Angry bees

Feral nest at head height next to path. Many guards versus wasps etc, but humans are ignored.

Feral nest at head height next to path. Many guards versus wasps etc, but humans are ignored.

This article dispels the myth that our native black bees are inherently ‘bad’, i.e. overly-defensive, and instead sets out the real genetic basis of why crossing bee races, black or otherwise, can lead to hybrids which are predisposed to be ‘hot’.

It turns out the real culprit for overly defensive strains of bee is … beekeepers. More specifically bee breeders thinking they are improving their stock by utilising queens of a non-local/imported race, but whose resultant crosses can make both their hives and their neighbours’ bad tempered.

Saying that bee breeders’ common practice for over a century is flawed is bound to be controversial, but I assert that free-mated local bees are ‘best’ (and not only to avoid ‘angry bees’) – follow the article through and decide for yourself.

The genetic basis of aggression

First, consider your local British bees not as some mongrel stock, but as a pure race of its own which has evolved and adapted to regional forage and weather since the last ice age. They may not have a recognised name like Italian, but each area has its own specialised breed, perhaps not pure A.m.m. but a race unto themselves, honed by evolution for that precise locality over 11,700 years. [Apis mellifera mellifera or A.m.m. is the original British / European Black Bee race, adapted to cold wet weather.]

Buckfasts workers and queen

Buckfast workers and queen. Often recommended to beginners as a gentle strain. Buckfasts are a very controlled blend of ~4 races with exceptionally low aggression, but their crosses often cause problems.

For centuries, beekeepers have de-selected overly defensive colonies, so bees in any given British county tend to be calm – even the ferals, in my experience. But docility depends on multiple recessive genes. If another strain of bee is imported and begins mating with local queens, the docility is masked by dominant genes. In effect the mixing means bees regress to their primal wild state, which can be quite defensive. Even two gentle strains, when mixed, can mask each others’ mildness and often create much more defensive bees.

[To restate this in more technical terms, recessive docile traits are more expressed in self-contained populations (due to a high level of homozygosity) whereas when one introduces bees from ‘outside’ heterozygosity will increase and it only takes a few dominant genes to cause a problem.]

Example: Let’s say I import a pre mated Carniolan queen in 2017. She is full of same-race sperm so she produces purebred Carniolans and her hive is calm. All is well for the first part of the year. She produces some queens and drones and these mate with locals in the later part of the year. Their swarms are the F1 generation.

Her own daughter queens are produced from her stored sperm and so are also pure Carniolan (queens are a generation behind their offspring!). Even though they produce hybrid offspring, the pureblood queen has a big influence on colony behaviour. If she is calm they tend to be too. So the swarms from my Carniolan hive are OK for this first F1 generation. (The queen influence is apparent if you swap queens between a calm and aggressive hive: the hive behaviour can switch too – sometimes in as little as an hour.)

No rules are universal. These A.m.m. - Buckfast hybrids are a calm hive.

No rules are universal. These A.m.m. – Buckfast hybrids are a calm hive.

Meanwhile my other hives produce swarms, and their queens are docile too because that is what my local bees are. So their hives are calm too.

But in 2018, oh dear. This year the queens themselves are crosses between Carniolan and the local strain. This F2 generation often have docility turned off in their genes, and they don’t have a calm queen to dampen aggression.

Meanwhile my neighbouring beekeepers are seeing unusual markings on their bees and finding their colonies unmanageable too.

Aggression seems to peak in the F2 generation and then fade rapidly away, probably because the imported genes are rapidly de-selected by local environmental pressures (and beekeepers).

Note: if I introduced the Carniolan queen in our example late in 2017, so she didn’t produce drones that year, the F2 generation might occur in 2019.

Summary:

  • The only way to avoid aggression in a colony of non-local bees is to keep requeening to keep the stock pure. But there is a huge reservoir of local genes among feral colonies and other beekeepers’ hives within a 5 to 8 mile mating range, and they have the advantage of selective pressure (i.e. any bees brought to the area will inevitably converge towards the local strain due to natural selection). So it is much easier to use local bees and, if you want to select for particular characteristics, use local stock. Then you won’t keep having your desired traits overwritten.
  • Importing queens causes problems for other beekeepers within mating range (5-8 miles). The local “hybrids” are just as much a pure race as an imported Carniolan. Introducing foreign drones into a locality makes previously calm hives “hot”.
  • Testable prediction: towns have a much higher density of beekeepers, some of whom will import queens. So towns will have a wider mix of bee races per square mile and thus, more defensive bees than rural areas.
  • Beginners are often told to use Italians or Buckfasts as these are docile. Unless all their neighbours use them too, they can have a nasty surprise in their third year. These strains are mild mannered if you continually requeen them with pure stock, but your neighbouring beekeepers will still have problems.
  • People are reluctant to admit they spent money on a poor choice promoted by authority figures. It is easier to blame what’s present already, not the bees they bought.
  • Pure race breeders prioritise docility within their own bees, and tend to dominate the genetics within their immediate area and also use instrumental insemination to further ensure purity. However, once they sell queens outside of their area, the genetic offspring are not within their careful control and so unless their clients re-queen regularly, they will find the resultant crosses tending to aggression. This can result in a cycle of continual re-queening.
  • BBKA policy is to oppose imports of bees from outside Britain (“We recommend that you buy bees that have been bred locally or within the UK rather than imported queens“), and the Feb 2017 issue of BBKA News has an article on its Certificate in Honey Bee Breeding which starts “The focus on locally produced queens will increase in future”.

Other points on aggression

How you handle bees affects whether they see you as a threat. These are local UK bees allowed to free-mate, predominantly A.m.m.

