In Search of the Best
Strains of Bee
Second Journey (1952)
if you prefer,
by Brother ADAM, O.S.B.
(1898 – 1996)
© Erik Österlund picture
St Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast,
South Devon – England.
in Bee World, 35(10 & 12),
1954, 193-203 & 233-245.
Bee World 35(10), 1954, 193-203.
In the report published in Bee World for July and August 1951, on my journeys and findings of the previous year, I stated that the search must of necessity cover all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, which possess an indigenous bee of outstanding merit. At the end of June 1951, preliminary preparations were made for carrying out this project the next year. In a search of the kind that we are engaged in, nothing can be accomplished without the direct assistance and close co-operation of the central and local authorities in each country concerned. Therefore the more thorough the initial preparations, the mote likely the prospect of success. Eight months devoted to this part of the task proved none too much. I desire to record here my deep appreciation and gratitude to the authorities in every country I visited, for the assistance they gave me. Indeed without their wholehearted co-operation, the success achieved would never have been possible.
In a search of this kind, the timing and the sequence of the countries visited are largely dictated by the progress of the beekeeping season. As events proved, my timing was most fortunate. I left England on 19th February. My first objective was North Africa — Algeria, Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Egypt. But after my departure, a message was received from the Egyptian authorities requesting a postponement of the visit, in view of the current political difficulties. Furthermore, when already in Algeria, the imposition of martial law prevented the projected search eastward along the North African coast. In fact I was compelled to return by sea to Marseilles and sail from there to Israel, where I spent ten days. Haifa was reached on 9th April; Jordan was then visited, and Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, northern Italy, and lastly Spain and Portugal. But as the search progressed it became clear that Turkey would have to be omitted on this occasion, if the task was to be concluded within the time and means at my disposal. On reaching the Ligurian Alps, about mid-August, a further factor arose which cast some doubt about the inclusion of the Iberian Peninsula that autumn, even though the ultimate success of the work seemed to demand it. The long drawn-out effort since February made a break essential, but after a brief rest I was able to return to England on 28th September.
The indigenous honeybee of North Africa is known by a number of names. Naturalists called it Apis mellifera unicolor var. intermissa. The zoologist H. von Buttel-Reepen gave it the sub-title intermissa, for he thought it was an intermediate species between the single-coloured black bee of Madagascar and the variety lehzeni of north-west Germany and Scandinavia. Whether this supposition is correct, further research will determine. However, since 1906 this race has been known in scientific literature as intermissa.
Frank Benton of the U.S.A. visited Tunis in 1883, to ascertain the value of the bees found in this part of the world. He collected some queens and caned this new variety the „Tunisian bee“, assuming no doubt that this race was confined to Tunisia. John Hewitt visited the same country subsequently and brought the North African bee to the notice of English beekeepers under the name of the „Punic bee“. In North Africa it is commonly known as the „Arab bee“.
The distribution of this race in its most typical form is confined to the region of North Africa bounded on the east by the Libyan Desert, on the south by the Sahara, on the west by the Atlantic, and on the north by the Mediterranean. It is therefore isolated on every side by a barrier insuperable to bees. Its native habitat is clearly not limited to Tunisia; it is also indigenous in Tripoli, Algeria and Morocco. However, its main centre of distribution is undoubtedly in the high ground known to the Arab as tell; the name „Tellian bee“, first suggested by Ph. J. Baldensberger, would therefore seem to be the most appropriate.
Surprisingly enough reference books have only the scantiest details of the characteristics of the Tellian bee, and the information given is almost all disparaging. In an effort to obtain some first-hand experience of this race, I tried unsuccessfully to import a few queens direct from North Africa over thirty years ago. However, from the information collected in the extreme south of France and Sicily on the 1950 journey, I had high hopes of the Tellian for cross-breeding. My findings in its native habitat confirmed these expectations, which have since been further substantiated by observations made in our own apiaries in 1953. The biometric investigations carried out by Dr. F. Ruttner, on material supplied to him, have corroborated my view on the value of this race for cross-breeding. According to his findings the Tellian incorporates all the known external characteristics of the European races of honey bees.
When we set out at the end of February, wintry conditions prevailed almost everywhere. A more violent contrast and transformation than that which I found on stepping ashore at Algiers would be difficult to visualize. The orange blossom was well forward; several eucalyptus were in full bloom — there was in fact a riot of blossom defying description, in gardens and fields, in the woods and primitive bush, and in the hills and the desert. Swarming was in full swing and the main flow at hand.
Professor A. Sturer was at the quayside at Algiers, and also M. Paradeau, one of the most progressive and successful professional beekeepers in North Africa. I wish to convey my grateful thanks to him for his invaluable help, without which it would not have been possible to accomplish the task within the time at my disposal. His preparations during the proceeding months, together with his intimate knowledge of local conditions, enabled us to explore Algeria more thoroughly and speedily than would otherwise have been possible. We set to work within a few hours of my arrival.
A series of apiaries was visited in quick succession in every part of Algeria — in the secluded valleys amongst the snow-capped peaks of the Djurjura range, in the primitive bush still found here and there along the Mediterranean seaboard, on the sparsely populated plateau wedged between the Atlas and the Sahara, and on the very fringe of the Desert and in the Desert itself. We visited a large number of commercial apiaries; these are mainly in the fertile region between the Atlas mountains and the Mediterranean, where the almost boundless citrus groves are found. However, our main search took place in the primitive apiaries in remote parts of the country, where by force of circumstance the Tellian bee has retained its greatest uniformity and purity.
Extensive beekeeping and the use of modern equipment is mainly restricted to the French population, and the progressive commercial apiarists rely on hybrid Italians. The hives are of Langstroth or Dadant pattern. The huge citrus groves (mainly oranges) provide the principal source of nectar. Extraordinary crops are secured in a favourable season and with appropriate management. Considerable yields are obtained also from eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, thyme and a host of secondary sources. Migratory beekeeping is widely practised by the professional apiarists.
The beekeeping carried out by the natives is of the simplest and most primitive kind imaginable. Throughout the whole of Algeria we never came across any other type of primitive hive than that made of ferula stems. Ferula thyrsiflora grows everywhere in profusion, and to gigantic stature. It furnishes the cheapest possible hive material; the mature ferula stems can be had for the gathering in the autumn, and a complete hive costs about 75 francs (about 1s. 9d.). On our journeys we often passed camels and donkeys with loads of these hives on their way to market. In spite of the very primitive mode of beekeeping, the crops secured by these Arab beekeepers probably fall not far short of those obtained in some European countries with modern equipment and by advanced methods. Apart from the possible initial cost of the ferula hives, these Arabs do not incur any expense in producing honey.
In Sicily, where ferula hives are also widely used, some protection from sun and rain is given; the hives are neatly stacked in tiers, four or five on top of each other, perhaps as many as twenty tiers side by side, the whole arrangement forming one huge block of hives. In addition, an open shed provides some protection against extremes of temperature and torrential rain. No such orderly arrangements and elementary safeguards are met in a primitive Arab apiary. Usually the ferula hives are scattered about on the ground with a wanton abandon; often they are disintegrating. Thus exposed to the elements, the bees must thrive or perish. However, they have not only to brave extremes of temperature and, torrential rain in winter; they must also defy a host of enemies such as is perhaps not found elsewhere in the world. In the course of ages, in environments of this kind, Nature has relentlessly moulded the Tellian bee as we know it today. But as so often happens, where surpassing qualities are found these are themselves the direct cause of some serious defects.
