Conserving Black Bees

(Apis mellifera mellifera) in the Hebrides, Scotland

By Andrew Abrahams

We are grateful to the author Andrew Abrahams and the editor of the American Bee Journal for permission to use this article.

Readers might ask, why on earth spend much of a lifetime con­serving what most beekeepers perceive as an aggressive, unproduc­tive race of honey bee — a race per­haps left behind by history? I was fortunate, often by chance rather than grand design, to gather up some pure remnants of Scotland’s native honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) in the late 1970s and since then I have managed over decades to improve this popula­tion in the isolation of the remote is­land of Colonsay, which lies 16 miles off the west coast of Scotland (see https://colonsay.org.uk).

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Queen rearing: five stages to manage

Queen rearing can be a hugely rewarding aspect of beekeeping when successful and the most exasperating when it does not go to plan. I recommend you embark on it willing to learn incrementally from your experience and not be deterred by disappointments. Success generally follows careful application and practice of sound guidance.

There are five basic stages to plan and manage, from the laying of eggs to successfully mated queens laying eggs in their own colonies. I will explain each of these, briefly, highlighting key aspects. These stages involve the raising of queen cells from fertilised worker eggs rather than using swarm, supersedure or emergency cells already drawn by bees.

1. Planning and creating a timeline

Preparatory reading around the subject is important. The beekeeper needs a sound understanding of what is intended at each stage and how the bees are likely to respond to the interventions. Queen Rearing, a recently-published BBKA guide, is an excellent place to start. Another easy read is Ben Harden’s Some Alternative Pathways for the Hesitant Queen Rearer available from the usual sources.

Having chosen the methods you wish to use to raise queens, a precise timeline is essential. The timing of queen brood development will become very familiar and this dictates the early stages of your timeline. The Cheviot Project is currently following the timeline illustrated to raise batches of native bee queens through May to July.

2. Selecting and presenting larvae of suitable age

Queens develop from fertilised eggs, as do worker bees. The difference lies in how the larvae is fed. Queens are raised in much larger, downward-hanging cells and are fed a richer brood food in greater quantities than workers.

Your raising of queens will begin with selecting larvae of the ideal size from a brood frame, to be fed generously as a potential queen for the longest possible time ­­– ie larvae within 12-24 hours of hatching from eggs. The photo shows a suitable larva chosen for cell punching: Numbered 1, it is very small and gently curved but not yet forming a ‘C’.

Grafting (moving larvae with a brush or special instrument), cell punching (a method we are trialling this year) or using a Nicot or Cupkit system: these are some of the ways to charge the queen cell cups, arranged on a frame, with suitable larvae.

Left: Larvae of different ages: 1 is the size we seek for queen cell raising (Pic Beemaster.com)

Right: Grafting larvae from brood frame with very fine paint brush and placing in cell cups on frame

3. Preparing a colony for cell raising and finishing

The frame of larvae needs quickly to be placed in a colony ripe for drawing out the cells with wax and feeding the larvae large quantities of queen substance. Many young bees of 5-11 days old are needed, along with apparent queenlessness in the colony to prompt the queen-raising response. They must be exceedingly well fed and have plenty of pollen and nectar/honey near the cells to be drawn.

This stage involves ‘cell raising’ (the larvae being accepted as queen material) and ‘cell finishing’ (completion of feeding and cell building). Together this takes nearly 5 days, at which point the queen cells are sealed (day 8-9 after the eggs are laid). The Cheviot Project often chooses to use a queenless cell raising/finishing colony for to produce queen cells though large queen rearers will often separate the two functions between queenless and queenright colonies, adopting a methods which involves manipulations to render a queenright colony temporarily queenless for the early stage only.

See header photo: six good queen cells from ten using a cell-punching kit. Not a great result, but it was our first attempt with this method!

4. Managing mating nucs for the queen cells

Before considering the mating nucs, remember there will need to be sufficient healthy drones in the vicinity to achieve successful mating. Your queen rearing will need to be timed to allow for this and drone mother colonies may need extra feeding and support.

A virgin queen will emerge from the cell in which she has developed about 8 days after it is sealed. A couple of days before she emerges, the beekeeper will prepare a mating nuc for her, filled with enough fairly young bees to care for her and draw wax if necessary. Again there are several options: you may use Apideas – well designed small mating nucs – or the slightly larger Lyson MiniPlus nucs which can be run as one or two units. These mating nucs have small frames of unique sizes.

