Aims of GBBG
Dun Aonghusa breeding apiary

History of GBBG, and it's development

  Galtee Bee Breeding Group logo, Originated by Jacob Kahn


A prospective member recently asked why was it necessary to become a member of BIBBA in order to join GBBG. Apart from the fact that this was one of the first rules we laid down when the group was established, I had not given it much thought. I do know that we adopted the rule so as to make sure that members had some commitment to bee improvement.

Another rule, which stipulated membership of an affiliated Beekeeping Association, was to ensure that members were committed to beekeeping in all its forms. So as to remind myself of the importance of BIBBA membership to me as well as to each individual member of the group, I cast my mind back to what was the beginning for me. Perhaps this little historical note will help to enlighten our newer members and may even encourage a couple of new groups to start up on their own.

The first lecture which I heard on Bee Breeding was given by Beowolf Cooper at the Coolea Honey Show (my first honey show also) back in 1976 - I can hardly believe it is nearly 30 years ago! He gave us a few lectures over the weekend, but the first one I attended really captured my imagination. It was about Drone Congregations and the research work he had done on them. When I told him that I thought I had a drone congregation near one of my apiaries he said he would come and check it out and he duly arrived on the Monday to investigate it. His enthusiasm was infectious and I became caught up in it and joined BIBBA straight away. I have been a member ever since.

Beo left quite a lot of his ideas and philosophy behind when he died prematurely in 1982. There are various pamphlets and leaflets, but the best known is probably "The Honeybees of the British Isles" which was edited by Philip Denwood (current editor of Bee Improvement), and published posthumously by BIBBA. Beowolf Cooper was one of Britain's most active and respected entomologists and he certainly knew what he was talking about. He had founded BIBBA as "The Village Bee Breeders Association" as the word village inferred small. It started in a small way to protect and conserve something small i.e. the native bee which public opinion had proclaimed to be extinct for many years. That was the popular theory which was promoted vigorously by no less an authority than Bro. Adam and adopted by British Beekeepers in general.

In Ireland, beekeepers if they were interested in this at all, were probably confused. The most informed opinion would have been that the native Irish bee would have been replaced by imports from France and Holland after the Isle of Wight Disease and of course these would have been influenced by imports of Italian queens which were supposed to be resistant to Acarine. This was probably the true position that developed from 1920 to 1950 with the odd Italian queen being imported even after that. It would be a very good exercise for somebody to research back through the Irish journals to see to what extent Italians and other races were being imported here at various times.

After Beo's death in 1982 I did not have any direct contact with any member of BIBBA, but I was still a member and of course was very much involved in STBA and FIBKA. The excitement of the centenary celebrations, the round of exams and my term as President of FIBKA and a run of bad honey years in the mid-eighties distracted my attention from bee breeding. It was not until 1989 when Adrian and Claire Waring came to Gormanston for the first time that my interest in BIBBA really awakened. Adrian who was Chairman of BIBBA at that time was the senior guest lecturer at Gormanston that year. Many of his lectures were connected to bee improvement. I had read quite a bit about Morphometry from the BIBBA literature, but was unable to grasp its true relevance to bee breeding or how to put it into practice. Claire and Adrian gave a few of us including John Donoghue and me a workshop one evening at Gormanston and that started the ball rolling as we subsequently held workshops at Thurles, Middleton, Cahir and Portarlinton. Then came the Young Scientists who were made honorary members of BIBBA until they reached the age of 18. It was those early workshops that showed us that our bees were really Dark European Bees. The Young Scientist competition proved that they predominated over the whole country even though they were hybridised to various degrees in places. John Donoghue and I became very much involved in the work of the young scientists in an advisory capacity. These three young girls actually measured 22,000 bees wings in their project for the young scientist competition. Their efforts were rewarded when they won first place in the Aer Lingus Young Scientist competition.

The BIBBA publications "Breeding Better Bees" and "The Dark European Honeybee" were a great help and inspiration around that time. We had the BIBBA record cards which had been developed by Beo Cooper, but I decided to make up my own partly based on Hooper but incorporating some of Beo's behaviour characteristics.

