We have been breeding bees and Queens for the last 12 years, commercially, and for a long time as amateurs on an ‘as needed basis’ and during all of that time have had a feeling that the selection process that we all use to determine the best for breeding purposes is badly flawed.
The standard method of selection has been to note the best hive around, check out all the features we would like to see in our bees, for example, temper, disease resistance, honey gathering, even hygiene, and finally bee colouration. With these criteria established the hive in question would then be either rejected or used as either a queen or drone mother. Even with all the criteria, plus care in rearing methods occasionally queens would not ‘measure up’ to the potential that was possible.
Why should a queen who came from the best stock hive available, plus mated under controlled conditions turn nasty, or fail to make a good crop, while a sister queen did a magnificent job? Despite a great deal of personal research, nowhere could I find a satisfactory answer to that question, I had a feeling that something was missing, a part of the puzzle wasn’t available to complete the full breeding picture, well finally I believe I have found that missing part in Morphometry.
I was lead to believe that until quite recently the only true test to establish racial or strain characteristics was by DNA testing, an expensive and time consuming procedure beyond the scope of most bee keepers. Actually, I have been informed that morphometry methods have been with us much longer than the DNA methods. The Germans were using morphometry extensively 50 years ago, and the ‘Father’ of morphometry, C.Goetze published papers in 1930, 1940 and 1964 on morphometry. Freidrich Ruttner also published work on morphometry from 1975 until his death a few years ago. Now with the publication of the morphometry methods even amateur bee keepers can adopt methods to improve the quality of their stock without expensive tests or equipment.
If we use dog breeding as an example of interchanging genes due to cross breeding, then a better understanding of the problems we face will be more apparent. Take a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab, mix the races by mating, now try to establish which genes will predominate in the offspring. Genetics tell us that we will see, Golden; mixed colour and Black, plus of course facial and coat differences and in some cases changes in behavior. Now should we select the second generation Golden to mate, then what other genes are already incorporated but not apparent by visual inspection, its possible a percentage of Black. The same applies to bees, while we continue to just examine our bees for colour then we cannot be sure what race they are, nor the degree of mixture, hybridisation or mongrelisation that occurs within those same bees.
If we should now use a queen who has an off mixture of strains in her genes, then which of those genes will be in her offspring will be impossible to predict. This becomes a problem for the breeder, ‘unpredictability’ is a dirty word if one is trying to make a living from breeding bees. Should the original queen have for example, Apis mellifera mellifera (A.m.m) plus Apis mellifera ligustica (A.m.l) all mixed together, which of those genes will come to predominance in her offspring. Genetics tell us that there will be mixture of both; some will predominate with A.m.m while others will have A.m.l, and yet others will have a mixture of all genes again like the mother. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that under these circumstances that predictable offspring is virtually impossible and can explain our original question of why some queens don’t measure up. It can also explain how second generation queens often turn ugly, but can also be as good as the original mother, you will have at best a 50-50 chance of picking the right one, and depending on the original mother’s mixture, even less!
About 2 years ago we noticed that bees coming from our baby nucs used for mating queens were showing signs of hybridisation, odd bees that were grey in colour compared to our usual bright Italian (A.m.l) colour. We immediately changed the queen mother and started investigating, why?
The colour changed back, but slightly darker than we were accustomed to, even though the original queen mother was our usual bright colour and the incidence of off colour bees hadn’t increased. There really wasn’t an apparent answer until this year when it was decided we needed to investigate further, using Morphometry to test our bees for strain variation, the answer was immediately obvious. We have hybridisation of varying degrees in our breeder stock!
Having tested two hives, out of curiosity, and found a degree of crossing, it was decided that a full investigation of all breeding stock was necessary to establish the amount of crossing, and further to enable adjustments to be made for the next season. We had always assumed that our bees were relatively clean with regard to crosses, boy, were we in for a surprise. Someone once wrote,’To know where you are going, it is also necessary to know where you have been’ how true that statement is.
One of the first hives to be tested was the original queen that started producing off colours; her numbers showed that she was strongly A.m.m and would never produce Italian offspring, even though her general colour was the same as all the rest. (Her scattergram is reproduced below.) The second hive, a drone mother hive of this year produced good numbers in the Italian range, but also spikes of A.m.m, signifying a cross that would add off genes to the mating area.
We have now completed the testing for this year; some queens have been totally rejected and will be moved and at a later date, culled and replaced. Others are noted that can still be used and replaced at a later date, and lucky for us, others proved to be highly successful and will be used to improve the stock even further, all thanks to Morphometry. Before I get lots of mail giving further advice regarding selection, I should point out, morphing is only carried out when all other selection criteria have been established, and is the final act in the selection process.
There is nothing to gain if swarmy, bad tempered bees are propagated just in an attempt to clean the bees of crossed genes.
I stated earlier that Morphometry was a method of measuring bee anatomy to establish race or strain characteristics and an understanding of the necessary measuring points might be useful. First and foremost, wing veins. A right forewing is mounted in the proscribed fashion and measurements are taken of interspatial areas that produce Cubital Index (CI) and Discoidal Shift (DS). These measurements can be achieved in two manners and will be discussed in due course. Tongue length, Tomentum and Hair length are additional measurements, which can be added to confirm the findings of CI and DS and the BIBBA site has these details.
