Working together to improve our bees

This article is in two parts: first, what we might mean by improving bees; second, how working together will make this easier.

There are many individuals, informal groups and more formal groups already at work in Cornwall, working away using a wide range of approaches to improve their bees. Given the many pressures on bees and the recent popularity of bees and beekeeping, arising out of concerns about the demise of an unusually large fraction of colonies, there is increasing interest in raising queens to replace losses and to provide for the influx of new beekeepers. Given the suspicion that providing new queens from imports only increases the problem with stock not resistant to local pressures of endemic disease and weather pattern, there is also renewed interest in raising new queens from the best of our existing stock and also favouring characters of the native bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.

This article will spell out some of the arguments in favour of this strategy and the benefits and options in working together. It is not intended as a definitive treatise on either point, but rather as a stimulus to discussion and an encouragement to link up locally to rear queens in whatever way beekeepers find works. It is written in the hope that many more beekeepers will take their first steps into this very rewarding and pleasurable activity and experiment and learn together. Given the potential controversy in some of the points, the article is split so that members may respond with counterpoints where they feel strongly and propose alternatives where they see gaps.

Part 1 – Improving bees

Temper

Temper is usually the first quality we wish to improve. We cannot work with, nor risk people being attacked by, bees that seek us out or chase after us and then sting us. These two temper characteristics are the most problematic. The other 2 are rising off the comb when we open a hive and running on the comb as we assess each frame. Ideally bees are quiet on the comb, do not rise off it when we lift it out of the hive, do not follow us or seek us out and do not sting when disturbed.

3 of these characteristics are thought to be genetic – in the genes of the workers, from mother, father or both. Stinging is thought to come from the condition of the queen. It follows that replacing the queen in a stinging colony with one whose daughters do not sting, will immediately cure the issue and the colony will stop stinging. The other characteristics will only disappear as the bees with these characteristics die off – in 9 or more weeks depending on time of year.

Race

Pure–bred bees of all races native or imported to the UK are good tempered. Only when they outcross does temper deteriorate. Inter–racial mating is generally considered to be the prime source of bad temper. Any cross between any pair of (Apis mellifera) mellifera, carnica, ligustica, caucasica or even Buckfast bees will worsen temper in the crosses (there are other imports!). The worst of these seems to be of any race with mellifera. So any mellifera cross with any non–mellifera and any non–mellifera cross with mellifera is likely have poor temper. This is almost certainly the reason why black bees can have a poor reputation – they are already a bit more nervous to start with.

Solutions to temper problems

Some beekeepers deal with this problem by acquiring pure bred queens or nucleus colonies or packages of a non–native race such as ligustica or carnica or a quiet hybrid such as Buckfast. This will resolve the problem for that beekeeper for as long as that queen is alive. Her naturally reared replacement, whether through supercedure or swarming, will have poorer temper when outcrossed with local bees, often leading to appallingly bad temper, if not in the first generation, in the second. To maintain this policy and consequent good temper, the queen needs to be replaced with one of the same race or type, not allowing natural replacement, perhaps even on a annual basis. For neighbouring beekeepers, within about 10km, the consequence of this individual choice is to increase the chances of inter–racial crossing and consequent bad temper. Over time, if enough beekeepers imported one race only, this would replace the local strain of bee entirely. So the effect of imports is to create a wave of bad temper radiating from the source apiary throughout the surrounding area, affecting all nearby beekeepers.

Breed from the best of local

What we can all do is ensure that our replacement queens come from the best of the local stock. This means ensuring that poor tempered colonies do not produce viable queens and drones. The former is easier to deal with. Around the time of the first swarms we rear queens from the best stock. As poor colonies start making queen cells, we can split as usual and replace the cells with one of our reared queens or good cells or make nuclei and use several good cells.

It is harder to deal with drones from poor colonies without culling them. We can move the colonies away, hoping to enhance the chances of mating with drones from the best colonies which have been left behind. We can move our nuclei to an apiary where we, perhaps along with other like–minded beekeepers, have concentrated our best colonies. Finally we recognise that since drones have half the chromosomes of the mother bee, that replacing all poor queens in an apiary with good cells or good queens, will ensure that all next season's drones will be good. This means we can rear new queens to mate in this apiary. Of course it may only be so if we take precautions, such as surrounding the mating apiary with selected colonies and flooding the area with drones bred from these colonies. We can also encourage our best colonies to make more drones by giving wired frames with starter strips, or just cutting space in the lower part of a frame (with comb or foundation) for the bees to create drone comb. In this way we can flood an area with the best drones.

