Elgon bees are easy to handle, give a good crop and are bred for resistance against diseases and parasites.
The base for life on earth is plants. The vast majority of all plants need to be pollinated for their existence and distribution. The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the best pollinator of all, for example because they are inclined to visit the same sort of flowers when they have started to visit one type. And this is basic for pollination, a flower must have pollen from the same species to be pollinated. Another benefiting factor is that bees live in big colonies with many individuals, thus you have thousands of potential pollinators at the same place. Mankind, yes the whole creation, have benefits from the honeybee. I would say more than most people are aware of.
Get yourself a couple of honeybee colonies if you donít already have it and enjoy the fruits of the honeybee. Honey of course. But a still more valuable product of the bees I would say is pollen. I judge it to be the best functional food there is. It contains almost all kind of nutritional substances you need, for example all the amino acids and many vitamins even the rare and important B-12, especially difficult to get enough of if you are a vegetarian.
Some beekeepers often chew some propolis, the waxy substance which bees cover everything with inside their nest to minimize the presence of patogens that causes diseases. Propolis has its origin from the protecting waxcoating on plant buds. It contains a lot of anti oxidants.
And talking about bee stings. Have you met a senile beekeeper, a beekeeper that quite regulary has got some bee stings? I havnít. Even if the bee venom from the stings should be beneficial, watch out for eventual allergic reactions. But donít mix allergic reactions with sensitivity. If you get a reaction on another place on the body than where you got the sting Iíve been told itís allergic, itching all over the body for example. In the beginning as a beekeeper when I got a sting it itched only around the sting (for three days). When I had got enough of stings it didnít itch any longer. Today I donít even swell if a get a sting close to the eye, which happens, but very very rarely. And also when the fear of the sting was gone also half of the pain of a sting disappeared. Today, with good tempered bees like the Elgons, it could be difficult to get stings. But I donít mind that either.
There is actually only one type of honeybee for us in the western hemisphere, Apis mellifera, which is the name in latin. But there are variations of the traits and appearance in different groups of bees. In Asia they have three different native honeybees of the Apis kind. Apis cerana is very similar to Apis mellifera, making quite many combs in their nest, like our bee. And there is a giant bee (Apis dorsata) just building one comb instead of many. Also there is a mini type (Apis florea) also building just one comb.
Chance may play a role which traits will dominate a population of bees, but the climate influences a lot in shaping the bees living in a certain area. Bees can live without the caring of people, in the wild or even in villages , in tropical areas and where the winters are harsh. A population that nature has formed is often quite uniform and itís often called a race. There are quite some that are given latin names. Such that have their origin in Europe are for example the Italian bee Apis mellifera ligustica, the dark European bee Apis mellifera mellifera, the Carniolan bee Apis mellifera carnica. A population which man has helped in forming is the Buckfast bee. Itís a manmade breed, and thus has no latin name of its own.
Most of the bees in Europe are kept by beekeepers and many have been breeding the bee during many years and thus a lot of manmade selection has been made. This has of course influenced how the gene pool in the whole of Europe look like. Probably a lot more narrow than if nature alone had been doing the selection, as most man influenced selection has a tendency to lessen the genetic variation. That is many times what selection is about, to make a more uniform creature that fits man as well as possible, as we understand it (with the present knowledge we have). The risk is to get a too narrow gene base so the vitality decreases and thus increase the susceptibility to diseases. Most important, a narrower gene pool creates a less good preparation for meeting changes in the environment and to be able to survive and thrive under new circumstances, for example a new parasite.
In Africa there are many more bee colonies than in Europe. And the vast majority is living in the wild with little control of man. But man has influenced the selection somewhat when he has hunted and slaughtered the easiest and least defensive colonies. Therefore and also of course due to many more threats in the wild there, the gene pool in Africa contains a lot of genes giving a defensive behaviour. One of the very defensive types of bees is the Scutellata bee, Apis mellifera scutellata. It is the race that is said to have given most of the influence to the so called Killer bee in South America. Now this very defensive bee in South America is though today the base for a very thriving bee industry in for example Brazil. Selection can be done also with this bee and in South Africa they have bred as calm a bee as the calmest European type, with only Apis mellifer scutellata as the base.
But not all subpopulations in Africa are that very defensive. There are races much more easy to handle, for example the Monticola bee, Apis mellifera monticola, on the mountain slopes of East Africa. Another one is Unicolor, Apis mellifera unicolor, on Madagaskar.
1989 a group of four beekeepers went to the mountains of Kenya in East Africa and fetched drone semen in capillary tubes and bee eggs in pieces of newly built wax combs. This was breeding material from an African mountain, Mt Elgon, with a climate similar to ours. The purpose was to increase the vitality and the gene base of our fine and well bred European bee with a high potent natural resource. The race was Apis mellifera monticola, on Mt Elgon, a very dark and hardy bee with a relatively good temper.