Courtesy of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeding Association.
The definition of the terms are as follows:-
Cubital index is the ratio between two segments in the cubital cell in a bee’s wing.
Discoidal shift is a measurement, again in the wing, which measures the position of the discoidal joint in relation to the lower joint in the radial cell.
Length of overhairs, this is strictly the length of the over-hairs on the fifth tergite, a tergite being one of the segments of the abdomen.
Width of tomentum, this is the width of the band of hair on the abdomen segments.
Selection based on Morphometry
The comparison of the cubital index, and discoidal shift of the wing venation of honeybees together with the body colour, can be used to give an indication of a colony’s potential as a breeder queen. This is to determine if the colony (or rather the queen that is heading the colony) is a pure race one or a hybrid.
|Table for the comparison of the main external characters of the four principal races of European Bees|
|General Appearance||Large, broad short limbs||Medium size, slim, long limbs||Medium size, slim, long limbs|
|Workers Black,may have small|
spots on the 2nd tergite. may also be yellow
|1, 2 or 3 Yellow rings.|
Scutellum may be coloured.
|Black, may have small|
spots or 1 ring leather.
|Black with perhaps spots or rings|
|Dark||Yellow rings||Dark small|
|Cubital Index workers|
1.3 – 2.1
2.0 – 2.7
2.4 – 3.0
1.7 – 2.3
|Cubital Index Drones|
1.0 – 1.5
1.6 – 2.0
1.8 – 2.3
on 5th tergite
0.4 – 0.6mm
0.2 – 0.3mm
|Short – Medium|
0.25 – 0.35mm
|Brown – Black||Yellowish||Grey – Brown||Grey|
|Tomentum width on 4th|
tergite at widest part
|Narrow, less than ½ of width. Hairs|
may be Yellowish
|Broad, more than ½ of width. Hairs may be yellowish.||Broad abundant hair.|
Bee looks grey
|Broad, plenty of hair.|
Bee looks grey.
5.8 – 6.2mm
6.3 – 6.6mm
6.4 – 6.8mm
6.7 – 7.2mm
There are two different methods of measuring for Morphometry, the older projector method (see below) and the newer computer method, using a scanner and graphic software.
A speadsheet which can be used with MS Excel has been supplied by Ruary Rudd from Ireland firstname.lastname@example.org and with our assistance, fine tuned by us. This file can be downloaded from this site and needs a scanner capable of resolving 1200 dpi Optical, in both vertical and horizontal axis, a graphics handling program with X-Y plotting, a printer would be an advantage. To save space I have listed operating procedure in a separate download file called ‘Readme’ this file while small is VITAL if you wish to be successful. Please ensure that you follow the instructions enclosed.
Morphometry plotting. A plotting spreadsheet
Readme. Readme page scanner operating method.
Sample Grid. Sample Grid box useful for assembling samples.
Measuring Tools required for projector method.
Morph Record Card ftp://www.beeworks.com/morphometry/morph30.zip complete with scattergram
Projector instructions sample set up instructions.
This sample results shows a hybrid queen, strongly Dark bee (A.m.m) with slight amounts of Italian (A.m.l) and is the queen that caused us to sit up and take notice. Coloured as Italian, but useless to us as an Italian breeder queen.The results of these measurements should be compared to the table of racial characteristics of both the scattergram and frequency chart to understand the numbers involved.
The above sample shows a hybrid queen, strongly Italian (A.m.l) with slight amounts of Carniolan (A.m.carnica) and minute amounts of Dark bee (A.m.m) The queen from this hive produced a hive with all the good qualities we look for in our bees and will go on in it’s second year to produce a quality product. Examine the above numbers and compare them to the next set shown below.
Incredible as it seems, this queen is a sister to the one shown previously. Very strong, Dark Bee (A.m.m) with very little Italian (A.m.l). This hive, while still acceptable to some keepers, did not grow as fast as the previous example, and will be removed at the first opportunity as being below our normal standards.
The information I have enclosed on this page will create a deal of discussion as it tends to go against the accepted principals, but I would hope that open minded bee keepers will examine this information and come to the same conclusions that we have.
The above information is offered free and clear, with one proviso, credit must be given to the authors if you intend to re-publish. Supplied in the sincere hope that bee keepers will use the information to improve as much as possible the particular strain of bees they maintain.
We have over the years, and I am as much to blame as others, indiscriminately added different strains of bees to suit the particular ‘fad and fancy’ as advertised at the time. In the short term it might improve your stock, but in the long term the gain is minimal, due to mongrelisation of both your stock and your neighbours. We can no longer work and breed bees in isolation, by that I mean ignoring what our neighbours are doing; more can be achieved by consultation rather than confrontation.
It is my opinion that a true strain of bee will out perform any second-generation hybrid under the same conditions. We have already noticed a vast improvement when handling our bees since these new ideas have been implemented. This year for the first time we worked the yards in T-shirt and shorts, and often without smoke, a far cry from the angry bees we had a few years ago.
I firmly believe we should all stop searching for the Holy Grail of beekeeping, ie The Super Bee, there is no such thing!
I would like to thank The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association for being first to publish their information, the information gleaned encouraged me to examine my methods of queen breeding and make what I believe to be major adjustments and improvements to my methods.