Breeding the Honeybee

by Richard Alabone (courtesy of Essex Beekeepers Association)

Of all animal species in the world, the honey bee is unique in that the multiple mating of queens creates colonies of half sister workers, fathered by drones of dubious parentage but all from the same geographical area.

Too much in-breeding reduces virility; therefore the inevitable cross mating, within the geographical area, is a good thing.

We know that honey bees have remained virtually unchanged for at least 50,000,000 years and this has been achieved by their unique method of avoiding in-breeding which will destroy a good strain in a few generations. Apis Mellifera avoids in-breeding by queens flying several miles to be multiple mated, which has resulted in at least 12 identifiable races, that have bred into 12 different geographical areas to best fit the climate of those areas. This gives beekeepers a wealth of breeds to choose from to make crosses, some being dreadful, while others are very satisfactory.

We all know that plant and animal breeders have made dramatic improvements in output by crossing natural breeds, and bee breeding is no different in that respect. Honey yields can be increased by a factor of 10 by careful selection of crosses. The only problem being that in so doing we have now compromised the individuality of all the different breeds due to the bees own method of avoiding inbreeding. But bees will probably survive another 50,000,000 years despite our intervention.

This makes "pure-bred queens" difficult to produce and the best that can be done is to carefully select breeder queens and only mate them with good drones of the same strain. This is known as line breeding. As a result of multiple mating, the control of suitable breeding is a very inexact science, unless horrible instrumental insemination is used.

We buy pure bred yellow Italian queens from Hawaii, where queens are cheap to produce, which would not survive in this country unless pampered by the beekeeper. This race of Apis Mellifera has the hereditary factors best suited to survive in Italy.

A bee more suited to our climate is the Buckfast, sometimes regarded as a pure breed, but is in fact a carefully contrived first cross originally produced by Brother Adam's beekeepers at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. It is highly prolific and hard-working because it is a cross of two separate races. This high degree of virility is almost never achieved in bees of a single race because there is always too much inbreeding.  Brother Adam showed that the first cross of two races produced very different offspring, and by the crossing of two line-bred carefully selected strains the desired characteristics could be achieved to give a user-friendly breed capable of much increased honey yield. This was achieved by crossing, the highly selected European bee, bred at Buckfast Abbey over many years, with the bee from Carnica in northern Yugoslavia which has a range of important characteristics like, remarkably good temper, calmness on the comb and resistance to brood diseases.

Today we can buy "Buckfast strain" queens raised in this country which are prolific but sometimes very aggressive due to the difficulty of having pure strains to cross. Other bee breeders are more honest and sell them as "user friendly", or as their own breed.

Carniolan bees were once known here as the "best bee" but they have disappeared into our mongrel population in this country, while they are still line-bred in Germany as I read in Brother Adams book "Breeding the Honey Bee". I make no apology for using his title, as this article was based on his book, published by Northern Bee Books.

For me the interesting thing is the fundamental question of what makes a bee what it is, or for that matter what makes me what I am. We know that heredity plays a part in some way, and although scientists in their wisdom have rejected it, the answer is the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This is what formed the distinct bee races within the species. Scientific opinion dictates that it is the DNA which is the building block of the species, but biology is not able to explain this, with some biologists believing that there must be an information transfer mechanism between members of all species that dictates species form and instinctive behaviour. This mechanism has been given various names, but for me the obvious one is telepathy, which is very occasionally experienced by humans, and is that same mechanism which dictates growth, form and shares instinctive information between the members of every species. DNA is only the key of each species, rather than the complete description, ensuring that only species information is received, but blending with the acquired characteristics of heredity which is recorded in DNA.

I am aware that this all raises more questions than it answers. Some of the answers are on my website:

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