Elgon
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Beekeeping – with Elgon bees
The base for life on earth is plants. The vast majority of all plants need to be pollinated for their existence and distribution. The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the best pollinator of all, for example because they are inclined to visit the same sort of flowers when they have started to visit one type. And this is basic for pollination, a flower must have pollen from the same species to be pollinated. Another benefiting factor is that bees live in big colonies with many individuals, thus you have thousands of potential pollinators at the same place. Mankind, yes the whole creation, have benefits from the honeybee. I would say more than most people are aware of.
A bee resting before entering the hive after returning collecting pollen in its leg baskets and having performed pollination with its body hairs. (Photo Bo Malmgren.)

Dried pollen for sale. When you have to press somewhat to crush the pollen pellets the water content is low enough. Don't let the dry in higher temperature than 35° Celsius. Otherwise nutrional value will be substantially lowered. (Photo: Sven-Olof Ohlsson.)
Harvesting propolis from a plastic grid having been on top of a bee colony close to the bees. After kepping it cold for some time you can harvest it and put it in a suitable box.
A stock hive from high up in a tree close to the tree border on 3500 m altitude in Mt Elgon in Western Kenya, Africa. It was from this hive we managed to get drone semen though it was the wrong time of the year for drones. The queen in this hive had worn out wings and the bees wanted to shift her as soon as it was possible apparently, waiting for the next nectar season.
But not all subpopulations in Africa are that very defensive. There are races much more easy to handle, for example the Monticola bee, Apis mellifera monticola, on the mountain slopes of East Africa. Another one is Unicolor, Apis mellifera unicolor, on Madagaskar.

1989 a group of four beekeepers went to the mountains of Kenya in East Africa and fetched drone semen in capillary tubes and bee eggs in pieces of newly built wax combs. This was breeding material from an African mountain, Mt Elgon, with a climate similar to ours, but without a winter period. The winter temperatures were only in the nights. The purpose was to increase the vitality and the gene base of our fine and well bred European bee with a high potent natural resource. The race was Apis mellifera monticola, on Mt Elgon, a very dark and hardy bee with a relatively good temper.
Our African team in a small village in western Kenya on 2000 m altitude, in front of "The Old Lady", the Landrover from 1954. From the left Dr. Bert Thrybom, Erik Bjorklund, Erik Osterlund, the Nyongesa family our host, and Michael van der Zee.
I bred queens from the eggs in late March when it was still almost winter in Sweden. Dr Bert Thrybom inseminated the virgin queens with semen we had collected. The semen was then old and was made viable again with a special solution made by Dr Thrybom. From the resulting laying queens a long work filled with patience and selection filled the years to come.

I worked mainly with the Buckfast bee as the base for the combination work with the Monticola bee. The Buckfast bee has for many decades been bred through combinations of different races by the Benediktinian monk Brother Adam. He lived in the monestry Buckfast Abbey in Devon in Southwest of England.
Brother Adam in 1983 at the matingstation for his Buckfast bees at Shirburton in Devon, England. It was the heart for his combination breeding of different races of bees. He used as drone producers daughter colonies of a colony that had reached the standard for being named Buckfast.
1989 semen and eggs from crossings between the Buckfast bee and Apis mellifera sahariensis was brought to Sweden from Holland and the third of the team members to Africa, Michael van der Zee. This bee came from the Marockoan oases Erfoud in Sahara. This bee is also African and very easy to handle, but from another type of very harsh surroundings. The purpose for using also this bee was to avoid inbreeding as the Monticola material used was quite small concerning genetic variation. The Sahariensis bee had been tried before and showed itself to have valuable traits. Michael van der Zee’s experiences from similar expeditions were valuable in Kenya.

The fourth member in the expedition to western Kenya was Erik Bjorklund from Sweden. He is still a leading person in the aid association, The Swedish Mount Elgon Association and has many local contacts, as well as being an experienced beekeeper.

