Section 1.2 – Aims, Imports & Bee Breeding

The Aims

The aims of the Programme are to improve the quality of our honey bees and to provide an alternative to the importation of exotic sub-species, throughout the participating areas. It is believed that, through the selection of local and native honey bees, a hardy, docile and productive bee can result.

This aim will be achieved by sustainable methods that can be maintained indefinitely. Through the combination of natural and artificial selection (that is, selection by nature and the beekeeper), the qualities of the bee can be continually developed to be best-suited to our current conditions. The system will also allow our bees to evolve to cope with changing climatic and environmental conditions. In this way our bees will be ‘future-proofed’ and always tend towards the best ones for the prevailing conditions.

In furtherance of this aim, the Programme will encourage:

  • The selection and improvement of local stock
  • The reduction in the use of imported bees and the offspring of recently imported bees
  • The production, and distribution of native stock to aid local improvement programmes
  • The support of beekeepers aiming to develop Varroa resilient bees

The Problem with Imports

Imports of bees have been growing, year on year, and, although currently at record levels, at best, only produce a short-term respite, in terms of quality. In the long-term no consistent improvement in the quality of our bees is achieved, and the system relies on further imports to maintain quality, albeit, with no local adaptation. They represent a serious biosecurity risk through the possibility of introducing new pests and diseases, or variant strains of the ones already here. The damaging effect that these imports have on our local bee populations is also of concern, reversing any development of local adaptation and adding to mongrelisation, that is, the random mixing of the sub-species.

BIBBA believes that the aims set out above will lead to a reduction in the demand for imported bees which will allow beekeepers in every region to further develop a bee ideally suited to their area, regardless of their starting position. There is enough genetic diversity within our honey bee population to develop whatever characteristics we would like to see in our bees. We believe that by continually adding exotic genes to the gene pool, we deny our bees the chance to evolve and adapt to the local conditions. The constant hybridisation of the sub-species makes the selection and improvement of our local bees more difficult as hybrids do not breed true. A reduction in imports of exotic genes will allow beekeepers to select the characteristics that they want in their bees and mould their local bee populations to their needs.

A note on ‘Bee breeding’ and ‘Bee improvement’

Attempts at improving the quality of honey bees have usually been based on ‘bee breeding’, that is where the bee breeder has control over both the male and female lines. This is achieved through instrumental insemination or isolated mating apiaries. Good results can be achieved in this way and beekeepers can buy the resulting queens and rear further generations of queens from them. Unfortunately, the quality achieved by breeding cannot
be maintained in the wider environment. It is not considered a sustainable system as any new queens produced mate with local drones and the quality deteriorates. Quality can only be kept up by regularly buying in further queens and repeating the process. Use of these techniques and facilities are not normally available for the ordinary beekeeper and any bees brought in have not been bred for local conditions, nor have they had the chance to develop any adaptation to local climatic and environmental conditions.

A ‘bee improvement’ system based on improving the quality of our bees, possibly just in one’s own apiary, but ideally in a small area which can be extended over time, can produce sustainable results. A strain of bee can be refined, or developed, in an area, so that all or most colonies are producing drones of the same strain, allowing queens reared in the same area to mate with drones of the same strain.

Whilst good results can be produced by ‘bee breeding’, it is only when used in conjunction with ‘bee improvement’ that a sustainable system can evolve. ‘Bee breeding’ alone, which depends on isolated mating apiaries, or instrumental insemination, does not give us sustainability when the progeny is distributed elsewhere. Only if the distribution of offspring of a bee breeding system is integrated within a bee improvement programme can sustainability be achieved. The National Bee Improvement Programme sets up a system that allows improvements to be sustained and not merely lost to the system after a generation or two and also results of bee breeding to be integrated into the system if desired.