NatBIP – Selecting within a Strain

Hardy, Docile, Productive

The problem with hybridisation

It is interesting to speculate how the bee population in Britain and Ireland would develop without further human intervention.  If the processes of natural selection could operate freely, what would happen to the hybridised population that we see in many areas?

Around 28 sub-species of honey bee have been identified in the original habitat of Europe, the Near East and Africa.  In many areas of the world, and perhaps particularly in the Britain, we have mixed up these sub-species to produce a random assortment of hybrids.  In some cases, for example with the Buckfast bee, the crossing of different sub-species has been a deliberate breeding policy, as the hybrid vigour achieved is considered a worthwhile attribute.

In the honey bee, unlike with other livestock, we are unable to control matings, except with the use of isolated mating apiaries or instrumental insemination, and queens mate with numerous drones from up to a 10km (6m) radius.  Selection and improvement of our bees from hybridised stock is difficult due to very variable offspring and progress in any improvement programme can be considerably slowed down.  Many beekeepers have concluded that the only way to get good quality bees is to repeatedly buy in good quality stock.  The problems with this approach are that the bees we buy in are not tailored to our conditions, and that future offspring merely contributes to further hybridisation of our stock.

Some people may query what is wrong with a hybridised population, given the advantages of hybrid vigour and greater genetic diversity but the problems of breeding from hybridized stock have been known for a long time.  When Mendel started theorizing about the laws of inheritance, he found that when species became hybridised, they ceased to produce reliable offspring, that is, the offspring no longer consistently resembled their parents.  It used to be common to see seed packets of F1 varieties print a warning not to save seed from hybrid varieties, as they would not breed true.

BIBBA has long campaigned for a different approach and that is what the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP) is aiming to do.  We feel that the current system is getting us nowhere and we should be aiming for a sustainable system that produces a hardy, docile and productive bee.  If we can achieve steady improvement and a bee that is geared to our conditions, it will be a major step forward.  With the world’s human population at an all-time high, and pressure on food production and the natural environment greater than ever, the time is ripe for our apiculture to play its part in the development of sustainable agricultural systems and care for natural environments.

Working with nature to get the best of both worlds

Back to the hypothetical question of what would happen if human influence ceased to play a part in our honey bee population.  One must assume that nature would, through the process of ‘natural selection’, evolve a strain similar to our original native sub-species, Apis mellifera mellifera.  Genes which are not suited to the bees in our environment would gradually disappear from the gene pool, and the genes most suited to our conditions would soon dominate in the population.  Why is this important?  It gives us a pointer to which way we should be going with the development of our bees.

That is not to say that we should be aiming to put the clock back to the 1850s, before the advent of imports.  Beekeeping is a partnership between the bee and the beekeeper, and to be sustainable it is important that the system is beneficial to both.  Nature is interested in the survival of the species and is ‘designed’ to produce a hardy and genetically diverse bee that can cope with the variable risks that it may face.  The beekeeper, on the other hand, has other needs, such as docile behaviour and productivity.  A sustainable system is one that can cater for the demands of the bee, and of the beekeeper.  By working with what is good for the both, we can build a system that can keep evolving to cope with any changes in climatic, or environmental, conditions.

Developing a ‘strain’ from our selected breeder queens

Bee breeders around the world recognise the importance of breeding within a strain.  As Gilles Fert* says, “Selection is only possible within the framework of a well-defined population – for example, within a given race or a fairly large local population”.  We cannot change our starting position which, for many of us, is a randomly hybridised population, so we need to find a system that is appropriate for beekeepers in all circumstances.

Last month, in BIBBA Monthly (July 2020), ‘Selecting our Breeder Queens’, we discussed the qualities that we wish to see in our bees and how to assess these qualities in our colonies, in order to select the best queens to breed from.  The importance of selecting our ‘breeder queens’ cannot be over-emphasised, as not only do they provide the next generation of queens, but also, the new generation of queens reared will produce ‘good’ drones directly related to our original breeder queens.  We may worry about how to get our new queens mated with good drones but by rearing new queens every year, from selected breeders, a supply of good drones will be produced.  The queens we reared last year will produce the drones to mate with the queens we rear this year.  Over time, we can dominate an area, particularly if the influence of imported bees can be ruled out, and we will see an increase in ‘good’ matings of our queens.  We can begin to develop a local strain, one that is more homogenous and yet still maintains much genetic diversity.

One system for all

It is a fact that we all face slightly different beekeeping circumstances and different starting positions, so is it possible to find one system that suits all?

It may be that some beekeepers will always want to import bees and, unfortunately, this method of bee improvement will never be compatible with selecting and improving what we have got.  However, for those who want to work in a more sustainable way that seems to be more in tune with nature’s way of doing things, and with a reduction in the biosecurity risks to our bees, NatBIP offers a way forward.

For this programme to be a success in achieving its twin aims of reducing imports and improving the quality of our bees, we need as many beekeepers as possible to support it and also actively take part in the programme.  The only requirements are that supporters and participants aim to refrain from using imported or offspring of recently imported bees of other sub-species, and aim to select and improve the bees in their neighbourhood.  They can, if they so wish, bring in bees from other areas but this should be with aim of helping to refine the native strain of bee in their area.

So how does selecting and improving whatever the local bees are, in an area, fit in with the aims of BIBBA?  BIBBA’s aims are: “The conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of the native and near-native honey bees of Britain and Ireland”.  Beekeepers in some areas have often remarked that there is little evidence of native bees in their area, so how can they satisfy the aims of BIBBA?  The biggest barrier to BIBBA achieving its aims has always been the import of other sub-species and with imports at a record high, a fundamental change in outlook is required.  By BIBBA offering a serious alternative to imports, which all beekeepers can take part in, we have the chance to make a new beginning.

Jo Widdicombe


*Fert, Gilles, Dr. Leo Sharashkin (editor),  Raising Honeybee Queens: An Illustrated Guide to Success.  Ava, Missouri, Deep Snow Press 2020. ISBN 978-0-9842873-8-3.