European’s native bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) may be facing a resurgence. For decades, this dark bee has been an outcast.  In the 19th century, the Victorians threw the breed out of hives in favor of more industrious foreign species from Italy and eastern Europe.  Modern beekeepers brand it lazy and aggressive.

Now, the nation’s original honeybee is coming in from the cold. Scientists believe the insect that made honey for the tables of medieval kings could reverse the collapse of bee numbers that has imperiled the annual pollination of crops. Researchers hope to map wild populations across the British Isles with a view to reintroducing it to commercial hives, which produce 5,000 tons of honey a year.

Norman Carreck, of Sussex’s Department of Biological and Ecological Science, says the location of the bee’s remaining wild populations were specifically unknown, but they are believed to be in the western British Isles, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. People are asked to take pictures of it whenever they see it.

Throughout Western Europe, these dark bee breeds were the original honey bee stock until creation of the Buckfast bee. This is a hybrid breed whose progeny includes salvaged remnants of the British black bee, nearly extinct by then due to Acarapis woodi (acarine mite).

According to Wikipedia, the dark bee breeding stocks in Central Europe were nearly destroyed by order of the Nazis, who considered the honey yields not up to modern standards and wanted to “improve” the bee stocks kept in areas under their control.

There are a number of dedicated hobbyist beekeepers that keep variations of these bees in Europe and other parts of the world. Immigrants brought these subspecies into the Americas.  Hybrid descendants of the original colonial black bees may also have survived in North America as feral bees. There are reports by beekeepers that, after the arrival of the Varroa mite on the American continent in 1987, some feral bee colonies survived but the original form is no longer present in North America.

Britain’s black honeybees are considered by some beekeepers to be more aggressive and poorer at producing honey than foreign strains. But over thousands of years, the native black honeybee had evolved thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in a cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK summer. The aggressive reputation of the black bee has been blamed on cross-breeding. When bred with the Italian honeybee, the docile black bee could be aggressive, and kept its dominant markings. With careful selective breeding of pure strain, they can become good-tempered and good honey-producers.

However, in 1917, the book “ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture” had this to say:

(They) are much more nervous: and when a hive of them is opened they run like a flock of sheep from one corner of the hive to another, boiling over in confusion, hanging in clusters from one corner of the frame as it is held up and finally falling off in bunches to the ground , where they continue a wild scramble in every direction probably crawling up one’s trouser leg, if the opportunity offers”

But, in contrast, the black bee throws fewer swarms and on average replaces the queen approximately every 3 years. It has many important qualities that have evolved in the strain over thousands of years, making it entirely suited to the UK climate.

Some of the benefits of these dark bees include:

  • Has a strong drive to collect significant amounts of pollen
  • Significant winter hardiness
  • With selective pure mating is gentle to handle at correct times
  • Low tendency to swarm
  • Very defensive against invaders; i.e. wasps, and even hornets
  • High longevity of workers and queens
  • Brood cycle maintained to suit UK’s climate
  • Well-managed colony collects significant honey crop, and more than most other varieties in poor weather
  • Excellent flight strength even in cold weather
  • Hairy body: can forage in bad weather and maintain winter cluster temperature with less food consumption

LINKS

Bee Improvement and Bee Breeder’s Association
International Association for the Protection of the Dark Bee
The Society for the Conservation of the Dark Bee
Why the Native Bee is the Best for Bee for Britain’s Climate
Buzz Around Brtitish Black Bee (2009 news article)
An introduction to understanding honey bees, their orgins, evolution and diversity

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Jordanne grew up as a farm girl living in the most unlikely of places -- the concrete jungle sprawl of Los Angeles. She lives on the Urban Homestead where she shares her life with a wacky and always entertaining menagerie of goats, ducks, chickens, cats, bees, and stray animals that land up on her porch. Her passions are the natural and sustainable care of animals and her knowledge lies in successfully integrating "farm" animals into the city lifestyle. Jordanne also contributes to her family's blog called Little Homestead in the City -- chronicling this bizarre, beautiful, and often hilarious journey they're on.

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