Despite what you may hear or read, it is fairly easy to change some of the characteristics of your bees. This can be done by assessing colonies against a set of criteria that you want in your bees, using queen cells from colonies displaying those criteria and culling those that don’t. Clearly these criteria need to be something that is achievable, not something that isn’t. What beekeepers need to remember is they usually only have influence over half the parentage if working on their own, unless they are in an isolated area, or are working as part of a much bigger group and are flooding the area with drones from selected colonies.
I believe that many writers and lecturers discourage a large number of beekeepers from improving their bees, by making the subject appear much more complicated than it need be. With a small number of colonies, or for beginners, I believe the list of desirable characteristics should be fairly short. Making it as long as your arm, as some do, will probably mean you will never achieve what you set out to. In my view the short list below is all the smaller or newer beekeeper need use, until their bees are reasonably consistant.
In some parts of the U.S there are beekeepers who are working incredibly hard to improve the bees in their area. These are mainly beekeepers who are using the dark European honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera, mainly because they believe that is the type of bee most suited to that area. On their behalf, can I ask you to check if this is the case and work with them? Some of the breeding stock is excellent and may have taken many years to perfect. The existance of other races in the area is likely to wreck this work in a very short time.
For the small or beginner beekeeper I suggest you concentrate on the following:-
Temper. This in my view should be at the top of everyones list.
Calmness on the comb. This is also known as “running”, although the terminology suggests they are opposites
Prolificacy. Many don’t consider this to be very important, but I certainly do. I suggest you decide if you want prolific or non – prolific bees and what size brood boxes you want. The bee should suit the box, otherwise you will have problems you could probably do without.
Colour. This is often seen as not being important, but it gives you a very good idea if your selection is on track or not. It is more difficult to breed from colonies where the workers are different colours, as the queens raised will also be different colours and will probably show differing characteristics.
This is a “paperwork” exercise and is the collating and analysing of the data collected as individual Hive Records. Only colonies that have been headed by the same queen for a full year are actually assessed.
Other factors that should be considered.
Marla Spivak is a renowned authority on this subject and her text
“The Minnesota Hygiene Queen” is becoming the classic work on this theme.
House Cleaning Behaviour
This is separate and distinct from, but often confused with “Hygienic” behaviour, simply because of the links in human life between hygiene and cleaning.
This is the ability of individual workers to remove mites (and other contaminants) from their bodies, combined with similar action performed by pairs or groups of workers.
Mite Damaging Behaviour
This is another item that is confused with both grooming behaviour and hygienic behaviour. In it’s simplest form it is counting the total mite drop, then microscopically examining each mite for signs of mutilation and bite marks by the bees. Then a score is generated on the number of damaged mites compared to the total originally counted.
Varroa mites for microscopic examination can be sandwiched between plain glass microscope slides using the cardboard masks that allow inspection of both upper and lower body surfaces of many individual mites.
Excessive propolis causes sticky hands and makes frame removal difficult during colony examination. Select from those colonies that do not exhibit large dollops of propolis on the ends of frame topbars.
Bees following a beekeeper back to his or her vehicle may encounter other humans that are not wearing protective clothing. It does not matter whether these following bees sting or not, they still give beekeeping a bad name and should be de-selected wherever possible.
Cool Weather Clustering (cool air clustering)
This is exhibited strongly by Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) colonies and is a characteristic that I positively select for. It is often described as “drippy” bees and some beekeepers consider the behaviour as “nervous”. Providing it is not mixed with “running” and “jumping” and you turn your trousers down around the tops of your wellington boots, it is no problem.
Apiary vicinity Mating
This is not very often observed directly, but may be inferred due to knowledge of local weather. It gets a big plus in my book.
With a mind to the commercial appeal of cut comb and section honey… White, regular and slightly raised cappings catch the eye and confer a higher purchase price on the finished product.
Head Butting Behaviour
Bees bouncing off the front of your veil or battering your head may seem trivial if you consider the smallness of a bee’s mass, but it soon becomes a nuisance and should not be tolerated. The general public are unlikely to take kindly to this activity either.
Biting and Hair Pulling
These uses of the bees mandibles are fairly rare and I am uncertain as to whether it is a good or bad trait. I am hopeful that a link will be shown between this and “mite damaging” which will clinch the matter, but we must wait for the results of more research.
This I categorise as mainly neutral. However, I try to avoid those colonies that extend the process of guarding beyond their alighting board.
This is one thing that I greatly dislike in bees, and will cull ruthlessly, although I know some commercial beekeepers that consider it is to their benefit to propagate such robber bees.
Selection for good characteristics and breeding from the specimen colonies that are found to contain the ‘right’ qualities is a big feature of the work done by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group that is organised by Micheál Mac Giolla Coda in Ireland.