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The Native Bee: Part Three : 27

Now that I have bees I am confi dent are near to native Apis mellifera mellifera, I have relaxed the no-feeding rule and give them a proprietary bee syrup or fondant if I think they need it. Last summer, I regularly gave syrup to nuclei prior to their reaching a population balance, as well as to other colonies on fi ve or fewer frames of brood. So far as I remember, I fed none of those hives that contributed to the honey crop.

Does the Native Bee Have Disadvantages?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. One of its

strengths is that it is non-prolifi c, for which it compensates by extending the lifespan of its foragers, but this non-prolifi cacy makes artifi cial propagation diffi cult. That is why you rarely see good dark bees for sale. Another problem is that in typical British summers there are many non-native drones on the wing, so that in most places, obtaining true mating is virtually impossible. I generally set up three times as many matings as I need laying queens in order to get the requisite number mated predominantly with dark partners. There are tricks to improve mating success, but foreign drones in the area make avoidance of genetic introgression into the native gene pool very diffi cult. Last summer was exceptionally good from this viewpoint as it was frequently too chilly for foreign drones to leave their hives.

The Best Bee for Britain? From the above, you might agree that

native A.m. mellifera is probably the best for the small-scale beekeeper in British summers like the last one. But, climatically, we are in unstable times. If our climate stays the same or gets colder, mellifera still looks like the best bet, but what if it gets warmer? The climatologists don’t say much about it, but Britain has been much warmer in its historical and recent past than it is now. The North-west Passage was navigable to shipping in at least three summers of the twentieth century and Viking burials show that the top of the permafrost was once considerably deeper than it is now, indicating higher environmental temperatures between one and two millennia ago. Our native bee (and the polar bear!) came through all this, as well as the Little Ice Age, so, if left alone, it (and the bear!) should cope with all foreseeable temperature changes.

Future Problems?

The main future problem is that, if our climate gets warmer, Mediterranean bees would perform better here and their drones could eventually contaminate the native genome to an irrecoverable level. The COLOSS (Prevention of honey bee COlony LOSSes) survey (which signifi cantly omitted Britain) revealed the present horrendous state of mainland European beekeeping. The longest average survival time for untreated colonies at 21 apiaries was under two years!

This is a rate of colony loss quite outside my experience. My colonies generally live on and on and thrive without any chemical intervention. If unrestricted importation of foreign queens and the practice of dosing bees with medicines instead of using genetic selection are allowed to continue, I foresee a disastrous future for beekeeping in southern Britain. This need not happen when the solution to the problems is around us in the genomes of hybrid colonies. It is not yet too late to turn the situation around. But it soon will be.

Natural Selection

Wise beekeepers will recognise that by weeding out the weakest colonies, the past few bad seasons have already turned the tide towards genetic improvement (see Pritchard, 2009). As Beowulf Cooper put

August 2013 Vol 95 No 8

Dorian Pritchard is a former lecturer in Human Genetics at the University of Newcastle and is fi rst author of the British Medical Association’s prize- winning Medical Genetics at a Glance. He has bred near-native bees for some 30 years, lectured on honey bee conservation in nine European countries and is President of Societas Internationalis pro Conservatione Apis melliferae melliferae (SICAMM). He was convenor of the North of England Beekeeper’s Convention for 10 years.

it: ‘Winter losses are a national asset, … a necessary part of strain maintenance and improvement. Do not reject this friend of the far-sighted beekeeper’ (Cooper, 1966). The crucial step now is to continue this selection and NOT to compensate for losses by importing foreign bees!

Our Neolithic farming ancestors of 10,000 years ago invented a marvellous approach to livestock improvement. This was to direct the breeding of their animals so that only the ones they liked best left progeny. It is surely high time every beekeeper reinstated that tried and tested technique, rather than seeking chemical fi xes that only relieve matters in the short term and, in the end, create extra problems. This remedy is not diffi cult to put into operation: let Nature fi rst do her selection then breed from the best; replace the rest! ¤ [Parts 1 and 2 can be found in June, page 10 and July, page 11. Article fi rst published in Bee Improvement and Conservation, Spring 2013.]


Cooper, BA (1986). The Honeybees of the British Isles. British Isles Bee Breeders’ Association.

Dews, JE (2008–9). Why the native bee is the best bee for the British climate. Bee Improvement and Conservation, 30, pp 4–6.

Pritchard, DJ (2009). In praise of colony losses. Bee Craft, 91(1), pp 14–16.

Vasquez, A, et al (2012). Symbionts as major modulators of insect health: lactic acid bacteria and honeybees. article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal. pone.0033188

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