Bringing back the indiginous bee

Steve Rose’s talk to the MBKA, March 13th 2013  on “Bee Improvement, a Regional approach”, inspired three of our members to visit Steve in South Clwyd to learn more about bringing indigenous bees back to Montgomeryshire. Dave Bennett, our Apiary Manager, with Roy Norris and Noel Eaton have all wrestled with the problem of bee losses and been flummoxed by the many contradictory explanations. How easy it would be to run colonies in the South East of England. Then when there is a collapse of colonies there one could blame pesticides. But here in Powys we have the lowest use of pesticides in England and Wales. And still we are in trouble. There are no easy scapegoats in Montgomeryshire!

Steve Rose kept bees in middle England for many years before coming to live on a smallholding near Bala. His productive “English” colonies did not fare well in Wales and Steve became impressed by the survival rates of those colonies with a greater degree of conformity to the indigenous Apis mellifera mellifera A.m.m. (sometimes called the “black bee”). Most bees in England and Wales are of mongrel stock and the amount of genetic material from such sub-species as A. m. carnica, A. m. cecropia and A. m. ligustica is increasing as commercial beekeepers import queens from Southern Europe by the tens of thousands. Hobbyist beekeepers also buy such southern European queens, seduced by their easy availability especially early in the season. And, as I have often said before, if you are offered a nuc in April with a current year’s queen you can pretty well guarantee that that colony has been made up from an imported queen.

These southern European bees are a nice golden or leather colour with prominent banding. For the first generation they are well behaved and they are very productive during their first year. But the casualty rate during the first winter is high, especially during a prolonged or wet winter. These bees, A. m. carnica, A. m. cecropia and A. m. ligustica have a high tendency to swarm and the virgin queen, left behind when the pure-bred queen departs, will mate with a motley collection of local drones producing a mongrel stock that is typically badly behaved. That second generation is often aggressive and upsets the once-enthusiastic beekeeper.

Apis melifera came out of Africa to Europe via two routes. Some left to the West and went up the Atlantic coast of Europe colonising Spain, France , Britain the low countries all the way to Northern Scandinavia. This migration became Apis mellifera mellifera, adapted to mild summers and long and often wet winters. The other migration route was via the fertile crescent in Iraq and up through Turkey to colonise the areas in Europe with short winters and hot summers. These bees became adapted to survive cold winters, and hot and often arid summers. The migration via Turkey and South East Europe divided into various subspecies including the most common of the imported queens A. m. carnica, A. m. cecropia and A. m. ligustica. Even if beekeepers in Spain and France had not imported stock from Italy and Greece it is likely that A.m. ligustica would have colonised these areas naturally because of the climate change over the last 50,000 years. But would the South East European sub-species have naturally colonised Britain? I for one doubt it: our high rainfall favours Apis mellifera mellifera. The only reason that we see the bright golden banded bee in England and Wales is because of the steady and relentless importation of Southern European bees into the UK.

Here we must sympathise with the main importers of queens from Southern Europe, the commercial bee-keepers, the beefarmers. I’ll draw an analogy here with the early use of insecticides by farmers. They did not know that using insecticides would become addictive. The insecticide kills both the insect pest as well as its natural prey. So in a few years the remaining pest has no predators to keep it under control and the situation becomes worse for the farmer so he has to spray again. And again and again. Rachel Carson pointed this out in 1962 in her book Silent Spring. ...but who until the 1980s had heard of Rachel Carson??? And the commercial beekeeper, the beefarmer, is similarly addicted. The more he imports queens the more he has to import queens in the future because the stock he has becomes less profitable in the second year. He cannot afford not to be in production in the early spring. He may have taken out forward-contracts to pollinate orchards or rape or even to supply the hobbyist beekeeper with early Nucs. I met a such a commercial beekeeper in early May. He reported that he had had 65% losses of his colonies over winter. He said this was over £100,000 in cash terms because he had to replace colonies to fulfil his contract to pollinate apple orchards in Herefordshire. When I said that he must be relying on a mass of imported queens somewhere along the supply chain he looked sheepish and changed the conversation. He knew that the more he imported queens the more he had to continue to import queens. Many beefarmers will change the queen each year and many, perhaps most, are addicted to importing queens .

It is a brave farmer who can stop using insecticides! And it is a brave bee-farmer who refuses to import queens. Fortunately governments legislate against some insecticides and this is for the long-term benefit of the whole farming community. Oh I wish our UK governments would similarly legislate against importing queens.

Anyhow let ‘s get back to the visit of Dave, Roy and Noel to South Clwyd where a local group has identified colonies with a high percentage of A.m.m genes and is breeding from them. South Clwyd at first relied upon the efforts of a specialist and dedicated group affiliated to BIBBA (Beebreeders and Bee Improvers Association) who collected cells of pure A.m.m queens and drones from sympathetic beekeepers from Ireland, the Lake District and Scotland and other areas where pure A.m.m is still to be found. The unhatched Queens and Drones were taken to isolated areas where the queens were distributed into nucs , and the drones, in brood frames made from drone foundation, were placed in standard hives. The drones hatched and flooded the area ensuring a high proportion of A.m.m sperm in the A.m.m queens. The mated queens were distributed and the progeny monitored for conformity to the A.m.m type. This monitoring is quite easy as the wing morphology of A.m.m and the southern European bees is different. One can soon spot the colony with a greater percentage of A.m.m genes.

Essentially Dave, Roy and Noel are being helped to replicate the experience of South Clywd. They are being taught the art of queen rearing by grafting and will be using eggs kindly supplied by Steve Rose. They will be getting frames of drones also supplied by Steve and these will be taken to my own apiary high above the Clywedog lake. It is a pretty isolated area where there are only 7 other apiaries within 5 kilometres and I happen to know that, somewhat fortuitously, all but two of the local beekeepers have lost all their colonies. The local beekeepers with viable apiaries have agreed to co-operate with the venture. They will be removing their own drones and taking in frames of A.m.m drones from South Clywd at the same time as Dave, Roy and Noel place the queen cells into Nucs . The first batch of queens produced will be used to replace the existing queen back in the home apiaries but any excess and future batches will be offered to members of the Association. The procedure will be copied in subsequent years in the hope that the stock conforms closer and closer to a pure A.m.m type. Obviously the greater the involvement by local beekeepers the faster can the project achieve its goal: essentially we want to remove all local ( Non-A.m.m ) drones when the A.m.m queens make their maiden flight.

I liken the scheme to the reintroduction of the Red Kite. It is going to be hard work , lots of planning, take time and we will face some disappointments and then great great joy when it is successful.

Roy Norris