With a somewhat subtle unanimity, every work of reference I have seen gives the Tellian bee a deprecatory mention. The general appraisal and recommendation is thus summarized: „an inferior race in almost every respect, one that should never be imported into any country“. However more than seventy years have passed by since Frank Benton collected his first queens in Tunisia and, as so often happens, what was at one time discarded as of little value is — with increased knowledge — later deemed to be of supreme importance. Admittedly the Tellian bee is of no value to the amateur beekeeper. But there seems little doubt that it is one of the most valuable races for crossbreeding. Its intrinsic usefulness for this purpose will be largely determined by the care exercised in selecting the breeding stock and — equally important — in the care brought to bear on the crossing, in order to bring out the best qualities of the race.
The pure Tellian bee is black — jet black — and if anything more so than the „Nigra“ of Swiss origin; its blackness is accentuated by the scanty tomenta and over-hair. It is perhaps slightly larger than its nearest cousin, Apis mellifera var. sicula. The queens are more uniform in colour than those of any European race. They are jet-black, long and slender and very pointed — quite unlike the plump Italian or ponderous Carniolan queens in shape. Both queens and bees are quick in movement and liable to extreme nervousness when manipulated. Indeed, when a hive is opened, the bees are disposed to „boil over“ and „mill around“ inside the brood chamber in a most alarming manner. But if left a few minutes and given a chance to calm down, they will thereafter submit to manipulation as readily as any of the common bees of northern Europe. They can be bad tempered, but not more so than the black bees of southern France which used to be imported in such large numbers into this country. Though we came across some extremely bad-tempered Tellians on our search, we discovered at the same time a few strains which could be handled with the greatest impunity. In my estimation the most serious defects of the Tellians are: (1) extreme swarming tendency, (2) a highly developed susceptibility to brood diseases, (3) a lavish use of propolis, (4) watery cappings. Against these defects must be set unparalleled stamina, fertility and foraging power.
The extreme addiction to swarming of the Tellian is doubtless a direct effect of its amazing stamina and fertility. The pronounced innate susceptibility to brood diseases is a defect of nearly every variety of the common European dark bee, particularly the French ones. This defect is however even more marked in the Tellian than in the French bee. There are in fact a great many close similarities between these two races — for instance the lavish use of propolis. In every characteristic (except cappings) a close relationship can be traced, but the qualities are more pronounced in the Tellian.
The fecundity of the Tellian is remarkable. But extreme fertility is of no avail unless it is coupled with a high degree of stamina, and it is in this very quality that the Tellian surpasses every other race. Moreover stamina is the source of a whole series of desirable traits, longevity, hardiness, wing-power, etc. Observations made in 1953 lead me to believe that the Tellian is the longest-lived bee. I also noted that it is active at temperatures at which no other honeybees would dare to venture forth, not even Carniolans.
As already indicated, the Tellian has not only to brave extremes of climatic conditions in its native habitat, but it must also withstand the ravages of innumerable enemies. The huge jet-black pollen beetle, Cetonia opaca, unknown in northern Europe, is an ever-present menace, and will, if it can find its way into a hive, wreak sad havoc among the combs. The bees seem fairly helpless in face of this creature. They are equally defenceless against the voracious blue-cheeked bee-eater, Merops superciliosus — one of the most lovely birds in creation, but a deadly enemy of the honeybee. This bird thrives on bees, though it will occasionally include a wasp or two in its diet. The loss of bees is all the greater because Merop superciliosus does not live singly, but in flocks of up to a hundred birds. It is estimated that a flock of this size will dispose of a pound of bees in a day. The bee-eater is a seasonal menace, for it migrates in September to the Cape of Good Hope and re-appears in March. The Oriental hornet is represented in full force in North Africa; the blind ant (Dorylus fulvas) must however be regarded as the most treacherous enemy. This insect will make its way into a hive unnoticed by gnawing a hole through the bottom board, and before the beekeeper is aware that something is amiss, the colony has perished and the invader has made good his escape. Lizards and toads are constantly around the hives. When lifting the roof off a hive, it is not uncommon to find a batch of lizards scampering away. Wax moths are a serious problem in every subtropical country; a colony which is not resistant, and which cannot maintain its strength through the summer months, has little chance of escaping destruction from their ravages.
It is often claimed that the production of parthenogenetic or impaternate females is a common phenomena in Tellian colonies. I have not so far found any evidence to support this view.
Our search in Algeria would not have been complete without exploring some of the oases in the Sahara, and we should have missed one of the best opportunities found in Nature to study the effects of many centuries of inbreeding on the honeybee. Moreover, there was every likelihood that, in the complete isolation and added rigours of an oasis, a strain of the type required for crossbreeding would be found. Though our time was drawing to a close, we nevertheless decided to visit Laghouat, Ghardaia, Bou-Saada and perhaps some less well-known oases en route if at all possible.
Since my arrival in North Africa I had seen much of the wonderful flora of Algeria: pinky white drifts of asphodel; wide expanses carpeted in bright orange by the native marigold, Calendula algeriensis: Oxalis corniculata rubra and variabilis in great masses; giant dumps of the glistening white Erica arborea; and thymes in mauve, blue and purple. Perhaps the sections of primitive bush along the Mediterranean seaboard contain the most fascinating collection of wild flowers and shrubs within any given space. The most important nectar-bearing sources of this sub-tropical jungle are rosemary and lavender, Lavendula stacchas, which thrive here in a profusion hardly seen elsewhere. But on our way south into the Sahara we found a totally different kind of wild flora: the desert in bloom, in its full but ephemeral springtime glory — a dense carpet of desert flowers, stretching to the horizon in every direction. The air was heavily laden with the sweet scent of honey, and the traffic of insects gave the impression of al large number of swarms crossing to and fro overhead. But there were no honeybees amongst this busy throng. In these desolate regions they could not survive after the brief, brilliant spell of spring.
At Laghouat we found about fifty colonies of bees, owned by three beekeepers: one a Christian, another a Jew and the third a Mohammedan. At the apiary owned by the Christian, the bees were in modern hives and kept with a meticulous and finicky solicitude characteristic of an amateur. At the apiary belonging to the Hebrew, we found a conglomeration of different hives, as well as boxes of every size and shape suspended upside-down amongst the branches of tangerine trees; these contained newly hived swarms. Dead virgin queens could he picked up by the dozen under these boxes. The third beekeeper, a retired Arab officer of the French colonial forces, graciously allowed us to view the seclusion of his bee garden, but not until the customary formalities had been duly observed. His apiary consisted of ferula hives, of traditional shape and size, except that for some reason they were encased in a heavy coating of clay. The old Arab proudly pointed to one hive, hidden in a mountain of alfa grass, which furnished no less than seven swarms the previous year. At the end of the swarming season no more than two or three hundred bees were left. Yet this miniature colony survived and filled the hive with new comb, brood and honey – ready to respond again to the impulse of colonization. Inbreeding — perhaps since time immemorial — had in this instance no harmful effect on viability of the brood and on the stamina of the bees. Indeed, it was at Laghouat that we found the most powerful stocks of pure Tellians, covering twenty combs of Dadant size in March. The bees at this oasis were remarkably good-tempered, notwithstanding the fact that at the time of our visit a fierce sandstorm was raging.
