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Helping Save British Native Dark Honey Bees


Congleton, Cheshire, United Kingdom

Posted Sep 12, 2012

From archaeological evidence, it can be shown that from about 6 000 years ago until the 19th century the dark honey bee (known locally as the Black Bee) was the native British honey bee. Then, in the 1810s a few Italian honey bee colonies were imported from the continent. This and infestation of the native population by Acarapis woodi (acarine mite) rendered the dark honey bee almost extinct in England and Wales. They remained with a stronghold in Scotland and were still found in a few pockets in England and Wales though.

To top up the bee populations imports came in from Denmark and the Netherlands and latterly from Australia, America and New Zealand. They interbred with the existing bees, so that most British bees are a hybrid of the native and the Italian, with Italian bee characteristics predominating. Yet, British conditions favour selection for the Dark honey bees. And with the recent discovery that a virus spread by the Varroa mite is causing winter deaths of the Italian bee in Britain there is renewed interest in our native species.

New colonies were recently discovered in North Wales and East Anglia and a queen breeding program is underway. The fascinating thing is that British black bees are much darker and have evolved thicker, longer hair and a larger body than their golden-coloured, southern European cousins, in order to keep them warm in cooler climates.

I am interested in rare and native breeds and despite having a fear of bees (I fell into a wasp's nest as a child) I decided that starting a hive and keeping this species would help me overcome that fear. So I got a small hive, a smoker, veil, hive tool, bee brush, top feeder, spray bottle, queen catcher and queen muff. Everything ready I drove up to North Wales (near my parents in fact) to get a marked queen in a 1.5kg package (about 10 000 bees in all!) with workers and drones.

With the hive set up in an open and sunny spot, the bees were introduced to the hive. The package is a wooden box with mesh fronts. To install, open up your hive and take out three of our frames. Now take the top off the package and fish out the queen. She will be in a small box plugged with wax and a cork. Remove the cork and attach the box to one of the frames. If you have taken the frame from an existing hive you can just squash the box into the wax, otherwise attach to the frame with twine or elastic. Put this frame back into the hive and squash agains the frame next to it to ensure that the queen's box is firmly held. The queen will take about a day to work her way through the wax plug and after two days you can remove the box. By this time the queen will be used to her new hive.

Now you can pour the worker and drone bees into the hive. When they have all been added put the removed frames back in. Now add a lid and put in a feed (typically sugar water which is used by the bees as energy to make wax). Cover the hive with a lid and let the bees get on with it.

Honey can be harvested once 80% of the cells in a frame are filled and capped with wax. Scrape off the caps and honey will flow out. If you leave too long in the season the honey will cool and crystallize and you will not get any honey out.

These are the first bees I have kept and they are fascinating animals. Black and quite hairy. They do not seem in the least aggressive... but maybe I am used to them now and actually the buzzing around the hive is strangely comforting. The interesting thing is how warm the hive feels when you put your hand inside.

I am just at the start of this and there is much to learn but I seem to have a productive and healthy hive. If I can help keep British Black bees going, this is a very good thing.

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