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Honey Bee Improvement

in a Nutshell

Breeding for Improvement.

No honey bee colony is exactly like another, brood rearing, inclination to swarm, foraging, vigour, or susceptibility to disease, differ from colony to colony, The starting point for selective breeding lies in the observation of differences. Breeding means propagating from the best to replace the worst. The pure bred or the near native bee can be selected with a good chance of improvement, whereas the mongrel or hybrid bee has so much genetic variation that it is difficult if not impossible. The native bee can be distinguished quite easily from hybrids, by morphometry, i.e. the measurement of certain parts of the body, a technique now being used by beekeepers in this country.

Colony Assessment.

Four aspects of colony behaviour are assessed for potential breeder queens:

  1. Jumpiness, - jumping up from the combs, when being handled.
  2. Calm behaviour on the comb (not runny).
  3. Stinginess.
  4. Following (a particular nuisance to neighbours).

It has been found simplest to assess and score on a four point scale:

These aspects of behaviour may vary with the environment or hive conditions, and should be assessed at every colony inspection, so that at the and of the year the most consistently good stocks will be identified. Once this technique has been tried and becomes almost automatic it can be recorded in a matter of seconds, e.g. a score of 3244 indicates that the stock was slightly jumpy, rather runny on the combs, gave no stings and no followers. Other factors such as honey production, swarminess and disease resistance are also taken into account.

Local Breeding Group.

Selection for improvement is achieved more rapidly when a large number of stocks is available for assessment, so it is better for a number of beekeepers to work as a group. In the initial process they should look for hives that have reasonably behaved and productive black bees. These should then be assessed for morphometry and behaviour. Queens should be raised from the best stocks.

Distribution of Breeding Stock

The easiest way is to produce queen cells for introduction by the receiving beekeeper into three comb nucleus hives prepared three days in advance. The Jenter system of queen cell production is recommended.

Pure Matings. When good native bees already exist locally, there is the prospect of achieving pure matings. In this case a mating apiary could be set up at an isolated place. Places such as the following: as near the coast as possible, since the cool sea air favours the native bee, or in hilly country where there is low population, and suitable valleys. Failing that, the co-operation of all local beekeepers should be sought to create a monostrain area.

Progeny Testing. It is important that all members of a breeding group keep records of the behaviour and productivity of queens supplied to them, so that the quality of the breeder queens can be assessed.

Imports of bee into the area should be discouraged as they will ruin your breeding efforts.

Success will come if there is at least one person in the breeding group who can learn the techniques of morphometry, queen cell production, behavioural assessment and has the ability to teach other members of the group how to make up a three comb nucleus and introduce a cell.

Detailed information on all the above is to be found in "Breeding Better Bees" (by John E Dews and Eric Milner) obtainable from BIBBA.

BIBBA will give support to any group of beekeepers breeding native bees. For further information contact the BIBBA Secretary.

The above notes were prepared for the benefit of beekeepers attending a demonstration of colony assessment in the North York Moors National Park.

John E Dews - May 1998

I found the above article in Dave Cushman's archives. Although it was written for just one local meeting, I thought the information was so good it should be available for all to see. John Dews had the luxury of being in an area of pure native bees (Amm), so he was starting from a different position than many beekeepers. In much later emails, John encouraged me to select my heavily mongrelised bees for native characteristics, rather than bring in material from outside. This contradicts with what he writes above, but he realised we were both working in very different conditions.

Roger Patterson.