Visit to a German 'Belegstelle'

An insight into the German Varroa-tolerance breeding programme

When I mentioned to a non-beekeeping friend that the first thing my wife and I would be doing in Germany was visit a traditional German mating station, he admitted his initial thought was that we would be trawling the seedy under-life of Berlin, but not so!

We were in fact taken by our hosts, German queen breeder Andreas Haehnle and Christiane Keppler, to the Gehlberg Forest, some 150km from their home in the small village of Wallenstein. With 30 mating nucs crammed in the back of their station wagon, this was an opportunity to visit the first and thus oldest Belegstelle (mating station) in the world. Established in 1911, the station in 1912 was moved some 40km to the present site, higher in altitude than the original site (to ensure a more isolated mating area), and has been running continuously ever since. Along with Nordenay, it is one of the two most important mating stations in the current Varroa-tolerance breeding programme in Germany.

The entrance to the Belegstelle. The station office is in the background

The entrance to the Belegstelle. The station office is in the background

The station has been run as an integral part of the Varroa-tolerance programme since 2005, on a volunteer basis by the Arnstadt beekeeping Club, itself one of the oldest beekeeping clubs in the world (having been established in 1838), under the direction of Club Deputy Chairman Gerhard Völlger. Each year, the Club guarantees to provide at least 50 drone mother colonies, and these are set in a 'circle' around the mating station, at distances varying from 500-1500m. The mating station is protected by Thuringen State law, with no other colonies containing drones allowed to be placed within a 10km radius, thus effectively creating an isolated mating station. One drone congregation area (DCA) establishes each year just above the mating station and there are another three DCAs known to exist a little lower in the valley.

Unloading the mating nuclei from the station wagon. Andreas uses the Kirchain-designed mating nucs. The Belegstelle is set among high alpine forest

Unloading the mating nuclei from the station wagon. Andreas uses the Kirchain-designed mating nucs. The Belegstelle is set among high alpine forest

The mating station and surrounding area, some years ago, after devastation by a fierce storm. The nuclei in sight are a sign that the mating station continued to be used in spite of the barren slopes. This photo was taken courtesy of an interpretation board

The mating station and surrounding area, some years ago, after devastation by a fierce storm. The nuclei in sight are a sign that the mating station continued to be used in spite of the barren slopes. This photo was taken courtesy of an interpretation board

The drone mothers are selected by Kirchhain Bee Institute working together with Hohen Neuendorf Bee Institute. Dr Ralph Büchler, Director of Kirchhain, designed the AGT (Varroa-tolerance) program and verified the selection procedures, and he works with bee geneticist and computer whiz Prof. Dr Kasparov Bienefeld, Leader of the Dept of Selection and Genetics at Hohen Neuenfeld Institute, to evaluate the stock in the entire German breeding programme and select the drone mothers for Gehlberg station.

The forest today, with an abundance of mating nuclei

The forest today, with an abundance of mating nuclei

Our host Andreas had contributed 12 queens to the drone mother stock for the 2013 season. This year's drone mothers were selected in 2013, and the Arnstadt Club established these drone mother colonies in 2013 before setting them up at Gehlberg early in the 2014 season. This year there are 77 drone mother colonies, with 5 lines of 15 colonies each. Club Arnstadt beekeepers, 5 of them, each maintained 3 lines of 5 colonies/line, to give the station the 75 colonies for 2014. This dispersal ensures that in the event of a disease outbreak (such as AFB), not all the colonies are at risk and the Club can meet its committment to supply the needed number of colonies.

The mating station itself is set in a high alpine meadow called Schneetiegel, which translates to 'melting of the snows', and the Club Arnstadt Chairman Mr. Rainer Günzelinforms us that in the old days of the DDR (East Germany), the meadow was used by the DDR to calibrate their thermometers. The peak of Schneekopf sits at an altitude of 960m just to the side of the area - not particularly high, but at this latitude normally snow-bound in winter. There were in fact 8 ski lifts in close proximity. These days the meadow provides an idyllic setting for the hundreds of mating nucs that are brought to the Station each year, for the virgin queens to mate with the selected drone stock. The Station opens each year on the last day in May, and is open every Wednesday evening for beekeeper's to bring their mating nucs, which are then collected two weeks later. The last mating nucs can be brought in on the 16th July, and must be collected on 30th July, after which the station is closed for the season. This effectively means a beekeeper can put 6 batches of virgins through the station in a season, one each week.

Kirchhain and Hohen Neuendorf do not charge for the evaluation work involved in selecting the drone mother stock, and the beekeepers pay 4€ for each virgin brought to the station. The success of the mating station can be gauged by the fact that in 2005, 293 queens were brought to the station to be mated. Since that time the numbers have steadily risen, with 1173 queens brought to Gehlberg in 2012. In 2012 there was a 71.18% success rate in mating; all queens are Carniolans.

Recognised queen breeders tend to use the mating nucs designed by Kirchhain, but other beekeeper's must use a standard sized nuc box with glass sides to allow for visual inspection to ensure no drones are present, and two of these nucs fit into the permanent two-way nucs set up on stands and dotted throughout the station.

Recognised queen breeders tend to use the mating nucs designed by Kirchhain, but other beekeeper's must use a standard sized nuc box with glass sides to allow for visual inspection to ensure no drones are present, and two of these nucs fit into the permanent two-way nucs set up on stands and dotted throughout the station.

The abundant nuclei set out in the grounds of the Belegstelle

The abundant nuclei set out in the grounds of the Belegstelle

Within the German breeding programme, each queen’s progeny are evaluated for honey production and other economically valuable properties, such as gentleness, tendency to work calmly, Varroa tolerance, early years development, colony strength and swarm inclination. The results are all placed on the internet and are freely available, so that both buyers and breeders can compare results and use the data to make an informed decision about where to buy replacement queens or expand their breeding programme – an exceptionally democratic system where everyone works together to improve the country’s breeding stock.

Author: Des Cannon