The National Bee Improvement Programme is available for all beekeepers, from the geographical area of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, to participate in. The Programme is designed to promote the improvement of local bees and the development of local ecotypes and to avoid further input from imported bees. It is recognised that in many areas our honey bees are a random mix of different sub-species making selection and improvement a slow and difficult process, whilst in other areas less hybridised bees may be readily available and refinement of their qualities may be a simpler process.
Whatever circumstances beekeepers find themselves in, we want them to come together, find common ground and begin to select and improve their local bees. For over 150 years we have been importing bees of other sub-species, often with the aim of obtaining better quality bees. At best, this has only resulted in short-term relief, perhaps with more docile bees but, unfortunately the good qualities cannot be maintained, and it is not long before we have to look around again for more replacements. Rather than continually import bees, often from quite different climatic regions, it is time to try a different approach that will produce more sustainable results and develop bees that are well-suited to thrive under local conditions.
It is important that the Programme is relevant to all beekeepers, whatever their starting position, and the aim is to see sustainable improvement of our bees right across the geographical area. Reconciling different opinions and different conditions facing beekeepers is, perhaps, the greatest challenge that the Programme faces. How do we make the Programme inclusive, so that all beekeepers feel that they are welcome to participate and contribute to improving the quality of our bees? We could make a long list of rules and conditions that beekeepers must abide by, but every rule would merely prevent a few more beekeepers from taking part. For this reason, we have laid down only one rule, or condition, for participation and that is:
‘that beekeepers should aim to avoid the use of imported, or the offspring of recently imported, bees.’
The reason for this rule is that a steady influx of new, untested genes into an area, which is what happens whenever we introduce imported queens, sets back the development of local adaptation in our bees and increases hybridisation of the sub-species, making selection and improvement more difficult. This process of hybridisation has been going on for over 150 years and resulted in our generally poor-quality bees. If we are to move away from this, we need to try to move in a new direction and apply ourselves positively to selecting and improving from what we have got. Participants in the Programme will be expected to select from local stock rather than using imported or recently imported bees and we will then put ourselves on to the road of sustainable improvement.
Some participants will wish to stick to selecting and improving whatever bees are present in their local areas, whilst others may wish to augment their stocks by bringing in bees from the nearby area (perhaps within a 50-mile radius), or perhaps further afield, but within the geographical area of the Programme, namely Britain, Ireland and associated islands. The purpose of bringing bees in from other areas would be to help beekeepers re-enforce their strain and move away from a hybridised population, in their area, and so develop a strain of bee that breeds true. These decisions will be up to individuals, groups or associations to make but bringing in bees of non-native sub-species is not permitted under the Programme agreement.
The maintenance of genetic diversity within our bee population is extremely important for the resilience of our bees and for the ability to cope with whatever climatic or environmental conditions they may have to face in the future. Sub-species have existed for many thousands of years and there is much genetic diversity within each one. There is no necessity to cross different sub-species to maintain or increase genetic diversity as this practice often merely introduces unsuitable genes into an area and makes selection and improvement more difficult. There are beekeepers who advocate the crossing of different sub-species, in order to reap the benefits of hybrid vigour, but the end result is a random mixture of different sub-species which do not breed true, so that the offspring do not consistently resemble their parents. Mixing of the sub-species is not a long-term solution and it is one that we should aim to avoid for the sake of sustainability.
* It is currently illegal to import bees into, (i) the Isle of Man (Varroa-free), (ii) Colonsay and Oronsay (native-bee reserve and varroa-free)