Owing to the violence of the storm there was no possible chance of penetrating deeper into the Sahara. We had to retrace our steps, and even the journey north, to Bou-Saada, proved a perilous venture. The extreme heat, accompanied by a following sirocco, further accentuated by the difficulties of the desert track part of the way, proved almost our undoing, as there was no water within miles to replenish losses from the car radiator. Though I endured extremes of heat and hazards of one kind or another during the subsequent months, the ordeal of the trip from Laghouat to Bou-Saada was never equalled. We reached Algiers on 30th March, and next morning we left for Marseilles, to re-embark on 2nd April for Israel.
I have refrained from a more detailed description of the less obvious characteristics of the Tellian bee, for my investigations are not yet concluded. However, all the findings I have made up to now indicate that the Tellian is a primary race, and that the numerous varieties of brown or black bees — at least those of western Europe — have in the course of time evolved from the Tellian. I have not yet had an opportunity to explore the Iberian Peninsula, but the strains I found in the extreme south of France are in every characteristic only a few degrees removed from the prototype. The close affinity is obvious. The pattern of evolution, north and north-eastwards from the Pyrenees, can be readily traced, and the differences are only of intensity and degree. The studies of Dr. F. Ruttner, on material supplied to him from North Africa, confirm my tentative conclusions.
Last-minute difficulties debarred me from including Morocco in my search in 1952. I was also reluctantly compelled to omit the extreme south-western fringe of Algeria, the habitat of the Saharan bee.
After a rather unpleasant seven days at sea, Palestine — the land flowing with milk and honey — was reached on 8th April. I spent the night on Mount Carmel, and on the journey to Tel Aviv next morning, the Holy Land revealed itself in all its springtime glory. I was told that the extraordinary profusion of wild flowers, which I saw, had not been known for nearly half a century; it was due to an exceptionally heavy rainfall the previous winter.
The route to Tel Aviv took me through the most fertile part of Israel, through the Plain of Saron extending southward from Mount Carmel. A belt of orange groves, about twenty miles wide, stretches all the way to Jaffa and beyond. The groves were in full bloom, and the heavy fragrance of orange blossom pervaded the countryside. I was told that the nectar flow had almost reached its greatest intensity, and that beekeepers were already busy extracting.
At the Ministry of Agriculture in Tel Aviv I was introduced to Mr. D. Ardi, Apicultural Adviser to the Government. Plans were quickly drawn up for the search throughout Israel, and it was arranged that Mr. D. Ardi should act as my guide. I wish to record here my grateful appreciation to him, for his help and hospitality.
The dynamic drive of this newly formed State was in evidence everywhere. Economic problems are being solved in the most direct and effective way possible. Perhaps the most notable example is the action taken by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture to supply the highest quality breeding stock to beekeepers throughout the country. The breeding stock is raised at Government-owned mating stations, the most important being at Hefzebah, near the site of ancient Caesarea. By law no other bees may be kept within three miles of this mating station. Breeding stock of a specially selected strain of Italians is sent out from Hefzebah; this strain was exhaustively tested over a period of years in the climatic conditions of Israel, side by side with many strains from various sources, before it was generally adopted. By this course of action the Israeli Government is assisting the craft in the most effective way possible.
It is occasionally claimed that Israel possesses its own indigenous race of bees, but more comprehensive enquiries showed that there is no clear-cut difference between the bees found in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. The slight variations do not warrant a special classification. Geographically Israel is part of Syria, and there are no natural barriers, which would prevent an intermingling if there had been more than one indigenous race.
The Syrian bee, Apis mellifera var. syriaca, closely resembles the Cyprian; the two races are however quite distinct, although closely related. The Syrian bee is smaller, and it shows every defect of the Cyprian in an intensified form — particularly temper. In my estimation the temper of the Syrian deprives this race of any practical value it might otherwise possess, although — unlike some European races — it will not attack unless interfered with. Primitive beekeeping is therefore well able to get along with this bee, for beyond the annual taking of the honey at the end of the season (when colony strength is at its minimum) no interference is called for. But the manipulations demanded by modern beekeeping do not seem feasible with Syrian colonies. Even miniature colonies covering only a few combs will not tolerate disturbance, as I found by experience. Moreover a swarm of angry bees will pursue and attack any living creature within reach. This habit of attacking en masse at great distances from the hive is a very dangerous trait. Tellians, Cyprians and some French strains also show it, but to a much smaller degree.
The pure Syrian is an elegant bee. The abdomen is very pointed, and the first three dorsal segments are a clear lemon-yellow. Tomenta and over-hair have a silvery sheen, and the scutellum is bright yellow.
The fecundity of Syrian queens is prodigious — too much so. The bees are good foragers and have great stamina. They are however given to excessive swarming, and when the swarming impulse has taken hold of a colony, it will construct an enormous number of queen cells, often hundreds of them. One of the Syrian’s most noted good qualities is its intrepid defence of its home.
The true Syrian is distinct in appearance and biological characteristics from all other races. It is however no longer easy to find colonies of the pure Syrian. In Israel itself they can perhaps only be found in Upper Galilee, in the region between Lake Hula and Metulla. In the Jordan sector they are more common. But in northern Lebanon and Syria the influence of the Anatolian bee can be clearly discerned. In fact there is considerable variation even in colonies immediately north of Beirut. Hybrids predominate everywhere in Israel, for strenuous efforts are being made to supplant the indigenous bee.
There are a few Israeli beekeepers who regard the introduction of Italians as a serious mistake. The well-worn arguments in support of the indigenous bee are brought forward in Israel, as in many other countries. We visited one of the adherents of the Syrian bee, and were given a demonstration of their docility. I left unconvinced. In my estimation the Syrian bee has not one redeeming quality which would atone for its irascibility. Though I was often assured that really docile strains do exist, I never came across any on my search. On entering an apiary where Syrian bees were kept in modern hives, one was instantly confronted by a horde of angry, hissing bees, and a throng of them would pursue one for a considerable distance after leaving the apiary. This extreme viciousness is sometimes regarded as eminently desirable: one of the most able Arab beekeepers assured me that he only got a honey crop because the temper of his bees prevented unwarranted persons interfering with his hives.
In 1952 Israel possessed about 33000 colonies of bees, and efforts are in progress to double this number within a few years. The required material is being imported from America. Langstroth equipment is used exclusively, and to ensure economy and simplification in management, full-depth brood chambers have to serve as supers. Primitive hives are only found in isolated Arab villages.
Commercial beekeeping is mainly confined to the communal co-operative settlements or kibbutzim. Some of the kibbutz operate up to a thousand colonies. Emphasis is placed on intensive rather than extensive beekeeping; the scarcity of timber, the high cost of imported hives and general economic conditions preclude any haphazard keeping of bees. The main honey crop is from the orange blossom, which yields 20-30 kg per colony. At the end of April or early in May the hives are taken from the orange groves in the coastal plain to the hills and mountains of Galilee, to gather the second crop from the wild flowers, the most important being acacia, cactus, lavender, wild carrot, sage, thyme and a great variety of thistles. The second crop averages a further 20-30 kg per colony. Commercial beekeeping undoubtedly has a promising future in Palestine.
As one would expect, the honey crop in the Levantine countries depends largely on the rainfall during the brief winter months. This is true for the orange blossom, and even more so for the crop from the wild flowers. Yet hopes raised by an abundance of rain may in the end be dashed to the ground by the dreaded khamseen at blossoming time. This happened in 1952. All the Middle East countries had an exceptionally heavy rainfall the previous winter, and the orange groves were laden with an exceptional abundance of blossom. But as nectar secretion reached its maximum intensity, the hot khamseen from the desert shrivelled the blossom in a few hours. Instead of a record crop, only 6 kg per hive was secured — the lowest average for ten years. However, the wild flowers on the hills and mountains were unaffected, and an exceptional crop was secured from them.
