NatBIP News No 7

Leave things better than we found them

It is said that the duty of a gardener (and indeed, a farmer) is to leave the soil in better heart than it was found. As for beekeepers, the same could be said about our bees. It is good to leave better quality bees what than we started with. This could mean more ‘hardy’,  ‘pest and disease resistant’,  ‘good-tempered’ and ‘productive’ bees, or whatever characteristics we value.

The beauty of bee improvement is that we can select for the qualities that we want and are not merely subject to accepting the bee breeder’s choice, with bees often designed for warmer, more settled climates. BIBBA has been preaching this message for years but detractors either do not believe it possible for ordinary beekeepers to make improvements, or they believe it just takes too much time and effort to make a difference. It is up to BIBBA members and NatBIP supporters to show that we can improve the quality of our bees in a sustainable manner.

This approach should be fundamental to our beekeeping; interestingly it is an approach which none of the mainstream beekeeping organisations (commercial or amateur) have really taken on board. The agricultural industry is currently looking at more sustainable methods of food production and beekeeping should move in the same direction.

The BIBBA View

Bob Flowerdwew

Bob Flowerdew © BBC

BIBBA has been presenting a different view for over 50 years, that there is a more sustainable way of beekeeping, which is centred around the selection and improvement of local stock. The aim is to move away from using exotic imports which merely results in a bee population that is hybridized, that is, a random mix of different sub-species.

As Bob Flowerdew said the other day, on Gardeners Question Time, “The reason we do not save seed from F1 hybrid plants is that the offspring produced will consist of some good plants and some bad”. Consistency cannot be produced from hybridised seeds or, in our case, from hybridised bees.

Picking up the pieces

Our task is to move from the position we are in, with very mixed bees, to a future where we can continue to maintain or improve quality. There is a tendency to think there must be better bees elsewhere, hence the popularity of imports, but those beekeepers who like using imported bees should pay attention to the result of these imports over succeeding generations. What is the effect on our bee population? Unfortunately, it is to hybridize or, perhaps more accurately, mongrelize our bees by mixing up the sub-species. Some people think it is too late to do anything about it, the damage is done, and the only answer is to keep buying in good bees, but we think that is just continuing the vicious circle.

Can we make a difference?

The theory of bee improvement is one thing, but it is only of value if it actually works. There are plenty of people willing to tell us, “It can’t be done”, the main reason given is that we have no control over the multiple mating of our queens. The fact is that, over time, we can influence our local population and gradually get more consistent results. Without imported queens, and by producing offspring from our selected breeder queens (which will produce good drones, regardless of their matings) we can influence the local drone population. I have seen this achieve results in my area and we know others have done the same.

Local mating stations

mating nuc queenIn the future, it is hoped that we can develop regional or local mating stations. These will be located in areas where a good saturation of native drones has been achieved. This will allow beekeepers to bring their drone-free nucs to a site to get their queens mated with reliable drones. Running a mating station will involve costs but a charge could be made for each nuc benefitting from the facility. Financial viability is part of long-term sustainability.

End of the season

As we draw to the end of another season, whatever the highs and lows, we can reflect, with satisfaction, that we are part of a movement that is taking steps to a sustainable future, that aims to improve beekeeping and leave our bees in a better condition than we found them.

Enjoy the winter break and make positive plans for next season.