Dark bee conservation area in Laesoe, Denmark – Carl-Johan Junge, Sven Branner and Asger Søgaard Jørgensen (summer 2009)

For many years, beekeepers on the small Danish Island of Laesoe (114 km2) have been aware that they have very special bees. Morphometric studies showed that the bees were a special line of black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, and the very last pure strain of the black bee in Denmark. In Denmark, we use the term “brown bee”.

The beekeepers association of Laesoe decided, with the support of the Danish Beekeepers Association, to work for the conservation of this unique genetic resource. We succeeded in having the law on beekeeping amended in 1993 so that the whole island was made a conservation area for the “Brown Bee of Laesoe”. Later a genetic investigation by Bo Vest Pedersen confirmed the purity and the uniqueness of the Laesoe strain. A few beekeepers on the island were, however, against this conservation, as they wanted to use imported A. m. ligustica bees to make the more productive hybrids that result from crossbreeding with the black bee for their beekeeping. One of the beekeepers claimed that the conservation was against the general rule of free trade within the European Union. Several years and court rulings later, the European Court stated that it was acceptable to restrict free trade to make a small area like Laesoe a conservation area.
Just after this verdict, Denmark changed government, and the new Liberal government opposed the conservation. The law was changed again to allow other bee races on the island, except for some small restricted areas.

The government and some beekeepers doubted that there was a remaining population of A. m. mellifera at all. A major effort was made to analyse the genetic constitution of all bee colonies on the island. The results proved that, despite introgression from other bee races, a total of 123 colonies showed less than 1% introgression and 273 colonies showed less than 10% introgression. This relatively favourable position was the result of a very dedicated contribution from the black bee breeders of Laesoe. They maintained the purity of the strain by weeding out a large proportion of hybrid queens over many years. As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to reserve a small part on the eastern end of the island as a mating area for the “Brown Laesoe Bee” and leave the main part of the island free for other subspecies of bees.

A very bureaucratic system for securing this area, which includes economic support for beekeepers with “Brown Laesoe Bees”, has been established. However, the possibilities for maintaining a robust and viable strain of the “Brown Laesoe Bee” and for beekeeping and harvesting honey are very limited under these conditions. The Danish Beekeepers Association and the Laesoe Beekeepers Association fear that the incentive to keep the “Brown Laesoe Bee” will disappear and that the many years of struggle have been a waste.

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