Page 23 - ALG Issue 1 2022
P. 23

Coming to a (sustainable) hive near you
 The National Bee Improvement Programme
Written by Jo Widdicombe, Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA)
We are now familiar with the need for us to live sustainably within sustainable environments. Likewise, calls to ‘save the bees’ are now part of our everyday language. But did you know that in 2020 (pre-Brexit) we imported over 21,000 Queen honey bees and nearly 2000 packages (colonies) into the UK from countries like Italy, Australia
and New Zealand? Clearly, this is not
a sustainable way in which to keep bees or nurture our environment. Jo Widdicombe - the lead Trustee for the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP) – explains why.
We have all come to understand
the importance of pollinators to
food production and the natural environment. Pollinating insects,
as well as other insects, are under pressure from changes to the environment resulting in a reduction in available forage and from the impact of contaminants such as pesticides. Perhaps the best contribution any of us can make to the welfare of bees and other insects is to grow more nectar and pollen yielding plants, whilst also avoiding the use of harmful chemicals. We can also support better care of our hedgerows, verges, and wild areas, for the benefit of insects and wildlife.
However, concern about the state of our pollinating insects has led to a rise in the number of beekeepers. Allotment holders will be familiar with this, as beehives have started popping up on many sites. But this is not always the answer – let me explain.
In the course of the honey bee’s evolution, the species evolved into many sub-species to suit different geographical conditions. In Britain, and the whole of northern Europe,
our original sub-species is known as the dark European honey bee or Apis mellifera mellifera, the first two names denoting the family and species name and the third name identifying the sub- species.
Both in the past and currently, many beekeepers have thought they could achieve higher yields on honey by importing bees of different sub-species
from outside of the UK. Often sub- species are deliberately crossed in order to benefit from ‘hybrid vigour’. Gardeners and farmers will be familiar with this technique, as different breeds of livestock and different varieties
of plants are commonly crossed to produce F1 hybrid offspring. Most gardeners know that seed derived from F1 varieties should not be saved, as they will not breed true. This will result in the plants produced having very variable offspring that do not necessarily resemble their parents.
With honey bees, however, whilst the first generation can often produce good results, we cannot control subsequent matings. This is because the mating system of the honey bee, in which the queens mate with multiple drones, rapidly results in a very hybridised population and a decline in genetic integrity. After more than 150 years
of importing bees of different sub- species, our background population is now genetically mixed and can suffer from a variety of problems. Many beekeepers take the view that the only option to address the issues is to bring in more imports. Unfortunately, this just perpetuates the problem.
Apart from the deleterious effect on the quality of our bees, there is an associated biosecurity risk with
the import of bees. We have imported 20 significant
new plant pests and
diseases in the last 30
years, and honey bees
can be subject to the
same fate. In 1992 the
parasitic mite, Varroa
destructor, was introduced
with devastating effect, and
this has continued to the present
day. Concern about bringing in further pests and diseases led to DEFRA (in England) looking into ways in which we could reduce the numbers of queen imports into this country. Unfortunately, no serious conclusions were reached by DEFRA as to how the issue could be addressed.
As beekeepers, we face the choice of carrying on as we have for over 150 years, with continuing risks to our bees’ health and their genetic integrity, or we can find an alternative and sustainable solution.
Apart from the deleterious effect on the quality of our bees, there is an associated biosecurity risk with the import of bees.
The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeder’s Association (BIBBA) decided to tackle the issue head on by launching the National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP). The aim is to encourage beekeepers to select and improve the stock that we already have in this country and to avoid the use
of imported bees. In this way we can develop a locally adapted population that has the qualities that we want to see, such as hardiness and docility.
The NatBIP initiative has been designed to be inclusive so that all beekeepers can participate in the programme and is supported by global environmentalists such as Sir Tim Smit who gave us The Eden Project and the Lost Gardens
of Heligan in Cornwall. Sir Tim
has created an impactful short film explaining why we all need to get behind the programme.
Over time, with the reduced influence
of imported bees, we can change the character of our bee populations, in a sustainable way, having bees adapted to local conditions with the qualities that benefit both the bee and the beekeeper. As Sir Tim Smit commented “The British native honey bee has been under real pressure but it is a brilliant little creature when given a helping hand.”
For more details on how the programme works and to view the film by Sir Tim Smit, go to
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