The Dark Bee Apis mellifera mellifera in the United Kingdom

The article below is based on a lecture given by Philip Denwood to the SICAMM Conference in Landquart, Switzerland, on 1st September 2012

Articles by Dr. Dorian Pritchard,1 and by Norman Carreck2 of the Laboratory of Social Insects at Sussex, have presented the evidence, convincing in my opinion, for the immigration of the honey bee into mainland Britain across the land bridge from Europe at least 9000 years ago, and its continued existence here ever since. This bee would have been the ancestor of the Apis mellifera mellifera or Dark European subspecies and geographical race, as would any later imports from neighbouring parts of the continent by man. Subsequent natural selection down to the mid 19th century produced a variety of local strains of this bee adapted to the various environments of the country.

The period from 1859 to the present day has seen the importation of bees of both A.m.m. and other subspecies from many parts of Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Italy, the Balkans and Cyprus, and further afield from as far away as New Zealand. It has also seen the creation and importation of a number of hybrid-based bee types collectively known as Buckfast, under the initial inspiration of Brother Adam.

The above views, at least as they concern early history, are at odds with those published by others and adopted by the official body promoting nature conservation south of the border, Natural England, whose staff maintain that the honey bee was introduced by man some 1500 years ago, is therefore not “native” to Britain, and should therefore be excluded from nature reserves.

Another and more serious case of flying in the face of the evidence is that of the “Isle of Wight Disease”, an event which is commonly alleged

  • a) to have caused the heavy losses of bee colonies which occurred between 1906 and 1918;
  • b) to have been caused by the acarine or tracheal mite; and
  • c) to have exterminated the native British honey bee during that time,

prompting the importation under the government’s restocking scheme of large numbers of bee colonies, mainly from the Netherlands and France.

Many experienced beekeepers in the 1920s and later, for example in the pages of the British Bee Journal, challenged the views that IOW disease was caused by acarine and that it caused extinction of any race of bees. L.E.Snelgrove commented in 1946, “… many writers have expressed the view that bees of pure British origin cannot now be found. The writer does not hold this view. Apart from the fact that he has continuously found British bees in certain country districts showing no sign of crossing with foreign races, the laws of heredity conflict with the supposition that a pure race can be eliminated by crossing alone. In 1936 sanctions were imposed on Italy by the British Government and the importation of queens from that country diminished from that time and ceased during the war. For some years, too, the importation of other races, Carniolans, Caucasians, etc., has been discontinued. The Italian element, as shown by colouring, is steadily disappearing and many of our bees are becoming dark and indistinguishable from the old British bees.” (See below.)

The Isle of Wight phenomenon was thoroughly debunked on a scientific basis by Dr.Leslie Bailey of Rothamsted in 19813. According to Beowulf Cooper, founder of BIBBA, “Some of those personally involved in the restocking campaign have admitted to me that there was in fact no shortage of surviving native bees.”4 And yet as Norman Carreck has recently written, “half a century after the explanation was found to be scientifically unsound, many beekeeping books and articles still perpetuate the myth the the IOW disease was caused by the tracheal mite Acarapis woodi “; a prominent example being H.R.C.Riches, President of the Central Association of Beekeepers and past President of the British Beekeepers Association in 1992. Even today similar claims are commonly made. However, in the last decade DNA studies by Pedersen and others in Denmark and elsewhere have conclusively shown that modern specimens of Dark Bees from the UK and Ireland fit into the genetic specification of Apis mellifera mellifera (see e.g. the article by Pritchard).

Characterisitics of British A.m.m.