From mid-July until November, when the rainy season starts, there is no nectar or pollen; during this period the colonies must also fight for survival against hornets and wax moths. This fight is a grim one: the colonies are first weakened by the hornets, and the wax moths give the coup de grâce. In spite of every effort by the beekeepers to combat the hornets, by poison baits and the destruction of nests, the annual loss of colonies is about 10 per cent — in some seasons even 30 per cent. Some beekeepers have been compelled to move entire apiaries to areas less heavily infested with hornets.
The rain and cold in November bring to an end the fierce struggle between the honeybee and its enemies and, with the beginning of the rainy season, a new lease of life sets in for the bee. In the maritime regions the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and the loquat (Eriobothrya japonica) yield abundant nectar and pollen when the weather is favourable. In the higher regions severe though brief wintry conditions are not uncommon; winter however offers no serious problem to the beekeeper.
I had heard so much in years gone by of the Syrian bee through the kindness of Fr. Maurus Massé who, during his sojourn at our Monastery at Abon-Gosch, tried to make the best of this race. He had little success, and small reward for his efforts, and I am now no longer surprised at his failure.
On 19th April I crossed over to Jordan, to our Monastery of St. Benoît on Mount Olivet. This is south-west of Jerusalem, and gave a perfect view of the Old City and the Temple Area. Until quite recently Syrian bees were kept at the Monastery, in modern hives, but with no great success.
The Arabs have great faith in their native bee. Over and over again I was assured that there were two distinct varieties of indigenous bees, one of which builds combs in the shape of the moon, and the other in the form of a furrow. It was further claimed that the former was of good temper, but short lived and a poor forager. The second kind was of vile temper, but long lived and a great honey gatherer. Unfortunately this ready differentiation will not bear close scrutiny. Expressed without the Oriental simile, a cast hived in an Israeli clay cylinder will build comb parallel to the entrance, and therefore in the shape of a more or less perfect circle. On the other hand, a prime swarm will at once occupy the greater part of the cylinder and build comb at right-angles to the entrance — or cold-way in the more prosaic language of the European. A cast has little chance of escaping the ravages of hornet and wax moth, and is therefore in the eyes of the uninitiated short-lived and not very valuable as a honey gatherer. This notion of there being two distinct varieties of bees, of one and the same indigenous race, is surprisingly widespread in the Middle East. The same view, based on the same differentiation, is held in Cyprus.
Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to introduce the modern hive into Jordan. But without introducing a more manageable bee at the same time, these well meant endeavours seem doomed to failure. There is nothing to be gained by putting Syrian bees into a modern hive and then — because of their unmanageability — leaving them to their own devices. They might as well be hived in a clay cylinder. The net return in surplus honey would show no material difference, but there would be a substantial difference in the cost of production between the modern and primitive way of keeping bees. In a country without timber, a sustained effort to introduce a bee more suitable to modern methods of management will probably never be made, the cost of a frame hive will never be justified. The sun-baked clay cylinders cost next to nothing and, if large enough, they offer a satisfactory home for the Syrian bee.
My enquiries in Jordan took me to a great many primitive apiaries, but I came across none containing many colonies; there were a dozen at most, but more often only two to four. The clay hives are substantially constructed and of no mean capacity, and thus well suited to the extremes of temperature and the ability of the native bee. They are 26 inches long and 12 inches in diameter internally. The walls are a full 2 inches thick. Less common are the hives of stoneware, made in the shape of an Oriental water jar of about two gallons capacity. The narrow neck forms the entrance. The jars rest on their sides, and the opening for removing the honey is at the back which is fitted with a detachable disc. These stoneware hives have the advantage of great durability, and also provide an almost complete safeguard against the many troublesome pests. But hives of stoneware require shelter from the direct rays of the sun, whereas the clay cylinders do not. These stoneware hives seem to be confined to Jordan and Lebanon: at least I did not see them anywhere else.
On 7th May I left Jerusalem for Syria and Lebanon, via Jéricho and Amman. As I approached Jéricho, the wheat harvest was already in full swing. The season was advancing rapidly. The lilies of the fields had gone until the next return of spring, and the landscape was brown and seared. But on leaving Israel I was again confronted with some of the loveliest scenery imaginable, in the verdant valley of the Wadi Salt, along which the road winds its way to Amman after leaving the Plain of Jéricho. This narrow valley, set amidst the desolate hills of ancient Moab, with its profusion of wild flowers, its masses of oleander in full bloom, and the vivid scarlet waxy blossom of the pomegranate everywhere, combined to form a picture of unforgettable loveliness. In this beautiful setting, the Jordan Department of Agriculture recently established an experimental apiary, between Suweile and Ensalt.
When I arrived in Amman I paid the expected call at the Department of Agriculture, and then set out on the hazardous trek across the desert to Damascus.
Bee World 35(12), 1954, 233-245.
Syria and Lebanon
By the time I entered Syria I had gathered quite a valuable collection of samples for the Bee Department at Rothamsted of value for biometric studies, but for no other purpose. However the Syrian Customs thought otherwise. The many cases full of glass tubes, each with its preservative, label and number, seemed to them too valuable to pass without payment of a heavy deposit. And I was on the way to Damascus, where they held that such things could be sold. After two hours’ delay, spent in the insufferable heat of the Arabian Desert, I was allowed to proceed (having paid substantially for the trouble I had caused), with every case securely fastened with a lead seal. This was but the beginning of the difficulties these samples involved, until more enlightened Customs were reached months later.
Among the marvellous vegetation of Lebanon must be counted many wild clovers. I had already seen many varieties new to me when in Galilee, but they grow in much greater profusion in Lebanon. Indeed I was told in Beirut that no record of all the species had yet been made; it is thought that there may be 150 or more. My attention was attracted particularly to two miniature species, one white and one red. Neither grows more than three inches high, but the profusion of blossom is amazing; the clover-heads form dense carpets of white or purple. When I first crossed the highest part of the Lebanon mountains coming from Damascus, huge patches of purple caught my eye, which proved to be the miniature red clover in full bloom; its value as a source of nectar was instantly apparent, for it was alive with bees. Indeed I had never before witnessed so many honeybees foraging with such intensity in a specified area. Moreover they must have come from a great distance, for on this otherwise bare and bleak mountain plateau no hives could be seen for miles. The miniature white clover is just as valuable as a nectar source. Both species thrive at sea level and at higher altitudes, but the tiny red clover seems to do best at about 3000 feet, and on the poor soil found on the Lebanon mountains. The white species (but not the red) I observed in Cyprus at the higher altitude of Troodos.
The flora of Lebanon is more luxuriant, and if anything more varied, than that of Israel. The mountainous country ensures a heavier rainfall, and the high humidity and the oppressive steamy heat impart to the low-lying maritime regions a genuine tropical character throughout the summer. The belt of citrus groves, banana and loquat plantations along the seashore furnish one of the main sources of nectar, but the extremely varied nectar-yielding flora of hill and mountainside provide a honey harvest no less rich. Indeed I believe that Lebanon has at its command one of the richest and most varied bee flora in the world.