The Cheviot Project is building up stock so we also like to use 2-in-1 polystyrene nucs with full-sized national frames, three in each side. Queens mated in these are ready to receive more frames and be built up as full colonies, without having to be removed from a mating-nuc and introduced to a colony (see below).

Left: Inserting a queen cell into an Apidea filled with bees

Right: Checking an Apidea: the queen is laying successfully!

Managing the smaller mating nucs is an art in itself and deserves special attention. For our project, we fill them with bees taken from the supers of local colonies. This ensures that unwanted drones are not included and the age of the workers is suitable for the tasks we commit them to – ie wax building and tending a newly laying queen and her brood.

Generally I leave mating nucs for 2-3 weeks before checking to see if the queen is successfully mated and laying. It is not until some of her brood is sealed that you can tell if she is laying fertilised eggs in a good pattern. The smaller the mating nuc, the faster the mating can be, so a queen in an Apidea might have sealed brood after two weeks while her neighbour in a polynuc might take another week or so. But mating, which involves several flights by the virgin queen, is uncertain and hazardous in our quixotic climate. So many virgin queens will fail to mate or disappear.

5. Introducing mating queens to colonies

The final hurdle is to establish your successfully mated and laying queen in a colony on full-sized frames. As mentioned already, this is easy when she began her mature life on full frames when the colony can simply be built up or united with another queenless unit.

More difficult is introducing a queen from a small mating nuc. This involves placing her and a few accompanying bees in a queen cage and introducing this to queenless bees (be certain they are!). A colony is generally highly reluctant to accept an incoming queen if they have the means to create a queen of their own kind. So, before you introduce a queen, you are best to render the colony queenless at least 8 days in advance of the introduction, so you can knock down any queen cells they make and ensure they have no eggs/larvae left from which to make more. The queen cage can be opened so the bees can eat their way free through fondant only once the colony is peaceful and seems keen to accept their new queen. This may be several days after the queen cage is introduced.

Kate Atchely
Photos mostly by Justine Swinney

The Moorfoot Group

The Moorfoot Group currently comprises six beekeepers setting up an isolation Amm mating apiary in the Moorfoot area. We aim to develop approximately 20 Amm colonies to overwinter in the the Edinburgh, West Linton, Gordon, Penicuik and Kirknewton areas. At present we have approximately sixteen queenright Amm and hybrid/ Amm colonies, mostly grafted by us from Amm frames kindly donated by Kate Atchley and John Durkacz  with additionally five grafted Amm queen cells which are awaiting local mating. The locally mated hybrid/ Amm  colonies are to supply Amm drones and will be transferred to Moorfoot next April before local non Amm stowaway drones can hitch a ride.

The philosophy of the group was to site the apiary where no sensible beekeepes would want a colony.

However we have found that if the transferred colonies can manage the harsh springs there is ample forage for a good honey crop that will help the site to be self sustainable. 

We’re grateful to have recieved a £400 grant from SAMMBA and thank John and Kate for their generous assistance.

Jim Lindsay

SNHBS 4th Annual Meeting

Loch Leven Community Campus, Muir, Kinross – 14 March 2020

By Justine Swinney

Thanks to everyone who attended our Annual meeting on 14 March at the Loch Leven Community Campus in Muir, Kinross.  Considering the uncertain situation we were in just nine days before the full Covid-19 lockdown, we had an impressive turnout; and thank you to everyone for following the guidance at that time in terms of vigilant handwashing etc. 

Jo Widdicombe, President of BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) valiantly journeyed up from Cornwall and gave us two inspiring talks on bee improvement (read more about Jo’s presentation here).

David Evans, who graciously stepped into the breach, when Keith Pierce reluctantly decided to stay safe at home in Ireland, gave us a fascinating talk, entitled “Who’s the Daddy?”, where he discussed the importance of polyandry – the mating of a queen with multiple (12-19) drones – and hyperpolyandry – the mating of a queen with 30+ drones – on colony health.  He then described the prevalence of rare patrilines in emergency queens, compared to those in worker bees and queens raised in supersedure and swarm situations.  You can find more detail on this topic in David’s website, and in Gavin Ramsay’s article in the last SNHBS newsletter. There was some interesting discussion about the potential implications of this evidence in queen rearing activities.  David pointed out that, although the evolutionary benefits of selecting rare patrilines in emergency queens are not clear, the fact that it happens repeatedly, suggests that there are evolutionary benefits!

