Name of the lead partner organisation: Agricultural Institute of Slovenia

Country of the lead partner organisation: Slovenia

Project summary: 

Bees perform an essential ecosystemic function of pollination, not only in agricultural crops but also in other plants and thus represent a critical link in the ecosystem chain – or to name it more appropriately – a critical stone in the ecosystem pyramid. Managed honey bee Apis mellifera is perhaps the most known and its role in the environment surely most highly appreciated. 

So far, more than thirty subspecies of the honey bee have been identified, which are native to the old world (e.g. Europe, Asia and Africa) and were adapted to the local environment. Human migrations and trade flows have spread these species all over the globe, besides the Antarctic. 

Bee products have been highly appreciated and become an important source of occupation and income for many beekeepers. Desire to improve the colony management or yield often prompts them to look for the genetic material with traits that are matching their needs. Such traits might be calmness, improved honey yield, resistance to some diseases, etc. Selective breeding of honey bees is therefore an important tool to reach their expectations. 

It is not widely known that honey bee queens mate only once in a lifetime with several drones, at the beginning of their tenure, few days after hatching, which happens mid-air. Drones’ genetic material, sperm, is then stored in specialised organ and is used sparingly for egg fertilisation. This genetic reservoir is supposed to last for the duration of the queens’ life. Therefore, installing or replacing the genetic material of the colony is relatively simple. The queen is the only vessel of genetic material that is involved in reproduction; hence she is the only individual that needs to be replaced in the colony. 

Some countries have followed the demand and specialised in honey bee genetic breeding material fostering the production and marketing of their local subspecies. In practise this specialisation has gradually replaced native or local subspecies in most of the countries. However, honey bee subspecies have optimal survival rate and economic yield in their native environment. Therefore, it is crucial to preserve and improve the local honey bee subspecies. 

When setting up the BeeConSel project partners have been driven to prevent the conservation and well-being of local honey bee subspecies. 

Our focus is three honey bee subspecies: Carnica (A. m. carnica; Slovenia and Croatia), Macedonica (A. m. macedonica; Northern Macedonia) and dark honey bee (A. m. mellifera; Norway). Each of them bears its respective conservation status: the dark honey bee is endangered subspecies; Macedonica is still often discounted by beekeepers, who are looking for promising and promoted non-native lines, hence pushes Macedonica toward the diversity endangerment; Carnica is threatened due to banned import of genetic material from other countries despite the fact there are legal boundaries to prevent this in Slovenia and Croatia. Breeding programs in the involved countries were designed and implemented to counter such threats and genetic erosion by the improvement of the local subspecies and making them more attractive to local beekeepers. A prerequisite for a successful and efficient breeding program is the mating control, which in beneficiary countries have been neglected, and thus much of the selection effort was watered-down. 

Know-how and expertise of the Norwegian Beekeepers’ Association that have been successfully implementing all elements of the breeding, along with the assistance of the Swedish Agricultural University will be accustomed to the needs of the beneficiary states and hopefully transferred to end users and policy makers in the beneficiary countries to protect the diversity and richness of the local honey bee populations and stop genetic erosion. 

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