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Why Apis mellifera mellifera?

Why use the Dark European Honey Bee - Amm

It is worthwhile from time to time, to take stock of ones aims and objectives, and to see if they are still valid in the light of present day circumstances.

BIBBA, from its inception have advocated the use of the native bee Apis mellifera mellifera, the Dark European Honeybee. The latter name seems to have been used in recent years to describe this bee as it originally covered the area north of the Pyrennes and Alps right across Europe to the Ural mountains.

Why use this bee when such a lot of good work has been done on improving the Italian bee Apis mellifera ligustica, and the carniolan bee Apis mellifera carnica? Whereas very little work has been done on improving the Dark European honeybee (I will use the term "Black bee" from now on).

The Black bee was the original native bee of these islands, and in spite of all the importation's that have taken place since the middle of the 19th century, the bee population of these islands still carry the genes of this bee in a very large measure. (Since this original article was written it has been recently discovered the average background population of bees in Britain is still 50% Amm. R.P.) Therefore any mating taking place naturally by pure bred queens of any other sub-species will result in hybridization.

One way to overcome this would be to completely change over to say the Italian bee throughout the country. Such an attempt has been made in Germany with the Carniolan bee, and has been largely successful, but could it be done here? I think this highly unlikely for a number of reasons. Having visited Germany several times I was interested in finding out how such a major change was affected, involving such a high proportion of the beekeeping industry. The reasons I was given were as follows:-

  1. There was only one beekeeping organisation, Deutcher Imkerbund, and both amateur beekeepers and professionals belonged to it. It was well organised and had regional branches and an excellent network of communications.
  2. Numerous bee research institutes sprang up, virtually each state had one. State funding played an important role in these, and were well staffed with people with good qualifications and technicians.
  3. The research institutes had close links with beekeepers and were well respected by them, so that when the proposal for changing to the Carniolan bee was made, it was backed by a well organised means of providing queens, and also offering facilities for beekeepers to send queens raised from queens of pure Carniolan stock, to mating stations set up on the string of islands off the North German coast.

In looking at the reasons, one is aware that such circumstances are not present here, and introduction of other sub-species would be on an ad hoc basis just as it has been.

I was told by one very prominent person involved in the Carniolan breeding programme, that the original decision to go for the Carnica bee had been the wrong one, that they should have opted to improve the Black bee, their native bee. Such a step now with all the fine work that has been done was unthinkable. In recent years a very strong organisation has sprung up that is completely opposed to the Carnica policy. This organisation G.E.D.B. advocates the Black bee and has similar aims and objectives to BIBBA. It has caused alarm amongst the rest of the beekeepers who have been enjoying the benefits of a large part of the country being mono-strained by the Carniolan bee, and the advantages that has given them with getting queens mated with Carniolan drones.

Similar organisations to G.E.D.B. and BIBBA have sprung up in Norway, Sweden, Poland, and France, and already two International Black Bee conferences have been held in Norway and Austria, and the third was hosted by BIBBA at York.

What are the attributes of the Black Bee that all these organisations find so attractive compared to other sub-species? They tend to be factors that give this bee an advantage over other sub-species in the North European climate. Factors that have evolved during thousands of years in the environment of the region.

  1. Low temperature flying 5.5°C (46°F)
  2. Thrifty use of stores
  3. Cessation of brood rearing in a dearth
  4. Early cessation of brood rearing in late summer
  5. Good wintering characteristics

One of the attractions for importing other pure bred sub-species is docility. Beekeepers have seen how gentle both the New Zealand Italian and the Carnica bees are, and working with such bees is much more pleasant than handling bad tempered colonies. Yet the very act of importing these sub-species aggravates the problem of bad-temper generally, for one of the prime reasons for bad-temper is crossing different sub-species of bees (This is termed F2 Aggression. R.P.).

The Black bee has an undeserved reputation for being bad-tempered. Pure bred Black bees selected for docility are just as easy to handle as New Zealand Italians. One only has to look at some of the old bee photographs to see that very little protection was used by beekeepers in the last century.

The development of morphometry has been a great boon in being able to identify the sub-species of bees. This has given bee breeders an extremely useful tool in their breeding work, breeders such as Micheál MacGiolla Coda have demonstrated how effective the use of morphometry coupled with good record keeping is aiding selection of stocks so as to produce docile productive bees.

Harking back to the opening sentence of this article, I believe our aims and objectives are still the same, but the means of achieving them are I believe, different to what they were when BIBBA started.

Albert Knight.31st October 1998.

I have slightly modified this article from the original to reflect the fact it has been displayed here 15 years after it was written. It is possible this article appeared in the first issue of Bee Improvement magazine.     R.P.