Genetic Studies in Cornwall

Genetic Studies in Cornwall on the Old Black Honey Bee
Preamble for the B4Project’s Genetic Studies

Prior to the arrival of Varroa in the colonies in the far west Cornwall, (around 1994) there were plentiful swarms each season. Most were typically black and showed the classic characteristics of Apis mellifera mellifera.

hairiness mandibles2 typical black group

Those beekeepers breeding and maintaining all-black strains with native characters would find that in most years, mating were within strain and it would be easy to replace hybridised queens producing mixed strains.  In some years the presence of imports, typically Italian and Buckfast origin bees coupled with fine weather, at high summer mating time, expressed itself in the progeny of  black queens.  In most instances this could be corrected readily as long as mating occurred in poorer weather or toward the end of the season.  Thus there was a high degree of confidence that natural selection through open mating would maintain the background characteristics of native or near-native drones due to the positive impact of constant selection for survival characteristics.  Those colonies without them would have poor survival chances in the variable and poor weather.
There is no quantitative baseline for the estimated number of native feral colonies however, the dramatic decline in swarms since the onset of varroa, could indicate that it might have been around 3/4 of all colonies. In other words, beekeepers held a minority of all colonies and natural selection worked on the rest.

Swarms are now rather mixed in character with approximately 10% being black and higher where local beekeepers breeding efforts influences natural mating.  However, most collected and unknown origin swarms are much less within strain, and queens produced in apiaries where Amm is specifically selected for are less likely to be within strain unless precautions are taken as to the management of the mating apiary by timing, drone rearing and favourable location for apiary vicinity mating.

There is a lack of knowledge of the genetic makeup of bees before and after varroa in the far west of the county. But it is noted by those working with the native Cornish bee that in selecting and managing black bees for health and honey production they  easily match or surpass imports readily and regularly.  This is more noticeable in poor seasons where, crops are typically higher and winter survival better.

In particular, those beekeepers working towards disease and varroa tolerance have identified and selected for varroa limiting behaviours in these native black bees.
Nevertheless there is a high degree of doubt in many circles of these claims.  In particular those characteristics that are attributed to the old native bee from those that have managed to survive the twin destructors of varroa and imports.

It is therefore a wonderful opportunity to build on the pioneering work of Kate Thompson and FERA in making available methods and markers of the various races of Apis mellifera against which we can assess the characters of the native Cornish bees.

In order to preserve as much of the old Apis mellifera mellifera strain and those that demonstrate signs of varroa tolerance,  breeding must be from those colonies identified as near native and encourage replacement of hybridised queens so as to offset the negative influences and impacts of imported strains and bees from outside the county.

The challenge is to establish to those that wish to import queens and colonies into the peninsula, that the native bee is productive, good tempered, disease tolerant and easily managed. Thus a selected breeding programme incorporating the advantages of the peninsula’s topography for natural mating, the use of selected Instrumental Insemination from the best of the native bees, will enable a programme of breeding to provide native Amm. queens early enough in the season to help rebuild lost colonies and improve the productive capacity and general biodiversity. This project will help enormously in that endeavour.

James Kilty
amended by R D Dewhurst 20/11/13
amended by Andrew G L Brown 26/11/13