In all these scenarios, it seems that if beekeepers worked together, we would have more stock to select from, and more colonies to protect the best mating apiary with.

Now before varroa, natural selection was operating on wild colonies. Cornwall, particularly inland and on higher ground and in the north and west, is in most seasons, marginal for bees. Poor weather at mating times has tended to favour the hardiness of the native bee and promote native characteristics. In those times, we could rely on the background of drones from these wild colonies to mate with our queens and maintain a viable gene pool. Since varroa, given that all wild colonies died out, our drones come from our neighbours as well as ourselves, so the chances of inter–racial matings have increased. In some years it seems obvious that someone has introduced ligustican bees when our nicely mated queens produce offspring with a marked yellow colouring perhaps with a accompanying rise in defensiveness.

We can all look out the best characteristics of the local bee, derived from A.m.m. and select colonies for breeding with as many of these as possible on the grounds that they are more suited to our environment than bees evolved for a totally different climatic region, south of the southern European mountain range. In any case, this adaptation included reduced susceptibility to any endemic diseases. How many times have I heard of colonies failing with acarine and paralysis which are ligustican, in times of confinement to the hive in a wet June, or have starved because they do not adapt to times of dearth by reducing egg laying.

Characteristics of Apis mellifera mellifera (a.m.m)

Our native bee is noted for a number of characteristics which give it an advantage over all other bees in a typical Cornish year. Egg laying responds to nectar input – high rate with high nectar input – slowing with low nectar input. This contrast with seasonal laying – irrespective of weather and nectar, this depleting stores and crowding hives as numbers grow without natural losses. Bees live longer, which more than cancels out any reduction in bee population. They also fly in colder, wetter weather in times of nectar flow – I have seen bees working hard at 6C in spring. I have approached a mating apiary and heard the tremendous buzzing of drones leaving in drizzle – showing that both virgins and drones are active in poor weather. Pollen storage is amazing – usually at least 2 weeks worth is available – often we get 2 or more frames of pollen – often this is underneath the nest. Bees are dark in colour, even black, with longer hairs, which helps them in cooler weather. They are frugal with their stores, particularly in the winter – we expect our young autumn bees to gorge on the ivy pollen and store fat in their bodies – thus diminishing their demand for honey over winter.

Finally, A.m.m. Has a tendency to produce new queens by supercedure. This is a vital characteristic to aid survival in erratic weather. A colony with an old queen and a young virgin will not die if the new queen fails to mate. They can make another at a better time. Such colonies tend to make low numbers of queen cells when they want to swarm, which can make rearing new queens from and in these colonies more difficult. Nevertheless it is a prized characteristic amongst afficionados.

All these characteristics give them an advantage over non–native stock. Most, if not all of us, will have seen these characteristics in at least some of our bees.

Other characteristics to note

Hygiene, the characteristic of sensing and removing a sick larva or pupa, is vital to bee health. Even AFB larvae can be cleaned out by some colonies, removing the source of infection! We all see a degree of “pepperpot” pattern, for example if we have chalk brood. The bees will remove some or all of the infected pupae. If chalk brood is sufficiently high in a colony, it may fail – resources are wasted, insufficient new bees hatch and a larger brood area has to be kept warm At least a hygienic colony will reduce the impact of chalk brood. In practice, even a modestly chalky colony should have its queen replaced as soon as possible and the drones removed from the mating apiary.

Varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH) is the name given to the trait of bees that identify pupae distressed by varroa and attack the cell to remove the foundress mite. If she is not immediately accessible, the bees then chew away at the pupa to get at her. If they cannot catch her, at least her breeding process is interrupted and set back. This can be recognised by cappings open but domed (rebuilt after the foundress is removed) partially chewed pupae (work in progress) and pupal debris on the varroa floor (legs, eyes, antennae etc.). With careful observation you may see this happening as you inspect a frame. If we do find a colony that does any of these I believe it is vital that we use it as a parent colony. In my own case, since my colonies (with few exceptions) are good–tempered and black, with many native characters, this becomes my top selection criterion! I have managed to get 50% of my colonies showing strong pupal chewing, solely with open mating from one site. Rodger Dewhurst is using a wider range of criteria – bee that damage mites, bees that groom themselves and each other of mites – these bees even bite the beekeeper. Have you noticed any colonies where the bees nip you?

Conclusion

Before rearing queens and drones for improvement, it is vital to choose the criteria you use to select parent colonies. Good temper is relatively easy to achieve. After that your priority may be native characters, hygiene, varroa sensitive hygiene, or you may be lucky to find all your characters in one colony. If you do, or find one that excels, then you have the option of offering it to your colleagues for their benefit – this works both ways – collaborating will help us all improve our bees more rapidly. This is the subject of Part 2. In any case, the more criteria we apply, the more colonies we need to make it possible to find a colony that meets all our criteria.

