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.


British black queen bee with retinue

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:-

  • “The “British Black Bee” is extinct”. This is still peddled by writers and speakers who read old books, or simply don’t want to accept the native bee still exists.
  • “The “British Black Bees” were wiped out by the “Isle of Wight” disease”. There is nobody left now who can remember the IoW disease and all they are doing is to copy what others have written. Many of the writers of the time had very good reasons for discrediting native bees, or conning the beekeepers because they were in the business of selling queens.
  • “Black bees are bad tempered”. They can be, but so can many yellow bees. How do they know the black bees are native? I have come across some pretty bad tempered dark bees, but I have also come across many more yellows that are equally evil, or worse, but these rarely get mentioned. They could be hybrids or mongrels that happen to be black. I think Amm still suffers as a result of some of the writings of the past, where some of the respected writers probably tried to discredit it for their own purposes. The techniques for determining purity of race weren’t developed and it could well be that any dark bee was taken to be native. It is common for the early stages of hybridisation/mongrelisation to produce bad tempered bees. This is termed “F2 Aggression” and is often blamed on the native population, but it is much more likely to be the fault of other beekeepers requeening with imported bees, or dumping colonies headed by imported queens in an area. Many a good bee breeding project has been wrecked by this selfish attitude. In my experience much of the bad temper in bees is down to bad handling. I see quite a lot of people using “crash bang” methods and some of them are supposedly experienced beekeepers in a teaching position.

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:-

  • Frugal with stores unlike some other races. Queens will go off lay when there is no food coming in to conserve stores. Over the years I have seen a lot of colonies starve during the summer. They virtually all have some yellow colour in and are prolific.
  • Non-prolific and can be kept on a single brood box B.S. all year. Some beekeepers report they can be selected to be more prolific, so a larger brood area is needed.
  • Low swarming. In personal communication John Dews, who was a leading authority on Amm in the U.K., told me he thought that in a natural state before man’s involvement a colony of Amm would swarm only once every 10 years. This means they are usually superseders and to keep a stable population winter losses would average 10%.
  • Hardy. In some parts of the U.K., particularly some of the islands off the coast of Scotland where the conditions, both winter and summer, are very harsh, Amm does really well. One September I saw four three frame nucs being prepared for winter. I urged the beekeeper to unite them to give them a chance of survival. I was told they would be O.K. At first inspection the following May they were all thriving colonies. These bees were very much tougher than anything I was used to, especially as they may have had at least 3 months solid without a chance to fly.
  • Pollen. We are told that bees put pollen in the combs above the brood, but below the liquid stores. This is because non-Amm do and that is what many writers and lecturers use. Amm store pollen all round the brood and this is an indicator of a fairly high level of Amm in a colony. It is noticeable thatAmm store much more pollen than other races and I believe this is a significant benefit during long spells of confinement. The old writers used to make a big issue of “pollen clogged combs” as if they were something to avoid, but we now know much more about the nutritional benefits of pollen. In the 12 months April 2012-April 2013 in the U.K colonies were in a poor state. In my view it was caused by a pollen shortage where bees couldn’t forage due to poor flying weather.
  • Longevity of both queens and workers. Non-prolific queens don’t need to be replaced regularly as prolific ones do. They are capable of heading productive colonies for the whole of their lives. It is said and my observations confirm, that workers from non-prolific colonies live around 50% longer in the adult stage than Italians do. To the best of my knowledge there are no studies on this, but it would be quite a difficult experiment to perform. As the cost to a colony is the same to raise both types it is easy to see the benefit of another 50% of work for the same initial outlay.
  • Disease. Despite what was written in earlier times, Amm are now known to be very resistant to both acarine and Nosema apis. Probably as part of the campaign to discredit Amm it was blamed for many of the problems in the early 20th century. We now know that acarine mites infest young bees andAmm bees have tougher hairs that cover the spiracles, preventing many mites from infesting the bees. Amm retain more waste matter in the gut than other races, Italians in particular, meaning they can wait longer between cleansing flights, rather than soil the hive and possibly spread disease.

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.