Reviving Betta Bees
Nineteen years ago a group of South Island beekeepers volunteered their best bee stock to form a breeding programme, with the goal of maintaining Italian-strain genetics and a higher-performing bee. Last spring Betta Bees Research Limited’s nearly-two decades of genetic improvement looked at risk of being lost though, as shareholders searched for months for an appropriate buyer. Now, after a December takeover, Betta Bees is alive and well, according to new owners who know the Otago business and breeding programme better than anyone.
For 13 years Frans Laas acted as general manager of Betta Bees and, even after being laid off in 2017, continued to contract his instrumental insemination (II) skills out to the programme. In 2015 Rob Waddell came on as his assistant, and even took over as contract manager in spring 2022 to maintain the hives while the Board had the business up for sale. It wasn’t until well into the beekeeping season that new ownership was found though, when Laas and Waddell stepped up to take full control.
Having seen their jobs at Betta Bees scaled back in recent years, the pair were already in the process of forming their own company and bee breeding programme when Betta Bees was shopped.
“We had some discussions, decided to put in a tender and that was accepted. It was very fortuitous timing,” Laas says, looking back on a helter-skelter first season fully at the helm of Betta Bees, after taking over in December last year.
After operating since 2004 and supplying top-end breeder queens to shareholders, the programme had fallen on tough times and into a financial hole in recent seasons, says Board member Peter Bell.
“The sale was a relief, because it wasn’t going very well the way it was. The setup never reached a point where we had enough shareholders to pay for a general manager. Any business like that just can’t rely on voluntary work to manage it. It never reached a level where it was big enough to be a proper business really,” Bell says.
Just in Time
Due to the short-lived nature of queen bees, comparative to other livestock, without appropriate management the genetic gains which had been made through nearly two decades and with the help of much II, were at risk of being fast eroded. When they took over, the Mosgiel-based programme “wasn’t in a good state”, Laas says. However, they were able to identify the best stock and complete another II round to set up the programme for the coming season, and beyond.
“We had to get the breeding programming up and running and collect all the breeder queens, get hives split and get things ready for the next breeding round in January. It was quite a bit of work to determine what we had, where it was, and then shifting beehives to better, more suitable areas for production,” Laas says.
The purchase included 179 beehives, which the new owners have since built to almost 300, with a plan to get to around 600 in the coming season.
The Breeding Programme
Betta Bees produces ‘Italian type’ honey bees (apis mellifera ligustica), with a focus on temperament, hygienic behaviour, varroa tolerance and honey production. They hope to build strategic commercial partnerships to potentially bring in new genetics as required.
“With the new genetic tools coming available we are able to select new genetic material to bring into the breeding programme without causing any glitches, which can happen if you just throw bees in,” Laas says.
They also hope to capitalise on some of the research carried out by The Future Bees Programme to ensure that knowledge is not lost.
“Honey production is a consequence of healthy bees. We are selecting for hygienic behaviours, good brood patters and good laying queens. There are only five or six main factors, but with Future Bees we can use their information to look more into the genetic makeup of our bees and hopefully, with collaborative work, identify some genetic markers to use for further selection.”
Betta Bees is selling their queens under three lines. Gold queens are priced at $1500 and not only bred from their top-ranking queens, but drone semen is selected for II from that same line of best performers. Silver queens are II, but differ in that drones are selected from a larger collection of colonies, and they retail for $1000. Open-mated queens are also available as a ‘bronze’ option which are put out to mate in areas of high Betta Bees drone congregation.
Laas says they hope to supply their queen bees to commercial beekeepers to graft their own production queens and to specialised queen breeders, so they can build their programmes to include Betta Bees genetics. Unlike in the past, supply of these queen bees will not be limited to shareholders.
“Compared with the old Betta Bees model, we want to be more inclusive to the whole industry, and to also cater to the smaller beekeepers who can’t justify spending large sums of money on breeder queens,” Laas says.
They already have some orders for the coming season and discussions with potential clients at the recent Apiculture New Zealand conference in Rotorua has them confident of industry support heading into their first full season.
The Men for the Job
When the Betta Bees Board decided to put the breeding programme up for sale last year, the shareholders gave the Board a mandate to not just seek out the best price, but to find the best custodians for the hard-earned genetic gains.
“We come to realise it is a very specialised business and for someone to take it on, they either have to have a lot of money to learn how to do it, or have the experience,” Bell explains.
“The timing wasn’t great as the industry is struggling and there isn’t a lot of spare money to throw into a project with a lot of unknowns. Especially if they haven’t done something like that.”
However, when Laas and Waddell emerged with the only tender it was a relief that it came from such capable beekeepers.
“It was a wee bit of a surprise to us for a start, but both of them know how to do the job, so we see it as not only a benefit to the shareholders going forward, but the whole industry. Before now it was closed to non-shareholders, but now it is open to the whole market. As we got our head around it, we realised these guys know what they are doing, have done it for years, in fact no one knows the business better than they do,” Bell says.
Waddell came into the Betta Bees programme as a novice beekeeper in 2015 and trained under Laas, a beekeeper of vast experience, including in II, and former president of the National Beekeepers Association. And Laas is taking on the challenge of bringing Betta Bees back to prominence as he reaches an age where he can collect the pension. He’s not without motivation to see it through though.
“I helped set the whole programme up, got it all up and running, so it would have been a pity to see it disappear out of the industry,” he says, adding “I’ve got a renewed, youthful, enthusiasm as a consequence of this.”