A new board was voted in during the membership meeting:

  • Gavin Ramsay, Chair
  • John Durkacz, Deputy Chair
  • Margaret Packer, Membership
  • Sandy Scott, Fundraising
  • Alastair Sharp
  • David Morland (new)
  • Tracy Robinson (new)

Kate Atchley, Helena Jackson, Dawn Rigby and Justine Swinney will be stepping down and vacancies remain open for the Secretary and Newsletter Coordinator positions.   If you would like to join the trustees, take on one of these positions and help steer SNHBS’ direction, please reach out to us via secretary@SNHBS.scot.

Finally, we had some very valuable discussion about what members would like SNHBS to be doing.  Thanks to everyone for their willingness to make suggestions and for the open dialogue.  Members appreciate the reality of shortages of Amm stocks and the limits this poses on progress.  Many of the suggestions centred around activities we could work on in the meantime, until Amm stocks build up. These included:

  • Help members build skills, such as queen rearing and new queen introductions.
  • Set up networking between bee breeding groups, by holding periodic video meetings to discuss specific topics and to share general learnings.
  • Consider opportunities to improve the best available stocks in areas where purity is currently an unrealistic aim.
  • Conduct a roadshow, visiting local beekeeping associations, to promote what SNHBS does and to dispel a few myths, namely:
    • that native bees are ill-tempered
    • that beekeepers in built-up areas cannot contribute to SNHBS’ aims: they can still get involved in local bee improvement.
    • that queen rearing is the domain of only the most experienced beekeepers: if you can do swarm control you can do queen rearing!
  • Find ways to encourage more new members

The trustees have begun and will continue to discuss these suggestions at our board meetings and build them into SNHBS plans for the next year.  We’ll share more as thoughts evolve.  If you have a particular passion about anything on the list and would like to be involved in, or even lead a team to make things happen, please reach out to us via secretary@snhbs.scot.

Thanks again to everyone who attended: we hope you all enjoyed it and are feeling inspired about the new bee season.

Queen rearing and bee breeding groups

Pathways to success

Why have a queen rearing and breeding group?

Breeding groups form a vital part of the work of the Scottish Native Honey Bee Society. They work well by pooling their expertise, sharing equipment and having access to larger numbers of good locally adapted stocks. Although groups show differences in their organisation reflecting local circumstances and preferences some features are likely to be shared.

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Forging Links in Lothian and the Borders

[I apologise for the very late publishing of Kate’s post about the Lothian and Borders Breeding Group.   Perhaps this can serve as a reminder that it soon will be time for all of us to think about next year’s breeding programme.  We  look forward to hearing more from the Lothian and Borders Group.
Kitta   7 December 2019]

13 April 2019:

Four members of SNHBS met in Humbie, East Lothian today to look at ways of working together to promote A.m.m. bees in the area south of Edinburgh. On the agenda were group aims, bee breeding and queen rearing techniques, skills development needs, access to suitable areas for mating apiaries and protocols for the use of such apiaries by members of the group. Continue reading “Forging Links in Lothian and the Borders”

Colonsay’s Honeybee Reserve given international acclaim

[Article from the August 2019 newsletter]

World leading honeybee researcher Professor Tom Seeley from Cornell University, Mass. U.S.A. recently honoured Colonsay’s Black Bee Reserve with a two-day visit to study at first-hand the behaviour of our native honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera, and also to learn about the conservation work, breeding and management systems being carried out by the island beekeeper, Andrew Abrahams.

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SNHBS member, Martin Leahy, becomes International Young Beekeeper 2019

Many of you will know by now that Martin Leahy, a member of Tarland Bee Group, won the title of International Young Beekeeper 2019 at the competition held recently in Slovakia.  Martin is a member of SNHBS and believes at least some of his success at the International Meeting of Young Beekeepers (IMYB) is attributable to his attendance at SNHBS events. Continue reading “SNHBS member, Martin Leahy, becomes International Young Beekeeper 2019”