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Whole Bee Concept

Maintaining Genetic Diversity and Locally Adapted Bees

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The danger of breeding for specific traits

The history of selective breeding is full of both successes and failures. Many a great breed became great when the overall health and usefullness was the criteria for selection. And many of those wonderful breeds were ruined when some specific trait became the "trait de jour". I hardly think it necessary to give a lot of examples of this since they are abundant in every domestic species. Dogs, cattle, horses, etc. have all suffered from this mentality of breeders. Let's pick one that seemed practical at the time. Herefords were bred for many years to be "compact". The thinking was that long legs were a waste of energy since you can't sell bone, just meat. So if cattle had short legs with more meat on them and less bone, the animal would be a higher proportion of meat and lower proportion of bone and therefore be more profitable. So for a century or more they were bred to be "compact". The breeding for compactness was a great success if you measure it by just that trait. The problem was when they succeeded the once hardy and self-sufficient cattle breed was suddenly beset by calving difficulties. Someone, shortly after started correlating leg length and calving difficulties and discovered that short legged cattle had more problems and long legged cattle had less. So now they discovered, after throwing away all of the long legged genetics, that they had backed themselves into a genetic corner. What they should have been breeding for was overall health (including ease of calving).

The appeal of selecting for very specific traits is that it seems so scientific. The problem is that it is not so scientific. Reality is that the genetic combinations that produce health, longevity, productivity etc. are not just one gene or one simple trait, they are a combination of many genes and many traits. The problem of breeding for specific traits is that you are not only missing the "forest for the trees" but you are missing the "forest for the" cells in the leaves on the trees. In other words you need to back up and get some perspective.

Danger of being too selective

"We're trying to ensure the failure of modern beekeeping by focusing too much on single traits; by ignoring the elements of Wildness; and by constantly treating the bees. The biggest mistake of all is to continue viewing mites and other "pests" as enemies that must be destroyed, instead of allies and teachers that are trying to show us a path to a better future. The more virulent a parasite is, the more powerful a tool it can be for improving stocks and practice in the future. All the boring and soul-destroying work of counting mites on sticky boards, killing brood with liquid nitrogen, watching bees groom each other, and measuring brood hormone levels---all done in thousands of replications---will someday be seen as a colossal waste of time when we finally learn to let the Varroa mites do these things for us. My own methods of propagating, selecting and breeding bees, worked out through many years of trial and error, are really just an attempt to establish and utilize Horizontal breeding with honeybees---to create a productive system that preserves and enhances the elements of Wildness. My results are not perfect, but they have enabled me to continue making a living from bees without much stress, and have a positive outlook for the future. I have no doubt that many other beekeepers could easily achieve these same results, and then surpass them."--Kirk Webster, What's missing from the current discussion and work related to bees that's preventing us from making good progress.

The other issue of being too selective is that you can create a bottleneck in the gene pool. Genetic bottlenecks can cause obscure problems to become common problems. Inbreeding fixes traits. The problem is that it fixes both good and bad traits. Fixing the bad traits can result in making these traits endemic to the population. Genetic bottlenecks also can eliminate lines that might be needed to survive the next "bee crisis".

A catastrophic example of this was the Irish potato famine. First of all there are thousands of varieties of potato and only a few are susceptible to the blight that caused the famine. Second, the potatoes were started by cutting eyes, which means that the potatoes were all clones of each other, with no genetic diversity from one potato to the next. So this genetic bottleneck led to the deaths of over a million people and the displacement of millions more. This is the danger of genetic bottlenecks.

Complexity of Success

The genetic combinations that lead to success are almost infinitely complex. The combinational analysis of what makes a gentle, productive, healthy bee is beyond our comprehension. But observing success is not beyond our comprehension.

Success may not even be genetic

The success of a hive is so complex that it may be we are actually choosing based on the genetics of the microbes in the hive or even misinterpreting success altogether.

Jay Smith shares this story in “Better Queens”

"In Indiana we had an outyard laid out in the form of a triangle as that was the shape of the plot on which we had our bees. During the sweet clover flow one colony produced three supers of honey while the others averaged about two supers. In the fall that colony produced two supers of honey from smartweed and asters while the rest produced a little less than one super. Surely that colony that so far outdistanced the others must have a queen that would make an excellent breeder.

"I thought I would take a look at her but alas, when I opened the hive, I found it not only had no queen but was fairly lousy with laying workers! Just why then the big yield? This colony was located at the point of the triangle to the west and the fields of nectar lay to the west. It was evident that the bees in returning from the fields-maybe the ones out for their first load-stopped at the first hive they came to and kept it packed with bees."

What we have bred for

  • No Propolis
  • Solid brood patterns
  • Queens that never shut down
  • Color
  • Large bees
  • Less drones
  • Less swarming
  • More honey

Counter Productive

We have bred bees that are not as healthy because propolis is part of their immune system.

We bred against hygienic behavior by breeding for perfect brood patterns.

We bred for longer gestation times (giving the Varroa an advantage) by breeding for larger bees.

We have bred bees that are reproductively challenged because of less drones, bigger drones, less swarming etc. giving the edge to the AHB or other wild bees

Basically almost everything we bred for was a bad idea.

What we should breed for

  • Overall health and vitality
  • Ability to detect a failing queen and replace her
  • Adapted to your climate and your flows
  • Productivity
  • Overwintering
  • Gentle and manageable

How do you assess?

Need them to at least have gone through one winter with that queen’s workers.

Need them to at least have gone through one flow with that queen’s workers.

Look at the big picture of health and good instincts. Not single traits.

Maintaining genetic diversity

  • Don’t breed all your queens from the same line
  • Think more in terms of removing what you don’t want
  • Breed out the bad
  • Leave all of the good ones and try to maintain all of the lines that are worth keeping
  • The goal is for the gene pool to be both broad and good

Breeder queen in at least her 2nd year

Some of the great queen breeders such as Jay Smith had breeder queens that were 6 or 7 years old How can you assess a queen if you haven’t seen her offspring overwinter successfully and produce well?

Bees with a gambling problem

Bees are all gamblers. They have to rear brood ahead of the flow to have foragers for the flow. The ones that gamble big are the ones the win big. The ones that gamble big are also the ones that lose big. One theory is that you should breed from “average” bees instead of the "outliers" to avoid the big gamblers.

Maybe we make it too complicated

"The records are carefully scanned, and that queen chosen which, all things considered, appears to be the best. The first point to be weighed is the amount of honey that has been stored. Other things being equal, the queen whose workers have shown themselves the best stores will have the preference.

"The matter of wintering will pretty much take care of itself, for a colony that has wintered poorly is not likely to do very heavy work in the harvest. The more a colony has done in the way of making preparations for swarming, the lower will be its standing. Generally, however, a colony that gives the largest number of sections is one that never dreamed of swarming.

"I am well aware that I will be told by some that I am choosing freak queens from which to rear; and that it would be much better to select a queen whose royal daughters showed uniform results only a little above the average. I don't know enough to know whether that is true or not, but I know that some excellent results have been obtained by breeders of other animals by breeding from sires or dams so exceptional in character that they might be called freaks.

"I know, too, that it is easier to decide which colony does best work than it is to decide which queen produces royal progeny the most nearly uniform in character. By the first way, too, a queen can be used a year sooner than by the second way, and a year in the life of a queen is a good deal. I may mention that a queen which has a fine record for two successive seasons is preferred to one with the same kind of a record for only one season."--C.C. Miller, Fifty Years Among the Bees

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2012 by Michael Bush

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