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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 in that what we have has an influence on honey bees in general, whether they belong to someone else or are wild. This is because our drones are free to mate with queens from a wide area and the loss of a swarm releases genetic material that is out of our control.

Many beekeepers are 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, they may not know they could be a lot calmer. If they only give 20lb of honey and needed 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 will be beyond them. In fairness I have heard some lectures that are so complicated I can't follow it myself.

In my opinion the small beekeeper is not always well served by books and lecturers. The message is often pitched 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 will deal with simple methods to produce a small number of queens, that are easily understood and available to all beekeepers, even the raw beginner. The advanced will be suitable for those who want more queens and will probably use the more advanced 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. 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 - honeybees 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 1850 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 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.

Roger Patterson.