Beekeeping

Local Bees?

Sister Queens
Sister Queens (same mother)

There are some confusing messages out there in beekeeper-land regarding bee types, imports and so forth. In a world where the news that gets picked up is the one delivered in the loudest voice, sometimes accepted truths are just opinions. Nothing wrong with opinions, I have a few of my own, but the hard part is embracing that diversity. You keep your bees your way, and I’ll keep mine my way; hopefully, we don’t have to hurl abuse at each other. Ultimately the bees will show us the truth.

European Black Bee

One topic that I always find fascinating is the circular argument about the so-called ‘native black bee’ – Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm). It goes something like this:

  • they are the native sub-species in the UK
  • therefore they are best adapted to our conditions
  • so any other bee is sub-optimal
  • and we should try to purify the race, in some echo of Nazi Germany in the 1930s

How about selecting from your best queens – the ones that do best for you? By ‘best’ I mean by whatever criteria you choose for yourself. It could be a financial thing, or an easy life thing, or whatever.

Conservation and Farming

There is a clash between the ‘conservation’ and ‘farming’ agendas. The former desires racial purity. The latter may be on a large or small scale and is about the productivity of the bees. They are both right. We should try to conserve the different sub-species of the honeybee, just as we should preserve all life on our planet. 

Farming is much maligned but, trust me, we’d miss it. The bee farmers I know love bees and wildlife. They choose to work long hours outside because they love to be closely connected to the natural world. The better they look after their livestock, the better they will do. They choose the bees that work best for them, regardless of the colour or type of bee. Sometimes that is Amm, sometimes not. Many employ staff from Eastern Europe. Those people are not feeling very welcome in a post-Brexit society. 

Blame the foreigners

Another well-rehearsed script is the one that blames all problems, such as defensive behaviour, low resistance to disease etc. on the impure foreign genes brought in from outside. If only we could turn back the clock and have our black bees dominate the land, we would thrive and prosper. Interestingly nature has a tendency to promote diversity. Evolution works that way. Humans forget that they are part of nature too; what we do is not something separate from the rest of life on earth. We move bees (amongst many other things), birds move seeds – it’s all nature.

The climate and vegetation vary enormously even in my tiny corner of the world. I am sure that bees in the west of Ireland and Scotland have a completely different environment to those in Dorset or Sussex. Of course, the climate generally is gradually changing too. It’s getting warmer and wetter where I live.

It seems intuitive that bees imported from far off lands may not do as well as the local bees. I doubt that there is a considerable difference between, say, Denmark, Germany or France and much of the UK. Trade has always gone on with our neighbours, including the movement of bees. However, I can’t imagine that bees from Africa or New Zealand or California would be likely to do as well here. The real problem with importing bees from far off places is the risk of importing exotic pathogens that our bees are not adapted to cope with. 

Self sufficiency

Notwithstanding the above, why import bees from abroad anyway? If beekeepers raise their own queens, they can become self-sufficient, save money and reduce risk. Generally speaking, that’s a good argument, and one firmly pushed by Michael Palmer. As a counter to that, some queens made in warmer countries are from stock taken there from the UK. An example is Murray McGregor, who takes some of his finest Scottish queens to Italy, where they can mate earlier than here. The daughters head packages and nucs which he brings back home for sale at a time when local queens are not yet mated. Demand for these is huge.

One might ask, “if the native black bee is so great, why are so many other bee types here, and why are most bees mongrels?” A significant change occurred when the UK bee population was decimated by the so-called Isle of Wight Disease early in the 20th century. Arguments about whether the native bee was wiped out (it wasn’t), or whether the disease was acarine or CBPV or something else, are largely pointless. 

Alec Gale and Brother Adam

In the 1920s Alec Gale (of Gale’s Honey) made his money by selling bees which he imported from Italy. Demand for bees – any bees – was enormous. The way for commercial beekeepers to prosper was to sell bees, and Gale sold up to 2,500 Italian queens a year at one time. Towards the end of the 1920s, and thereafter, he switched over to honey production. He preferred the French black bees initially, then, according to Brother Adam, a Caucasian strain and then Carniolans, plus all sorts of mongrels. Adam and Gale shared information, forming a good partnership in which they exchanged queens and learned from each other.

Science!

Some of the science on local vs non-local bees has been expertly reviewed and explained by Dr David Evans on his blog, the Apiarist, here and here. It seems as if the science backs up what feels intuitively correct, i.e. local bees do better. How local is local? I reckon France and Germany are ‘local’ whereas Greece and Turkey are not. Still, somebody else will say something completely different.

Local Bees Map
I consider the circled area to be local to me

Anecdote

I have some anecdotal information on bees being brought in from far away in my interview with Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives:

Peter We used to have a craze for the bright yellow New Zealand bees, Exeter Bees used to sell them, everybody was buying them in. They are a lovely gentle bee, like little moths flying around, gentle, bright yellow, and what happened in this country was that they’d never stop laying. They’d build up massive colonies, collect a load of honey, then they eat it all and die of acarine before the winter! That was happening to everybody that got them, they were spread around all over the grass, they just die of acarine.

Steve: When was this?

Peter: Oh, back in the nineties. 1993–94 I suppose.

Steve: I’ve got a picture of one of them on my phone from my recent trip to New Zealand…is that them?

A New Zealand Honey Bee
New Zealand Honey Bees

Peter:  Yeah, that’s exactly them, Steve. New Zealand Italians. They were more yellow than the Italian Italians. Ever such a gentle little bee, you could do anything with them. They used to build up massive colonies but, in our weather, they would eat the honey, and one day you’d find them all spread out over the grass just crawling around with acarine. Clumps of them on blades of grassit was happening to them all over the country. We only went on with this for about 3 years then we stopped buying them. They were very susceptible to acarine; the other bees weren’t getting it at all, just the New Zealand Italians. So that was the end of that; no more of those.

(Extract from ‘Interviews with Beekeepers’ published by Zuntold)

Selective Pressure

Finally, something to consider when raising your own queens is the quality of your stock. There are excellent queen sellers in the UK; they can select the best queens from hundreds or thousands of colonies. There are also specialist queen breeders who use instrumental insemination to control the drone line. You probably have a local commercial beekeeper nearby who sells queens; there’s no harm in bringing in some quality from these people. You’ll have to decide what ‘local’ means for you!

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