BIBBA and SICAMM Conference – Llangollen, Wales

On September 26 – 28th 2014, I attended the joint BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) and SICAMM (Societas Internationalis pro Conservatione Apis Mellifera Mellifera) Conference in Llangollen, Wales.

The River Dee in Llangollen
The River Dee in Llangollen

Llangollen is a beautiful town of about 3,000 people, and is situated on the River Dee in the northern part of Wales. Upon arriving in the town, you notice the historic bridge, built in 1345, which crosses the River Dee. In addition to the old steam train that connects several of the small towns in the valley, there is also a canal running through Llangollen which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Narrowboats travel along the LLangollen Canal and across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which towers 126 ft. above the Dee River valley.

The conference was held at the Pavilion, which is home to the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, an international music festival held every summer.

A bit more about the conference:

  • There were approximately 250 participants from all over the UK, Europe and as far away as Russia, Latvia, and one participant from the Americas. The lecturers were from Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, the Republic of Ireland, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and of course the UK. This was truly an international conference.
  • The conference had 14 sessions over the 3 days, with 3 separate tracks for each session.
The bridge in Llangollen
The bridge in Llangollen

New things I learned:

  • I learned a lot about Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) at this conference. Amm, also known as the black bee or dark bee, is native to the British Isles and northern Europe. It is thought that Amm developed at the end of the last ice age. Much of the program was based on efforts to maintain a more pure strain of Amm. One of the important messages from both BIBBA and SICAMM is to encourage local beekeepers to use local bees, and avoid using imported strains that come with a promise of vigor and heartiness that never proves true. Local beekeepers and breeders of local bees are often challenged to keep a pure strain while minimizing inbreeding. Their efforts are hampered by the drones from non-native colonies maintained by some beekeepers. This is an extremely interesting aspect of beekeeping that isn’t considered in the US, as we don’t have a native honey bee. Also interesting was all the information shared about DNA and working with the scientific community to identify areas that have the best hopes for maintaining a pure strain of native bee. There are a lot of people working on creating reserve areas in the UK and Republic of Ireland, specifically for mating Amm. In addition, a lot of presenters at the conference were from Ireland, and they seem to be taking the lead in maintaining the native bee (Amm) and are working towards raising awareness and ultimately keeping imported bees out of Ireland.
  • Another topic that was new to me is morphometry. This is the analysis of a bee’s anatomy to determine race. In addition to analyzing the wing and the wing’s skeletal structure in great detail, the size of the abdomen, legs and hair length are also taken into account. The ability to definitively determine race based on morphometry was questioned by some researchers at the conference.
  • It was interesting to learn about apidias, which are small styrofoam mini-nucs. They are used for queen mating, and there was also a talk about overwintering in mini-nucs. I was surprised to learn that Andrew Abrahams overwinters small colonies in these mini-nucs in the harsh winters of Scotland.
Narrowboats on the Llangollen Canal
Narrowboats on the Llangollen Canal

Interesting sessions at the conference:

  • There was a great presentation by Steve Rose, from North Wales, titled “Hassle-free Queen Right Queen Rearing.” He talked about how he raises queens in a queen-right honey producing colony, allowing him to work with a non-aggressive bees because of the continuous presence of a queen within the colony. The set up is as follows: one queen in a bottom box, queen excluder above that, two nucs side by side above that, honey super above that. When a frame with grafted cells is introduced to one of the nucs, the bottom of that nuc is blocked off, stopping the queen’s pheremones from coming up to that half of the colony. This encourages the nurse bees on that half to draw out queen cells. Several days later, the sealed queen cells are removed, along with the barrier from the bottom of the nuc.
  • Willie Robson’s lecture, “What the Books Don’t Tell You” covered the unusual situations of beekeeping that you only witness after decades of beekeeping. Willie has been keeping bees for 50 years, and keeps 1,800 colonies of indigenous black bees, exclusively for honey production. He felt that the native black bee is important to his operation since he is located in the borderlands between England and Scotland.
  • I attended three lectures by Andrew Abrahams of Scotland. He is working in the Hebrides (off the west coast of Scotland) on Colonsay Island, and he is maintaining a disease-free and mite-free stock of native black bees (Amm) on what is now a protected reserve. This protected status means that no other types of bees can be brought in. This will help maintain a mite-free and disease-free population of Amm.
The Pavilion in LLangollen
The Pavilion in LLangollen

Other items of interest:

  • I was impressed how often the speakers talked about the need to lower the stress on the bees, whether through gentler beekeeping methods, entering the hives less, or through the reduction in population density, thus providing adequate supplies of forage.
  • There was much talk about the recent arrival of the small hive beetle to Italy, and the ramifications to the British Isles, which is currently free of the small hive beetle, but receives many imports of bees from Italy.
  • One interesting thing I heard about crossing races of bees: The first year Amm mates with another race, for example, an Italian bee, you get what is called “hybrid vigor.” The second year, in subsequent generations, you just get mean bees (and possibly other undesirable traits), forcing the beekeeper to re-queen.

In the past two months I’ve met beekeepers in Ireland and Scotland who brought to my attention the problems of maintaining a pure strain of native bee that is best suited to their climate. The conference was a great way to delve into this issue in much greater detail with experts from this part of the world.