Redmond Williams had taken up beekeeping in the early 1980's and we got into the habit of working together. We gave each other mutual support during the bad years from 1985 to 1988. We were fortunate that after Gormanston in 1989 Adrian and Claire decided to spend a week's holiday in the Glen of Aherlow so they paid us a couple of visits. One of these visits was to Garryroan where they identified my first supersedure colony - GR1/89 - the progeny of which still retains the supersedure and longevity characteristics. The following year I identified some exceptionally docile bees which originated from one colony - BL6/90. Then on a visit to Killorglin BKA I found another colony with nice characteristics - QL1/90. I began to think of how best to breed these good colonies and at the same time to eliminate the bad. As Redmond could tell you I had some vicious colonies at that time and I wasn't the only one! He could relate some episodes about some of our neighbours' bees also, which we eventually managed to re queen for them.

In 1990 I wrote to Albert Knight who was then BIBBA's Secretary asking him if he thought it might be feasible for us to consider starting a breeding group in the Galtee/Vee Valley. The response I received from Albert was tremendous. His advice and co-operation was most encouraging through the formative years of GBBG. During his time as Secretary and up to today in his position as Group's Secretary he continues to support our bee improvement group in every possible way.

With all this enthusiasm I decided to take early retirement and concentrate completely on bee improvement as well as honey production. I could have stayed on the job for a further six or seven years. So while I had a bit of life in me I decided to take the plunge and retired in May 1991. I could not wait to get into queen rearing and tried many methods that year. Another BIBBA publication "Breeding Techniques and Selection for Breeding the Honeybee" became my gospel and I found it invaluable for my selection of breeders and queen rearing programmes in the initial stages.

A survey of the beekeepers in the Galtee/Vee valley revealed that there were at least fifteen beekeepers with more than 300 hives of which 150 were mine. It was apparent that I would have to do a lot of requeening and for this I needed to enlist the help of some of my fellow beekeepers. Redmond and Johnnie Carrigan were the two biggest with 40-50 hives between them so that the three of us would have a base of about 200 colonies to select from and hopefully through the process of selection and culling bring them up to a certain desired standard. David Lee had about 50 colonies to the west of our valley and his apiaries linked up with mine at that end so if they were brought up to standard they would form a protective barrier at that side.

I invited those three to join me for a meeting at Glengarra Wood on the night of Monday 30th. December 1991 and at that inaugural meeting we drew up a policy which entailed a plan for the progressive improvement of our own bees and those of our neighbours in the Galtee/Vee valley. We subsequently extended our proposed area of activities with the advent of Dennis Ryan and Ger 0' Donoghue about 1995. At the very start we drew up a set of rules which stipulated that each member should be affiliated to FIBKA and also be a member of BIBBA. We also made a rule that each member should evaluate their colonies through the season and maintain hive records for the purpose of selection and culling.

We still had only six members up until the BIBBA Conference which was held at Kildalton in 1996. This gave us a great boost and much publicity and enquiries from far and near regarding possible membership. As a result we invited about 40 selected beekeepers to join us for the AGM of 1997. All those who attended that AGM joined as members plus a few more who were unable to attend on the day. Each year we lose a couple of members, but we have a policy of inviting in some replacements. This strength of membership which was drawn from many BKA's over a wide area of Munster and Leinster, combined with our membership of BIBBA which is an international bee improvement body, were the determining factors in obtaining funding under the Scheme for the Conservation of Genetic Resources. Funding which we needed so badly and put to such good use. We have been progressing steadily ever since and I do not think we should make any drastic change in the policy, which has served us so well for more than a decade.

With the help of this funding we established a breeding apiary and purchased much needed equipment including microscope and instruments for insemination of queen bees. Redmond acquired the necessary skills of I.I. and became adept before long so that he has been much in demand by other BIBBA groups in Great Britain and has demonstrated the techniques at BBKA headquarters in Stoneleigh.

Micheál Mac Giolla Coda

This article originally appeared in 'The Four Seasons' Summer 2004 edition.

Originated... 05 May 2004, Upgraded... 17 June 2005, Revised... 03 June 2006,
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