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Black Bees – ‘The Past or the Future?’
A talk by Jo Widdicombe on 7th January 2021, via Zoom
Also participating were West Dorset Beekeepers group and Somerset BKA
Alastair Bruce, Chair of East Devon Beekeepers, introduced Jo, who is the President of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA). The aims of BIBBA are
‘the conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of native (Apis mellifera mellifera) and near-native honey bees of the British Isles’
What are Black Bees?
Jo first of all showed some images of Black Bees, workers and queen, which clearly showed the characteristics that set them apart from the mongrel bees that exist in most of the British Isles. These features can be seen in the screen shots from the talk.
The hairs on the thorax tend to have a yellow/brown tinge
The queens are dark
If mated with drones of the same race then all the bees in a colony look similar
The workers have only narrow lighter bands on the abdomen
Black bees are the native sub-species of honey bees, sometimes called the Dark European Honey Bee, and famously declared extinct by Br. Adam. Prior to about 1850 the Dark European Honey Bee predominated in France, UK, large areas of central Europe and extending northwards as far as Sweden. Since then, imported bees with distinctly different characteristics have flooded into the British Isles to produce the mélange of characteristics we have today.
The genetic makeup of our bees
The genetic makeup of our bees was studied by Dr. Elleanor Burgess and Dr. Catherine Thompson who found that about 45% of UK bees had mellifera genes, the rest being a hotch potch of genes from all round the world.
Breeding in this very mixed population often produces problems of ‘defensiveness’ and ‘uselessness’, so where do we go from here? Do we try to put the clocks back to 1850, or find the best way to move forward?
Finding a way forward
Imported bees are the root of the problem and they also pose a high biosecurity risk (Isle of Wight disease, Varroa, SHB, viruses, to name a few). Although crossing sub-species has the advantage of hybrid vigour the resulting subsequent uncontrolled matings will not breed true and are likely to cause ‘defensiveness’ and other unwanted traits. Also, the imported bees are brought in from other climates with no local adaptation and prevent us developing the best bee for local conditions.
The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP), a BIBBA Initiative
NatBIP came about because of concerns about declining bee populations after Varroa was discovered in 1992. DEFRA’s ‘Healthy Bees Plan’ of 2009 aimed to achieve a
‘sustainable and healthy population of honey bees for pollination and honey production in England and Wales…’
The Plan identified imports as a biosecurity risk to our bees. Unfortunately, since 2009, imports have more than trebled!
Queen Rearing Working Groups (QRWG) were set up to identify the reasons for the popularity of imported queens. These reasons turned out to be ready availability, generally cheaper, good quality. Given the perceived advantages of imported queens
‘a good reason is needed for beekeepers to favour home-reared queens’
NatBIP is an attempt to refine our honey bee population with the aim of:
- Reducing imports
- Improving the quality of our bees
- It is a proposal for a sustainable programme of bee improvement
- BIBBA is not proposing a ban on imports, but is aiming to provide an alternative to imports, and a reason for not using imports.
Can sustainable improvements be achieved?
The aims can be easily stated:
- A self-supporting and sustainable system, able to maintain and improve quality over successive generations.
- Maintain genetic diversity but within a useful framework.
- Encourages ‘local adaptation’ producing bees suited to, and thriving in, its local environment.
- Aims to produce a hardy, docile and productive bee.
- Produces a bee that adapts and evolves over time to changing conditions – a bee for the future, not the past.
How can we implement a system that fulfils all these points?
Beekeepers and bees must both benefit for a sustainable system to emerge. The major prerequisite is participants should avoid the use of imported stock, or offspring of recently imported stock. The Programme is based on the best available local bees, built on ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection. Nature selects for survival. Beekeepers select for the qualities they want.
Outline of how the Programme will work
Participants will keep a record of their colonies’ performance (this is not a management record). This will allow the selection of ‘breeder queen’ to produce the next generation.
Image of record card
The key to the system is the ‘breeder queens’ because the daughters reared from good breeder queens produce good drones, so selected breeding or mating zones can be flooded with these superior drones to develop a local strain.
Diagram of cycle of drone management
The advantages of breeding from ‘what we’ve got’ are a reduction in biodiversity risk, avoiding the introduction of new and untested genes. There will also be a gradual reduction in hybridisation as the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection shapes the population. As bees start to breed true the result is more rapid progress. Open mating helps maintain genetic diversity so the end result will be locally adapted bees with enough genetic diversity to select any qualities we want.
