Better Bees

Mike Palmer’s Cell Builders

Humans (and walruses) are part of the natural world. We are animals. Sometimes we like to set ourselves aside from nature as if we are not part of it, but this is wrong. However, there is no denying the powerful and often damaging impact that homo sapiens have made upon our planet and its inhabitants. Agent Smith in The Matrix convincingly described humans as a virus.

The Rise of Farming

Thousands of years ago, many humans changed from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. This enabled populations to grow and new diseases to flourish. We “domesticated” animals because they had value, such as producing milk, eggs, wool, leather, meat, wax and honey. Yes, the honeybee has been farmed by people for a very long time. Beekeepers are farmers of bees. Whether it’s on a large scale selling honey in bulk to wholesalers or hobbyists with a couple of hives, we are intervening in the lives of another species. 

One consequence of farming has been the modification of animals through selective breeding programs. No doctorate in genetic science was required. Farmers bred from their best stock, and over the years the nature of that stock changed. Actually, the same happened with agricultural crops and flowers for the garden. The yields of plants such as rice and wheat have been boosted by cultivation and breeding. This has been necessary because of the enormous population growth of humanity. Genetic modification has been a recent phenomenon.

Selective Breeding

My point is that farming and selective breeding have been going on for millennia. Breeding better bees is trickier than improving cattle because honeybee queens mate on the wing with multiple drones from multiple colonies. You, the beekeeper, can control which queens you choose to breed from. Even if you have no control of the drones, over time selectively raising daughter queens from your best stock will push the nature of your bees in a particular direction. 

What is a better bee? It depends on what you want. Some traits are inherited and can, therefore, be magnified or reduced through selection. Personally, I’m not a fan of bees that run all over the combs and drip off at the corners. Nor do I like bees that attack me at every opportunity and follow me around, waiting for the chance to strike. Also, being of slothful disposition, I prefer my bees to stay in their hive rather than swarm off to pastures new. Swarm control can be hard work and the bees that don’t swarm produce more honey in my experience.

Richard Noel with a few queen cells

Swarmy Bees

There was an interesting exchange on the Bee-L forum about “swarmy bees.” Peter Armitage wrote:

The matter of so-called “swarmy” bees came up in conversation with one of my beek buddies the other day when I mentioned to him that one of our pioneer nuc suppliers/breeders had imported eggs from Ontario to deal with increased swarming in her stock. Her stock had been built by her father, who had made too many nucs with swarm cells for too many years, she said. Remember that we’ve had importation restrictions here on the Island of Newfoundland since 1985 and therefore no free movement of genetics here for 35 years.

My buddy said, “I don’t like that term ‘swarmy’. It’s their natural reproductive method. Talking about ‘swarmy bees’ is like talking about ‘hoppy rabbits’.”

And yet, in popular musings among beekeepers, you will often hear admonitions and cautions related to building stock from swarms or swarm cells. Our beekeeping literature points to excessive swarming as a heritable trait that can be bred out of the stock.

Making Increase

Hobby beekeepers often don’t want to get too deep into raising queens using cell builders and grafting. This is fair enough. They wait until a colony makes swarm cells, then they use those cells to produce more colonies. One swarm cell goes into a nuc, along with frames of bees, brood and stores. A month later the queen is mated and the nuc can be made ready for the winter to come.

Wild honeybees will swarm frequently, but many of those swarms will die. A balance must be struck for the species to survive. Colonies that swarm too much become weak and cannot make it through winter, and if their swarms are weak and die also, then that’s the end of those bees. We manage our domesticated honeybees in order to minimise loss of swarms. We use artificial swarm techniques to make new colonies from swarm cells so that they don’t fly off. Beekeepers are inadvertently exaggerating the swarming tendency but not allowing the swarms to fly off and potentially die. This is not good, in my opinion. 

My Solution

My solution is to raise queens by grafting the larvae from hives that have not shown a willingness to make queen cells. Some bees, if given space at the right time, will not entertain the idea of swarming. They build big colonies and make lots of honey. Other bees don’t seem to care about the space; they are going to swarm anyway. If I just made new colonies from swarm cells, I’m pushing my bees in the opposite direction to the way I want them to go. At this time of the year, I change the queens in my hives that swarmed. The new queen is one that I made from stock that I like. If I don’t do this, next spring they’ll be producing swarm cells and on and on it goes.

No Science Degree Required

Dr Richard Cryberg wrote about how little we really know in terms of the parts of the DNA responsible for specific traits. That has not stopped selective breeding being a success:

Behavioural stuff is always at least in part genetic in every critter. My Dad had a registered Holstein dairy cow named King, who had a dominant aggression gene. Most dairy cattle are nearly pets; they are so docile. King was not a pet. She was sneaky mean. About half of her daughters had this same behaviour. One granddaughter also had this behaviour, and at that point, Dad sold every cow he owned with King’s blood. We never had another cow like her at all. It had to be genetic.  

Homing Pigeons, Bees, Whatever

Pigeons have been selected for homing or to not home. A decent racing homer will come home from 500 miles the same day of release. A roller will not come home from one mile away way over 90% of the time. Clearly, homing is genetic, yet we do not know of a single gene in pigeons that results in homing or lack of homing.

There is the same anecdotal evidence that swarming in bees is inherited.  If you select for non-swarming, you can get far less swarming. If you propagate from swarm cells long enough, you will get bees you can not keep out of the trees. I have had such bees and know the history of them going back 40 years. For that whole time, they were propagated by catching the owners own swarms and mainly by starting new colonies from swarm cells. Randy Oliver has commented he found low swarming fairly easy to select in his own bees.

Honey Production

We know of other things in bees that must be genetic, based on the same type of information. Clear back in the early 1930s the U of Minn did experiments on breeding for honey production.  They documented an average colony honey production improvement that was remarkable over a few years simply by killing queens from poor producers and replacing them with queens raised from good producers. This work was done with a rather small number of colonies — only about 35 or 40 as I recall. No new blood was brought in during the experiment, other than perhaps wandering drones. This work was reported in Bee Culture back in the 1940s and in “The ABC” book at least until the early 1970s. Yet, we still do not know of one single gene that is involved in better honey production.

If you want better bees, however you define “better,” you need to get selective, or buy queens from a beekeeper who is.

5 thoughts on “Better Bees

  1. keith rolleston

    interesting article. I tend to wait more than one season to judge my breeder queens. That way i can hopefully make as informed a selection as possible regarding swarm tendency, productivity, temperament etc. Vital too to try and swamp the area with the best drones you have as well, not foolproof but a great help

    • Thanks Keith. I think you are right. Hopefully over time I’ll be able to draw on several good breeder queens in their 3rd/4th/5th seasons. This season I only had one (yellow dot) that I liked, and I’d already grafted loads from her in previous years. I bought in a breeder queen but accidentally killed her! Ended up grafting from green dots. I am buying a breeder from Peter Little for next year. Good colonies get drone comb. Local drones seem pretty good as I rarely get evil bees (touch wood).

  2. Eric Beaumont

    One year I helped remove 251 QCs in two weeks from a bad-tempered colony (it had swarmed already); by comparison, half a dozen in a good-tempered productive colony is bearable and not what I would term ‘swarmy’. Mind you, the photo of Richard Noel has provoked me to schedule proper R next year (if I can stop chasing my tail long enough). I agree with Keith: good drones are a great asset.

    • Hi Eric – 251 sounds insane! Great for collecting royal jelly though :D. Apparently some people actually eat it!

  3. […] often reluctant to squish a queen, even if she’s not doing the business. Both are required to improve one’s bees (raising and […]

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