Sustainable beekeeping: Local adaptation and the native sub-species
DEFRA’s response to the 10,000+ signatories opposed to the import of package bees, through the loophole of trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, has just been announced. It seems they have gone back on their assurances, made in February, that only queens, and not packages of bees, can be imported from Europe.
As they put it, previously, “HMRC have anti-avoidance measures in place to ensure that only genuine trade between NI and GB benefits from unfettered market access”. Clearly something imported into Northern Ireland for the sole purpose of exporting to Britain is not ‘genuine trade’ and packages, from Italy, continue to represent a biosecurity risk with regards to the small hive beetle.
Of course, BIBBA is also concerned about the effect of imports on our bees’ genetics, and the import of queens, in vast numbers, continues to be a concern. The case is often made that imports are a good thing as they increase genetic diversity in our bee population. The implication being that lack of genetic diversity is particularly likely to be an issue for those who advocate working within a single sub-species. If this was the case, one wonders how the 20 or 30-odd sub-species survived so well in their native areas for thousands or millions of years, before beekeepers started mixing them up in recent times.
In an article in BBKA News (The Needless Race for Racial Purity, Glyn Davies, May 2021) it was stated that “the native sub-species cannot now be suited to our conditions, as both climate and the biological environment have changed”. To suggest that species and sub-species are static in evolutionary terms is another fallacy. Through the pressures of natural selection, they are constantly evolving to be best-suited for survival in the conditions that they face.
The success of a species, or sub-species, is often the result of its ability to adapt to different threats and changing conditions. It is often asserted that supporters of the native sub-species merely want to put the clock back to 1850s before imports of other sub-species became widespread. On the contrary, I think it is fair to say, the aim is to move things forward, from the difficult position we are in, after decades of imports, to developing a reliable bee best suited to our current conditions.
Genetic diversity within a species, or a sub-species, is vital because it increases the chances of the survival of a population when faced with different threats. This is the reason that the COLOSS group, the SMARTBEES project and EurBeST have all expressed concern about beekeeping’s over-reliance, worldwide, on two sub-species, the Italian and the Carniolan. Beekeepers have tended to forget about the other numerous sub-species that have evolved over millennia to suit differing conditions. This genetic diversity within our bees allows us to select for the qualities that we wish to see in our bees.
The article in BBKA News claims to support ‘locally adapted bees’, citing that it is a more important factor than being of our native sub-species. But what is a native sub-species other than a locally adapted bee?
The biggest obstacle to achieving locally adapted bees is the import of new exotic strains of bee, which constantly introduces ‘maladapted genes’ (as the COLOSS group puts it). Unfortunately, this has been going on for a long time, and the result is destabilisation of our bee population. We have a bee population in which the development of local adaptation is constantly undermined by the introduction of new untested genes.
The development of a locally adapted bee is a goal worth aiming for and accepting that we have to start from the position that we find ourselves in is realistic, if not completely ideal. It means a lot of work may have to go into refining our local bee population, but we can have the satisfaction of knowing we are contributing to the solution rather than being part of the problem.
The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP), as proposed by BIBBA, encourages beekeepers to start with the bees in their area, to avoid the use imports or offspring of recently imported bees, and to select and improve from the local population. Over time, through natural selection, and selection by the beekeeper, a more homogenous yet genetically diverse bee will be produced which suits both nature and the beekeeper.
Now is the time to start working together to develop a bee with the qualities that we desire and become part of the movement towards sustainable beekeeping.
Breeder queens and queen-rearing
As the active season gets well under way, we can continue to monitor the qualities of our queens using our own system of record-keeping or download the record card from the NatBIP GUIDE on the BIBBA website (search bibba.com).
As we assess the qualities of our colonies at each inspection, we quickly build up a picture of which colony or colonies are worth rearing offspring from. Queen rearing does not have to be a complicated process; it may be as simple as performing a split on a strong colony and then harvesting the resulting queen cells for use in nucs (see the GUIDE for ideas).
It is good to make a start in a simple way and we can always refine our techniques in the future as we get more experience. We never stop learning better ways of doing things, but a good way to learn is just to have a go.
NatBIP – Stories from the apiary
This is the first full season for NatBIP and as we beekeepers find our feet with this initiative there is much that is ‘new’ to many of us. For example, whether working in groups, or alone – there are skills, kit, timings, maths, judgements – all of which might be new to some or being perfected by more experienced apiarists.
BIBBA recognises this and wishes to remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of success for NatBIP. Our series of educational webinars goes a long way to helping us – so make sure you subscribe to our YouTube Channel to view again and again. In addition to our webinars, by sharing the ‘real’ adventures, challenges, successes and questions of a small group of volunteers, we hope you might learn and be inspired too.
So, across the season, in each issue of ‘NatBIP News’ we will hear more from each volunteer, but for now we’d like to introduce them all to you…
Rachel Levett – Cambridgeshire
Rachel is a 6th season beekeeper, living in Cambridgeshire – 14 metres above sea level, with warm, dry East-coast conditions and some formidable winter winds. An area with high arable crop growing too. Rachel, who currently has 4 colonies with space for expansion up to 10, is taking her first steps towards improving her stock. Rachel is undertaking NatBIP on her own (like many of us!), although she has a very supportive back-up team for the heavy lifting.
Yvonne Kilvington – West Yorkshire
We travel North to Huddersfield to meet Yvonne, who was instrumental in setting up the Ashbrow School apiary, now in their 8th season, the children tend 8 colonies at 375ft above sea level. There is a mixed climate, but the apiary is south facing and well sheltered. By being part of NatBIP, Yvonne hopes to inspire and educate a younger audience as to the importance of honey bee, but more over to ensure we are supporting our native species. Yvonne is an advocate of a ‘locally adapted’ honeybee.
Alison Phillips – Surrey
Alison has been loaned to us by Surrey Hills Queen Rearing Group! A small, but very active group that was formed in 2020 with an absolute belief and commitment to improving AMM stock locally. More on their apiary set-up will follow, but it’s great to have the input from a group, so that we can see how the logistics work and how the collective activity benefits each individual. The Surrey Group will certainly have an earlier season than many of us!
Christopher Palgrave – Mid-Devon
Chris is mid-way through a relocation from Hampshire to Mid-Devon. Having previously managed 15 colonies, Chris is going through the process of setting up new out apiaries and wants to use the break in his beekeeping as opportunity to kick-start a more concerted breeding and improvement programme. Chris is a busy full-time Vet, so has to make sure that his bees have the right attitude to allow for efficient inspections and that his apiary management system aligns with his full-time work – a scenario many of us find ourselves in. Chris also hopes to get involved in bee breeding group activity in his local area – he’s certainly in the right part of the country to do so, and even has Jo Widdecombe on his doorstep for advice!
Phil Pepper – Devon
Phil is a 2nd season beekeeper based in the Devon. I am grateful to Phil for stepping up to tell his ‘beginners’ story as I believe this group of beekeepers need some additional support as they get used to Queen Rearing techniques and processes. Phil took on a colony of dark bees supplied by our own Nick Bentham-Green in 2020, who then introduced Phil to NatBIP. Although we weren’t able to get Phil’s details before we went to press, you will be hearing more of him in our next issue.
We are giving each of our Volunteers the opportunity to ‘Ask Jo Widdicombe’ a question, quandary or test a hypothesis each month. We hope that the response from Jo will help a wider audience to increase their knowledge.