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Until the beginning of the 20th century, the British Isles were home to the European Dark Honeybee, which we now usually call the Black Bee. Its Latin name is Apis mellifera mellifera, and it was the dominant honeybee here since the last Ice Age, adapting to our changeable and unpredictable climate and thriving in all kinds of weather alongside our native bumblebees and solitary bees.
The Black Bee and her wild cousins were largely responsible for 'farming' our natural landscape, selecting wild flowers that provided them sustenance in the form of nectar and pollen, and in return, rewarding them with all-important pollination services. Therefore, it can be said that she and the other pollinators are largely responsible for the wild flowers you see around you today.
The Black Bee had several qualities that made her particularly suitable for life in Northern Europe: she could fly in wet and cool conditions; she made enough honey to survive the winter, even in poor summers; she was well-attuned to our seasons and knew how to eke out honey stores if the winter turned out to be longer than expected. All-in-all, she was - and is - a hardy bee.
However, she had an Achilles heel, which almost caused her extinction - a fatal susceptibility to viruses carried by an internal parasite that was imported along with Italian bees. The Black Bee was decimated by "Isle of Wight Disease", as it became known.
Nevertheless, her resilience and fortitude ensured that her genes survived and the Black Bee is still with us to this day throughout the country, in the genes of most of our honeybees, but especially in parts Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Yorkshire, the Isle of Man and parts of Scotland. Where breeding programmes have been established, numbers are increasing and we now believe it is time to re-introduce Black Bees more widely into the British countryside, which they helped to create.
To this end, we have launched a campaign to raise money to establish a number of breeding centres for Black Bees. With your help, we hope to rebuild their wild populations, as well as encourage beekeepers to look after them in hives. We will be working with other experienced breeders to ensure sufficient genetic diversity, as well as monitoring the genetic profile of the stocks we work with.
We have identified a number of key sites on the coast of Devon and on Dartmoor, which are relatively isolated from known populations of imported bees, where will be able to keep our stocks reasonably pure, with little danger of genetic contamination. We have also identified sources of 'black bees' from different parts of the British Isles, which show genetic diversity within the A.m.m. spectrum. By means of a careful breeding programme, we hope to be able to combine the best features of these various strains to produce resilient bees capable of sustaining themselves in the wild, as well as being productive and good-tempered when kept in hives.
Black Bees have flourished on the Isle of Man, due largely to a total import ban on other honeybees. This has also prevented Varroa mites from being brought to the island, and they have no foul brood disease either, despite this being a significant problem on the mainland. There is considerable support for a similar import ban for the rest of Britain, which, given time, could result in similar disease- and parasite-free status. Friends of the Bees supports such a policy, while recognizing that there is opposition from commercial interests.
Our aim is to establish wild-living colonies of Black Bees in habitats best suited to their characteristics, and to encourage beekeepers in those areas to adopt them rather than keeping imported bees. Research conducted in Tasmania (where Black Bees were taken during the early days of settlement) demonstrate that they thrive better than Italian bees in cooler and more mountainous areas, which is also supported by observation of the purer of the surviving stocks in the British Isles, found in the hills and coasts mostly of the wilder, western fringes.
A significant breeding programme is underway by a group of volunteer enthusiasts in Cornwall, and this project will enhance and expand on their work, taking it into Devon, Dorset, Somerset and beyond, while constantly monitoring their performance and health.
To make an effective start, we hope to raise funds for the purchase of equipment, provision of training to our volunteers and the establishment of mating apiaries in key locations. We intend to raise further funds from the second year onwards through sale of mated queens and nucleus colonies, with a view to the project becoming self-financing in the longer run.
Friends of the Bees
Apis mellifera mellifera
Photo: Verity White
If you are interested in helping with this project, or simply wish to be informed of our activities, please join Friends of the Bees.
Please support this important Friends of the Bees project.You can use this button to make a regular or one-off donation.