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Beowulf A (Alfred). Cooper (1917-1982)

Beowulf Cooper has been a big influence on my beekeeping, more so since his untimely death in 1982, than in the years that we met regularly in my workshop.

Beo Cooper was a Naturalist that worked for MAFF and the founder of Village Bee Breeders' Association (VBBA), which was formed at Alne, Yorkshire on June 13th 1964, after an inaugural meeting held on July 27th 1963 at the apiary of Terry Theaker, Leadenham, Lincolnshire. The name "village bee" being intended to refer to the small-colony nature of the native bees of Britain and Ireland and was formed with the remit... For the conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of the native and near native bees of Britain and Ireland. VBBA was the forerunner of BIBBA and Beo remained it's Director until his death.

Beowulf wrote many notes that were gathered together by Philip Denwood after his death and published by BIBBA as "The Honeybees of the British Isles". The book is still available from BIBBA, ISBN 0-905369-06-8.

Beo was opposed to the supposition that is still held in some circles, that both native and recently imported subspecies of honeybees in the British Isles were largely wiped out between 1905 and 1919 by an infectious disease, "Isle of Wight Disease" . Brother Adam and other influential beekeepers promoted the view that there were no British bees left, which however was shown to be without any scientific basis by, for example, Dr. Leslie Bailey (Honey Bee Pathology, London 1981: Academic Press; pp. 60ff., 81ff.).

Terry Theaker had protested that his native strains of honey bee had survived in spite of Isle of Wight Disease. Systematic morphometric and behavioural studies as conducted by Beowulf and since his death the whole basis of the taxonomy of honeybee subspecies has been revolutionised by DNA analysis and more sophisticated morphometric methods. Such study has confirmed that many of the honey bees of Britain and Ireland are of the Apis mellifera mellifera subspecies.


I first met Beowulf Cooper at the National Honey Show in 1965 or 1966. At that time it was held in Caxton Hall, Westminster. Beowulf was on the stand of the recently formed VBBA, which was subsequently renamed BIBBA. As a teenager he convinced me that native bees may be better than the imports that had come into the country following the hard winter of 1962/63, where many bees had perished. I became very friendly with him and when he visited Sussex in connection with his work with MAFF, he often invited me to visit him. On many occasions I had discussions with him in the Albion Hotel in Brighton. At that time I had no telephone and the only method of communication was by letter. Letters from Beo were distinctive, as they were in re-used envelopes with a "VBBA" wrapper. I remember his letters were always in long-hand and he seemed to squeeze as much as possible onto a sheet, often perpendicular to the main text! He was also a collector of phosphor dots that was a coding placed on envelopes by the Post Office. Many people he knew were asked to save all their unwanted envelopes. What he did with them all is unknown to me.

Beowulf was incredibly enthusiastic about native bees and a prolific writer. Some of his work has been saved, but I fear that much has been lost, especially that in personal communication. Many of the early VBBA booklets were written by Beo and much of the contents is still relevant. As an entomologist he was the editor or author of many publications. At a BKA where I gave a presentation they were selling their library books. Amongst them was "Hymenopterists Handbook" that was written by Beo and published in 1943. As an amateur naturalist I found it fascinating.

Over the years I have come across beekeepers who were visited by Beo, very often late at night, even being woken up by a knock on the door around midnight. Following discussion he would either set off for home in the early hours or beg a bed. I'm told he always carried his own pillow because he was asthmatic and reacted badly to animal hair.

Beowulf didn't seem to be involved in local BKAs, although he was a prolific speaker, not only at home but abroad too. For 6 years he was a member of the BBKA Executive Committee, where he was invaluable when dealing with bee breeding.

Roger Patterson.

Originally written by Dave Cushman. Edited by Roger Patterson.

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Page updated 27/12/2020