Betta Bees breeding programme manager Frans Laas prepares
to harvest the genetic material from a drone. Photo by Dan
Beekeepers are being warned to check the genetic
diversity of their stock following the first stage of a
nationwide survey that shows significant in-breeding.
The Sustainable Farming Fund project, administered by
University of Otago associate professor Peter Dearden, has
studied bees from all over New Zealand.
The early results show New Zealand's bee population was much
more diverse than previously thought but that many beekeepers
have serious issues with inbreeding.
''Beekeepers need to know about this problem and they need to
do something about it,'' Prof Dearden said.
The problem stems from the almost total loss of New Zealand's
feral bee population after 14 years of exposure to varroa
Prof Dearden said feral bees used to ensure a ''continuous''
pool of genetics right across the country, that naturally
found its way into managed hives.
Beekeepers could then improve their stock each year by
selecting their best queens or buying them from breeders.
Bee colonies were protected from inbreeding because queens
would bring feral genetics back into the mix every year.
Now, beekeepers who were not regularly introducing new
genetics into their hives could end up with too many worker
bees with the same sex genes (alleles).
Worker bees that have have two matching sex alleles are
killed by other workers when they hatch.
Prof Dearden said serious inbreeding could make a hive
unviable. He said the problem could be solved by simply
switching queen bee suppliers for a couple of years, buying
from a breeder who knew what sex alleles it had in its queens
or bringing in hives from another beekeeper.
One of the country's main breeders - Betta Bees in Dunedin -
supplies its 25 beekeeper shareholders and others with
specially bred queens each year.
General manager David McMillan said they were trying to breed
beneficial traits into their bees, including honey
production, temperament, and varroa and disease resistance.
The firm selected the best 25 queens each year and all were
DNA-tested to ensure they did not lose any sex alleles. Prof
Dearden said New Zealand's bee population had at least 112
sex alleles, which was more than enough to ensure a healthy
He encouraged more beekeepers to get in touch and send their
bees in to be tested.
''The more samples we look at, the better the [survey]
results are going to be.''
It was the first time such a survey had been done in New
Zealand; it was possible because of a breakthrough in 2006
when the honey bee genome was sequenced. Prof Dearden said it
was not just small operators who were experiencing problems.
''Some of these operations are relatively big ones so they
really are the major beekeepers in a geographic region.''
- by Dan Hutchinson