The potentialities of beekeeping in Lebanon are reflected in the size of the primitive hives. Tradition and experience over the centuries have doubtless demonstrated the advantages of a hive which will hold a honey yield much above the average secured in other countries. The Lebanese hives are tubular, and measure a full 4 ft. in length and 11 in. in diameter. They are not made of timber, clay or stoneware, or of ferula stems, as in the other countries I had visited, but of wicker with a thin finishing coat of clay. Stiff wooden members are woven into the wickerwork lengthwise, to give the tubular construction the necessary stability and rigidity. These wicker hives cannot be stood directly on the ground (particularly in a humid climate); they are placed individually on shelves, a series of shelves being built one above the other, in an open shed with some sort of roof. At Baalbeck — renowned for its honey, as well as for its unique temple ruins — I saw the most capacious primitive hives of all; they were made of wood, and were no less than 5 ft. in length and 1 ft. in height and width internally.
Modern hives (Langstroth and Dadant) are in fairly common use throughout Lebanon. The Government is doing everything possible to encourage a still wider adoption of modern equipment and advanced methods of bee culture.
The native bee leaves much to be desired. Though it is not quite so irascible as the bee found in Israel, it resents interference. There is a marked difference in colour, size, temper and general behaviour of the Syrian bee north of Beirut. There have been some imports, but I am inclined to ascribe these variations to the influence of the Anatolian bee. Something useful might perhaps be evolved from this heterogeneous collection by selective breeding, but it is questionable whether the labour entailed would be justified. A good reliable strain of ligustica, and a distribution of breeding stock on the lines carried out in the adjoining country to the south, would seem to be the right solution. Such a course would yield quick and reliable results, with a minimum of expenditure.
Lebanon is a land of incomparable scenery, and it would be hard to find another of equal size with such a varied climate and such a rich flora. It is a country where bee culture should flourish as nowhere else in the Middle East.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sir Henry and Lady Knight, for the help they gave me in so many ways during my stay in Lebanon. I extend to them my grateful appreciation and thanks.
It was with keen expectations that I visited Cyprus. More than thirty-three years had passed since the first consignment of Cyprian queens reached Buckfast, and a number were imported later. I was therefore fairly well versed in the idiosyncrasies of this race (Apis mellifera var. cypria), but there were several important problems which could only be solved by studying it in its native habitat. Moreover there was good cause to suspect that a thorough search would reveal isolated strains of a more benign disposition than any we had so far possessed.
Cyprus was reached on May 17th. Representatives of the Department of Agriculture kindly offered me every assistance when I disembarked at Limassol. However, nothing useful could be done that day, for I had hardly arrived before it began to rain, and it rained with a tropical intensity. This downpour was not only unseasonable but also most inopportune, as the corn was still being harvested. It was however a welcome change to me after the steamy heat of Beirut.
I returned to Nicosia on the following Monday to call on the Department of Agriculture. Immediately on my arrival, the Department kindly gave me a list of all the important apiaries in the Island, complete with the number of colonies in each and the type of hive. After a brief consultation, Mr. Osman Nouri drew up an itinerary and issued instructions to the District Officers concerned. The first week was taken up by exploring the northern and central sections, and the search was then extended to the districts of Famagusta, Larnaca, Limassol, Paphos and Lefka. On June 4th I left for Greece from Larnaca. Thanks to the efficient arrangements and the willing co-operation of the various District Officers, I was able to carry out the search not only expeditiously but very thoroughly, and Mr. S.A.L. Thompson also made a substantial contribution to the success of my efforts.
The nectar-yielding flora of Cyprus is fairly varied, but it cannot be compared with that of Lebanon. Moisture is lacking, and there are no permanent rivers. The central Plain — the Messaoria — offers only a bare subsistence to bees for most of the year; it is barren and seared from the end of May until the rains return. The hills and valleys, and the two mountain ranges which extend in parallel lines from east to west of the Plain, offer a much richer provender. The highest peak of the Troodos range to the south reaches 6406 feet; the Kyrenia range to the north is lower.
The main honey crop is derived from fruit blossom, citrus, thistles and the wild thyme. Owing to the lack of moisture, the clover is useless to the bees, and it is probably for the same reason that the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) which is much prized as a nectar source in Sicily, does not yield freely here. This is most unfortunate, for Cyprus is famed for its carob trees; there are about two million of them and, unlike most trees, they seem to thrive everywhere. There are many secondary sources of nectar, from the commencement of the winter rains until the seasonal drought. Bees can collect enough to meet their needs throughout the winter — from the loquat, Acacia and Eucalyptus which yield in December, then from the various species of dandelion, bean and Anchusa, and towards spring from Oxalis, rosemary, sage, etc.
The extensive citrus groves are centred near Famagusta, Limassol and Lefka. The wild thyme, Thymus capitatus, the same species from which the famous Hymettus honey is derived, thrives only on bare and parched hillsides, where nothing of much value could subsist. The many species of thistle are mainly found in the more arid sections of the country. Some of them are lovely; the most beautiful of all, found everywhere by the roadside at the end of May, is clothed in a heavenly blue — the slender stem, leaves and all.
Nature has not been particularly indulgent to the honeybee in Cyprus. Except among the orange groves there are no heavy nectar flows. The native bee, by dint of effort, is able to make a living during the greater part of the year, but the amount of surplus gathered is small.
There are about 22 000 colonies of bees in Cyprus, less than 2000 of them in modern hives. Efforts are in progress to further modern methods of bee culture, and regular courses are given on advanced beekeeping at the Central Experimental Farm at Morphou. There is a small plant for manufacturing comb foundation at this Farm — the only source of it in the Island. Apiaries with modern equipment are largely owned by the great fruit-growing concerns. The beekeeping and queen-rearing establishment belonging to Mr. S.A.L. Thompson, at Jingen Bahchesi, Kyrenia, is probably the most progressive of its kind.
The primitive hives in Cyprus are of either burnt or sun-baked clay; they are tubular, about 30×10 inches internally. Apiaries containing 100–150 colonies are quite common; the clay tubes are stacked and joined into one solid block, like the individual bricks in a wall. They are usually tiered four or five high, and a large collection of them often resembles a long boundary wall; the roofing tiles which are usually placed on top help to complete the illusion. Small apiaries are uncommon in Cyprus. In some villages, for instance Paphos, one may occasionally find hives built into the walls of houses, the hives opening on the inside into a bedroom or living room. Though Ferula thyrsifolia thrives in Cyprus, it is not used for hives: the more durable clay is preferred.
It is not known when or whence the first colony of bees was brought to Cyprus. The possibility of a vagrant swarm flying from the mainland must be excluded, since Asia Minor is 40 and Syria 60 miles away. There is some evidence indicating a descent from Egyptian stock; Cyprus was first occupied by the Egyptians in 1450 B.C., and it is known that about 850 years later there were bees on the Island, because Herodotus refers to a swarm which had taken possession of a skull suspended before the temple of Aphrodite. The attention of modern apiculture was first drawn to the Cyprian bee in 1866.
The Cyprian bee is midway in size between the Italian and Syrian. The colour of the first three dorsal segments is a clear bright orange; the fourth and fifth segments are also orange, but only near the ventral plates. Each of the first three dorsal segments has a sharply defined black rim, which is narrowest on the first and widest on the third segment. The colour of the three posterior dorsal segments is a decided black, which tends to enhance the orange of the first three segments. The ventral plates (except the posterior two) are usually a transparent orange without any trace of a darker coloration: this is one of the most characteristic markings of the Cyprian. The scutellum is pale orange, and the over-hair and tomenta are buff.