Part 2 – Working together

Part 2 of this article on improving bees will concentrate on different ways we can work together to improve our results. I will try to show how we can all contribute in different ways according to our capabilities or circumstances, passively or actively. The principle is that we will all benefit from the improvements in our queens and drones in survivability, health and productivity as the improvements pass into all our bees. By pooling our resources we increase the range of queens from which we select our breeders and we will improve the drone background when our new queens mate.

The article is not intended as a definitive treatise on everything we can do together nor on all useful approaches to queen rearing. Rather it is intended as a stimulus to discussion between beekeepers in Cornwall, with the hope that it also inspires beekeepers to link up more and experiment with methods of working together and rearing queens and determine what is best for them. What works for me as an individual or in groups I have worked with may not work for others. I find it always changes as new opportunities arise and as I learn from previous actions and their consequences, including minor disasters.

Nevertheless I have organised the suggested methods in order of ease in the hope they might show a progression of approaches available as confidence grows.

Local groups

In general I think it is best to work in small local groups within which we exchange breeding material (eggs and larvae), queen cells, and move nuclei or colonies for mating. In this way we preserve the local gene pool and maintain long term diversity throughout the county. There will be many local strains adapted to the local circumstances and weather patterns and these may contain many gems which would disappear if we all outsourced new material, however good. In the extreme case of importing all our queens, genetic diversity would be seriously reduced and future inbreeding might damage our stock. In a local group of a half dozen active members and another dozen passive members, we might have 5 or 6 dozen colonies to select from. This will give plenty of choice as to breeders and drone producers. Importing a superior queen from another group, to mate with our own drones will still maintain the local gene pool.

Perhaps the most important benefit of working together is that we can learn together. There will be many approaches to try out, many of our members may have a good idea of what they want to do next and some members will be experienced enough to guide and support members new to queen and drone rearing. There will always be differences of opinion between members – we do seem at times to be an opinionated lot – it is vital to learning that we stay open, flexible in experimentation and not fixed in our ideas. No experimentation – no learning. We may of course achieve a reliable, reproducible method which achieves our goals after some time experimenting.

Range of options

Passive involvement

It is perfectly possible to be a passive member of a local bee improvement group, We can identify our poorest stocks and allow our local members to replace the queens with ones they made earlier. We can supersede the old queen by placing a protected queen cell in the colony. We can allow members to create nuclei from our colonies and place queen cells in them. If we have a high quality colony, we can offer cells or eggs and larvae to the local group for them to take the next steps. We can always talk to others about the benefits we have experienced and encourage them to join in.

Active involvement

Drone production

Thinking about small steps to begin with we can encourage our best stock to produce drones, by cutting space in our foundation or comb for the bees to make drone cells. A very good method is to use a starter strip above hand wiring (or nylon line) for their bees to choose: strong colonies, the best to include in the programme, will be most likely to make drone comb.

Using our best directly

In making our first steps in queen breeding, if we have a good colony that is making swarming preparations, we can make up one or more nucs from the swarming colony when we split it using frames with cells in each nuc. This avoids moving cells or artificial cells and so on. Surplus cells can be moved into our local members' nucs if they seem among the best to breed from. Care needs to be exercised here as a colony which produces more than a dozen or so cells is likely to produce daughter colonies which are more likely to swarm.

This approach is assisted by deliberately encouraging our best colonies to make swarming preparations (and cells for nucs) by feeding them, giving one or more frames with foundation at weekly intervals as appropriate, giving a second box for the strongest, and then limiting the brood rearing space so that they have the strength to swarm as well as the hive conditions. Such a colony when split, will have plenty of frames of brood and bees to split several times.

Queenless starter colonies

Perhaps an easier way is to remove the queen from the best colony(ies) into temporary (or permanent) nucs to leave the colony queenless in the hope it will build good queen cells. In fact, once the cells have been started, all frames with well primed queen cells can be moved above the queen excluder at the same time the queen is returned. Frames with cells can be removed into nucs once the cells are sealed, preferably on the day before they hatch, so there will be no brood to feed and the queen is sufficiently robust.

With a bit more intervention, we can create well–formed queen cells that are much easier to move than the random ones we get grown out of the worker cells in the comb in the above. If we put a frame of foundation into a colony, once the queen has laid in the cells, we can follow Miller by cutting a zig–zag gap of about 3cm across the middle section, so that queen cells will be preferentially grown on the lower edge, downwards into the space.