I bred queens from the eggs in late March when it was still almost winter in Sweden. Dr Bert Thrybom inseminated the virgin queens with semen we had collected. The semen was then old and was quickened with a special solution made by Dr Thrybom to make it viable. From the resulting laying queens a long work filled with patience and selection filled the years to come.
I worked mainly with the Buckfast bee as the base for the combination work with the Monticola bee. The Buckfast bee has for many decades been bred through combinations of different races by the Benediktinian monk Brother Adam. He lived in the monestry Buckfast Abbey in Devon in Southwest of England.
1989 semen and eggs from crossings between the Buckfast bee and Apis mellifera sahariensis was brought to Sweden from Holland and the third of the team members to Africa, Michael van der Zee. This bee came from the Marockoan oases Erfoud in Sahara. This bee is also African and very easy to handle, but from another type of very harsh surroundings. The purpose for using also this bee was to avoid inbreeding as the Monticola material used was quite small concerning genetic variation. The Sahariensis bee had been tried before and showed itself to have valuable traits. Michael van der Zeeís experiences from similar expeditions were valuable in Kenya.
The fourth member in the expedition to western Kenya was Erik Bjorklund from Sweden. He is still a leading person in the aid association, The Swedish Mount Elgon Association and has many local contacts, as well as being an experienced beekeeper.
The African bee we brought to Sweden this way was relatively easy to handle, definitively of no killer bee character. It was easy to get good combinations with both Buckfast bees and Italian bees. I went on with the combination work with the Buckfast crossings. I tried combinations with Monticola as mother, and also with Buckfast as mother. The former were the best and I went on with these. Very soon the bee became very easy too handle and had a very low swarming tendency, if you gave it plenty of room for egglaying, for honey storage and for the big bee strength.
The resulting bee is not a Buckfast bee, but very similar. Itís a combination with quite some percentage of African heritage, at least theoretically. We that have bred this bee have been keen in trying to use dronelines that have been very Monticola like, both in appearance and in theoretical heritage. This is a difference compared to breeding Buckfast bees. There you normally use an established Buckfast droneline for the virgin queens. The purpose with the Elgon breeding work has been to keep as much as possible of the Monticola heritage until we have been able to draw any conclusions concerning the value of this heritage concerning the goal we wanted to reach, Varroa resistant bees as well as good commercial and hobby type of bees. Thatís why we went to Africa.
The Africanised bee (AHB) in South America has very small problems with this parasitic mite, which for example in North America and Europe is of so big a problem. The problem is so big that the management system of the bees is centered around fighting the mite. Often beekeepers have lost a big part of their number of bee colonies due to the mite and effects following it, which often are viruses that the mite carry and make entrances for in the bee. Also the treatments against the mite are harming the bee too somewhat. Together with environmental effects like spraying on crops with drugs also may give combination effects, also with other stress factors and lower the immune and defense systems of the bee until the bee colony ďcrashesĒ. In USA the number of colonies are decreasing in such a way there are problems getting enough numbers for the pollination needs of important crops.
The only long term solution is bees that are resistant against the Varroa mite so that the bees donít need stress creating and immune system lowering activities and drugs to survive and sometimes just hardly survive the mite. In many places of the world people are now working on this longterm solution, to obtain bees that can stand the mites temselves, like the bees in tropical South America do. The breeding work with the Elgon bee is done with this in mind.
The bee is called Elgon to tell you that the bee is not exactly the same as Buckfast, even if itís similar. The name is inspired by the mountain on which the Monticola bee lives, the type we brought eggs and semen to Sweden of. Mt Elgon is situated in western Kenya on the border to Uganda. The name Elgon is protected as a trade mark to hinder the use of the name on outcrossed descendant queens. But you can breed freely from an Elgon queen and use them for the benefit of the beekeeping industry. The name is not important in itself, the quality of the bees though are. The purpose with the bee is to help the bee industry to survive and thrive. And not only the bee industry, but all of us that are benefiting from the honeybee, which is most of us.
Some are focused on color. I am not. It is not a selection criteria fro me. Therefore the color of the Elgon bees differ. But often it resembles a darker type of Buckfast bees, where the worker bees may have a couple of brownish bands on the abdomen. The queens can vary from quite light colored to black, where most of them though are quite dark. But sometimes a good light colored colony has been influencing a stock growing up somewhere outside my control. The lighter color probably comes from the Sahariensis heritage used. Also this bee has shown itself to have survival advantages concerning the Varroa mite.
Erik ÷sterlund Back