Jo Widdicombe: ‘Bee Improvement – what works for me’ and ‘Taking it further’.

SNHBS 4th Annual Meeting, Saturday 14 March at Loch Leven Community Campus

By John Durkacz

Jo Widdicombe provided two talks at our annual meeting, both full of sound practical advice on how we can work to improve our bees in a sustainable way and to encourage beekeepers to move away from importation of unsuitable colonies.

Jo has been a beekeeper in Cornwall for many years and, as you would expect for a successful bee-farmer with 150 colonies, he has a practical outlook and well- tried methods. But he is a bee-farmer with a difference, as he has worked hard at improving his local bees, choosing the best adapted and manageable colonies that are ‘hardy, docile, thrifty and low-swarming’.  He believes that breeding better bees should not be left to ‘experts’, nor should we rely on imports of bees and queens.

Imports vs local strains

Jo explained the attraction of bringing in queens from warmer southern European regions, which are cheaper and ready early in the season. The result may initially be fine in a summer of good weather, but the longer-term outlook is bad news for local stocks.  Colonies from imported queens are not adapted to local conditions and will hybridise with local bees, causing the quality of subsequent generations to deteriorate.

Studies have confirmed that there is still a reasonable population of Apis mellifera mellifera and near native bees surviving in the UK.  Originally, Jo began his beekeeping with bees from Athole Kirkwood in Scotland but, after a hiatus, returned to beekeeping in the 1980s with a real mixture of ‘Cornwall mongrels’, including Buckfast crosses, finally taking over bees at Mount Edgcumbe House, which were darker and more manageable.  Mount Edgcumbe is situated on a peninsula across the sound from Plymouth and is surrounded on three sides by water, providing a degree of isolation.  By flooding the area with his own drones and helped by the tendency of these locally bred queens to fly at lower temperatures to mate with their own strain, Jo has built a good level of ‘within strain’ local dark bee matings.

In the late 1980s, Jo joined BIBBA and had samples of bees from Mount Edgecumbe checked by wing morphometry, which confirmed that the bees surviving there were good native stocks.  But it is not enough to rely on a few colonies without selecting and improving them, especially when there are imported bees in the vicinity.  Experience confirms that when bees from hybrid crosses (Buckfasts) or different non-Amm races (Carniolans and Italian derived) mate with Amm queens, there will be a subsequent deterioration in behaviour.  Crosses can give enhanced vigour in the first generation, but this is not maintained.  (This is a story repeating itself time and again and which I see happening frequently in my association apiary-JD).

Principles of Improvement

Jo explained that if we are to improve our local strain, we must keep good records and learn how to assess the important characteristics.  That way we can begin to propagate from the best and requeen the worst.  If we are working within a strain, we can expect quite rapid improvement. We should not be over ambitious in the beginning and Jo advised selecting for a small number of valuable traits, such as:

  • Docility
  • Hardiness
  • Productivity (low swarming, good brood pattern)

Once you have a more uniform strain, it is easier to breed true and to select for additional valuable traits, such as varroa resistance.

Where to Start?

Starting from a mixed population makes selection difficult, so first look for colonies of a native or near native type, based on appearance: look for a dark body integument colour, narrow, less distinct tomental bands and other features. (There is information on this on our website – here -.)

Do not overlook simple methods of queen propagation and nucleus making when starting off.  You could use a strong colony in a double brood box and move the queen, in a single box, to a new position, leaving the other box in place with eggs and larvae.  The flying bees will return to the original location and rear emergency queen cells in the queenless box.  These queen cells can then be distributed and the colony split into 2 or 3 good nucs.  (Like everything else in beekeeping it is attention to detail and choosing the right time and colony that is the key to success – JD).

Jo works on the principle of ‘working with what I’ve got’ and so establishing a local strain. He encourages other local beekeepers to participate rather than import.  If good dark ‘breeder queens’ are available and compatible, he will use them from time to time.

Key Factors for Success

Jo emphasised that developing and maintaining a local strain is critical.  Choose the best colonies for your breeder queens.  They can be used to rear many daughter queens, whose drones will subsequently carry the genes from the original breeder queen, irrespective of the daughters’ matings. This helps to increase the pool of suitable drones.

Having a reliable local strain also increases the likelihood of success if beekeepers want to introduce pure bred Amm queens, as they will more likely be able to breed with compatible bees.

Working with other beekeepers sympathetically and sharing ideas helps to increase colony numbers, stabilise the strain and improve genetic diversity in an appropriate way.

Again, careful records of colony performance are required for this to work.


More can be done if beekeepers share their activities and work together as a group. Look for suitable areas that might favour “within strain” colonies. Native or adapted queens and drones are likely to mate in cooler conditions and, in some years, there will be more apiary vicinity matings (AVM) than is realised. [For more information on AVM, see David Cushman’s website – here –.]

Once you are more experienced, Jo recommends the National Bee Unit system of using queen-right colonies for rearing grafted queen cells (link below).  He also advocates using mini-plus mating nucs rather than Apideas, as they are larger and easier to manage.

National Bee Improvement Programme

And finally, as President of BIBBA, Jo reminded us of the proposed ‘National Bee Improvement Programme’ which has been sent to DEFRA and is being considered by our national beekeeping associations.  A survey of English beekeepers has shown that 80% would support such a programme to rear queens that are locally adapted and to reduce reliance on imports.  DEFRA has recognised that reducing imports is a part of the ‘Healthy Bees Plan’. This would be a more sustainable way of beekeeping, which would benefit us all but would only work if more beekeepers were involved.

Further information can be found here:

The Principles of Bee Improvement; Jo Widdicombe (2015). Available from Northern Bee Books.

National Honey Show lecture by Jo Widdicombe: (YouTube video covering all the main points in the talk.)

Proposal for a National Honey Bee Improvement Programme: from the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association website

Rearing Queen Honey Bees in a Queenright Colony: David Wilkinson and Mike A. Brown; Central Science Laboratory, Sand Hutton, York.