The Dark Bee in … Southern England – Terry Clare (summer 2008)

As in Ireland, there are variations in environmental conditions throughout England despite both countries having oceanic climates.  For example, north of a line drawn through the southern English Midlands, the mean July temperature is 15°C.  Across southern England, there are a wide variation of weather and flora.  The eastern part of the region has a low rainfall and cold winters.  Where I live, the rainfall is less than in Damascus in Syria!  As one travels further west, the rainfall increases and winters are milder.  Wild flora and agricultural crops reflect this.  For example, in the east there is little animal husbandry and arable crops predominate. The western part of southern England is a complete reversal of this.

As a result, it means that all the main honeybee sub-species can, with appropriate husbandry, survive somewhere successfully.  Starting in the 1840s and swinging into a large scale from 1845, enormous numbers of package bees were imported into the whole of England and also, to a lesser extent, Ireland.  These packages were distributed along the railway system and offloaded at main railway stations.  Interestingly, these included dark bees, Apis mellifera mellifera, from France, Holland, Scandinavia and Germany.  Apart from the short breaks during the wars, especially the Great War, importations of packages continued up to 1939 but then ceased.  Many of the big houses and estates, together with the new middle class, gave impetus to this.

This process gave rise to a mixture of races, with an inevitable deterioration in temper.  Other qualities often left much to be desired, and of course, because the gene pool was so diverse, it was difficult to selectively breed.  Most English beekeepers have less than ten colonies, usually less than four, and as a result there was little scope for improvement, a situation that largely pertains today.

However, it is not all doom and despondency as far as our dark bee is concerned.  Contrary to what Brother Adam is supposed to have said (where does it appear in his writings?), irate beekeepers were writing to the old British Bee Journal in the 1920s and 1930s stating that they still had the same bees that their forebears had kept, i.e. native black bees.  Certainly in northern Kent, the harsh winters eliminated many of the exotic race colonies.  In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the dark bee, but keeping it relatively pure is difficult because of the proximity of so many other non-interested beekeepers.  For instance, Kent has nearly 500 registered beekeepers and Devon 600.  In such a crowded island, it is very difficult to find isolated mating sites, and this discourages many embryo breeding groups.

Nonetheless, breeding with the native bee can be achieved.  The Medway and North Kent Breeding Group (Med Queens) has about 17 members and is probably about the largest southern bee-breeding group.  It has a mating site on an island and is able to produce near-black queens for distribution to members.  Members using these queens are encouraged to not only keep records but to place drone foundation in their colonies so as to flood areas with dark drones.  Ring-fence apiaries, like the GBBG’s Dún Aongus system, are to be established this year, together with a back-up site and breeding groups in some prisons.  Let’s hope the weather is not such an obstacle as last year.  However, there will be a need in the very near future to introduce new blood in order to avoid inbreeding and the resulting depression.

Other small breeding groups are asking for mating facilities on Med Queens’ site and this is something to be considered.  Clearly, there is a need for large-scale production of dark queens and so an attempt is being made to supply a Shropshire commercial bee-breeder with suitable breeder stock from up to 10 lines.

In southern England, the dark bee has proved to be best for being able to cope with wildly varying weather patterns in both winter and summer and so is still the background race in many areas.  Because of its suitability for small hives, such as the National, and its low propensity for swarming, there is a demand for the dark bee, and the future challenge will be to be able to meet this challenge.

In all of this, there is a lesson for fortunate countries such as Ireland and the Isle of Man:  Do not import exotic races and cause the loss of your native dark bees with all their special qualities for their unique environments.

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