The queens are considerably smaller than any of European origin. Their colour and markings are much more constant, and the markings so definite, that a Cyprian queen can readily be identified. The abdomen is pale orange, but each dorsal segment bears a narrow, sharply defined crescent-shaped black rim. A somewhat similar marking is occasionally observed in a common hybrid queen, but the bands are then wider and not so sharply defined. Although they are small, Cyprian queens are exceedingly prolific. Their fecundity only reaches its maximum, however, when they are crossed with another race.
Contrary to expectations, pure Cyprians are not addicted to swarming. This would be fatal in their native home. Under the swarming impulse they usually construct a great number of queen cells — often several hundred — and they tend to build them in clusters resembling a miniature bunch of grapes. The breeding power of this race is truly prodigious, and more honey is devoted to brood rearing than pleases the beekeeper, but this must be regarded as a device of Nature to ensure the survival of individual colonies in their native habitat. Cyprians are hardy, long-lived and endowed with great foraging abilities. Their cappings of honey are dark and watery in appearance. They construct little or no brace-comb; they are disposed to use propolis freely, but fortunately not usually the sticky resinous kind, but a compound of propolis, cappings, etc., which does not readily adhere to one’s fingers. Lumps of this mixture are often deposited along the entrance in the autumn. Cyprians pass through the winter more safely than any other race, even in our northern climate (although their native home is in the sub-tropics); this is one of their outstanding characteristics. I have never known a Cyprian colony, pure or first cross, fail to come through the winter.
Perhaps nothing has made the Cyprian bee more unpopular than its irritability. Most strains strongly resent any interference, and this irascibility is just as pronounced in its native habitat. Records of the first imports into Europe, however, laid stress on its remarkable docility, and I found that there are still such good-tempered strains in the Island.
Although the Cyprian is probably the most homozygous race known, my enquiry has revealed a measure of variation. There are many deep valleys where individual isolation is as complete as that of the Island itself. These isolated pockets hold the material for the further improvement of the Cyprian race; it should be possible by suitable selection to develop strains as gentle and as tolerant of manipulation as any Italian.
The absolute isolation and the harsh environment of the Island have together given us a priceless asset, and to the enterprising geneticist Cyprus is a veritable Treasure Island. However the thousands of years of inbreeding between relatively few colonies have in a measure masked the potentialities of the race, and experience leads me to believe that the pent-up qualities of the Cyprian will only unfold to the full in cross-breeding. But I must emphasize that although they are of incomparable value in developing new strains, pure Cyprians are useless to the average beekeeper.
Beekeeping in Cyprus is favoured by one unique blessing — the complete absence of disease. To maintain this good fortune, and to ensure the continued purity of the Cyprian race, imports of queens and bees are strictly prohibited.
I wish to express my grateful thanks to the Director of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. P.C. Chambers, for his invaluable help, and to the various District Officers for their co-operation. I should like also to record my gratitude to the late Mr. Osman Nouri, who made the necessary arrangements for the search in Cyprus; unfortunately he died suddenly shortly after my departure. I further wish to thank Mr. S.A.L. Thompson for the help he rendered in so many ways; I shall always recall with pleasure the brief visits to the mountain chalet above Kyrenia, and the view of Cilicia and the snow-capped peaks of the Taurus in the far distance.
After two days at sea, we sighted Cape Sunium about noon on June 6th. Athens was reached in the late afternoon, and what proved to be the most exacting and strenuous three weeks of my search lay immediately ahead.
Beyond the bare information that there are more colonies relative to the population (about one for every ten inhabitants) in Greece than in any other country, little was known of beekeeping conditions in this extreme section of south-eastern Europe. But the large number of colonies indicated a certain measure of apicultural prosperity, although not necessarily a substantial surplus yield per colony, which would presuppose amongst other things an indigenous bee of outstanding abilities. I was not left in doubt on this point for long.
The day after my arrival found us exploring Attica, as far south as Cape Sunium, with Dr. A. Typaldos-Xydias and Mr. C. Michaelides. Dr. Xydias, who met me the day before at the Piraeus, has been for many years Technical Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and may be regarded as the father of modern apiculture in Greece; indeed I realized daily during the next few weeks that Dr. Xydias is known and revered by every Greek beekeeper.
Our journeys took us twice to the Peloponnesus, and then on the last visit from Patras to Missolonghi, Arta, Janina, Konitse; thereafter to Metsovon in the heart of the Pindus range, and on to Kalambaka, Grevena, Kozania, Veria, Edessa, Salonica and the section of country north-east of that city. The trip to Crete I made alone, as the Agricultural Officials of the Island furnished all the assistance required. Arrangements were already made for a visit to a few of the islands in the Aegean Sea, to which both Dr. Xydias and I attached great importance, since it is here — as in Cyprus — that the most valuable breeding stock is likely to be found. Unfortunately, in the end I had no time for this visit.
The ancient Athenians, we are told, were constantly praising four things: their honey, their figs, their myrtle berries, and the Propylaea. The honey the Athenians were so proud of was gathered on Mount Hymettus, immediately east of the city. It is derived from the mountain thyme, Thymus capitatus and is highly aromatic, with a heavy body and a light amber colour: a most delicious honey indeed, but not one which will always appeal to a palate used to the evanescent flavours of our paler northern honeys. Wild thyme is not confined to Mount Hymettus: it is common throughout southern Greece, the Peloponnesus and Crete, where it is the principal nectar source. In these regions it thrives on any bare, rocky and otherwise barren hillside, where nothing else can subsist for lack of moisture. At the lime of my arrival it had just commenced to bloom, and at some of the apiaries I visited the air was laden with the rich scent of the newly gathered nectar. However, I was told that it was not secreting heavily for lack of the necessary atmospheric humidity.
Groves of orange and lemon abound in the maritime regions of southern Greece but, except near Arta, none are as large as those in the Middle East and North Africa. Other varieties of fruit of value to the bees are confined to the northern part of the country; there are extensive plantations between Veria and Naoussa. It is indeed in the north of Greece that the heaviest crops of honey are secured. The main sources are clover, sweet chestnut, wild sage, mountain savory and honeydew. Crete has an extremely abundant and varied nectar-bearing flora, with many species of Erica; these seemed to be absent in the Levant.
Greece possesses approximately 700 000 colonies of bees, and I was greatly impressed by the high standard of efficiency of its bee culture the modern (with Langstroth hives) as well as the primitive. In northern Europe beekeeping is usually regarded as a sideline, or as a pleasant hobby, and beekeepers often have only three or four hives. Not so in Greece! There are probably more professional beekeepers in Macedonia than anywhere else in Europe. Migratory beekeeping is the accepted thing, and it is practised on a grand scale with most laudable results. I was told that averages of 100 kg are not uncommon. From a good vantage point some thirty miles north-east of Salonica, it was possible to pick out apiaries containing altogether no less than 2000 colonies — the area was literally teeming with bees. To the west, beyond Edessa, in well nigh inaccessible regions adjoining Albania, extensive apiaries were tucked away in the folds of the hills everywhere, and the thousands of colonies in them had just been brought there from long distances. Now and again one could see equally large apiaries of primitive hives, which had also been brought to these inhospitable regions. Professional apiarists, modern and primitive alike, rely on migratory beekeeping for a dependable income.