The African bee we brought to Sweden this way was relatively easy to handle, definitively of no killer bee character. It was easy to get good combinations with both Buckfast bees and Italian bees. I went on with the combination work with the Buckfast crossings. I tried combinations with Monticola as mother, and also with Buckfast as mother. The former were the best and I went on with these. Very soon the bee became very easy too handle and had a very low swarming tendency, if you gave it plenty of room for egglaying, for honey storage and for the large number of bees.
First cross Monticola X Buckfast. The queen in this coolony is a pure Monticola queen that was mated with drones of Buckfast heritage of my stock.
The resulting bee is not a Buckfast bee, but very similar. We call it Elgon. It’s a combination with quite some percentage of African heritage, at least theoretically. We that have bred this bee have been keen in trying to use dronelines that have been very Monticola like, both in appearance and in theoretical heritage. This is a difference compared to breeding Buckfast bees. There you normally use an established Buckfast droneline for the virgin queens.

The purpose with the Elgon breeding work was up to 2007 to keep as much as possible of the Monticola heritage until we have been able to draw any conclusions concerning the value of this heritage concerning the goal we wanted to reach, Varroa resistant bees as well as good commercial and hobby type of bees. That’s why we went to Africa.

In 2007 the Varroa mite was found in my apiaries and the breeding work went to the next phase, focusing on Varroa resistance and not theoretical amount of African heritage.
A dark brown varroa mite sitting on top of thorax on this bee. It sucks hemolymph when it's not inside a broodcell laying eggs for the next generation to run out of the cell when the mature young new bee is emerging. Photo: Pixabay.
Some are focused on color. I am not. It is not a selection criteria fro me. Therefore the color of the Elgon bees differ. But often it resembles a darker type of Buckfast bees, where the worker bees may have a couple of brownish bands on the abdomen. The queens can vary from quite light colored to black, where most of them though are on the darker side. But sometimes a good light colored colony has been influencing a stock growing up somewhere outside my control.

The lighter color probably comes from the Sahariensis heritage used. Also this bee has shown itself to have survival advantages concerning the Varroa mite. The Africanised bee (AHB) in South America and in South Africa has very small problems with this parasitic mite, which for example in North America and Europe is of so big a problem. Now when it has reached eastern Africa these bees living there have also showed themselves to handle the Varroa mite well.

The problems in our western world are big that the management system of the bees is centered around fighting the mite. Often beekeepers have lost a big part of their bee colonies due to the mite and effects following it, which often are viruses that the mite carry and make entrances for in the bee. Also the treatments against the mite are harming the bee more or less as well. Spraying of plant protection drugs on crops also give combination effects, also other stress factors influences and lower the immune and defense systems of the bee until the bee colony “crashes”.

In USA the number of colonies have decreased in such a way there are problems getting enough numbers for the pollination needs of important crops. The only long term solution is bees that are resistant against the Varroa mite so that the bees don’t need stress creating and immune system lowering activities and drugs to survive and often because of that hardly survive the mite but weakened.

In many places of the world people are now working on this longterm solution, to obtain bees that can stand the mites temselves, like the bees in tropical South America and Africa do. In more and more places in North America and Europe beekeepers have been able to develop a local stock that they havn’t needed to treat against the mite or anything else for 10 or more years now. The breeding work with the Elgon bee is done with this in mind.
This bee is called Elgon to tell you that it is not exactly the same as Buckfast, even if it’s similar. The name is inspired by one of the mountains on which the Monticola bee is living. We brought eggs and semen to Sweden. Mt Elgon is situated in western Kenya on the border to Uganda. The name Elgon is protected as a trade mark to help hinder the use of the name on outcrossed descendant queens which do not represent the Elgon stock well. But you can breed freely from an Elgon queen and use the daughters for the benefit of the bees.

The name is not important in itself, the quality of the bees though are. The purpose with the bee is to help the bees to survive and thrive. And not only the bees, but all of us that are benefiting from the honey – bee.