Spreading the Bee Buzz #9 – Local Bees

The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.

Beekeepers have sometimes imported foreign breeds. Some large-scale bee farmers still do this, particularly with Italian bees which characteristically create huge colonies, useful for pollination services and large honey yields. But these are not adapted to our climate or seasonal forage rhythms and so can require support such as feeding; and their continuous breeding over winter favours the co-breeding of the varroa mite.

I prefer bees with behaviours adapted to suit their environment. All my hives can trace their lineage back to local swarms and I have also adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach, meaning that I no longer artificially prop up struggling colonies or treat for varroa. This simple natural selection strategy results in the local bee gene pool being reinforced with proven successful strains. Note I do choose to take some swarms from several miles away to avoid the risk of continual inbreeding.

Because I avoid treatments for mites, to survive the bees must resort to coping strategies of their own, such as “hygienic behaviour” – grooming off parasites; and ejecting ‘wrong’ brood (e.g. ill, carrying parasites). Bees can develop these behaviours either through epigenetics or via direct genetic inheritance. Epigenetics is where a dormant gene effect switches ‘on’, controlled by an environmental cue.

From a Darwinian perspective, artificially feeding a colony or treating to kill mites is counterproductive. The colony never adapts to its environment and you are reinforcing a weakness with dependency – needing to keep feeding and treating. And, much like with the overuse of antibiotics in humans, over time the mites have evolved resistance to the chemical treatments – there is now widespread immunity to the organophosphate coumaphos and the pyrethroid fluvalinate.

Our village has several beekeepers maintaining healthy hives and also some feral colonies exist in old walls, roofs and chimneys. The continuing survival of the feral colonies in particular is a great indicator for the continuance of successful locally-adapted genes.

Colonies vary not just in local adaptation, but also in other behaviours – “personalities”. Examples from this swarm season:

Rambunctious – I gave another beekeeper a big swarm from a local feral colony. It refused to settle into their hive and flew off. Just a day later her other hive was relentlessly robbed by a large number of bees of ‘unknown’ source. They came, they saw, they ate everything and left, like a village football team. Now thriving back in the wild.

Dejected – Another was suspiciously passive and disorganised. I left it to coalesce for some hours, returning to find small boys throwing rocks at the collection box “to get the bees to come out”! They only avoided stings because the swarm wasn’t “queen-right”, i.e. sterile, which tends to dispirit the bees. This colony dwindled and died.

Resilient – Another swarm this year came down a chimney and got trapped inside a sealed living room on the hottest day of the year. Many thousands died but a few were left clustering on a curtain. Once hived they huddled together quietly for two days, then suddenly cheered up, got to work, and are now thriving.

The debate about how much ‘help’ bees need will continue – certainly they need an environment that provides more food and fewer pesticides – but in this village, at least, we have a good stock of successful local colonies that show a strong determination to survive.

Previous articles in this series are:
This entry was posted in Multi-part series, Spreading the Bee Buzz, Swarms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Spreading the Bee Buzz #9 – Local Bees

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #10 – Surviving Winter | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

  2. Pingback: Spreading the Bee Buzz #11 – Starting Beekeeping | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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