The primitive beekeeping in Greece is instructive, and historically of great interest. We know that the basket hive of today was in common use in Greece more than 3000 years ago, and that the principle of the movable comb, re-discovered about a hundred years ago, was in fact employed in this hive by the ancient Greeks. The hive is constructed of wickerwork, and has the same shape as an earthenware flowerpot. It is 23 in. deep, 15 in. across at the top and 12 in. at the bottom (internally). Nine bars — 1½ in. wide to give the correct spacing — fit across the brim. The combs are attached to these bars, exactly as in the hive invented by Dzierzon about the middle of the last century. With a little extra care, each of the nine combs can be examined individually as freely as the combs of a modern frame hive. Moreover the shape of this Greek hive corresponds more closely than any modern rectangular one to the natural inclinations of the bees. In Greece the baskets are given a fairly substantial external and internal coating of clay, whereas in Crete — for some reason I was never able to discover — a thin coating only is applied, internally and for about two inches around the bottom externally. In Crete one occasionally sees earthenware hives of the same shape and size; they are skilfully moulded with a crucifix over each entrance. Occasionally one also sees hives made of reeds, somewhat similar in shape to our own English skep, complete with hackle. But the Greek skeps are usually larger, taller and more pointed; one type, less common, has a rounded dome-shaped top. They are all more capacious than their traditional English counterparts. I saw no hives of sun-baked clay or ferula stems, though Ferula thyrsifolia is fairly common in Greece.
In Crete, particularly on the peninsula north of Suda Bay, I saw extensive apiaries — set amidst the wild thyme — entirely of wicker hives. The bare wicker, with a few handfuls of reeds flung across the top, was all the shelter and protection provided. Some of these primitive apiaries contained more than a hundred hives.
A few miles south-east of ancient Mycenae and Agamemnon’s Tomb — in Argolis, Peloponnesus — is a unique walled-in bee garth with no less than ninety-eight bee boles, each with its basket hive, complete with the heavy coat of clay which seems traditional in that part of Greece. Even in ancient times great value was apparently placed on the direction hives should face, for each of these bee boles faces east or south-east.
The indigenous honeybee of extreme south-eastern Europe has so far, for some inexplicable reason, never attracted any notice. True, it is not endowed with any of the glamour that would arrest attention — it lacks the bright colour and uniformity of appearance which are often so highly valued. But as a general business bee, it has perhaps no equal. It resembles the Caucasian in many of its characteristics — tendency to propolize, and the construction of brace-comb. Both these defects are less highly developed in the Greek bee, and in some strains they are negligible. Its most outstanding qualities are gentleness, breeding power, and disinclination to swarm. I came across no bad-tempered colonies, except in Crete. The Greek beekeeper hardly ever resorts to a smoker; a small piece of smouldering fungus is usually placed on top of the frames while an examination is in progress. The bees are as good tempered and quiet under manipulation as the average Carniolans. Their breeding power is truly phenomenal: I am inclined to believe that no other race will equal the numerical strength of a Greek colony, or particularly of a Greek queen crossed with an Italian or Carniolan drone. But unlike the Italian or Eastern races, breeding is severely restricted — too much so, to serve our purposes — after mid-July. The brood chamber may well be found chock-a-block with stores at the end of July. The brood is compact and faultless in every respect, and our experience suggests that the Greek bee is less disposed to swarming than any other race or strain we have tested in our apiaries. But it is definitely inclined to propolize and to build brace-comb freely, and the honey cappings are rather watery in appearance. Our preliminary tests and observations indicate that the Greek bee embodies the qualities required for a honey gatherer par excellence.
Aristotle observed that the bees of Greece are not uniform in colour; in his time the bees with yellow markings were considered best. The Greek bees of today are brown, with a yellow segment showing here and there. However west of the Pindus range, from Messolonghi to Janina, they are uniformly black. We were assured at Janina that near Konitsa, on the Albanian frontier, a pure yellow variety could be found, but our search there revealed a mere sprinkling of yellow, which is as commonly seen east of the Pindus range as in the heart of these mountains. In these regions one rarely finds a colony absolutely uniform in colour ; a small and varying proportion of the bees have one or two tawny segments. As would be expected, the queens show a wide range of coloration; drones, on the other hand, show practically none.
In Crete — according to Greek mythology the birthplace of the honeybee — the bees show a high percentage of yellow markings. Indeed, the bees of this favoured Island are a mixed lot in every way. Before I left Europe, I was assured that in Crete I would find the most gentle bees extant, but the temper of some of the colonies I examined indicated a decided Eastern influence. In Cyprus I found the greatest uniformity, in Crete a deep-seated dis-uniformity.
Although our experience of the Greek bee has been confined to one season, the preliminary results indicate that, given a good strain, this race may well prove to be of great value. It is definitely superior to the Caucasian, of which I had previous experience.
I wish to record my deep appreciation to the Greek Ministry of Agriculture for the many facilities which were placed at my disposal, and to Dr. A. Typaldos-Xydias and Mr. C. Michaelides for their help and generosity, which I shall always recall with gratitude. I also extend my thanks to the beekeepers of Chalchidiki, whose help proved such a decisive contribution towards the ultimate success of all my efforts.
The indigenous bee of western Yugoslavia, of Montenegro and Bosnia, is reputed to be more prolific and less given to swarming than the typical Carniolan of Slovenia. Though the latter has the reputation of being prolific, I have in recent years been forced to conclude that this is not so. The measure of fecundity of a race or of an individual queen is rather an arbitrary concept, and the Carniolan is undoubtedly prolific when compared with the old English native bee; Cheshire and Cowan clearly made such a comparison, and their verdict seems to have been repeated ever since without being checked. The average Carniolan is not prolific according to our standard. We have tried out more than a dozen strains recently, secured from widely different parts of its native habitat, and most of them could not fill more than seven M.D. frames with brood at the height of the season, whereas our own strain would readily fill ten. It was therefore with a keen concern that I looked forward to a search of the Montenegran Alps and the high mountain range along the Dalmatian coast, for I confidently hoped to find there a strain better adapted to our particular needs.
On leaving Greece I intended to make for Skoplje, then to turn westward towards Cetinje immediately north of Albania, and to go on to Ragusa, Sarajevo, Split and Ljubljana. Alas! a mishap on my last day in Greece — a burst tyre which could not be replaced — made it necessary to use the less hazardous route from Skoplje to Nish, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. Even so, it proved a most gruelling journey, and we had the uncomfortable knowledge that we had no spare tyre. Blit after a nightmare journey, in a country where roads are almost non-existent, Ljubljana was finally reached safely.
Ljubljana, or Laibach as it used to be known, is the centre of Carniola and the headquarters of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association — Zveza cebelarskih društev v Ljubljana — which helped me in my search in Slovenia. This Association, like most others on the Continent, supplies its members with all necessary equipment at cost price. It also publishes a monthly journal of very high standing, Slovenski Cebelar. The members of the Association own altogether 70 000 colonies, of which 50 000 are in modern hives. The total number of colonies in Yugoslavia is about 800 000, half in modern hives.
We secured our first Carniolan queens more than fifty years ago from Michael Ambrozic of Moistrana, Upper Carniola, who founded the world-wide trade in these queens and bees. We had since then imported queens from various sources and with varying results, but it had been impossible to obtain direct imports from Carniola since 1939. I therefore looked forward with keen anticipation to visiting the central habitat of this race. Furthermore, I had an idea that I would find something of special value, apart from gaining a more precise knowledge of the environment which helped to mould the most classical type of Carniolan, which is found in this region.
