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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Rearing and breeding bees

Rearing bees is not the same as breeding bees. Rearing bees is about queen rearing and colony division. Queen rearing is the process of developing a new queen at the choice of the beekeeper rather than allowing this to be the choice of the bees. The beekeeper may want more queens;

  • to head small new colonies (or nucleus colonies) to increase the number of colonies owned
  • to replace an old queen with a younger one to reduce the swarming impulse
  • to exchange a failing queen with a vigorous one to prevent a failed colony.

Large scale queen rearing is central to the process of royal jelly production.

Breeding bees is about the process of deliberate selection of certain characteristics. For example, beekeepers commonly try to breed bees which are very productive or very gentle. Breeding involves manipulation of both queen and drone populations. To engage in breeding of honey bees it is important to have some understanding of bee genetics, a complex subject. The queen mates with more than one drone, they mate in the air and the drones are haploid, developing by parthenogenesis. The haplodiploid sex system allows the diploid queen to determine the sex of her offspring by regulating fertilisation of the eggs. This limits the number of unproductive males in the colony while maximising the queen's gene dispersal.

Bee breeding is based on variability both within and between colonies. Apis mellifera in particular is widely variable across the species, as a consequence of evolution within the wide range of environments where they are found. Consequently the bees have special local types -and a number of distinct subspecies or ecogeographic races are recognised. This variation is behavioural as well as morphological. It is possible to identify the race of the bee by measuring various morphological characteristics, and more recently by analysing their DNA profiles. African races are both morphologically and behaviourally distinct from more temperate races typically adapted to the tropical environment by their smaller body size, highly defensive behaviour, swarminess and their tendency to abscond. The specific characteristics are maintained by selection pressure of the environment but within races there is still significant diversity enabling selection for characteristics desired by the beekeeper.

In general the characteristics selected by beekeepers relate to the characteristics that are felt to be commercially useful. This is often a personal decision by the beekeeper for their own personal circumstances, but it carries with it consequences for all the other beekeepers in the area. Irresponsible use of non-native ecotypes, especially when there is importation of bees, has implications for the livelihoods and biodiversity of the whole area.  


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