An interesting method of making copious numbers of queens is to place a frame with eggs and young larvae (preferably all laid within a short time on foundation) above a strong colony, above a queen excluder, even above a second brood chamber to give more distance from the queen. Ideally this frame is scratched so as to leave cells with eggs or young larvae isolated from each other. This avoids more than one queen being made next to one another. These cells are more difficult to remove from the frame than in the Miller method, but provide an easy and convenient way to get queens quickly. (Hopkins method).

Indirect methods

We can always remove a frame with eggs and young larvae from one or more of our best colonies – plain or Miller, and put it into (or above with the Hopkins method) a queenless colony for it to grow queens from our best stock. This way disturbs the breeder colony much less, especially if this is done as we replace frames with foundation, perhaps then we can produce one Miller frame each week. The raising colonies may be less good colonies which were making swarming preparations and all cells have been culled. In fact all swarming colonies can be split and given material from which new cells can be drawn after their own cells, which would produce inferior queens, have been culled. Given that the best queens are made with all ages of bees present, the splitting method perhaps could be to take the old queen away into her own nuc, as a reserve. One disadvantage of this approach is that by the time the new queens are ready to hatch, all the brood from the old queen will have hatched, so nucs with full sized frames will have to be made using other colonies with the new queen cells. In practice, mini–nucs can soak up the hatched bees, particularly the plentiful newly hatched ones. However this leads to using queenless colonies to start cells off, move them into finishing colonies and recharging the starter colony again with young larvae (and topping up the young bees with a frame of hatching bees. This tends to be done with artificial cells.

Many experienced queen rearers would have their own approaches to starter colonies, some preferring to use nucleus boxes packed with bees, a frame of pollen, a frame of honey and a Miller frame, a frame with eggs and young larvae or artificial cells as below. A simple version of this principle is to cut strips of recently drawn foundation with eggs and tack it on the upper side of two bars in an otherwise empty frame – then rotate the bars so they face downwards. Cut alternate cells so the queen cells are separated easily.

Artificial cells

The punched cell method gives a useful next step for relative beginners. Having used it for several years, it is easily managed with easy to make equipment supporting the punching devices.

The method of choice for many professionals and amateurs alike is to graft larvae into artificial cells cups, whether these are made freshly with beeswax or are plastic devices, of which there are many designs. Once you have tried this method it is a lot easier than it seems and this has been my own primary method of creating cells for the bees to feed up as queens for some time. There are many grafting tools, and the cheap and cheerful Chinese grafting tool is easy to use, though the most fragile. A stainless steel version is efficient and quick, so long as you find the right technique – put the lifting end under one side of the larva and place it free end first into the receiving cup – same way up. Patience is rewarded! I find a fine brush is erratic in maintaining right side up!

The classic plan is to remove a frame from the breeder colony, ideally freshly made on foundation, bring it to the car or van and select and graft young larvae one by one into a frame of cell cups that had been introduced to the starter colony the previous day or a few hours earlier. The car should be warm and the air kept as moist as possible. Charged cells can be wrapped in a warm wet towel in a cool box. I have even transferred a frame of cell cups to another apiary in such a box. Source frames should be returned to the parent colony quickly to minimise chilling sealed brood and drying out larvae.

I have never used the Jenter system myself, but many do and find the extra work pays off by having larvae already in the cups of a precisely known age. Not handling larvae with invasive tools means they are undamaged, the right way up and have already been started by the bees with the correct feed. Once uprighted and inserted into a queenless colony or a queenless part of a colony, the bees change the feeding regime in their own time correctly to one which will ultimately become a queen. One group used this method last season and although results so far have been no better than grafting, they believe it probably will give better results overall than grafting, especially without A1 eyesight. It does involve a bit more work caging and releasing queen (which is the disadvantage) but once you get the timing right, you are able to use perfect larvae without any interference.

Queenright colonies

The instinct of bees to feed a cell pointing downwards as a queen can be put to use in a queenright colony. A colony with sufficient bees in the first box above a queen excluder will happily make queens. They must be supported by immediately available pollen and honey and young bees of the right age attracted upwards by a frame of larvae moved beside the queens to be. I have used this successfully to rear queens using grafts from the same colony and from another colony. Ben Harden has adapted this method, widely used on the continent, to less strong bees of our kind, by funnelling them past the cells to get to the first super.