Summary of NatBIP
All beekeepers can benefit from a sustainable programme of bee improvement thereby reducing biosecurity risk. The programme will be based on current stocks and use a combination of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection to develop better quality bees. The Improvement Programme will not use imported bees or the offspring of recently imported bees.
BIBBA will produce a Guide Book with suggestions and ideas for beekeepers to choose and adapt to suit themselves.
To join BIBBA go to their Website and follow the links.
Useful reference: The Principles of Bee Improvement by Jo Widdicombe
An online poll was carried out during the meeting. See results sheet below.
During the Q&A session Jo gave details of the mating nucs he uses. They are made by Abelo and are big enough to overwinter small colonies. Abelo UK website
Our thanks to Jo for this information-packed talk and for permission to use the images. Our thanks also to Lynne Ingram for organising the Zoom meeting.
“From Start up to Kilnasaggart”
A talk by Thomas O’Hagan of O’Hagan Meadery, and member of East Devon Beekeepers, 3/12/2020
Thomas was introduced by Richard Simpson as one of the participants on the Beginners Course several years ago. As a scientist he was interested in fermentation processes and so realised he could turn his skills in fermentation and his hobby of honey production into a commercial enterprise making mead. So how does he do it?
Yeast and Honey
Put simply, mead is fermented honey. The honey provides the sugars and yeast supplies fermentation in a watery mix. The products of fermentation are alcohols and carbon dioxide gas, provided there is insufficient oxygen from the air to spoil fermentation, hence the air lock used in home brewing.
The carbon dioxide is the same gas that causes bread to rise and the fizziness of champagne, so mead can be still (all sugars have been fermented) or fizzy (some gas retained).
The type of yeast used affects the end product markedly. Standardised, dry powder yeasts are often used but, for the more adventurous, a host of botanical materials can be added to the brew to achieve subtle flavours. Wild yeast fermentations, such as these, can go disastrously wrong but honey is considered a very forgiving medium because potential spoilage microorganisms will be discouraged by the natural antimicrobial agents in honey.
Meads and Mythology
The fermented product called ‘t’ej’ in Ethiopia has a long history and is still consumed to this day. T’ej is a honey wine made with gesho, which consists of the leaves and stems of an Ethiopian thorn bush, the bitterness of which counters some of the sweetness of the honey.
In Greek mythology Ganymede was cupbearer to Zeus, having been abducted by an eagle, and representations of the event can be seen is Roman mosaics, as at Bignor Roman villa in Sussex.
There is a story of St Brigit of Ireland who performed miracles, including the occasion when she blessed the empty drinking vessels of the host ‘and they were at once full with choice mead’.
Kilnasaggart pillar stone stands in a field not far from Kilnasaggart Bridge near Jonesborough, County Armagh. Thomas’ father also makes mead not far from here, hence the Irish connection.
Make Your Own Mead
Many styles of mead have been tried over the centuries. Braggot is a form of mead made with both honey and barley malt. Heat or freeze distillation will produce a more potent brew from normal meads. Meads made with foraged flavours and fruits can produce very acceptable products and, of course, there are a whole range of mulled and spiced products (metheglin, melomel, cyser) that can be produced with additional ingredients.
The process will be familiar to home brewer:
- Add the fermentable ingredients (honey, other sources of sugar) to your Primary fermentation vessel
- Add yeast if required
- Add water and nutrients (such as Young’s yeast nutrient).
To make, say, a 12%abv mead there are calculators on the internet that will help you get the proportions right.
All that remains is to age, bottle and drink!
Thomas gave us a simple, fool proof recipe for beginners.
- Add ingredients to fermentation vessel (could use a clean honey bucket):
- Honey – 500-600g
- Water – (use calculator)
- Nutrients – (if required)
- Rack and continue with 2nd fermentation.
- Settle, bottle/age, drink
Selling your Mead
Thomas briefly took us through the necessary requirements for making and selling Mead.
- You will need Environmental Health Dept. approval of your HACCP procedures (Hazzard Analysis Critical Control Points).
- Trading Standards need to be involved.
- The Tax Regulations will require you to register as a wine producer, and pay duty on the alcohol content.
- You will need to join the Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme.
- You will require a business bank account and the backing of a retailer. VAT will be required, plus a Premises licence.
