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Bee Breeding and Importation – A Broken Relationship

Together with their environment, bees represent a single sphere of unity, held together by thousands of dependent mutual relationships. It includes relationships: to pollen, between the individuals in the colony, to local hives, to their comb, to the bacteria in the comb, propolis, local plants, the queen, the local climate, and for managed hives, the beekeeper. When bees get sick, it is a sign of a broken relationship creating imbalance or disunity. Humans on the other hand are masters of disunity and independence, or so we think. If the fields are over worked, we ‘fix’ it with chemical fertiliser. If the mono crops create an imbalance of pests, we ‘solve’ it with pesticides. If a plant is not productive enough, we genetically modify it. For humans, independence is seen as strength, and dependence a weakness. For bees, isolation from the hive leads to death, strength comes from connection and dependence. Dependence requires both sides of a relationship to work.

I would like to highlight one relationship between the bees and the beekeeper which I think has been broken for over a hundred years, and it strikes at the heart of this unity – queen breeding and the changes to bee genetics caused by bee importation. Bees used to be local to their region; in Britain there was the British dark bee. But in truth, there were many more closely-related strains each with their own subtle genetic expressions, and each locally adapted over time. There were the North Lincolnshire (Boston) bees and the North Yorkshire high moor (Cleveland) bees, for example. In Britain for almost 2000 years, bees either slowly evolved within their sphere of unity or naturally devolved if the relationships broke down.

Then, from the mid nineteenth century, bees started experiencing rapid changes to their genetics. Bee breeders mixed races from other continents (the Buckfast Bee being a classic example) and, worse, brought an uncontrolled flood of imported bees from the continent. In 2014, over 12,000 queens, nucleus, packages and colonies were imported into the UK.

Many of these bees come from southern Europe which has a climate very different from our own. It is little wonder that these bees struggle here. The mating of imported races with local bees, particularly those with strong native bee genetics, creates highly aggressive 2nd generation bees.

Today, through breeding and importation, we are deciding what is desirable and what is not. This is often driven by simple metrics like honey yield or temperament and, more often than not, time and cost considerations. If the imported bees are not self-sufficient for winter, we fix that with sugar. If they get ill we give them antibiotics, which also kills the good bacteria. If they swarm too much we cull the queens cells. If we want more bees we artificially split hives or inseminate queens. Gone are the mutual balanced relationships that bees seek and need. Now we have a mess of genetics, propped up by clumsy (temporary) fixes. We do not allow broken relationships to break down and devolve – we fix and manipulate. The way out of this mess is not to breed native dark bees, however well intentioned. That is yet another fix and uses the same mentality that created this problem. We need to pause, and let bees find their balance in the landscape we have today, and restore our relationship with the environment. None of us, neither bees nor humans, can thrive in a toxic world. The task of the enlightened beekeeper is to become part of the bees’ sphere of unity. This requires a different mindset. Are you strengthening the unity of the hive or breaking it? In truth we are not independent from our environment, but through stronger dependent relationships we could become stronger. The bees show us this.

By kind permission of

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