Bee Breeding: Life, uh…finds a way

Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park
Life finds a way

It’s a dog’s life

I have always struggled with the idea that there are sub-species of honey bees but not dogs. A chihuahua is a tiny dog, and a great Dane is enormous. There are many differences between these two animals, and yet all dogs are the same species, and there are no defined sub-species.

The labelling of creatures into species and sub-species is something done by humans. Humans like to categorise and label things. The motivation for this is no doubt to improve our understanding of the natural world, but I suspect that there is some ego involved too. Discovering a new species, rather like finding a new planet or star, might make one famous. Nature is much messier than the clear labels assigned by humans would suggest.

Gene Genie

Anyway, there happen to be many different sub-species of the honey bee. These are different phenotypes (a phenotype is the observable physical properties, such as colour, size and behaviour). Today genetic science has progressed considerably, and we can use DNA sequencing to identify different genotypes. A genotype is the unique genome of that organism, the complete heritable identity. Some creatures have almost the same genotype but different phenotypes, and vice-versa. Often, this is not the case, and different phenotypes reflect different genotypes.

“Who cares?!” I hear you cry, as you exit this blog and head for something more interesting, like yoghurt making. A particular type of bee breeder would care. The way I see it, there are two big reasons for breeding honey bees by careful selection of queens and drones.

Type One: The Bee Improver

What matters to these guys is breeding a bee which is optimal for beekeepers in a particular location and climate. Queens and drones are selected because they exhibit certain desirable traits. This may include: the propensity to sting, amount of honey harvested, survival over Winter, resistance to disease or tolerance of mites, tendency to swarm, amount of syrup fed after taking off the honey and so on. The objective is ultimately to perpetuate a bee that is profitable and pleasant for beekeepers and which thrives in its habitat. It doesn’t matter what it looks like; it’s all about performance against defined performance criteria.

Type Two: The Conservationist

It should matter to all of us that the creatures of the earth do not die out. The population explosion of humans and resulting changes to habitats has been an “extinction event” for many organisms. These breeders are trying to preserve the genetics of a particular sub-species of bee. There are examples in the UK and Ireland of breeding groups seeking to preserve Apis mellifera mellifera (the native Black Bee) in as pure a form as possible. I’m sure similar projects exist elsewhere and for other types of bee. Conservationist bee breeders are also “bee improvers”, but the most important criteria is maintaining genetic purity.

It’s a Mixed Bag

There have been a great many imports of bees from other nations to the UK over the last few centuries. Most bees are “mongrels” which is unsurprising given the number of different types of bee that have been brought in, combined with the way that honeybees reproduce. Nature loves to mix things up, to create diversity, and many bees in the UK are “mixed-race”.

Humans have been the catalyst for this; the geographical separation of bee populations over centuries is what created the different phenotypes, but humans move freely wherever they wish, and they bring their bees with them. The so-called “Isle of Wight Disease” early in the 20th Century was a catastrophic event in which many bees died. This led to mass imports to replenish our bees. The “disease” probably arrived on the Isle of Wight on imported bees which had some immunity, whereas the local bees did not.

Both types of bee breeder, the improver and the conservationist, have a real uphill struggle to achieve their goals. Imagine working for years on a breeding program only to find that a neighbour has decided to keep bees and has purchased queens from somewhere else; queens who are making drones which will shortly be mating with your precious queens, undoing all of that work. That’s got to hurt.

Neighbourly Feuds

Looking at it from the perspective of the neighbour, who wants to enjoy their hobby and happens to like trying out different types of bees, what’s the problem? They are not breaking any laws. They don’t want to be forced to keep a particular bee just because some local bee breeder intends to dominate the landscape and monopolise the area – why should they? I can see both sides of this and sympathise with both. Generally, in these situations, the bee breeder will give queens to the hobbyist neighbour, free of charge, to try to keep the local gene pool intact.

Accidental Conservationist

I stumbled across a lovely site run by Ian Jobson who keeps bees in the harsh conditions of rural Northumberland. Ian has a beautiful system of breeding for improvement of his bees and has been successful at achieving good progress. He describes how he promotes the best third of his colonies, maintains the middle third, and demotes the bottom third. Demoting means that the queen gets the chop and drone brood is removed before drones can fly out and mate with queens. The qualities he selects for are health, temperament and productivity. He found to his surprise, after sending a sample off for DNA testing, that his bees are 90%-100% Apis mellifera mellifera, and that this is effectively “pure” Amm. It so happens that in his area the Amm sub-species does very well and, presumably, there are not too many other types of bee in proximity.

Horses for Courses

For me, it doesn’t matter what type of bees I have as long as they have the traits that I am looking for. Health, temperament and productivity seem to cover it pretty well. I have heard passionate arguments about the merits of the native bee (Amm), but I also know many beekeepers who have found that other bees do far better for them. Some have told me that Amm is too susceptible to European Foul Brood and that it can be much more defensive than other bees.

At Denrosa in Perthshire the Carniolans seem to do best, in much of New Zealand it is Italians that thrive, and down in Somerset, Peter Little breeds Buckfast Bees for his production colonies, so it’s “horses for courses” as they say. I think it’s about the traits of the bee rather than the label that was assigned to it.

Lessons from Memes

It seems to me that if conservation is important, some form of legislation is required to give those breeders a chance. That could work if they operated on an island or peninsula, and the only bees allowed into that zone would be the ones being conserved. Would it work? Probably not.

From Jurrasic Park:
Dr. Ian Malcolm: But again, how do you know they’re all female? Does somebody go out into the park and pull up the dinosaurs’ skirts?

Henry Wu: We control their chromosomes. It’s really not that difficult. All vertebrate embryos are inherently female anyway, they just require an extra hormone given at the right developmental stage to make them male. We simply deny them that.

Dr. Ellie Sattler: Deny them that?

Dr. Ian Malcolm: John, the kind of control you’re attempting simply is… it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.

John Hammond: [sardonically] There it is.

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?

Dr. Ian Malcolm: No. I’m, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.

What do you think?

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