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Native Honey Bees

The Dark European Honey Bee - Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm)

It is fairly certain that the Dark European Honey Bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, has been native to mainland Britain since before the closing of the Channel Landbridge, when sea levels rose following the last Ice Age. They became isolated and adapted to the different conditions they found themselves in.

Amm are native to the whole of Northern Europe north of the Alps from the Atlantic to the Urals, where they evolved in isolation, having been cut off by such natural barriers as mountains, water and ice.

With many of the "pure" stocks of all sub species worldwide there has been a certain amount of introgression, due to bees being introduced into parts where they are not native and "tweaking" by breeders. This applies to Amm too, but doesn't mean the purer samples are heavily mongrelised, as there are many strains that perform consistantly, not very variably, as you would get in a normal mongrelised population.

In many countries in Northern Europe there is much enthusiasm for selecting from what they have, or re-introducing native bees where they have become extinct. Much work is done by dedicated beekeepers and there are many organisations where help and encouragement can be had. In some there is an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience that is freely given to others. In some cases the introduced bee of choice does not always suit the climate, resulting in dissatisfaction and a desire to return to what originally evolved in those areas.

The types of bee kept is one of the subjects that regularly cause beekeeping arguments, or in the U.K. it does! In my experience those who rubbish native bees usually do it from a position of inexperience. There is much written and spoken that gives inaccurate information, some of the usual examples being:-

In 50 years of beekeeping, where I have handled many more colonies that the average beekeeper, I have been involved with virtually all kinds of bees. It is my strongly held view that the native or "native type" will take some beating over an extended period in U.K and Irish conditions. They are non-prolific, don't turn their food into brood as some such as Italian's do, are frugal and winter well if healthy. I have "native type" myself which are mongrels with native characteristics, but have handled native on many occasions. I have always found them to be docile, not aggressive as some report.

Because Amm is native over a wide area it has several different names, including the "British Black Bee". For that reason there is a justifiable move to refer to it as the "Dark European Honey Bee". It does vary quite a bit in colour, but the characteristics are similar. These include:-

Despite the odd report of Apiary Vicinity Mating (AVM) being observed in other races, it is thought that only Amm are capable of performing this useful function on a regular basis. If correct, it may suggest that some of the problems seen in U.K. and Irish conditions where poor mating in bad weather is a problem, may not be an issue with Amm. My conversations with those who keep Amm in harsh weather conditions don't suggest they have a problem.

Amm have evolved over millions of years to withstand harsh conditions and are non-prolific. For that reason they will probably not perform well in regions of warm summers and short mild winters. Even though their numbers are quite low compared to former times there is still a lot of genetic material left. It is my belief we should be selecting for characteristics in bees that will help them survive, rather than use types that are unsuited that need mollycoddling just to keep them alive. In my view the importation of queens has contributed to bees being much weaker than they were when I started beekeeping, when they were very much tougher and didn't need so much feeding, insulation or dowsing with "supplements".

Following a lengthy campaign by Andrew Abrahams with support from many others "The Bee Keeping (Colonsay and Oronsay) Order 2013" was laid before the Scottish Parliament on 26th Sept 2013 to come into force on 1st January 2014. This prohibits the keeping of honey bees other than Amm.

Roger Patterson.