We have been working with the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (BIBBA) to map locations of the native British black honeybee (Apis mellifera mellifera). These bees could hold the key to reversing the dramatic decline in honeybee numbers, as they have evolved characteristics that are suited to the UK’s climate, but experts had previously feared that the native black bees were now only found in remote northern areas.
A three year research project funded by The Co-operative and carried out by BIBBA has discovered that the British bee is seemingly alive and well across the UK, including parts of Southern England, East Anglia, Lancashire and North Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The first round of testing which involved examining physical attributes such as abdominal colour, the length of body hair and the pattern of veins in the wings of bees in 117 hives across 40 locations will now be followed up with genetic analysis involving DNA testing.
Over the last ten thousand years, the native sub-species evolved thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in our cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK’s summer. This makes it less susceptible to the vagaries of the British weather which some experts suspect is a reason for a reduction in honeybees, nature’s most important pollinator, by up to 30 per cent in recent years.
Areas where the native British black honeybee has been found:
Following the identification of a variety of viable native bee colonies across the UK, we will now fund a new breeding programme to increase the availability of native queen bees to beekeepers. The funding will support training to beekeepers with existing native colonies on queen rearing techniques and the purchase of nursery hives to support their production. The new colonies will be monitored by BIBBA to ensure that they retain their native characteristics.
Chris Shearlock, Sustainable Development Manager at The Co-operative, said: “The results of this research show that there are far more colonies of British bees than was thought and we can now move on to support a breeding programme which will hopefully increase the number of British bees and in turn help reduce the losses experienced in recent years.”
Terry Clare, President of BIBBA said: “We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there are more British bee populations than we suspected and this will hopefully persuade many more beekeepers to use British bees.”
Click here to see the results in full.