The honey bee is an important element of Swiss fauna, and is perfectly adapted to local climate conditions – able to withstand the long overwintering period, and develop healthily during the active season.
The native bee north of the Alps is Apis mellifera mellifera (the European dark bee), whilst Apis mellifera ligustica is common south of the Alps. In the 1950s, A. m. carnica was imported from Slovenia on a massive scale, and largely displaced A. m. mellifera north of the Alps. Various breeding associations are working to improve traits for beekeeping such as gentleness, comb building and colony build-up, swarm inertia, and productivity. Some associations also consider the purity of the bee breeds. This work was supported by charismatic staff such as Hans Schneider and Charles Maquelin at the Centre for Bee Research in Liebefeld.
Increasingly, however, bees are under pressure from climate change, agricultural management practices, diseases, and pests (primarily the Varroa mite).
At present, Varroa is controlled mainly by means of biotechnical measures and treatments. Establishing a natural balance between the parasite (Varroa) and its host (the bee) could render such interventions unnecessary. Consequently, our long-term research is geared to breeding and selection – an approach that confers various benefits:
i) It improves disease resistance, and overcomes the problems of Varroa treatment and its associated side-effects;
ii) It prevents large-scale bee die-off – a very real concern if natural selection were left to run its course – which would have serious consequences for pollination;
iii) It preserves bee biodiversity as a genetic reservoir for adaptation to future challenges such as diseases and climate change.
Although breeding yields no obvious successes in the short-term, it represents a potentially very worthwhile alternative for the future.