NatBIP News No5

NatBIP News No5

The 2021 Season

Many areas have had a difficult start to the season, through April and May. In Cornwall, where I am, the Spring season is usually good for bees, with plenty of nectar and pollen available. This season was quite different being cold and dry through April to the point of there being almost no nectar available, followed by a cool and wet May, which allowed the bees little chance to get out. The result was, for most colonies, little or no stores in the hives. Another week or two would have spelt disaster on quite a large scale. Fortunately, the fine weather has come just in time and the bees are now, at last, bringing nectar and pollen in.

Being able to cope with whatever nature throws at the bees is a very important quality and is the principle behind ‘local adaptation’. Through ‘survival of the fittest’ our bees can develop this quality over time, being able to survive the worst threats as well as being able to make the most of what is on offer, in good times and bad. By avoiding the use of imports, a locally adapted population is allowed to develop allowing us to select and improve from this population.

As beekeepers, we sometimes ask a lot of our bees, but bee improvement offers us the chance to develop bees that are good survivors as well as offering the qualities that the beekeeper wants or needs.

Queen rearing and drones
Photo by Roger Patterson
Photo by Roger Patterson

It is worth remembering that all the queens that we rear this rear this season will become drone providers next year. By selecting ‘breeder queens’ to produce our next generation of queens, we are also helping to select ‘good’ drones for next season. These drones, from unfertilised eggs, will be produced from the queens that we rear this season.

Although queen matings may be a bit random and not necessarily within our chosen strain, we can make a difference, over time, to the local population, by continuously producing queens that put out good drones.

Work with others to try to dominate a mating area with your preferred drones.

The Scillonian Honey Bee Project

The Scillonian Honey Bee Project is the brainchild of Nick Bentham-Green. Nick is the Chair of B4 (Bring Back Black Bees) and a former Chair of BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association). 


The Project will run for between 5 and 10 years and will explore how beekeeping on the Isles of Scilly can become more sustainable as the honey bees that are already on the Isles become increasingly adapted to their environment. 


But the Project is much more than just about beekeeping. It will look at the available forage for all types of bee: honey, bumble and solitary. The first year is all about getting a baseline – flora and fauna, what is there, does it need to be ‘improved’ and how do we go about it? Part of the baselining is DNA-testing as many colonies of honey bees on the Isles as possible. Sampling has already started: Nick went out to the islands to show some of the beekeepers, and in particular Jilly Halliday (the Project ‘Lead’ on the islands), how to conduct the sampling. Drone pupae were sampled to establish the lineage of each colony visited, and a sample of workers was taken to test for diseases and pathogens endemic in the honey bee population on the Isles. Currently it is thought that the colonies on Scilly are varroa- and foulbrood-free. We hope the results will confirm this to be the case. 


Jilly Halliday, who is heading up the Project on Scilly, is a BIBBA member and very much the Project’s driving force on the Isles. 

Right from the word go, we have been very keen to consult with the Duchy of Cornwall (owner of the islands), and as many agencies as possible so that the Project is not just seen as being for beekeepers  – it has a far wider reach than that.  We have consulted with the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, botanists, the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, and the Isles of Scilly AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty). The Project will also include the islands’ communities and schools as stakeholders.  


The Project aims to help create balance and sustainability for honey bees in their ecosystem.  As the Project develops, it is expected that the honey bees on the islands will become more locally adapted. The DNA results, which will be taken on an annual basis, should back up this claim. Eventually, the aspiration is for a Scillonian Honey Bee with its own distinctive DNA and locally adapted to its particular environment.  The Project is subscribed to the NatBip programme, and Jilly is now heading up the Isles of Scilly BIBBA Group. 


Without the support and backing of the Duchy, the Dorian-Smith family, B4, the islands’ beekeepers, and the project lead co-ordinator Jilly, we would not have had such an incredible start.  We have hit the road running.  


I will keep you all abreast of developments with regular reports about this fantastic and unique Project. 

The NatBIP Guide

The NatBIP GUIDE, on the BIBBA website (, is intended to be an information bank that develops and improves over the years (rather like our bees). There are still some gaps to fill (difficult at the height of the season) but additions and improvements will be an ongoing process and depends on supporters to chip in with ideas and feedback, even if it only saying what needs to be added, so please feel free to make comments.

