Eden Project Cornwall 17th February 2018 Conference

Sustainable Beekeeping,  “A Future without Imports.”

Watching the sunrise light up the stunning geodesic biomes that house the Eden Projects’ Tropical Rainforest and Mediterranean exhibits of flora, was inspirational. A setting that would bring together the leading UK universities Scientists and beekeepers, for the first Eden conference devoted to the conservation of the Dark European honey bee Amm (Apis mellifera mellifera).

My own beekeeping has been driven by a mishmash of what I have managed to glean from books, what has been published in the various journals and by talking to other beekeepers of often variable ability.

I soon came to realise that requeening colonies of bees every season and buying in replacements, possibly from overseas, to make up for the inevitable, it seemed, overwinter losses was not a sustainable system… by any measure.

In 2010 my family moved to Cornwall (from Devon!), and with half a dozen empty WBC hives arranged to buy 2 nucs of local bees from Mark Edwards on Rame, sharing the other one with Andrew Brown my neighbour… and hence set off on the road to keeping the Native Black (Cornish) honeybee.

Keeping bees that were adapted to local conditions and not having the tendency to become uncontrollable on the first outcross, and swarm at the drop of a hat, was a much more pleasurable experience.

Seven years on and in conjunction with Andrew Brown who initiated and runs the B4 Project ( Bring Back Black Bees) and BIBBA ( Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association)I am sitting at the back of an auditorium thronged with 200+ beekeepers and scientists listening to an incredible conference on Sustainable Beekeeping… A future without Imports.

Often controversial this is what the speakers had to say…

Mike Maunder, Director of Life Sciences at the Eden Project, gave the opening address and introduction as the founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit KBE   ( B4 Patron) was sadly unable to attend due to the passing on of his Mother.

The first guest speaker Norman Carreck, Science Director of IBRA and Sussex University

He asked the question why we need to conserve the dark European honey bee, why breed from local stock, and outlined the methodology of sustainable beekeeping.

Norman opened with stating that some would argue that conservation of honeybees is bad for the environment, in fact keeping bees denies other pollinators a food source and is causing their decline, and he also touched upon the question of transfer of viruses that infect honeybees to Bumblebees … or is it visa versa? However science has yet to show any correlation to support these hypotheses.

He discussed the evidence to support the existence of Native bees in Europe and the UK (Paper: Are UK Honeybees Native) and outlined the COLOSS initiative involving 95 countries in bee science research.

The question asked of 16 European University laboratories was: Could colony loss be due to keeping bees that are unsuitable for local conditions?

In this research local bee colonies were compared with two other non-local sub species, with 10 colonies of each. The principle findings of this ongoing research were that although there was no significant difference due to the site or location, there was significant difference in survival rates, with the local bees showing more robust survival rates, this may be due to the local bees having evolved and adapted to the local virus threat.

Looking towards the British Isles, Amm are the native bee in Britain and Ireland and have over 10,000 years adapted to localised climatic conditions, however within this distribution there has been an evolution of distinct localised strains with the Irish land mass having the greatest number.

Varroa has been a problem for beekeepers in the UK since 1992 and has shown a resistance to “treatments” and a serious lack of control methods.

For the last 10 years LASI (The Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex) has been carrying out research on honey bee hygienic behaviour, researching the ways that bees detect (Varroa) infected cells and then uncap and remove the larvae, there are a possible seven gene loci associated with this behaviour and there is ongoing research into the adaptation of technology to select local populations of hygienic bees.

Norman outlined the immediate problems associated with bee breeding for colony replacements in the UK and Ireland, saying that very few beekeepers are involved in bee breeding at a local level, and considering estimates of 220,000 colonies being maintained in the UK alone by amateur and professional beekeepers, there are annually fewer than 10 thousand colonies reared within the UK and in an excess of 15 thousand imported.

There is no reliable and up to date (UK) data on the numbers of imported bees and those that survive overwinter, losses being possibly due to the lack of beekeeping skills and problems with the weather as bees have not acclimatised to local conditions.

We seem to have a lack of structure for breeding and rearing our own stock, however there is an initiative to set up local bee breeding groups to address the problem that will be sustainable.


