The native habitat of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) spreads out across Europe, Africa and parts of Western Asia. Within this area, many different subspecies evolved through prehistoric times, each adapted by natural selection to cope with diverse environmental conditions present across this range.
Nowadays the species is present worldwide, wherever beekeeping is possible. During the past centuries Western honey bees have been transported outside the native range, due to the great adaptability and favourable traits for commercial beekeeping. There is an increasing demand for such an easily managed, efficient and abundant pollinator for the intensification of farming and the growing honey market.
Honey bee colonies in a region are interconnected. The complex mating behaviour of queens and drones over distances of several kilometers allows for rapid gene flow, linking all colonies within a few generations. Their common need to forage for pollen and nectar, enables diseases to spread quickly. The honey bee market is mainly regulated by sanitary constraints, while consequences for the genetic composition of local honey bee populations are completely neglected.
Queen rearing has been a common practice in many areas since more than a century, but high-scale commercial queen production, able to export thousands of queens, developed only in a few countries, with the consequence that a few favoured subspecies, or few selected stocks, have been sold worldwide for decades. Where native subspecies are present this can lead to introgression and extinction of the population. Instead, where honey bees are not native the reliance on a limited number of genetic lines can increase the risk of inbreeding. Therefore the loss of adaptive traits due to introgression or inbreeding can lead to a faster spread of diseases and viruses among populations. Some subspecies, such as Apis mellifera adami, are almost extinct. For some other subspecies, such as A. m. siciliana and A. m. ruttneri, there is just a handful of populations remaining, needing intensive conservation measures. As well as loss of biodiversity, there are indications that genetic pollution could lead to maladaptation to local environmental conditions.
Currently there is a growing awareness that it is important to preserve locally adapted honey bee populations, through conservation programs but also by developing breeding activities. During the EU funded project SMARTBEES, honey bee breeding activities were successfully established in European regions where systematic breeding activities were missing, and especially in countries with endangered and neglected endemic honey bee populations. This way, locally adapted populations could be improved for commercially important traits, so that in time there would be a lower motivation among beekeepers to purchase stock of non-local origin, which may be more favourable from a productive point of view at the moment. These breeding activities will hopefully lead to conservation through utilization. After the end of the SMARTBEES project all the parties involved in the breeding activities agreed that continuity was needed to keep the benefits stemming from a network perspective. Therefore, on October 19, 2018, the International Honey Bee Breeding Network (IHBBN) was founded in Hohen Neuendorf (Germany), as a non profit organisation based in Belgium but with a global perspective.
The aim of the association is to connect breeding and conservation initiatives worldwide. IHBBN targets associations and queen producers who have set themselves the goal to encourage and support breeding locally adapted honey bees, both in their native range, where it could help conservation of endangered subspecies, but also outside the native range, where the benefits of local breeding can also be present. At the same time, being aware that local operators probably will not be able to satisfy the demand of intensive farming, IHBBN also welcomes breeders of non-local stocks to include all perspectives in the discussion and to increase the awareness among operators of ongoing local breeding and conservation efforts. This approach will be valid for the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) as well as for the Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana).
The goals of IHBBN are:
in the short term
1) To collect data, build a date-base and analyse the current state of breeding and conservation; and
2) To facilitate multilevel cooperation on local, regional and international scale.
on the medium-term:
3) To facilitate knowledge exchange and development – to establish a knowledge hub.
and in the long-term:
4) To facilitate the establishment of „Reference centre for zootechnics in bees“;
5) To establish a database on species, subspecies; and
6) To facilitate the establishment of a cryo-bank of tissues.
The join IHBBN, you can soon check the statutes and bylaws containing the specific requirements on this website, as well as consulting the list of existing members and Management and Advisory Boards.