Elgon
Beekeeping
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 kind of flowers when they have started to visit one species. 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.
Honey is many times what we first associate with bees. Honey can look differently depending on which plants the nectar come from. To the left, we see almost pure heather honey, to the right honey from wild raspberry and in the middle a mixture of honey from different flowering plants and from so called honeydew, mainly in the forest. Honey is by far what is most harvested from the bees. Honey is also what is most requested, both for its sweetness and for its benefits.
Propolis is usually collected by the bees from leaf buds that contain highly disease-resistant resins. They cover the entire inside of their cavity with propolis. The heat and moisture in a hive is otherwise a perfect environment for disease germs. But the propolis helps to keep the bee colony healthy. Many beekeepers collect propolis and use it to chew on and to make tinctures (solutions in alcohol) to help keeping themselves healthy too.
The biggest benefit from the honey bees comes from pollinating plants that need to be pollinated. They do it through the pollen grains stuck on their body hairs, which at the next flower visited will be transfered to its pistil. But the bees also collect pollen for themselves. It is a proetin-rich food with many different kinds of nutrients. (Photo: Bo Malmgren)
Dried pollen for sale. When you have to press somewhat to crush the pollen pellets the water content is low enough (about 4%). Don't let the pollen dry in higher temperature than 35-40°C. Otherwise nutrional value will be substantially lowered. Pollen contains all the important B-vitamines. (Photo: Sven-Olof Ohlsson.)
With Elgon bees
Honey bees live wild (feral bees) in cavities of various kinds, hollow trees, walls of old houses, rock cavities, etc. It is better for pollination of the environment if you help bees to find places where to live than otherwise will be possible for them in our modern environment. We can help both solitary bees and honey bees. With honey bees we will also be able to harvest some of their valuable products.
In order to help the bees the most in a sustainable way, it's good to understand how they live in their natural environment without any help from men. You can see how the bees are formed to function, survive and thrive on their own and you can design how to keep and manage them with this knowledge in mind.
In modern agriculture, so-called protective chemicals are often used to protect crops from harmful bugs. Not only the target bugs will be affected but unfortunately also beneficial bugs, such as bees, both solitary pollinating insects as well as honey bees. Beekeepers also many times have been too keen in keeping also the least vital bees alive instead of allowing a portion of their beestock to perish to strengthen the genetics. Honey bees are also highly focused at avoiding inbreeding. Also when they can decide themselves how to build their wax combs without the help of pre-defined cellsizes in wax foundation supplied by the beekeeper, they build different cell sizes, smaller in brood area and bigger where they store honey. All these changes made by man have made it more difficult for them to adapt and deal with new threats.

The most serious threat to our bees is a mite, Varroa destructor, big as a pin head, which help spreading viruses. Another big threat is agricultural chemicals. In order to fight the varroa mite, many chemicals are used. And even if such varieties are used that will not leave residues in wax and honey they lower the capacity of the bees, their immune and defense systems, to deal with the mite on their own. As a result the viruses will spread easier. Using miticides is not a sustainable longterm solution.

As African bees in South America in just 5 about years developed resistance to the varroa mite, the idea was born to get breeding material from a variety of African bees that is easy to handle and is most similar to our European bees. Not all African bees are as defensive as the variety that was brougt to South America, which was a tropical type of bee. (Today this originally very defensive bee has developed very good tempered populations, for example on Puerto Rico.) Three African varieties are more like our European bees, Monticola, from especially the high mountains of East Africa, Unicolor in Madagascar and the Cape bee on southern tip of South Africa (this bee is for other reasons not very suitable for Europe).

In March 1989 a group of four beekeepers went to high mountains in Kenya in East Africa and fetched drone semen in capillary tubes and small larvae and eggs in small pieces of newly built honey comb. From Mt Elgon on the border between Kenya and Uganda we broght this to Sweden. The climate on high altitudes there is in a way similar to that in Sweden, except that there are no long winters, even if temperature every night is low. The purpose for using this breeding material was to increase the vitality and the gentic variation of our European bees with a "high potent natural resource". The bee race was Apis mellifera monticola, a dark and hardy bee with a relatively good temper and thus easy to handle.
Our African team in a small village in western Kenya at 2000 m altitude in front of "The Old Lady", the 1954 Landrover we rented in Nairobi. From left Dr Bert Thrybom, Erik Bjorklund, Erik Osterlund, the Nyongesa family who was our host, and Michael van der Zee.
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.
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 glucose 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 on Dartmoor 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 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, also concernig varroa resistance. 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 rapidly growing poopulation of bees in the beginning of the season.
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, strictly speaking, but very similar. It's not made at Buckfast in England. 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.

Nowadays, in Elgon breeding, we use a larger number of colonies producing drones, not only sister queens, where the virgin queens are mated. And the place is not totally isolated, which in this case means that Elgon drones from colonies further away may once in a while mate with our virgin queens. Maybe sometime a non-Elgon drone from far away succed in reaching a virgin queen. Though, as Brother Adam also recognized, as a queen in average mates with 20 drones, and the least good colonies always get their queens replaced, there will no long term negative influence. On the contrary, this gives room, even if it's seldom, for successful mismatings which contribute to a better bee.

The purpose with the Elgon breeding work was up to 2007 to keep as much as possible of theoretical Monticola heritage until we had 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 focus went to the next phase, looking for varroa resistance and not theoretical amount of African heritage.
A dark brown varroa mite sitting on thorax on this bee. It parasitizes on the adult bee when it is not inside a capped brood cell and lay eggs. It comes out of the cell again when the mature young new bee hatches, together with new varroa mites. Soon it goes back into a brood cell again. This happens a few times before it dies of old age. We want bees that identify capped brood cells with mites and open such cells. Photo: Pixabay.
Some are focused on color. I am not. It is not really 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 group of colonies forming "outside my control". Well, there you see, I seem to like somewhat darker Elgons, but I have to accept that lighter ones are resistant too.:)

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 also handle the mite well.

The problems in our western world are so big that managing the bees is centered around fighting the mite. Too often beekeepers lose 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. Spraying of plant protection drugs on crops also give combination effects. Other stress factors also influence, like moving bees in large numbers for pollination purposes, 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. Then the bees don't need stress creating and immune system lowering activities and drugs to survive. They will then thrive as strong healthy colonies instead. Too many die annualy today and those that survive are 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 local stocks that they havn't needed to treat against the mite or anything else for 10 or more years. The selection 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 your bees.

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