One part of the GUIDE is intended to be Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). In the recent BIBBA webinar devoted to Q and As, it seems there is an infinite number of questions, some of which are printed below with their answers. These can be used to make a start on FAQs in the GUIDE.

Why should we avoid the use of imported queens?

The two main arguments against the use of imported queens are:

1) The biosecurity risks.

By importing bees we could import new pests and diseases, or new variants of those already here. Once a new problem is introduced, it is hard to turn the clocks back and remove it. Possible examples that have occurred in the past are the Isle of Wight disease and Varroa. Current research shows some imported bees to be more susceptible to CBPV although the reasons for this have yet to be ascertained. Other pests that could be Imported in the future include small hive beetle, which is in Southern Italy, and tropilaelaps.

1a) The introduction of maladapted genes.

Genetic diversity within a species, or sub-species, is regarded as a benefit, as it results in resilience in the face of different threats. A genetically diverse species is likely to have at least some members of the population that will survive, whatever threat they are faced with.

Within a single sub-species there is much genetic diversity making them well equipped for survival against numerous threats. This diversity allows us to select bees that are good for survival as well as for the qualities that the beekeeper wishes to see in his or her bees.

The import of bees, of other sub-species, with genes not suited to our climatic and environmental conditions, is not beneficial to genetic diversity in our bees. In most cases, genes introduced by non-native sub-species will have evolved, over thousands of years, in very different environments to our own and so are maladapted to our conditions.

1b) Random hybridisation of our bees.

Some argue that imports increase genetic diversity, but we need to consider whether the addition of unsuitable genes are, in fact, an advantage and also whether hybridising different sub-species is beneficial over the longer term. It is also argued that the resulting hybrid vigour produces enhanced performance in our bees. Unfortunately, unlike in farm animals, control over mating in honey bees is difficult to achieve so the end result of this mixing of the sub-species is the mongrelisation of our bees. Selection and improvement from such stock becomes difficult and time consuming to achieve, as offspring from mongrels do not breed true, in other words, offspring do not reliably resemble their parents. 

What’s the difference and advantages of both wet and dry grafting?

‘Dry grafting’ is where larva is transferred into an artificial queen cup. ‘Wet grafting’ is where the cup has had a drop of royal jelly put in bottom of cell and then the larva added.

To obtain royal jelly for this, cut out a swarm cell from a colony and remove larva. Store in fridge. Some beekeepers believe wet grafting is advantageous.

Can you run through the ‘numbers’ regards Queen Rearing - from egg to sealed QC, to hatch to mating and laying?

Day 1              Egg laid

Day 4              1-day old larva grafted and transferred to cell-raising colony

Day 8/9           Cells are sealed

Day 14            Distribute sealed cells (that is 1 week + 3 days after grafting) to incubator, or queenless nucs/mininucs.

NB: Sealed cells can be removed to incubator, earlier but young pupae in queen cells are quite delicate and should be handled carefully.

Day 15-17       Queen cells will hatch.

If in incubator, feed with honey:water mix 1:1 and distribute asap

Queens will start mating flights from 5 days old onwards.

Usually queens laying by 21 days old. Check sealed brood for drone-laying queens.

Queens that take a long time coming into lay, often (but not always) turn out to be drone-layers


With the rubbish weather, what are my options if my queen/s fail to mate and when should I worry about laying workers?

I normally allow 21days after hatching for a new queen to come into lay. If no eggs or brood after this time but queen present and/or colony happy may allow another week. The longer it goes on the more chance of finding a ‘drone-laying queen’.

I rarely see a colony with laying worker. This will occur if colony has been hopelessly queenless some time.

If unsure of the state of a hive (whether queenright, for example) use a test frame to indicate what is going on. It may not be 100% accurate but will often give you an answer.

Insert a frame of eggs and young larvae from another colony to find out if the colony has a queen or not. You can check the test frame in 7 days (or less, if preferred). If no queen cells are drawn out, you can assume the colony has a queen and if they seem content, they probably have a queen that will start laying imminently.

If this is the case, one still needs to check the sealed brood, when available, to make sure the queen is not a drone layer.

If queen cells have been made on the test frame, it is an indication that the colony was queenless and you can either let them proceed with a queen cell or introduce a queen.

More FAQs next time!