Physical characters Cooper, 19865

  1. Bees “black”.
  2. Long abdominal overhairs.
  3. Characteristic wing type.
  4. Genetically large size.

Behavioural characters

I will now discuss some of the behavioural characteristics of the British A.m.m. as listed by five authorities:

A: A correspondent identified only by the initials “JFH”, British Bee Journal, 1925.6

  1. Less prolific
  2. Begin working early in spring
  3. Begin breeding early in spring
  4. Excellent comb builders
  5. Easy to handle
  6. Not inveterate swarmers

B: Snelgrove, 1946.7

  1. Hardy
  2. Winter well
  3. Work early & late in the day
  4. Moderate swarmers
  5. White cappings
  6. Little propolis
  7. Resistant to disease
  8. Quiet on combs
  9. Not unduly aggressive
  10. Slow to develop in early spring
  11. Small brood nest
  12. Settle down early for winter
  13. Consume little in winter

C: Brother Adam, 1966.8

  1. Less prolific.
  2. Long lived.
  3. Long flight range.
  4. Thrifty.
  5. Incomparable cappings.
  6. Speed of comb building.
  7. Extreme susceptibility to acarine

D: Cooper 1986.9

a) Flight pattern characters.

  1. Low temperature flight.
  2. Non-collection of dew at dawn.
  3. Reluctance to fly when snow lying.

b) Colony population characters.

  1. Longevity.
  2. Non-prolificacy.

c) Characters adaptive to season and locality.

  1. Heavy spring to summer pollen storage.
  2. Heavy late summer pollen storage.
  3. Early cessation of brood rearing in late summer.
  4. Thriftiness.
  5. Adaptation to local flora.
  6. Tight winter clustering near hive entrance.

d) Nest characters.

  1. Comb honey cappings white and convex.
  2. Compact brood pattern.
  3. Compact honey storage pattern.
  4. Fluctuating broodnest temperature.

e) Characters affecting mating and interbreeding.

  1. Minimal drifting.
  2. Drones expelled earlier.
  3. Alternative mating behaviour.
  4. Temperament compatible with other native bees.

E. Ruttner, Milner & Dews 1990.10

  1. Late start in spring
  2. Early cessation for winter
  3. Excellent wintering
  4. Non-flying with snow on the ground.
  5. White cappings.

The following characters are common to two or more of the above sources:

  1. Unprolific.
  2. White cappings.
  3. Thrifty.
  4. Compact brood nest.
  5. Alternative mating behaviour.
  6. Early cessation for winter.
  7. Good wintering on little stores.

On the other hand, there is disagreement on the following characters:

  1. Early/late start to brood raising. The answer to this may be the Dark Bee’s ability to attune its development to the progress of the season.
  2. Disease susceptibility. Brother Adam insists that the Dark British Isles Bee was comparatively extremely susceptible to acarine disease. This was refuted by Bailey, and again more recently by the collaborative European “Bee Shop” research project: “Those that claim non-native stock has lower disease susceptibility are wrong. The onus is on them to demonstrate scientifically their claims.” (Sweet)11
  3. Quiet/restless on combs. This presumably relates to different strains within the Dark Bee race.


  1. Pritchard, Dorian. “Is the dark bee really native to Britain and Ireland?” Bee Improvement and Conservation 30 (2009), 14-17.
  2. Carreck, Norman. “Are honey bees native to the British Isles” Journal of Apicultural Research 47/4, 318-322.
  3. Bailey, Leslie. Honeybee Pathology. London: Academic Press 1981, 81-5.
  4. Cooper, Beowulf A. The Honeybees of the British Isles. Codnor: BIBBA, 31.
  5. Cooper, 18-21.
  6. “JFH”. British Bee Journal Dec 10 1925, p.519.
  7. Snelgrove, L.E. Queen Rearing. Bleadon: 3rd ed. 1966, 108-113.
  8. Adam, Brother. In Search of the Best Strains of Bees. Weierbach: Walmar Verlag 1966, 123-4.
  9. Cooper, 21-9.
  10. Ruttner, F., Milner, E. & Dews, J.E. The Dark European Honey Bee. Codnor: BIBBA 1990, 18-29.
  11. Dr. Robert Paxton; reported by Sweet, D., “Variation in susceptibility to bee diseases among European races of honey bees,” Bee Improvement and Conservation 32, 7-8.

Philip Denwood.