A Curious Beekeeper considers what is meant by local adaptation

Yipes. Talk about nature versus nurture. There is great debate about just what locally adapted means and if locally adapted bees survive better and produce more than imported bees.

In the UK there is a great movement to keeping the local native bee, the so called black bee or Apis mellifera mellifera, despite (or perhaps in spite of) Amms having almost been wiped out by the infamous Isle of Wight disease beginning near the dawn of the last century, and lasting for some 20 years. Like CCD, the cause of IOW is debated, with many publications saying it was Tracheal mites.

I found a web posting by Wally Shaw, a Welch beekeeper and author, who says the black bees have been evolving there since the last ice age. Honey bees are not native here. Apis mellifera mellifera was first brought here in the 1600s, and over time was augmented with other bees of Apis mellifera, notably ligustica (Italian) and carnica.

Beekeepers in the Northern US tend to believe that bees adapted to our climate do better in terms of survival than bees from the South or from California. I myself import bred Canadian bees when I can afford them, locally produced and bred bees otherwise. I’d import from Europe if I could. (Danish Buckfast) but the Honey Bee act of 1922 has that door firmly shut.

(“Russian” bees, meaning bees from the RBBA didn’t work for me.)

Why am I using the word “bred”? I haven’t been convinced that natural selection will give me the bee I want to work with, at least not in the time frame I have available to me. I keep in mind that with natural selection, extinction is a possibility.

The problem with bred bees is that you’re forever buying them. At least if the goal is to keep your bees true to what you bought.

Then too, I have never bought the notion that all swarms are locally adapted, survivor bees. Perhaps if the swarm was seen emerging from a bee tree somewhere deep in the woods, but otherwise… I do not know of any genetic testing that can be done without killing the bees being tested.

Not that I am dismissing natural selection. Given the little I know about Honey bees and genetics, I speculate it will take 30 years plus to achieve a bee that will have adapted to life with Varroa. If we go that way exclusively, I worry that there might not be any commercial beekeepers left. If Varroa was first observed in the US in 1987...doing the math… let’s make that another 30 years.

I know there are some commercial beekeepers who are said to make a go of their beekeeping, relying on natural selection. Sam Comfort and Kirk Webster are often mentioned.

Still, I don’t want my investment in what is a hobby for me, to be lost. Without live bees, I’ll have a bunch of very expensive kindling.

(I suppose I could put the electric fence around my sweet corn.)

So, what’s local adaptation? Bees that are progeny of those that survive (winters) and in general thrive locally. I tend to add surviving in areas colder than mine too. I also want decent honey production, reasonable temperament, and at least the start of abilities to deal with Varroa on their own.

For now, bred bees seem like my best option. I feel in some ways like I am going the natural selection route with regards to natives, bumbles and the like. The ones who do a great deal of the pollination already.

The big difference being that I don’t manage the native bees, other than to in general terms keep the 4 Ps (Pesticides, Parasites, Pathogens, Poor Nutrition) in mind for them too.

There is some evidence that smaller colonies have fewer issues with Varroa than larger ones, and that feral colonies tend to be smaller. Then I remember it was long ago drilled into my head that if you want to make a lot of honey, you need a lot of bees.

And some very good beekeepers say this talk of local adaptation is bunk, and that a good beekeeper keeps bees alive. I hear that, but at the same time I also look for whatever advantages I can get.

I guess I still have some thinking to do.

I’m glad EAS is coming up next week. I’m sure some tidbit will emerge that will compete for my thinking time.

Andrew Dewey