The Programme needs to be relevant to beekeepers’ needs and be able to achieve positive results for beekeepers in all circumstances. Bearing in mind the different conditions beekeepers are working in, different skill levels and experience, as well as variations in types of bee across the regions, finding common ground, may appear difficult.
Rather than lay down rules of what is, or is not, permitted in the scheme, it is better to allow individuals or groups to adapt and adjust the Programme to what they feel is appropriate for their circumstances. We have made just one rule for participants to adhere to and that is the rule not to use imported, or the offspring of recently imported, stock. The purpose of this rule is to reduce the biosecurity risks associated with rising levels of imports and to reduce the random hybridisation of the sub-species which makes selection and improvement more difficult.
Ultimately, we would like participants in the Programme to make their own decisions regarding what characteristics they select for, and how they achieve this. Variations in environmental conditions and in the qualities of the available stock in different regions mean that decisions regarding the running of the Programme are best made locally.
The NatBIP Guide, however, will offer suggestions of methods and techniques that have proved successful to beekeepers pursuing the improvement of their bees. This will be continually updated and added to, with feedback and suggestions from participants in the Programme, in the light of their experience.
To achieve the maximum number of supporters, we also welcome beekeepers who feel they cannot actively take part in the Programme but are in favour of the basic principles, that is, they favour the use of home reared bees over imports. We hope these beekeepers will show their belief in the Programme by joining BIBBA or by registering as a ‘supporter’ (see BIBBA website). As a ‘passive’ supporter, you will aim to avoid the use of imported bees and will be kept informed of progress and developments in the Programme. Occasions may arise, in the future, when you can benefit from the Programme, for example, through the purchase of locally reared queens.
It is hoped that many beekeepers will wish to become actively involved in the Programme and join the growing movement of beekeepers who would like to see a sustainable improvement in the quality of our bees. This may be individuals working on their own, groups of like-minded beekeepers or local associations, often with useful facilities such as a ‘group apiary’. Commercial beekeepers or bee farmers will be especially welcome as they often exert a big influence in an area due to the number of colonies that they run.
The Improvement Process
Put simply, the improvement process is about increasing the frequency of favourable genes in a population and decreasing the frequency of unfavourable ones, whilst at the same time maintaining a high level of genetic diversity. The constant introduction of genes from sub-species, which evolved in quite different conditions to our own, does not help the process, ‘maladapted’ genes being of no real benefit. As Giles Fert explains (Fert, 2020, Raising Honeybee Queens), “Selection is only possible within the framework of a well-defined population – for example, within a given race, or, even better, a fairly large local population that will be disrupted as little as possible by the introduction of foreign bees”.
Assessment of Colonies using Record Cards
To help us select which queens are worth producing offspring from and which queens should be replaced, or at least removed from the ‘breeding area’, we need to assess the qualities of our colonies. An assessment of qualities can be made every time we inspect a colony during the active season and recorded on the Record Card.
Whether we are working on bee improvement as an individual, or as a group, we must decide which qualities are important to us. The fewer the qualities we wish to select, the easier it is to make progress. In this NatBIP Guide, there is an example of a record card where colonies are assessed for 5 main qualities, native appearance (to help us move away from a hybridized or mongrelised population), temperament, swarming propensity, health/brood pattern (including over-wintering) and honey production or relative honey production (that is, compared to other colonies in the same apiary).
A simple system of recording these qualities is used, which allows easy assessment and selection of our colonies.
Producing the next generation
From our completed record cards, we can choose the queen or queens to rear further queens from. Some will want to rear numerous queens from a few selected queens, others may prefer just one or two offspring from numerous queens, perhaps up to half of available stocks. It is important not to narrow the gene pool too much by using too few queens or by failing to use unrelated queens from time to time. Queens that have been selected as worthy of rearing further stock from are commonly known as ‘breeder queens’ and the key to bee improvement lies in these breeder queens, whether we are producing one or two queens from each one or numerous queens. The importance of the breeder queens is that, regardless of what their daughters mate with, the drones produced by these daughters, being from unfertilised eggs, will be directly related to our selected breeder queens, and so of good genetic quality.
Particularly in the early stages of an improvement programme, we may have little control over what drones our newly reared queens mate with. The workers produced from our newly reared queens may appear to be very hybridized, with a range of different appearances within each colony. However, the drones, produced from unfertilised eggs, will be genetically good quality and help to us to develop better stock by providing drones for the next generation of queens to mate with. By choosing ‘good’ breeder queens we can produce ‘good’ drones which, when the new queens produce full colonies in the following season, will provide a plentiful supply of drones to mate with our next batch of (unrelated) reared queens.
By repeating the process, the selection of breeder queens and producing new queens which, in turn, will produce good drones, we can gradually have a big influence on the quality of bees in our area, and we can develop a suitable local strain. This is a process that should be repeated year on year, allowing us to gradually get more consistency into our bee improvement, particularly if we are able to work with others and dominate an area to get reliable matings.