Mark Barnett is a research scientist currently working at the Roslin Institute / University of Edinburgh, his lecture;” Mapping honeybee health and genetic diversity in the UK”

He outlined his work and methods of DNA analyses and sampling, introducing “ Citizen Science” specifically on his work on Nosema which depended on involving beekeepers in Scotland with sampling and surveys.

The cost and speed of sequencing the honeybee genome have dramatically reduced and this has enabled science to move into new areas of research.

Marks’ work on the diversity of the bee population has also had the bonus of Nosema and other parasite genomes to be sequenced alongside that of the honeybee.

Mapping the genetic diversity of the UK involved sampling of bees from Colonsay, 3 groups of Amm in England and one Amm from a breeding project, 1 Carniolian and 1 Buckfast type hybrid plus 12 random Scottish samples.

Each sample was sequenced and genetic variation measured against a reference genome using SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) on a similarity network, compared to the Amm on Colonsay.

Mapping disclosed that the 12 random Scottish samples were closely related to each other local colony and were closely related to the bees on Colonsay and the 3 groups of Amm in England and the breeding project were related, but not so closely related to the Scottish samples.

Mark detailed some of the work being carried out by Alice Pinto and her work on C and M lineages, and the work being carried out by Per Kruger on similarity clustering.

The percentage of Amm colonies was higher in Ireland compared to the rest of the British Isles, this could be due to less importation of the C lineage type bees ( Carniolian and Ligurian) or due to their inability to adapt to the local environmental conditions.

There is little doubt that there is good quality Amm in some areas of the British Isles and that they have evolved differentially to cope with local environments

Mark closed on the thought that we should be utilising our Amm apiaries for breeding and encouraging new beekeepers to get engaged with breeding bees on a local basis… and doing Citizen Science!


Dr Mairi Knight and Victoria Buswell and Jon Ellis from the University of Plymouth set out the four year research project that is to be undertaken as Victorias’ PhD, with the aim to obtain robust distribution data on the dark honey bee and its genetics.

Focussed mainly on the South West of the UK bee population, this PhD will infill the little detailed information there is and involve Citizen Science from the beekeepers that get involved.

This will involve gathering of honey bee phenotype data and using DNA screening for lineages, and from this how the phenotype and DNA are associated.

DNA screening will encompass both mitrochondrial DNA ( mtDNA) that is conserved down the female line and nuclear DNA. In the honey bee there are 16 Kbp in mt DNA and 260M bp in nuclear DNA (K= thousand base pairs, M = million base pairs)* Of these long series of base pairs of nucleotides many seem to be non-coding, but may hold the key to behavioural and physiological differences, such as temper, hygienic traits and productivity, that are all important qualities that the beekeeper would want to breed from in a breeding programme.

*The honeybee genome is only one tenth the size of the human genome.

Supporting beekeepers using University facilities and connections in the fields of conservation ecology will help to identify and create native bee reserves.

There will also be the opportunity to initiate native honey bee sperm banks.

Research results will underpin the need to lobby against importation and to advise on transportation policies.

Victoria Buswell outlined the research she will be undertaking during her PhD studies.

In developing a survey to go out to beekeepers a pilot has already been accomplished … the Citizen Science touched on before.

Tasks for the beekeeper will be to record traits in specific colonies such as temperament, drone brood timing, cell size, prolificacy, productivity, worker and queen longevity. Stores and pollen levels will be recorded throughout the season together with an estimation of the worker brood population.

Weather conditions and specifically rainfall data will also be collected for each apiary, together with recording temperatures when bees are foraging.

Information will be recorded by the beekeeper on a simple spreadsheet and guidance on how to measure the parameters will be given.

Samples of each colony being monitored will be taken for DNA sequencing.

Feedback on the ongoing research will be available to the beekeeper during the PhD studies.

John Ellis spoke about the work that has already been accomplished in the South Western Peninsular on honey bee genetic screening.

B4 beekeeping members’ colonies have been surveyed for mtDNA and nuclear DNA, with the Swiss Laboratories Apigenix carrying out a survey of Cornish Amm to compare with Amm across the EU states.