Our search took us first to Lower Carniola, south and south-east of Ljubljana. The bees here are fairly uniform, but as we travelled further from Central Carniola, either due east, south or south-west, the slight variations in external characteristics became more apparent. In addition, the temper of the bees occasionally left something to be desired. However, east of Ljubljana, close to the Hungarian frontier, the bees seemed to me to be more prolific and perhaps less disposed to swarming, but less uniform externally (this may be due partly to the influence of the Banat bee, a sub-variety of the Carniolan whose central habitat is further east or south-east of Maribor). A month later I had an opportunity to explore the adjoining area to the north, approaching Hungary from Styria.
The Carniolan bee in its classical form and in greatest uniformity is only found in the isolation of Upper Carniola, particularly in the secluded valley running due west of Bled. The towering Karawanken to the north and north-east, the Carnic Alps to the north-west, and the Julian Alps to the west and south-west, constitute an insuperable barrier. In fact this lovely valley from Bled to Bistrica forms one of the most perfect mating stations designed by Nature, and it is not surprising that some of the best Carniolan queens are reared there.
In the very centre of this valley lives Jan Strgar, known the world over as a breeder of Carniolan queens. His establishment was founded in 1903, and a considerable section of Slovenski Cebelar for December 1953 was appropriately devoted to commemorating this event. In spite of his advanced years, Jan Strgar is still actively engaged in beekeeping and queen rearing; strangely enough, he has retained the primitive Bauernkasten to this day, apparently with great success. Most of the Carnica queens sent to England between the two World Wars came from Bitnje, Bohinjska Bistrica. One noted breeder, Jose Susnik, Brod 1, Bohinjska Bistrica, has a mating station at the western end of the valley; Franc Vook, Hroš 27, Lesce, Bled, is another breeder of high repute.
In my first report (Bee World 32 : 49 & 57, 1951) I gave a fairly comprehensive outline of the general characteristics of the Carnica bee. That description also holds good for the strains found in Carniola itself. There are undoubtedly some variations; indeed the wide variation between one strain and another is one of the most marked features of the race. We have had some strains which could hardly have been surpassed for uniformity in external characteristics, but which proved valueless in practice. Too much stress is often placed on uniformity, particularly in the Carniolan. There is a factor for yellow in its genetic make-up, which often manifests itself as a seasonal variation. The breeder of one of the best strains assured me that his bees will not infrequently show some yellow coloration on the first dorsal segments in the early part of the summer, but that these markings will completely vanish in subsequent generations raised at a lower temperature in the autumn. Actually the best strains (judged by performance) I have so far come across are known to manifest a fair amount of yellow. In every race, variations in colour find markings are shown in the most startling manner, in the queens, and this is especially true of Carniolans. There is a danger that by placing too much emphasis on external uniformity, we may lose the much more important objective of performance.
One outstanding fact is the complete absence of brood diseases throughout the native habitat of the Carniolan bee. This impressed me deeply, for in every country I have so far visited (except Cyprus) A.F.B. and E.F.B. are common, and in some instances endemic. But Carinthia and Carniola seem to form an island of immunity. Acarine, Nosema, and paralysis are present, but not foulbrood. Its absence cannot be fortuitous (the mountain barriers would retard, but not prevent, the spread of disease, and I have seen A.F.B. in an almost inaccessible region of the Pindus mountains on the fringe of Albania). We are dealing here not with a true immunity, but probably with an innate resistance.
Beekeeping conditions in Carniola, especially in Upper Carniola, are very similar to those in the adjoining Austrian Province of Carinthia. However, in Central and Lower Carniola, especially in the mountainous region along the Adriatic, there is a more varied nectar-bearing flora. In Upper Carniola honeydew from the pines forms the main source. In Central and Lower Carniola limes abound, and they seem to yield freely here; they were in full bloom at the time of my visit, and I was able to sample pure lime honey. Another honey of high quality is gathered in August and September in the mountainous region of Dalmatia, from the mountain savory, Satureia montana. Some of the more enterprising professional beekeepers transport their colonies in spring to the rosemary, which grows in great profusion on some of the Islands of the Dalmatian coast. Some wonderful crops of a honey of supreme quality are thus secured. Many colonies are also moved into the Istrian Peninsula at the end of June, for the honey from the sweet chestnut, which is however of a lower quality. There are many secondary sources, and the flora in general is more favourable to beekeeping in north-west Yugoslavia than in the adjoining Austrian territory.
I have no idea when house apiaries first came into use. In Carniola beehouses are an accepted and integral part of both primitive and modern beekeeping. For migratory beekeeping the hives are stacked in sectionally constructed sheds. I did not see any beehouses in Yugoslavia outside Carniola.
The people of Yugoslavia are renowned for their kind-heartedness and hospitality, and I received more than my share. The evening before my departure, the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association organized a great farewell gathering in Ljubljana. Amongst other things, souvenirs of ancient beekeeping were presented as a token of good will and remembrance. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the President of the Association, Krmelj Maks, to the genial secretary, Franc Cvetko, and to the Editors of the Slovenski Cebelar, Vlado Rojec, Stane Mihelic and to Josip Kobal. I extend to them all, and to each one individually, my heartfelt gratitude. And I shall always recall with a very special remembrance the kindness I received at the hands of the Slovenian people.
On leaving Yugoslavia I had a number of enquiries to make in the adjoining Carinthia and Styria, which in due course proved of great value. However, the Ligurian Alps were the next important sphere of search. A brief visit had been made there in October 1950, but we were unable to secure any Ligurian queens as the season was too far advanced.
The world-wide fame of the Italian bee is partly based on the success achieved with the first imports made nearly a hundred years ago. These bees came from the Ligurian Alps — hence the name Ligurian bee. Our findings indicate that the genuine leather-coloured Italian, which embodies all the desirable qualities which have made the Italian so popular, is only found in the Ligurian Alps, in the mountainous region between La Spezia and Genoa.
Apart from the direct practical value, I felt that a more precise knowledge of the tawny Ligurian would have a great bearing on our future cross-breeding experiments, and after much effort I now succeeded in securing queens of the type required. The parcel containing the collection of precious queens was left overnight in my room, ready for posting next day. To my amazement, the next morning both table and package were covered with tiny black ants, and on touching the parcel, thousands of these wretched creatures fell out of the cotton wool packing surrounding the cages. All the queens and bees had been killed by the ants. The loss of the Ligurian queens proved the greatest disappointment of my journey: I could not retrace my steps for the required time and energy were no longer at my disposal.
However, I went on to the south of France in the firm belief that I could include the Iberian Peninsula. But it soon became clear that the long sustained effort since February called for a halt and an overdue rest and I returned to Buckfast on September 29th.
Gradually but surely, and step by step, information of value concerning the manifold races of the honeybee is being accumulated, and a more precise knowledge of the range of their distribution is emerging. The jigsaw puzzle of the races can thus slowly be pieced together. The mode of their evolution is being revealed stage by stage, so that the individual defects and qualities can be more readily traced to their primary sources. We are by degrees coming to a truer and more perfect understanding of the vast fund of potentialities which is at our command for the creation of the perfect bee. But much remains to be done, for in an undertaking of this nature, where unforeseen difficulties and delays are inevitable, time is an all-important factor.
I desire to express my deep gratitude to Dr. C.G. Butler for his unfailing support, and to Mr. A.W. Gale for his generosity. The work could not have been carried thus far had it not been for the timely assistance which they gave.
in Bee World, 35(12), 1954, 133-245.
by Brother ADAM, O.S.B.
St Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast,
South Devon – England.