Did They Ever Breed A Long Tongued Honeybee?

At the watering hole.
At the watering hole.

Mr Woodley in his column in the British Bee Journal called ‘Notes By The Way’ comments on the idea of breeding honeybees with long tongues.

Long-tongued Bees. — This subject has been discussed in the American bee papers, and I notice Editor Root has given a note of caution to “go slowly”, and not expect too much along this line until more experience has been gained. The bees with the longest tongues will undoubtedly gather from red clover, while those whose tongues are shorter may not be able to reach the nectar in that particular blossom, and with very little other forage then in bloom the long-tongued bee would continue to store, while those of the short- tongued strain would perforce lay idle. Dr. C. C. Miller also notes in Gleanings that other characteristics besides length of tongue may account for one colony doing better than another, viz., “industriousness”; yes, and that is my own opinion. Let us leave to the experimentalist and careful scientific investigator the working out of the problems how to lengthen the bee’s tongue, and how to shorten the tubes of the red clover bloom, while we address ourselves to the improvement of our stocks by breeding queens (and drones also) from the most industrious stocks we have — queens from the early morning “hustlers”, and drones from the untiring evening workers. In every apiary of any size these stocks are to be found. From such we may reasonably expect to improve our strain of bees, and then leave our craft in a better condition to prove itself a useful auxiliary to the income, if not the main plank on which to venture in obtaining a living for the bee-keeper. — W. Woodley, Beedon, Newbury.

[Notes By The Way 16 May 1901]

Clover - DSC01545

A further note on this topic by Mr Woodley – they still had bred this long-tongued honeybee by 1909:

Our American friends hope either to rear bees with longer tongues or grow red clover with shorter honey-tubes, but when the desired end is reached I do not think we shall improve our output in quality if the honey gathered by humble-bees is a fair sample of red clover honey. In my youthful days I rifled many nests of humble-bees, and the honey was always, very strong in flavour.

[Notes By The Way 11 February 1909]

I suspect by 1912 they gave up on the idea of breeding long-tongued bees and Mr Woodley notes:

Mr. Kidd…is hoping to interest bee-keepers in producing a hybrid red clover, if such is possible. A few years ago we were led to hope that bees with longer tongues which could gather the nectar from ”red clover” would in a few years be produced, and our American cousins were endeavouring to propagate a red clover with short tubes to the flowers. But we hear nothing of these smaller flowers or tongues now, and if there is so little difference between the “bee in amber” and the bee of the twentieth century, I fear there is not much hope of our being successful in cultivating a cross with the white and red clover. (I have heard it stated that alsike was a cross between white and red clover.) Perhaps Mr. Hayes can tell us if the pollen grains are similar, or if it is possible to fertilize the flowers of one plant with the pollen from the other clover plant.

[Notes By The Way 1 August 1912]

I am sure the idea of breeding long-tongued honeybees has reappeared in many bee journals since 1912 and no doubt in this era of genetic engineering it will appear again.  Maybe even today, technology still can’t turn a bad idea into a good idea!

1 thought on “Did They Ever Breed A Long Tongued Honeybee?

  1. It’s probably better for the sake of long-tongued bumblebees that these breeding attempts fail, so that they have less competition for the longer flowers. Honey bees find plenty of flowers anyway!

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