Breeding the Honeybee


The Honeybee - then and now

It is now generally accepted that the earth has been in existence for some four to five thousand million years.  The oldest honeybee has been preserved for us in amber in the Baltic, where it lived more than fifty million years ago.  The fossil remains of the honeybee which have up to now been found in Europe date from a time previous to the Ice Age, that is from the Tertiary Period when the climatic conditions in Europe were similar to those prevalent in India today.  The best known fossil remains of bees come from RANDECK and BÖTTINGEN in south-west Germany, and also from ROTT in the Siebengebirge.  Those from RANDECK and BÖTTINGEN belong to the early Miocene, those from ROTT to the later Miocene Period.  Apart from the remains which have come down to us in amber, the three forms which have been found in the Siebengebirge are the oldest primitive forms of the honeybee known to us.  They date from some twenty-five million years ago.

All these primitive forms differ from one another in size and in a number of morphological characteristics.  They all have a close resemblance to the Apis mellifera, although they are not identical with it.  The Sinapis dormitans from ROTT however is so close to our honeybee of today as to be easily mistaken for it.

None of these kinds of bees survived the Ice Age, which lasted for over a million years, its final retreat beginning some 30,000 years ago and ending about 10,000 years ago.  During the various periods of the Ice Age it was impossible for the honeybee to exist in the greater part of Europe.  The huge ice cap stretched from the North Pole southwards to a line drawn from the mouth of the Severn in England across to Kiev in Russia and then on further east.  During this Ice Age the honeybee had only three places of refuge the Iberian, Italian and Balkan peninsulas.  In the areas north of the Pyrenees and the Alps as far as the edge of the ice cap there was but endless Tundra.

The bees of the Italian peninsula, the Ligustica, were probably confined to their native habitat, as the Alps formed an insuperable barrier to any form of migration northward.  After the Ice Age the bees of the Balkans were able to spread north to the Eastern Alps and also north-east to the borders of Russia, where further progress was impeded not by the mountain ranges but by the treeless steppes.  Hence at the end of the let Age the repopulation of the other European regions could be effected only by bees from the Iberian peninsula by way of the coastal gaps at either end of the Pyrenees rendering an unhindered migration northwards possible.  These bees were a variation of the North-African Apis m. intermissa from which the West European races developed and formed the different sub-species.

Of the original forms of the honeybee which had their native habitat in northern Europe before the Ice Age none were left.  True, the fossil remains provide us with information on the morphological side, but naturally we lack any means of ascertaining their physiological characteristics.  Yet the almost unbelievable stability of the morphological features of these primitive forms and that of Apis mellifera of today, which have persisted throughout this length of time, provides us with a number of basic starting points which from the genetic point of view we cannot disregard.  Although there is no evidence of any progressive evolution in the honeybee during these millions of years, there is clear indication of a ruthless natural selection.

Of the innumerable primitive forms of the honeybee only four have survived: Apis mellifera, Apis cerana (Indian bee), Apis dorsata (Giant bee), Apis florea (Dwarf bee).  None of these kinds seems to owe its origin to the primitive bees whose fossil remains are known to us.  The only possible exception is the Sinapis dormitans from ROTT, which was mentioned above.  This has a close resemblance to our Apis mellifera.  Today Apis mellifera has spread throughout the entire world, except for south-east Asia which is the preserve of Apis cerana, dorsata and florea.  These three kinds of honeybees are however of no real economic or breeding value.  They cannot be crossed either among themselves or with the Apis mellifera.

Nature as a Breeder

From the outset the breeding and survival of the honeybee was left to the whim of Nature.  Nature's aim in breeding is limited exclusively to the preservation and dissemination of a species and her sole means of doing this is a ruthless selection.  Whatever could not adapt itself to a given environment was without exception left to its doom.  The one aim was the survival of the most adaptable and the fittest.  Although Nature has bequeathed to us only a small number of different types of honeybee, she has on the other hand provided us with a great number of different geographical races, ecotypes of immense value for breeding purposes.  Yet true to her principles, Nature never breeds an ideal or perfect bee, one which would answer all demands of the modern beekeeper.  The realisation of this ideal has been left by Nature to the progressive, purposeful bee breeder of today.

Results of Recent Breeding Endeavours

Bee breeding by up-to-date methods has hardly begun.  Dr. Ulrich KRAMER, a Swiss, provided in 1898 the initial impulse.  However at that time MENDEL's laws of genetics were hardly known and modern beekeeping was still in its infancy, at a stage of its development which has not even yet been completed.  Before the introduction of the moveable frame in 1850, the whole life-process of a colony of bees was hidden behind a veil of mystery, and consequently any attempt at influencing beekeeping by breeding was impossible.

Again, bees which have been preserved by Nature for millions of years can survive in modern conditions and be an economic proposition without the beekeeper having to resort to breeding.  There will be no notably high averages of honey per colony gained with a minimal expenditure of labour, but such beekeeping can be profitable.  For these reasons then the experiments in bee breeding and the efforts made to produce a really profitable bee have till now produced very meagre results.

Up to the present time it is in the German speaking countries that most work has been done in the field of bee breeding.  It began in Switzerland with the 'Nigra', and for some thirty years the breeding experiments with this strain enjoyed a popularity not only in Switzerland but beyond its frontiers.  Today however the 'Nigra' belongs to the pages of history.  From about 1950 its place has been taken by the Carnica which today runs as the favourite, at least in Central Europe.  Yet in spite of all that has been claimed for it, from the point of view of profitable beekeeping it is difficult to see that any worthwhile progress has been made in breeding the.  Carnica as it is today.  Her predecessor, the original Carniolan bee, had characteristics which were rightly highly esteemed, but these are lacking in the modern Carnica.

In the past fifty years the Ligustica has fared little better.  True, we have a bee which as far as colour is concerned is more uniform and attractive, is good tempered and prolific, but short-lived and extremely unthrifty.  She is really of value only where there are heavy flows and especially where the climatic conditions are favourable.  To give an objective estimate from the strictly economic point of view of the breeding experiments made up to date one is forced to say that they have been only moderately successful.

The causes of this lack of progress are indeed numerous.  Admittedly breeding the honeybee poses problems which are not encountered in the world of animals and plants.  In fact from many points of view breeders in these fields have a comparatively easy task.  On the other hand bee breeders have advantages which are denied to animal and plant breeders.  Be that as it may, comparisons drawn from experiments in other realms of breeding have only very limited value when applied to the honeybee.

The real causes of the failure in bee breeding work up to the present have been the lack of a definite aim and the unrealistic, amateurish methods employed.  In the following chapters we will try to set out what breeding the honeybee entails.

[Contents  —  Preface]
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