They were almost obliterated by disease nearly a century ago but it looks like the native black honeybee is making a comeback.
Research reveals that the native bee is still hanging on in parts of the UK where it was believed to be extinct — including Northern Ireland’s north west region.
The bees were largely wiped out by acarine disease in the 1920s, after which beekeepers were forced to rely on imported honeybee subspecies to maintain their hives.
Beekeepers in Ireland have now found populations of the native black bee clinging on in pockets of the west and are using these to revive the breed across the island.
The latest study, carried out by the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders' Association (Bibba), revealed that black honeybees are present in parts of the UK where they were thought to be extinct.
The study, funded by the Co-operative, showed that the native bees — which are more suited to the UK's cooler, wetter climate — are found throughout the UK, and not just in remote northern and western areas as expected.
Black honeybees were found in Londonderry, the Isle of Man, Argyll and Bute, Denbighshire, Fife, Lancashire, Preston, West Sussex and Cambridgeshire.
The findings, which will be followed up by DNA testing, will enable the breeding of more queens of the sub-species as a hardier alternative to imported honeybees — a project which will also be funded by the Co-operative. Norman Walsh of Dromore Beekeeping Association said a lot of the native bees became mongrelised after foreign subspecies were imported following the devastation of the acarine outbreak.
“Once the imported bees were bred with the native bees, they tended to be a bit aggressive, but in recent times there has been renewed interest in conservation and development and selection of the native dark bees in Ireland,” he said.
Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager at the Co-operative, said: “The results of this research show that there are far more colonies of British bees than was thought and we can now move on to support a breeding programme which will hopefully increase the number of bees and in turn help reduce the losses experienced in recent years.”
Terry Clare, president of Bibba, said: “We were surprised to discover that there are more British bee populations than we suspected. Hopefully this will persuade more keepers to use British bees.”
Latin name: Apis mellifera mellifera
The dark bee can be distinguished by its stocky body, abundant thoracal and sparse abdominal hair which is brown, and overall dark colouration and heavy dark pigmentation of the wings. Overall, when viewed from a distance, they should appear blackish. In Western Europe, dark bee breeds were the original honeybee stock until creation of the Buckfast bee. This is a hybrid breed whose progeny includes salvaged remnants of the British black bee, nearly extinct by then. The breeding stocks in Central Europe were nearly destroyed by order of the Nazis, who considered the honey yields not up to modern standards.