&   SEARCH
David A. Cushman logo
Honey Bee Improvement

Improving your bees is simple and we can all do it

In my opinion, the quality of stock we keep is very important. We have an unusual situation, as the bees we have has an influence on our population of honey bees in general, whether they belong to us, someone else or are wild. This is because our drones are free to mate with queens from a wide area and when we lose a swarm it releases genetic material that is out of our control.

Many beekeepers in the UK are small-scale amateurs with only a few colonies, so they don't have many opportunities to compare their colonies with, either their own, or those of others. If their bees are bad tempered and sting badly, they may accept it because bees are expected to sting. In fact, temper can vary considerably and is very easy to improve. If bees run around on the combs, the beekeeper may not know they could be a lot calmer. If they only give 20lb, or less, of honey and need feeding a lot in order to produce it - well "it was a bad summer", so expected. Bee improvement is quite easy and in most cases all that is needed is a bit of thought and planning to slightly modify what many of us are doing anyway.

"Bee Improvement" is a term I prefer to use because although it involves culling and queen replacement, I find many beekeepers accept it much better than "Queen Rearing" or "Bee Breeding", where there is often a mental block, because some automatically think it is beyond them. I fully understand that, because I have heard some lectures that are so complicated I can't follow it myself.

In my opinion, the small-scale beekeeper is not always well served by books and lectures. The message is often pitched way above the level needed by the ordinary beekeeper, with topics or words such as grafting, Apideas, genetics, Jenter, Cupkit, sex alleles, etc. This automatically cuts out 80-90% of beekeepers, because they only need the odd queen, not the larger numbers the more advanced methods will produce.

I have split the subject of bee improvement into two levels - "Basic" and "Advanced", where the basic deals with simple methods to produce a small number of queens, that are easily understood and available to all beekeepers, even the raw beginner, without needing specialist equipment. The advanced is suitable for those who want more queens and will probably use the more advanced artificial methods. Dave Cushman was very keen on bee breeding and much of his material is more suited for the serious queen breeder, so it is in the advanced section. To avoid repetition, I have arranged it so any topic that is relevant to all abilities is in the "basic" section, so even if you are using advanced methods I suggest you consult the "basic".

Very often I tend to look back at what was in the wild before man decided they knew more than nature and started selecting for what they wanted, rather than what suited the bees. I have sometimes been ridiculed for this approach, but nobody has yet given me any sensible reasons why I should change my view. I am, of course, looking from a U.K. perspective, but perhaps others could look at the situation from theirs. Let me explain - honey bees have probably been on mainland U.K. for a minimum of 8500 years, possibly anything up to 3,000 years longer. We don't know, because any evidence has probably been destroyed. What we do know is that climatic conditions during that time changed substantially and included the "Little Ice Age", that is generally accepted to have finished in the U.K. around the middle of the 19th century and is thought to have lasted for at least three centuries, possibly anything up to six. Honey bees survived these conditions and obviously did well, otherwise they would have become extinct. Would many of the bees currently in existance have survived? The answer in my view has got to be a gigantic "NO". In fairness, we have varroa and the problems that has caused.

The teaching of beekeeping doesn't often include bee improvement, or even queen rearing. It is often dismissed as being difficult and something for advanced beekeepers. If you want a queen, just go any buy one, which could be imported. The importation of bees and queens has probably contributed to some of the many problems we have.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 09/05/2013

Page updated 31/12/2022