- If that was not enough you will require Insurance and you will have to comply with the current Labelling Regulations.
Good luck with your brewing.
Brewing equipment supplier – Vigo of Dunkeswell
Thanks to Thomas for all the practical hints and tips, and also thanks to Nick Silver for stepping in at the last minute as host.
Report of East Devon Beekeepers AGM 2020 & ‘What I did During Lockdown’
Held via Zoom, 5th November 2020. 36 attendees.
Our President Hilary Kirkcaldie, opened the meeting with a warm welcome to everyone. As part of the address, she reminded us of past members who had sadly passed away this year. Hilary spoke of members who we may not have all known, but who were keen and committed beekeepers in their time. Hilary led us in quiet reflection in tribute to Evelyn Pelham, David Lench and Verbena Evans.
Our AGM is a chance for members to hear what has been going on in the group over the last year and for them to vote-in Officers and Committee members. The meeting was conducted efficiently as much of the information had been issued beforehand. The new Committee are:
|Committee||John Badley, Mary Boulton, Sarah Collins, Ralph Cox, Nicky Langley, Rosemary Maggs, Colin Osborne, Ann Pengelly, Richard Simpson, Peter Weller|
|Branch delegate to DBKA Executive Committee||Peter Weller|
Val Bone will also be Membership Secretary, Richard Simpson will be Education Officer and Keith Bone will be Apiary Liaison Officer.
Honiton Show Committee members will be Keith Bone, Ralph Cox, Angela Findlay, Sue Johnston, Mike Walters and Sarah Collins.
There followed two short talks by Jan Morse and Alasdair Bruce entitled ‘What I did during Lockdown’.
Jan started by telling us that for some years she had been leading two groups of walkers and along the way had been trying to educate them into the diversity of wild flowers in the vicinity of South Chard.
So when the first lockdown started she emailed her friends and said she would send them a photo each day of flowers they could look out for as they went on their walks own walks. From the beginning of lockdown to the end of Augest she sent a total of 188 different plants that she had seen in the hedgerows.
Jan then shared with us about twenty of the more interesting specimens with comments on their botanical properties. See the selection below.
Beautiful St John’s wort
Early purple orchid
Meanwhile Alasdair has been busy renovating a collection of hives that had been given to him by a farmer friend. They were obviously of an early design and had been kept in a barn for many years. There were even the remains of foundation in some of the frames!
Intrigued by the design, Alasdair started to search for their possible origins. The hives were well made which indicated commercial manufacture, and after a few enquiries he came across a reference in an old book from 1930 entitled ‘Bee-Keeping new and old described with pen and camera by W. Herrod-Hempsall. F.E.S.’
Burgess telescopic hive
So they are provisionally identified from an image in the book as Burgess telescopic hives from around 1930, this age based on when the tin spacers on the comb frames stopped being made as around 1930.
Thanks to all concerned for their contributions to the success of the meeting. Let us hope that next year the situation will have improved.
2nd Zoom meeting, 27th June 2020
‘There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Tempered Bee’
As with the 1st virtual meeting, Richard Simpson organised and Nick Silver hosted the event. The following Report includes the PowerPoint slides that John Badley used to give the presentation plus the notes used with each slide. In addition, we have included further notes that newer beekeepers may find helpful. Lastly, Keith Bone and Richard Simpson have kindly included their observations on bad tempered bees that were discussed during Question Time.
3. Temper – There is no such thing as bad-tempered bees! Just defensive behaviour.
‘Bad temper’ is not a very helpful description so the following scheme has been devised:
Ease of handling – Three columns on the record card: Running, Following, Stinging
4. Running – makes handling the colony difficult. Not ideal behaviour. Change the queen to improve your stock.
Following – a good colony will not follow more than a few metres. A poor colony may follow for 100m or more. These colonies should be improved by re-queening and should not be kept in areas with surrounding houses.
Followers will also ‘Meet and Greet’ the beekeeper, the beekeepers’ spouse (bad news!), neighbours, passers-by, horses, etc. Need to be improved.
Stinging – not acceptable in urban areas. Many reasons for stinging behaviour. Mention genetic trait, rough handling by beekeeper, beekeeper’s clothing with sting pheromone, leather gloves and leather smoker bellows with sting pheromone, weather, etc.
Make sure it is the temper of the bees. Keep records and compare with other colonies to eliminate temporary factors such as weather.
