Mongrel Bees

In the last couple of years, I have read many, many articles on the ‘disappearing bees’ now called CCD or Colony Collapse disorder and the numerous suggestions as to the cause of so many hives dying off. From micro waves and cell phones to a variety of viruses, Varroa and Tracheal mites, to pesticides and insecticides, but nowhere do you see anything about queens, rearing and strain mongrelisation? By that I mean taking two different strains, mixing the two by breeding, then expecting a pure strain in return. The rules of genetics apply to bees the same as anything else on the planet.
When trying to discuss this point with other breeders the immediate reaction is for them to try to justify what they’re doing, and the common reaction is that one is trying to undermine their efforts, a failure to discuss the overall problem, and the ultimate error in defending their particular bees. A case, in particular, one beekeeper I know runs aggressive bees and justifies their actions by trying to explain that his angry mongrel bees are good foragers, from my experience it means they are good robbers.

Having kept bees going back to the 50’s I can report numerous changes we as beekeepers have made, often to the detriment of the bees, the major one in my estimation the mixing of strains in an attempt to produce the super bee. It can’t be done! Years ago there was no importation of bees, we managed with the stock we had and bred our own queens when needed. Looking around there have been numerous attempts over the years to breed a super bee and I would venture they have all failed. Have a look, they have all disappeared into oblivion.

Queen on a frame with bees
A good Italian Queen

The 4 major strains of bees,
Italians, Carniolans, Caucasians, and the European Dark bees are or were separated by large geographical regions, it’s only man’s interference which has joined these bees together, I believe to Mother Natures dismay.

We now know from DNA testing that queens mate with up to more than 17 drones on a single mating, which could lead in theory to 17 different families within a single hive. We also know from the same source that when a hive swarms it will swarm on family lines. Does it also follow that various ‘families’ might not be co-operating in a cohesive fashion? Perhaps this might account for the difficulty of re-queening some hives with a different strain of bee? For example the difficulty of re-queening with ‘Buckfast’ and ‘Russian’ queens when they were first tried in the Province.

I can only describe the results of the last 20 years of my keeping bees, the product of my observations and leave it to the reader to determine if there is value to my theory that the problem of CCD is created in part by mongrel bees.

In the early 80’s
we intensified our beekeeping, our life had become a little simpler. This involved buying a semi-isolated bee yard complete with 15 hives of an unknown variety, about the time that Dr Medhat Nasser and the Ontario Beekeeping Association was introducing Tracheal mite testing. I was one of the first to help by supplying him with 15 hive samples for testing, of which 10 proved to be resistant and 5, which we removed from the stock yard, were susceptible. No point is starting with a suspect strain of bees.

These 10 hives formed the basis of what was to follow. We had relative success breeding our own queens, they started producing bigger hives, more honey and we didn’t have too much winter loss, but a problem, aggressive bees. I have nothing against aggressive behaviour, but it makes for better beekeeping when they’re easier to handle, and I certainly couldn’t sell angry production queens.

About this time
There was a major push in the Province to ‘Buckfast’ bees, there were a number of breeders with this strain and I succumbed to the advertising and bought some, as being assured they would add a calming effect to my stock. That was the worst advice and information I could have received. The offspring of that strain mating were the worst
bees I had handled in over 50 years. My original breeding was thought of as being aggressive, but nothing like the latest round. Impossible to handle, they had that disgusting habit of following after a manipulation sometimes to a distance of 500 yards or more, adding more smoke in an attempt to suppress them just made them worse. We had to suit up before entering the yard and any bare skin and ankles were subject to attack, not at all a pleasant experience. In the end, I just killed them, washed them out of the hive with a spray of soapy water, the first time in all my beekeeping I had to do that.

Now I had a major problem. I had added a dark bee, mongrel at that, as that is what Brother Adam had done. He had taken not just one but a variety of different strains mixed them all together and called them ‘Buckfast’, still mongrels, regardless of the name they were given. Looking through all our hives we found numerous incidences of the mixing, most had dark and black drones and overall grey bees. Nothing like the bright Golden brown striped Italian I had grown up with and used for many years, Italians are relatively easy to spot due to their colour, even the drones are different, striped with the same colours of the workers. I am not one to wax lyrical but have found that a clean Italian strain to be delightful to work with. These are normally a quick, non-aggressive, hard working honey producer with large hives that do well in a warm summer and will winter over well with large hives early in the spring.

About this same time I became interested in Morphometry and fell in love with the idea of creating a cleaner strain, trying to eliminate the dark genes being a priority. The more we worked with the bees the more we became convinced that the mongrels were producing the effects we didn’t like. Once we really examined the hive numbers we could see quite plainly which had more dark genes, that led us to observe the more dark genes the more aberrations. At one point we had a hive which would not produce wax, another that was a useless forager, others that over produced pollen, excessive propolis, and so on, seemingly infinite problems. But as we found hives with a purer strain, so the results became much better. I am not trying to blame all dark bees, all I’m attempting is to explain our findings, hives with a mixture of strain colours do not do as well as a purer bee. It is highly possible a purer strain of dark bee might have the traits we demand, I don’t know, it would require others to experiment.