There is evidence of some introgression of exotic sub species into the Cornish Amm genome, but distinctive localised and regional variance showing clusters of similarity detailing that the Cornish Amm are genetically distinct.

Generally the small numbers of colonies that have been sequenced have shown a very high threshold of purity with some samples being pure.

Jo Widdicombe asked the question can we improve our bees.?

Honeybees have developed over time by natural selection to show genetic diversity and established sub species showing local adaptations, as vital pollinators bees are being put under stress from farming practice and bee diseases. Buying in queens from overseas breeders has been a popular system but is this leading to the decline in the quality of our bees?

Could we produce a sustainable system of bee improvement in the UK without imports?

The disadvantages if buying in queens, or importing colonies, is that there is no time for adaptation to environmental conditions within the colonies, which can lead to losses, the quality of hybridised bees an be poor and importation and inadequate biosecurity can allow novel diseases into an already stressed beekeeping system.

We can however attain a sustainable system of bee improvement by selecting our best bees for breeding.

Natural selection of our native bee has produced genetic diversity developing bees that have local adaptation. Without constant introgression from imported stock it would be possible to produce bees that have all of the attributes that the beekeeper is looking for. The UK average for Amm is 45% and much higher in some areas, working with other beekeepers in a local area and selecting bees from the best stock, and a re-queening program, would produce bees that are productive and locally adapted.

Hybrid vigour is very misleading, and although this has been for many years the reasoning behind the need for importation of hybridised bees between two strains, it is not sustainable. In the following generation of bees the productivity falls and for reason stated before the introgression into the local community of exotic bee genes can cause problems.

Progress towards bee improvement can be slow, but refining breeding methods will speed progress, working within a strain will produce uniform characters with offspring similar to parents.

Breeders who working within a strain will produce a type of bee that is most likely to dominate, i.e. good queens produce good drones.

The way forward is for BIBBA groups to breed local stock.

Roger Patterson.. Journey to sustainability.

All beekeepers need to change and influence the way we keep bees, sound advice on a regional basis is needed.

The native bee of the British Isles thrived for 10,000 years, but importations of exotic species has brought in diseases and hive pests and these are causing problems for the bees and beekeepers.

On the Isle of Colonsay there has been a closed population of native dark honey bees for 25+ years. These bees are thriving and are now  protected by law against the importation of exotic species of bees. Little else seems to have been done to protect our own Dark bee in the UK. It is now time for imports to be stopped.

Beekeepers in the UK do have the ability to keep bees in a sustainable fashion, and commercial breeders  could produce the quantity and quality of bees needed to suit our environment.

The problem seems to be that there is a “want it now” culture developing amongst new beekeepers and importers are happy to supply and import bees.  The importers are selling bees for the wrong reason, solely for their commercial benefit.

The continental breeders can and do provide bees much earlier in the beekeeping season, and have capitalised on this.

Also selling bees with claimed hybrid vigour is not sustainable, we have seen bees being fed throughout the year and only producing a couple of pounds of honey.

These were imported hybrid bees, or are they mongrels… and were the wrong type of bee kept in wrong environment.

We hear of bees being imported from Argentina with the government departments’ official released information showing that minimal checks for disease on these imported bees are being undertaken by the authorities.

We hear of lorry loads of bees being brought across our boarders from Italy where there is Small Hive Beetle, also with what appears to be minimal if any checking at the time of import or once in their final destination, we have bee inspectors, what are they doing?

We need to ban importation of all bees into the British Isles now.


On the following day many of the conference attendees took the opportunity to visit the various apiary sites where B4 funded native dark bees are being kept, including Eden, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Godolphin House and the new dark native honey bee reserve and apiary at Mt Edgecumbe.


Kurt Jacksons exhibition, “Bees (And the Odd Wasp) in My Bonnet”  opens on the 25th March St Just.  B4/Friends of The Earth. Open until August 2017.

Thursday 25th of May 2pm The Orangery Mount Edgcumbe for the opening of the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park Bee Haven.

Short presentation and tour of the apiary and the French Conservatory.

Sir Tim Smit KBE Patron, Michael Eavis CBE, Associate Professor Mairi Knight Head of Biological Science Plymouth University, Kurt Jackson and Amy Shelton.