How you handle bees affects whether they see you as a threat. These are local UK bees allowed to free-mate, predominantly A.m.m.

It is worth noting that bees don’t have a binary level of aggression, they don’t flip between happy and kamikaze. Guard bees will often just warn you off by buzzing loudly and bouncing off your face before escalating to stings. But also, different individual bees have different alarm trigger thresholds. There will be a few guarding an entrance who are laid back, others who are much more paranoid – perhaps they just fought off a wasp. Presumably the spread of temperaments in one hive arises from having different drone fathers.

And of course one can argue that aggression has its place. There is a great story on p.48 of William White’s 1852 book A Complete Guide to the Mystery and Management of Bees where the author recounts seeing a hive being robbed because its guards were too docile. “I laid my finger upon them, and pressed them softly against the hive, which made them enraged, and then they soon began to beat their plunderers very freely, and, at length, beat them quite off.” Success! Likewise, some beekeepers keep fierce hives near the entrance of their apiary to discourage thefts.

It’s often commented that ‘hot’ hives tend to be left alone by wasps, and are remarkably vigorous and healthy; and particularly, varroa resistant.

Beowulf Cooper, founder of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA), studied native bees in the UK extensively and found temperament varied among local UK strains, which tend to be very dark, though most were gentle. He found that if you cross most A.m.m. strains across Britain and Ireland they do not become more aggressive, and this became one of his working definitions of “what is a native bee”. His book The Honeybees of the British Isles is an illuminating read.

You can hear tales that “all dark bees are aggressive”, particularly on US forums where they are more used to light Italians and, indeed, a cross with something else is likely to be a problem. The US has a problem with Africanised strains of course (probably the ultimate lesson in Why Not To Mix Bee Races. Though these are light coloured, not dark). The dark bees they refer to are likely to be Carniolan crosses as A.m.m. is rare or absent over there. Colour is one of the least consistent indications of bee race.

I have now heard many examples of crosses involving Carniolans, Buckfasts and Italians creating aggressive bees, not necessarily with A.m.m. The scariest stories tend to feature a Carniolan as one of the parents. The most extreme example is described by Professor Ruttner in Breeding Techniques and Selection for Breeding of the Honeybee (pages 98-101): the native German A.m.m. was rendered aggressive by a century of unrestricted imports of, and crosses with Carniolans until it was decided in the 1940s, to completely eliminate the now “hopelessly contaminated” A.m.m. stocks and just use Carniolans throughout Germany (as they produced more honey).

The European Arista project is breeding varroa-resistant Carniolan bees based on the German strain – if these are imported to the UK, where Carniolans seem to be rare, they will likely cause problems in neighbouring apiaries.

Shades of grey: two sides to every story

Requeening our first swarm (note Q cage). In those days I opened hives every 2 weeks and treated with miticides. I've never had a hot swarm since.

Requeening our first swarm (note Q cage). In those days I opened hives every 2 weeks and treated with miticides. I’ve had no ‘hot’ colonies since going low-intervention.

I’ve been trying to think when it might be appropriate to use non local bees. My conclusions are that for hobbyists and non-migratory beekeepers, it’s not a good idea*.

The usual arguments for using queens from a breeder come down to getting more honey, because the bees have been selected to be very fecund. But honey crops are mainly a function of available forage and most areas don’t have enough to support lots of huge colonies. Cities for example tend to have lots of hobbyist beekeepers and limited forage, and smaller colonies can cope better. In extreme cases honey crops are just the sugar fed to overpopulated starving hives, with minimal added flavour from blossom.

Professional bee farmers who are dependent on honey yield or pollination services move their hives round the country following crops. They limit the number of hives in one place to maybe 4 for a big field in bloom, to maximise forage. Kent is full of fruit orchards and the main nectar flow is in March-April. Northumberland’s heather moors flower in August – but not all bees can work heather, this is one crop where Buckfasts do well. The local bees in these areas only get one big burst of food, and have tuned their breeding pattern to match the flows, whereas migratory beekeepers need lots of bees throughout the year. It’s not unknown for bee farmers to get 150 pounds of honey from a hive in a good year, where many home beekeepers with stationary hives would be delighted with 50 pounds. But if you do not truck hives around the country… I have heard and read several claims by users of local bees whose hives stay in one area that they get more honey with local strains than when they used Italians, Buckfasts etc.

So for “farming” beekeeping, there is a logic to using specialist bees, artificially stimulating breeding with Spring feeding etc. Their drones still interact with local queens, of course, causing problem crosses with native bees in mating season. But the migratory beekeepers requeen from pure lines and don’t suffer the consequences. It would be easy to blame them… but they are partly responding to the needs of farmers. Without them, modern farm yields would crash because farmers have specialised to compete (economies of scale). Local bee numbers in monocrop regions can be small, lacking continuous food throughout the year. Whereas historically, most food, i.e. a variety of crops, was produced locally giving a wide variety of forage throughout the year in most rural areas.

Overall conclusion

Your own locally-evolved bee is best – whatever that is in your area/country. The important things are (1) the environment will select for particular genes so (2) use free mated bees from a long established colony in your area, such as from a beekeeper who has been using local bees for years, or an established feral nest. Ferals will likely be varroa-resistant, too.


* As usual, there’s always an exception. I recently advised someone to use Buckfasts because they are about to start keeping bees right next to a Buckfast breeder with hundreds of hives so no point in avoiding the inevitable, and non-Buckfast drones could interfere with the breeder’s livelihood.
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One Response to Angry bees

  1. Pingback: ONBG meeting, 12 March 2017 | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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