Background. Why keep bees?
Man has interacted with the honeybee for thousands of years; in fact no insect is more studied. The fascination initially was of course to obtain the honey as a very valuable food and indeed the health giving properties of honey are legion and well documented. More recently much has been made of the medicinal properties of honey. Later the work of the honeybee as a pollinator was appreciated and some work has gone into financially quantifying that value. It must be appreciated that even if we can put in financial terms, the work carried out by the bee in pollinating our food crops, it is impossible to put a value on the work carried out in pollinating the wild plants which leads to such an abundance of bio-diversity in plant and animal life.
In the 10,000 years since the last ice age the honey bee Apis melifera melifera (from now on called the British Black Bee) has adapted to our climate developing many physiological adaptations, and is I suggest, the best bee for the UK. Unfortunately since 1859 many queens of different races from different countries have been imported with the intention of improving the British black bee. Unfortunately this has not had the desired effect, whereas the Italian bee may be very good in Italy it doesnít, for example, moderate itís laying in periods of poor weather. This can mean that it can use up any stores it may have in just maintaining the brood nest. While true that the Italian, being a prolific layer, can produce more honey in good weather conditions, the British Black Bee will produce more over a number of years of typical British weather. Therefore, through selective breeding and using morphometric techniques to measure desirable physical properties, I intend to maintain colonies of British Black Bees.
Before the war and before the advent of modern farming practices, the main crop was from the white clover intentionally sown for itís nitrogenous properties. Less of a demand was placed on the land allowing for a much greater biodiversity than we see today and a rich natural flora available for forage. Unfortunately modern techniques have tended towards large acreages of mono-cultural crops, thus reducing available forage for bees and wildlife, however, all is not lost and there are still plants out there available for forage, but sometimes you have to take the bees to the crop. In order to maintain the bio diversity that we still have it is essential that many healthy colonies of honeybees are maintained.
In the last decade we have seen stocks of bees being ravaged and destroyed by the Varroa mite, which infests the colony causing it to collapse. This has happened to all colonies of bees both managed and feral, the onslaught has been so severe that we can presume very few, if any feral colonies exist, therefore it is up to the beekeeper to maintain healthy stocks of bees. At the moment this is done by treating the colonies with chemically impregnated plastic strips, which kill the Varroa mite, while leaving the bee unharmed. Unfortunately this is a short-term fix as already the mite is showing signs of resistance. I am not alone in believing that few pathogens kill 100% of their host, there will always be somewhere an inbuilt resistance, just as we have seen in the rabbit population affected with myxomatosis. I believe that careful monitoring of colonies will show some that have this natural resistance to the mite and when we find it then that is the stock from which to breed.
To conclude it is imperative that we breed the British Black Bee, which has an inbuilt natural resistance to the Varroa mite, not only for itís healthy and medicinally beneficial product of honey, but also to pollinate our crops and the wild flora on which the wild fauna depend to create a rural area of which we can be proud.