The rationale became that
If I wanted to stay in
beekeeping, breeding good production queens, I had to ‘clean’ my strain of these unwanted genes. So I spent some time learning how to use Morphometry, discovering the necessary methods of wing measurement to determine what bees I had, how many out of a sample were on ‘the wrong side of the blanket’ and selecting the best queens for use as breeder mothers. This whole business of selection was tricky, not only did we have to select for all the best traits, health, brood viability, wintering capabilities, cleanliness, foraging ability, aggression, we had to add the best Morphometry numbers. Quite often we found too many numbers on the wrong side of the scatter gram, or we would pick the wrong criteria, so it was not an easy task we had set. A look at our web pages on Morphometry would be helpful at this point.

About this time Tracheal mites really moved into our area, but we were unconcerned as we believed we had T mite resistance, never having treated for T- mites. As the T-Mite infestation moved across the province there was a move to test hives, by the bee inspectors, of all queen and nuc producers in the province for T mites. During one early test, it was determined we had T-mites in our yard. The inspectors had found one mite in one bee and that meant we were written up as having an infestation of T-mites in our bees. Even a protest and appeal to the Provincial Apiarist didn’t achieve anything, we had T-mites, end of the story, most unfair, but nothing could or would be changed. I believe this was strictly political. We instigated extensive testing and didn’t find another mite in any of our hives, nor did we lose any hives to T-Mites, so we shrugged our shoulders and carried on.

As we were on a path to ‘cleaner’ bees we kept records of a variety of points we needed so we could check our progress, noting, in particular, the state of winter ability. During this whole process, we didn’t lose a hive to winter, not one over the 20 year period.

Now we were in our ‘happy place’, good bees, still not as ‘clean’ as we would like but very, very close. Our Morphometry numbers were getting better every year, no mite problems of either sort, good wintering, our average honey crop, and I’m stressing ‘average’ was 215lbs per hive in a good weather year. Our queens were selling well, with lots of good reports and testimonials from satisfied customers. One point to note, we never had a problem with supersedure complaints. Too good to last? Sure enough, the USA decided to close the border to Canadian bees. To be precise they didn’t close the border but made matters extremely difficult to get queens across the border to individual customers which we were accustomed to servicing. This spelt the death knell to our commercial queen rearing, we had to close it down.

During one foray
into the hives, I suddenly noted a dramatic colour shift. The bees were changing colour, the workers were taking on a grey look and black drones had appeared, I even had winter losses. Panic ensued, we stopped selling the queens we were making for our friends, we pulled all the hives apart, checked each one, most had changed, they were mongrels again. I went back through the stats from previous years, the numbers for the queens we had last used were good, there should not have been any change, but there it was a major shift. Our mating pattern had been compromised and changed, drastically.

It was only after talking to a friend about the changes we had seen that he called one day and said “Did you know there are hives close to the mating yard? I have just noticed them.” He explained where they were and rang off. I immediately drove down to have a look, sure enough hives placed so they could hardly be seen from the road, about 1/2 mile from my mating yard. I walked down the field and watched the entrances for a few minutes, sure enough, mongrels, and what a mixture. After questioning the locals I determined who owned them, my nemesis, so I then called the bee inspector for my area and the answer I got was a total waste of time. Nothing could be done, the damage was done.

That winter the hammer fell, total failure, 9 out of 10 dead. The remaining hive was so weak as to be a waste of time and we had to nurse it back to health. The remaining hive was tested, it had a case of T mites and suffered badly from Nosema, both of which had killed the other 9.

We were devasted and demoralised,
20 years of work down the drain, much gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists at the beekeeper Gods, we wanted revenge, but it was all a waste of effort, revenge was not forthcoming.

Italian Queen on frame with bees
Good Italian Queen

Now we had to make a decision. Either to stop keeping bees completely as we had nothing left or to make a fresh start and just keep a number of hives, for our own enjoyment. Starting again was the answer, just for our own interest and pleasure. For the next two years, we drove around the Province looking at hives, with the owner’s permission, looking for the very elusive ‘Italians’. They don’t exist. I was promised ‘Italians’, they said they bred ‘Italians’, but nowhere could I find pure ‘Italians’, all I found was mongrels. Even advertised bee breeders couldn’t produce anything like a clean Italian, most were just buying in queens from Australia and other places in spite of advertising themselves as breeders.

I have now arrived at a starting point. We have 5 hives, 4 quite strongly Italian and one black mongrel. These will all be tested in the spring if they survive, and from those, we are hopeful we can breed some purer strain of Italians. At least we have a starting point again.

So what can the average beekeeper do to improve their stock?
The first thing to do is to establish what strain of bee they really want to keep. Examine their bees carefully and note any variation in overall colour, ignore young bees as they will change colour slightly as the bees age. Best to look at mature bees, noting the abdomen carefully for banding colours. Then examine the list of characteristics listed on our Morphometry pages which should give you a good start point in establishing which bees you have. Then select those bees which have the traits you want, plus the colour you need, and use them as queen mothers. Selecting drones is just as vital. Beware, black drones fly faster than the larger Italians, just a point to bear in mind. In other areas of our
web site you’ll find information on restraining unsuitable drones to prevent them flying and mating with those virgin queens you’ve raised. Then when you start seeing better results you publish the results, get others involved in re-starting a cleaner healthier strain of bees.

This has been a long article. I can only hope it was worth the read?