Taxes, Taxonomy and Tolerance

Bees clustered for winter in Scotland
Bees clustered for winter in Scotland

At this time of the year the issue of tax raises it’s grim visage, with online filing of returns having to be submitted by 31 January. I have just been sorting my tax return out, and to distract me from the pain I had a look at taxonomy, which is slightly less complex than tax, but only just. Taxonomy is all about categorising life forms into some kind of sensible structure. To be precise, for reasons unknown, I compared the taxonomy of honey bees with humans, with the following results:

Taxonomy of humans and honey bees
Taxonomy of humans and honey bees

Well, not a lot of common ground there, unsurprisingly. One thing that does interest me is that whereas humans do not have “sub-species” honey bees do. I think this must be because honey bees have been around for a lot longer than humans. The oldest bee fossil is 100 million years old. There are many bee species and I think good ole Apis mellifera (honey bees) came along somewhere around 20 million years ago. Or it could have been 50 million. What’s a few million years between friends? Homo sapiens have only existed for about 0.2 million years so they are very much the “new kids on the block”.

Sub species occur when parts of a population become cut off from each other for long periods of time. Perhaps during warm periods honey bees moved North into Europe and then some became isolated when the weather cooled, or some stayed put whilst others moved on. Different populations of honey bees found themselves in different locations having to cope with different climates and different landscapes. As they adapted to their environments these populations evolved to become sub species. They are still honey bees; still Apis mellifera, and still able to breed with each other.

Some of the main sub species of honey bees are as follows:

– European Dark Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), sometimes called the ‘black bee”, our own native honey bee

– Italian Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) which is more yellow

– Carniolan Bee (Apis mellifera carnica) from the Eastern Alps and Balkans

– Caucasian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera caucasia) from the area between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea

– Cape Bee (Apis mellifera capensis) from South Africa

And so on. There are lots more.

These sub species have different traits, some of which are good for the beekeeper and some less so, although what’s good for beekeeping in one area may not be good in another. Some beekeepers get into very heated conversations about the relative merits of their preferred sub-species, and it can get quite unpleasant. That is a human trait; being able to make enemies of other humans who happen to have a different point of view. I fear it may not be a characteristic that enables us to stick around as long as honey bees have.

Because of the movement of bees by humans around the world in recent times the average honey bee is generally made up of a mixture of different sub-species. They mate successfully with each other to form “crosses” and these crosses mate with other crosses, and so on, so that most honey bees are what might be called “mongrels”. Where pockets of pure or nearly pure sub species exist they tend to be protected because we don’t want to lose them, and they may contain parts of DNA which we can use in the future to help breed for certain traits, such as disease resistance or varroa mite tolerance. I presume that my bees are a mixed bag, genetically speaking, but what matters most to me is not what they look like but how well they do, for themselves and for me.

When I interviewed David Kemp this summer he spoke about Brother Adam’s travels to collect different honey bee queens from around the world so that he could bring them back to Buckfast Abbey and try crossing them with the drones of his own “Buckfast Bee” and observe the outcome. The original Buckfast bee back in 1919 was a cross between the native black bee and Italian bees. David also told me about some photographs he had seen many years ago of large barges from Holland stacked high with skeps of Dutch bees. The government imported bees after acarine disease wiped out so many UK bees in the early 1900’s. Apparently the so called Dutch heath bee was extremely prone to swarming.

Here is David recalling the time he was given bees which were crossed with the black Monticola bee from the high hills of East Africa, which some thought later on might lead to varroa mite tolerance:

DK    Adam was working on this in his old age. He knew one of the African strains…you know he went to Africa?

SD    The Monticola bee?

DK    Yes, the Monticola.

SD    They are up in the hills somewhere aren’t they?

DK    That’s right.

SD    Was it Ethiopia?

DK    I’m not certain, but he went over there with a friend of mine, it cost him £2,000. They had to go right up to the edge of the tree line, where the locals kept them in log hives. They brought some queens back.

Pete Donavan sent me a couple of queens some years afterwards, that were Monticola crossed with Buckfast. Now, the African bee was supposed to be quite a vicious bee, but I put these two in hives to the side of the house, and they became immense colonies. When you worked on them they used to boil up, but they weren’t vicious. You’d work on them in the daytime when the neighbours were out, and by the evening you could walk past and they wouldn’t bother you. They got really tall, I had to prop them up. You couldn’t keep them pure though, and I still treated.

Our bee hatches at 21 days but the Monticola hatches a little bit earlier, so the female varroa mite couldn’t come out with two or three daughters, maybe just one, something like that. That’s the theory.

David Kemp also had a great story involving different crosses of sub species:

DK    There was one interesting thing. We had a very good mating season; they got mated very quickly and the weather was ideal on the moor and the nucs were getting big. When you looked there were all these beards of bees hanging out the front. Adam said we had to take some bees away because otherwise they would swarm. Very early in the morning we took a floorboard with maybe four supers, with nothing but empty frames in (no wax), and he’d go around flipping these bees off the front of the hives into this box. The queens weren’t in them, they were in the hives.

He’d build these boxes up and fill them with bees and put a screen on. There were six of them, absolutely teeming with bees from all over, all different crosses mixed up. Every so often he would stop the van and sweep water across the screens with a brush, because they’d overheat you see.

SD    Right

DK    We’d get to the apiary, I remember getting to one apiary and putting one or two of these hives on a stretcher and carrying them in. He’d look at his book, and if his notes showed any colonies needed help he’d go up to it, put a bit of smoke across the entrance, take the roof and crown board off, then take a frame or two of these bees we’d brought in and shake them into the super.

We were going along quite happily, then I looked at one hive that Adam had done, and the bees were fighting one another down the alighting board. I said to him, “Number 188 Brother, they are fighting.” “Oh,” he said, “the Greeks and the Turks could never agree!” He had a shrewd smile on his face. He shook one race into the other and they were scrapping right through the hive and coming out of the entrance. He could see the amusing side of things.”

One thought on “Taxes, Taxonomy and Tolerance

  1. Peter Walker

    As a young soldier (many years ago now), I recall the mantra that: “there were only three things in life that were certain: death, taxes and nurses…”. Looking forward to reading the book!

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