Native 'British Bees' could hold key to honeybee survival

18 May 2009

The native black honeybee, with its better ability to cope with the British weather, could help reverse the dramatic decline in honeybee numbers in the UK.

The population of the honeybee, nature’s most important pollinator, has declined by up to 30 per cent in recent years, but no one knows why.

Pesticides have been implicated by some experts, but others believe the problem is made worse by beekeepers use of a foreign, poorly suited, subspecies of honeybee from Southern and Eastern Europe. Moreover, they believe that a hardy British variety (Apis mellifera mellifera), which is likely only to be found in remote parts of the country, could hold the key to survival of the entire population.

That is why the Co-operative Group, which earlier this year launched Plan Bee, a 10- point programme to help save the honeybee, has today (18 May) announced it is funding the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (BIBBA) to seek out and map locations of native black honeybees and their hybrids.

Native black honeybees are considered by some beekeepers to be more aggressive and poorer at producing honey than foreign strains. However, over tens of thousands of years, the native black honeybee has 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. With careful selection they are good tempered and good honey producers.

Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative said: “The hardy native black honeybee has had a bad press over the years but it may hold the key to reversing the decline in the UK’s honeybee population.

“There are isolated populations of the native black bee dotted around the country and we want to help BIBBA to confirm these and map these populations.

“We would also like to help to develop a breeding programme that would increase the number of native colonies and hopefully help reduce the losses experienced in recent years”

Beekeepers who think they have native or near native black honeybees will be asked to send samples to BIBBA who will carry out tests to determine their origins. Members of the public who think they may have seen a native black bee are asked to take a photograph and e-mail it to stating when and where the picture was taken.
Dinah Sweet, Chairman of BIBBA said: “This is a much needed and long overdue research study which could possibly help unlock the answer to the potentially catastrophic decline in the UK honeybee population. However, we have to identify where they can be found so that we can use them in the BIBBA programme to expand the number of native black honeybee colonies and make them more available to beekeepers.”