Another method I have not tried that seems very promising indeed, is to have the cell starter (it could continue as a finisher) in between two full sized colonies and connected by tubes to carry the bees to the queen cups. Once primed with the usual open nectar/honey and pollen, frame of larvae and a syrup feeder, it needs only to replace the frame of larvae each time it is primed with new potential queen larvae and replacement stores as necessary. Obviously there is a piece of queen excluder at the outer ends of the tubes. The young bees mix happily. Some beekeepers even push the artificial cups through holes in the crown board, from which they can be removed for inspection and replacement with ease.

Nuclei

A mating nucleus can be made from one frame of sealed brood (some emerging), one of stores and one of foundation plus enough bees to cover the brood and queen. To be sure these bees won't return to their parent colony, this is best done in a different apiary, hopefully where the breeding group has concentrated its best colonies. 3–frame nucs can be designed either by creating 3 boxes which together make the width of a National hive (460/3=153mm) so they can, if needed, be kept warm over a mesh floor on top of a strong colony. A simple alternative is to split a hive into 3 with 2 partitions. So long as these are bee tight and entrances are on different sides (not to the front above the main entrance) they are conveniently left on top of the colony to mate and start to build. The main inconvenience is examination of the lower colony – keeping them as one unit over the split swarming colony would therefore be ideal.

One of our members makes up nucs once he has drones and leaves them to make new queens from their own larvae. Having selected his stock carefully, he takes 2 or 3 frames from the strongest colonies at suitable intervals during the main flow, when they are working at their fastest. This has the benefit of reducing the strength of these colonies so they don't swarm. By careful attention to the numbers of bees in the nucs, he mates them in the same apiary. In this way you can get 2 or even 3 nucs per colony in the programme.

A nucleus made up with 2–3 frames of brood and mated early, will build up to a good 5 frames of hatching brood ready for a new beekeeper or an additional stock, capable of giving a surplus in its first season, especially if it is fed and brought to heather. Of course, some of us are lucky and have heather nearby. In practice, for a decent full–sized colony you'd probably need to start with 5 frames or so.

Mating sites

To ensure good matings, we need to concentrate good colonies in one location. Where we can persuade our near neighbours to join the project, even passively, we need to surround our mating apiary with apiaries containing good bees. Whilst queens mate with drones from up to 10km away (one marked drone was found 100 miles away – they do move from hive to hive) flooding the area with drones will help saturate the mating area. In addition, our native bee is well known to mate in the vicinity of the apiary. Poor weather matings are therefore likely to be within strain and race.

Ideally, our groups will do their best to find a sheltered isolated site, perhaps in a south facing valley, surrounded by hills and trees. We do have some interesting possibilities in our peninsulas, though swarms have been caught out at sea recently, so perhaps we cannot rely on partial isolation. Here is an ideal contribution from a passive member.

Joining a group

Ideally you will find some beekeepers near enough to you for convenient travelling. You can organise this on your own, naturally, as we beekeepers are an independent lot. You can use your local branch or association meetings to form a group. You can join one of the existing networks. You can join an existing group. Bee Improvement Programme for Cornwall (BIPCo) is dedicated largely to concentrating on the best of the local strains. Cornwall Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders group aims to further select colonies with varroa reduction characters.

Contact the Roseland CBIBBGroup via Colin Rees at colinbeeman@aol.com. Contact the CBIBBGroup by emailing me at james@cbibbg.co.uk and I will attempt to put you in touch with others near you or to an existing group. Contact the BiPCo group by emailing Jo Widdicombe at jowid@idnet.com.

Conclusions

Given that the local bee, in a fixed apiary (not moving to the heather or for pollination to OSR, which we do not have locally), has given me 200lb in one hive, 160lb average over an apiary of 5–8 hives in several years, we surely cannot argue the superiority of other races for the Cornish setting, especially when they can eat themselves to starvation, or succumb to acarine and paralysis when confined in a wet spring. So, breeding from the best melliferan bee we can find is a good start. Given that some of our bees show signs of attacking varroa, which can be seen readily on the tray below our mesh floors, on our frames and with careful observation in the behaviour of the bees, this is a very important character we can add to our list. I would therefore encourage all of us to look for it.

Though this article is not intended to be a treatise on rearing queens, making nuclei and all the activities involved in bee improvement, I hope that it will stimulate you to join or help form a group, read up on approaches and try them out. In case you are concerned about “making a mistake” remember no–one need know except you and trying things out means sometimes you get what you hoped for, other times you don't. In a way, there's no such thing as getting it wrong, there's only learning to do it better. You can't do that without trying something out. The internet is a very useful resource here – I used the search terms “honey bee queen rearing methods” with google and turned up a video by Kingston Beekeepers I had never heard of. I leave you to discover it.

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