5. Clean kit – sting pheromone and sweaty beekeeper smells guaranteed to rile bees!
Gentle handling – watch how bee inspector handles the colony
Minimal smoke – some fuels disliked by bees so check e.g. cardboard with synthetic glue.
Minimal disturbance – do you need to do a full inspection or would a quick check do?
Use of cover cloth – an easy way to keep control of a colony. Roll it back as your inspection progresses, then swap it round so that the greater part of the frames is covered, or use two with just the active slot exposed. IF USED, KEEP IT CLEAN.
Use of wedges – to make separation of hive parts with less disturbance if you need to reposition your hive tool.
6. Additional reasons for change of circumstances:
- Vibration/noise on shared stand
- Rocking of hive – needs to be steady
- Queenless colony, as in swarm control split or post swarming
- Protective of honey stores against wasps
7. As the genetic stock was satisfactory it is usually quite acceptable to raise a new queen from them.
8. If they have always been bad then this is most likely a genetic trait and they are unlikely to improve on its own.
The only way to deal with this is to replace the queen with a new queen with better genetic qualities.
It may take 6 – 9 weeks or more for all the old genetically bad-tempered bees to die off, but a better queen may moderate behaviour sooner.
Isolate to avoid problems with neighbours.
Cull drone brood. Don’t want the aggressive attribute passed on to surrounding colonies through mating with virgin queens from currently good-tempered stock.
9. Bee vision – includes infrared – heat. The hottest place they can see will be their primary target.
Smell receptors – on the antennae – often for specific odour chemicals. Very sensitive to sting pheromones.
Protective gear – what’s needed – what’s available – discuss
Always wear two layers of clothing when dealing with defensive bees
Ensure no gaps in protection. Use tape on ankles and wrists if necessary
Leather gloves not recommended – difficult to clean. There are lots of different types of rubber or vinyl glove which give more than adequate protection when dealing with difficult bee, and they are cleanable.
ALL kit should be clean.
Other things that upset bees:
- Some products used by dental practices will cause bees to buzz round the veil.
- Lawn mowers/strimmers. Probably a combination of vibration and cut grass smell.
- Digging in the garden. Again, probably vibration and earthy smell.
- Throwing bone meal fertiliser onto the ground near bees has been known to provoke a sting response.
- Too many beekeepers crowding round a hive demo may cause trouble. Try to stay out of their flight path.
- Incorrect bee space caused by hive parts that are not to specification. Causing difficulty with hive manipulation and disruption of bees.
Notes from Keith Bone on his observations of bad-tempered bees:
I have noticed over the past two years that there has been a strong correlation between unusual warm weather and bad temper within colonies. Last year we had a warm spell in February and again in March which resulted in the colonies building up very quickly and early in the season. Come April this resulted in there being a lot of bees in each hive at a time when forage was still fairly scarce.
Consequently, I feel there were a lot of bees who were idle and, either as part of the hierarchy or they took it upon themselves, they became guard bees. Not only guarding the hive but all the territory around it too. We had to wear bee suits in the garden up until about mid-June when the following bees seemed to die off. After that all colonies acted calmly and normal so it wasn’t in their genes.
All this is very reminiscent of keeping bees on oil seed rape. There is so much forage available early in the season that queens lay brood like mad to keep up with the flow that by the time this brood is hatching the flow is over and there is nothing for the bees to do. Inevitably the bees are grumpy and turn to guard duty to protect their recently acquired honey stores and the whole apiary. All this for about 4 – 6 weeks after the flow stops when these intimidating bees die off.
Observation from Richard Simpson:
Bees can suffer from several stressors, not least being overcrowded or struggling with nest temperature. Direct sun with a thin-walled wooden bee hive and metal roof can be one such stressor.
The way they handle excess heat is to cool the colony by bringing in and evaporating water, but also circulating air and hanging outside the box rather than inside.
One colony supplied earlier in the year was docile when in afternoon shade. If it is the same colony that has now gone “bad-tempered”, consider whether a position in full sun is causing stress now that temperature and population have risen, or whether the queen has been changed.
If considering raising a replacement queen yourself (another talk for another day), bear in mind that a queen raised today will be mating (all being well) in mid-July, just as the drones are being expelled. Successful mating will be difficult if the drone population is falling or non-existent. Time is now of the essence.
Thanks to all who participated.