription for £20 per year, direct debit. You will receive BIBBA Monthly, (as well as NatBIP News) by email, and it is a great way to support the move to sustainable bee improvement.

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NatBIP at the NHS

If you are going to the National Honey Show this year, don't forget to drop by the BIBBA stand.

This year we are sponsoring Professor Grace McCormack's lecture, "Protecting honey bees on the island of Ireland: Our journey from discovery to legislation". Saturday 29th October, 9:30am