There are some topics guaranteed to cause blazing arguments even between friends and family, such as Brexit, or in the case of British beekeepers; the Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). I love all bees and think it would be a disaster if any particular sub-species were to die out, so I’m certainly in favour of the efforts to preserve the Black Bee, which was the main bee on the British Isles for thousands of years. It is tempting to use the term “race” instead of “sub-species”, but the latter is correct, so I’ll use it throughout. Why would there be arguments about a type of bee?!
Well, it so happens that around 1906 to 1920 there was a terrible wave of bee colony losses that swept the country. It started on the Isle of Wight and spread from there. There is no doubt that the native Black Bee suffered enormous losses, and some said that it was wiped out. Whether the cause was acarine or a paralysis virus or nosema or a combination of many factors remains debatable even now. There are parallels with the so-called “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) in the USA, in that nobody doubts that colonies collapsed, but they can’t agree on why it happened. Britain re-stocked its bees by importing vast numbers from continental Europe, mainly from Holland and France. The movement of bees into and out of Britain had been going on for ages, and always will, but the scale ramps up significantly whenever there are high losses. Moving bees around brings with it the risks of importing diseases or parasites, which is how the varroa mite became so widespread, but of course, bee farmers need bees, so if theirs die off they need to replace them quickly. There are strict rules in place nowadays covering importing/exporting of bees, so if everybody follows those, the risks are much reduced. Not everybody follows the rules.
The arguments about the Black Bee tend to be (a) whether that bee even still exists and (b) whether it is any good (for beekeepers). DNA testing has shown that the Black Bee is alive in its pure (95%+ pure) form in the UK and Ireland, albeit in isolated pockets. Most bees in our country tend to be hybrids of various sub-species because they interbreed freely. There is plenty of Black Bee DNA in many of our bee colonies, intermingled with Italian bees (ligustica), Carniolans (carnica) and other bits and bobs. Each sub-species has particular strengths and weaknesses, and bee breeders try to get the ideal mix of gentleness, disease resistance, overwintering ability and honey production from their breeding programs. It’s like baking a cake, except you are never quite sure how it will turn out. All you can do is keep the good ones and get rid of the others. However, the raw materials of the queen breeder, the ingredients so to speak, are ultimately the DNA of the various sub-species in their pure form, so it is wise to ensure that we don’t lose them.
As for whether or not the Black Bee is any good for beekeepers, that all depends. Horses for courses and all that. Most people that I have talked to that have experience of working with Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) tend to say that they are not ideal for large-scale honey production. The Black Bees imported from France after the so-called Isle of Wight disease were notoriously unpleasant, by which I mean they were very defensive of their hives, and consequently, beekeepers got stung a lot. When I visited Richard Noel in Brittany last Spring he told me that the local bees are not great, so he tends to use breeder queens from Denmark and Germany. This is what commercial beekeepers have to do; they don’t care what colour the bee is, they want an excellent bee that they can rely on.
I know of beekeepers who have quite docile Black Bees too. I know some nice walruses and some very unsavoury ones; so it must be with Black Bees, and all bees come to think of it. Alec Gale of Gales Honey, who was a friend of Brother Adam, used to import the French Amm bee for use in his apiaries, and he was one of the most prominent commercial bee farmers at the time. Adam used to send him queens to try out, and no doubt some were good, and some were not. Gale sent Adam some of his French Black Bees to be crossed into the Buckfast lines.
Most modern commercial beekeepers in the UK seem to use Buckfast or Carniolan bees rather than the Amm, which suggests that for them the Black Bee isn’t the best. So what? It is worth preserving the native bee, and all types of bee, to ensure that we have access to all of their genetic diversity. The bees that survived the Isle of Wight disease at Buckfast Abbey were a cross between the Black Bee and a strain of Italian bee that was a tan colour rather than yellow. It seems strange to me that beekeepers form tribes and fight with each other; the Buckfast tribe versus the Black Bee tribe, yet there is undoubtedly plenty of Black Bee DNA in both. In the 1990’s the very yellow ligustica bees from New Zealand were imported to the UK in large numbers, but they were entirely unsuitable for our conditions; they ate all of their honey and dropped dead because of acarine. Resistance to acarine does not appear to be all about the sub-species; the Italian bees at Buckfast had resistance whereas the NZ ones dropped like flies.
When I met Peter Little, who breeds Buckfast queens, he told me about some Amm bees that he had acquired from three prominent breeders in Ireland. He found some of them to be quite docile (the bees that is!), almost lethargic and was planning to cross them with some bad-tempered French Amm bees to see if the resulting daughters were a happy medium between the two. It seems therefore that we cannot assign traits to an entire sub-species without stereotyping; there are good bees and bad bees, it’s not just about their colour or their sub-species.
I went to a talk at a beekeeping convention by a well known and very experienced beekeeper who said that he instantly kills any queen that has any hint of yellow colouring, or if her workers are anything but black. I suppose that is one way to keep the Black Bee as pure as possible, but for me, it just doesn’t matter what colour my bees are. I am all about keeping gentle bees which are healthy and make me lots of honey; I’ll leave it to others far more qualified than me to do all of that clever stuff to ensure that we don’t lose the sub-species in their pure form.