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Bee Improvement - My Approach

My simple approach to improving my bees

When I first started beekeeping I spent a lot of time with an old beekeeper called George Wakeford, who looked after over 400 colonies of bees for other people. The number of colonies at each place varied from one to over 30. As a beginner I was lucky to see a large number of colonies and I very quickly realised that all bees weren't the same. Some were very much different than others and in a number of ways.

Most beekeepers just keep "bees", without knowing they vary so much, or that with a few simple techniques they can improve what they have. I'm sure that part of the reason is because colony assessment and bee improvement are rarely taught and in my opinion are far more important than some of what is. I had the benefit of seeing a large number of colonies and their variation early on, something that is denied most beekeepers.

The characteristics of many colonies have come from a variety of sources, including the collection of swarms and random matings. I have visited a great many apiaries and unless the beekeeper is careful on what they select, breed from and cull, or are in an area where one type of bee is kept, there is often great variation, including temper and colour.

George Wakeford was a brilliant handler of bees - the best I have seen by some distance, but he didn't have the time or knowledge to improve the bees he dealt with. Looking back, he had a brilliant opportunity and if he had spent time on bee improvement, I'm sure it would have made his job a lot easier. In fact very few beekeepers thought about bee improvement or queen rearing in those days. If they wanted a queen it was usually to make increase. They would use a swarm cell if they had one, or would split a colony and let the bees get on with it - what the Americans call a "walk away split".

From those early days onwards, I have tried to improve my bees and I consider I have been quite successful. George Wakeford knew little about queen rearing or bee breeding and there was little help from elsewhere, so I was on my own. All the books I could find told me to breed from my best colonies, something I soon found out didn't always work, but probably like most others I thought my "best" colony was the most productive. I developed my own ideas and to a large degree I am still doing the same nearly 50 years later. I later increased my colonies to 130, which with a full time job and a young family kept me busy. Even though time was at a premium, I still concentrated on bee improvement.

I left active beekeeping for a time due to family and work committments. When I returned, the standard of bees had declined considerably, due partly to a local beekeeper importing Italian queens from the southern hemisphere and selling them. In a few years the bees had become stroppy prolific yellowish mongrels. This shows the need for all beekeepers to treat bee improvement more seriously.

I have little or no knowledge of genetics, so when I returned to beekeeping I tackled the improvement of bees in what I thought was a logical way. There was absolutely no colony that was even half decent, so I concentrated on temper and running on the combs first. Although I started with some genuine rubbish I soon improved these traits, to the point where I could deal with other characteristics.

Rather than parachute in breeding material from outside, I decided to select from what we had and cull heavily. I was surprised how quick the improvement was. Despite being told by several people you can't improve mongrels, I'm glad I did, because the results have been excellent. In many of the colonies the bees are 100% dark and in most of the rest there is in excess of 80% dark, reversing what we had only a few generations earlier. This shows that you can influence the characteristics of the bees in your area.

With a few tweaks my approach has always been the same and is as follows:-

The above is my simple approach and it works well. If it is any use to you please use it, but like most things in beekeeping you can modify it to suit yourself. I hope you do and I hope the bee improvement adds another enjoyable aspect to your beekeeping.

Roger Patterson.