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The specialist international beekeeping organisation
Breeding bees is the deliberate selection by the beekeeper of characteristics within both queen and drone populations and taking control of the natural mating processes of the bees in order to change the quality of the bees they are working with. Bee breeding is based on variability between colonies. This variation is behavioural as well as morphological. It requires beekeepers to observe their bees carefully and to measure the range of characteristics being displayed by their potential breeding populations.
In general the characteristics selected by beekeepers are those that felt to be commercially useful and will be driven by the benefits it will bring under prevailing individual circumstances. Tropical and temperate beekeepers are likely to have a different view of what they need for productive beekeeping. Nonetheless, honey yields and defensive behaviour are two characteristics that beekeepers in many places feel most affect the profitability of their bees. Colony defensive behaviour is complex. It is controlled by more than one gene and the underlying mechanisms of its inheritance are not yet well understood. Hoarding behaviour, which correlates with the amount of honey collected, is highly genetically regulated and experiments have shown that it can be increased by selection. Increasingly there is interest in selection to improve the natural disease control mechanisms of honey bees. Social insects utilise aspects of their social behaviour as part of their disease defence strategy and this may be more important than the immune system responses of individual bees.
For instance, recognising and removing sick brood and adult bees is an important part of the honey bees' disease defence mechanism and this hygienic behaviour can be enhanced by selection. Naturally, major disagreements remain over what is considered 'improved' stock.
Breeding programmes are normally designed so that the desired males mate with the desired females. The mating behaviour of honeybees complicates the ability of beekeepers to select for particular characteristics because queens mate with many drones and mating takes place in the air in drone congregation areas. Both of these features are designed to avoid the inbreeding that can easily arise as a consequence of the haplodiploid sex system of the honeybee. Controlling the queen rearing process is a relatively simple part of the procedure. However, some improvements can be made by careful queen selection.
Controlling the mating of the queen within the drone population is not straightforward and may not even be desirable. It is very easy to lose both genetic material and desirable characteristics by poorly designed breeding programmes. At the very least, breeding should not be undertaken for single characteristics in a linear manner. In addition what is appropriate for beekeeping today may not suit beekeeping under different circumstances and a narrow genetic base caused by breeding programmes may impact on bee populations in a significant and possibly unexpected manner. As an example, the case of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in temperate bees, especially in the United States should strike a warning note to beekeepers worldwide. In many developing countries breeding programmes should not be undertaken before a full survey has been made of the bee species, races and ecotypes in the area because of the potential for disastrous loss of indigenous genetic material.
The discussion relating to bee breeding with Apis mellifera applies equally to Apis cerana.