A brief introduction to bee breeding

Intro to bee breeding
Intro to bee breeding

What would two strange looking men be doing in the middle of a field in Bedfordshire on a sunny afternoon in July? What else but inspecting bees, of course! But, where are the bee suits? Where is the smoker and the shower of bees around our heads? Why aren’t we being stung?

I should explain that these are Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica) from the German Institut für Bienenkunde Celle and the chap wearing a hat is Prof. E.W. (Pim) Brascamp (a professor of genetics from Wageningen University in The Netherlands). He had come to inspect my bees as part of his role as supervisor of the Dutch BeeBreed group (www.beebreed.nl), of which, I am a member. The bees are known for their calm behaviour and productivity but they have been selectively bred over many generations to enhance these qualities still further. It may surprise you to learn that the colony just to my left (the one in 4 Langstroth deep boxes) went on to produce a yield of 133.4Kg (that’s almost 300lbs!) for the year.

My test queens are established in their own colonies during July and allowed to build up and over-winter without treatment of any kind. In the following spring, I begin assessing them using the protocols recommended by BeeBreed/AGT (AGT = Arbeitsgemeinschaft Toleranzzucht – The German varroa tolerance working group). These tests focus on a number of characteristics which are valuable to beekeepers (honey yield, aggression towards the examiner, stability on the comb, reluctance to swarming, over-wintering ability, spring build-up, in addition to varroa and disease resistance).

The test groups contain at least 8 sister queens mated with drones from daughters of a proven test queen on the island of Neuwerk in the Wadden Sea.

The first test involves monitoring the natural mite drop using an insert on the floor of the hive. Each week, for three successive weeks at the start of brood rearing, I count varroa mites that fall to the floor (the light coloured protonympths and males are not counted). This gives an initial assessment of the varroa load in the colony. Subsequent tests (pin-killed brood and soapy water wash which are carried out as spring develops into summer) indicate how well the infestation is managed by the colony.

The honey yield is an important consideration which is dependent upon the ability of the colony to over-winter well and build up quickly in the spring as well as the forage available. It is no good having a colony which builds up too late for the main nectar flow then wastes its energy in swarming during summer without providing a harvest. At the end of the queens first full year in the colony, I count the number of frames occupied by bees as the colony goes into winter cluster (around mid-October) then again at the first inspection in spring. Those that over-winter with over 90% of the colony alive in the spring are scored highest because these colonies are best placed to build up well in time for the oil seed rape (osr) flow.

At each inspection throughout the spring and summer, I assess the colony for aggressive tendencies, swarming intentions and their running/bunching behaviour. Obviously, this means I do not use smoke and often forget to even light my smoker. The average (mean) of all the scores given throughout the year is used by BeeBreed to calculate the breeding value for these traits (only colonies that show no swarming intentions at all can achieve maximum marks). They are compared to a five-year moving average for the entire Carniolan population (somewhere in the region of 7,000 queens) so, differences in local conditions can be evened out and only the best queens are selected for further propogation.

At three points in the year (the first up to 15th June, the second 16th June to 15th August, and the third after 15th August), I weigh the honey supers to show how much they have gathered from early sources (i.e. OSR/hedgerows), mid-season (beans, blackberries, etc) and late forage (at this time of year, we are looking at heather honey). These three sub-totals are added together to give the total yield which allows the colonies to be ranked for honey production purposes. My mean yield from my test colonies was 72.225Kg (~159lbs) with the highest performing colony yielding 133.4Kg (~293lbs) in 2015, so I didn’t do too badly.

I also take a sample of 50 drones and 50 workers as they emerge from their cells and keep them in a cage for a few days while their wings dry out. They are fed through the mesh by workers in the colony until I take them out and deep freeze them overnight to kill them. This sample is sent for morphometric testing to be sure that the progeny of my queens are pure Carniolans and that the mating was unaffected by other drones.

All of this information is entered into the BeeBreed database so my breeding supervisor can check it before the end of the year. At the start of February, the breeding values calculated from all of that data are announced and I can choose which queens to breed from. The following year, daughters of the selected queens are raised as queens and instrumentally inseminated with semen from drones of other tested queens. These groups of daughter queens join the test groups at my apiaries the following year.

I hope this brief introduction gives you an insight into the work that bee breeders do in order to provide you with good quality tested queens.

Paul Walton