The Importance of Rearing Native Bees
By Geoff Critchley, Master Beekeeper
Our native honey bee (Apis Mellifera Mellifera) has lived in the British Isles for the last ten thousand years. Many Colonies were destroyed in the early twentieth century by a disease known as the Isle of Wight Disease (from the outbreak location). Importation of bees, to increase honey production, had began fifty years earlier and to make up for these losses, people began importing even larger numbers from other countries; in particular Italy and Eastern Europe.
A tiny parasitic mite called ‘Varroa Destructor’ is the most prolific killer of our bees. Discovered in Devon in 1992, this mite has now spread across England and Wales, causing widespread colony losses. Many researchers believed the native honeybee to be extinct, but it has been shown to still exist in isolated pockets in Wales, Yorkshire and particularly in Ireland.
Our native bee has distinct characteristics, in particular its colour. Although being described as black, it is in fact a dark leathery brown. lt is well suited to our climate, able to survive long cold winters. The bees also have an affinity to the natural habit of heather moorland, widespread across the Clwydian Range.
I am among many people in Britain and Ireland who are hoping to breed these black bees to ensure the survival of the species, and to reintroduce it into areas where it has disappeared. One of the obstacles to raising pure bred honeybees is the mating behaviour of the queen bee. Mating takes place in the air, and the queen can mate with around fifteen drones (male bees) some of which may have flown 8 miles from their original colonies. Because of this, most mating results in cross breeding. Unfortunately this means that pure bred queens are not produced, and that undesirable characteristics, such as aggressive behaviour, can emerge.
There are two ways that we can avoid this cross breeding: artificial insemination, which is expensive and technical, or the setting up of mating colonies on isolated regions away from non-native colonies. Because we are a relatively small scale operation it is not cost-effective to use the first method. Local beekeepers in Denbighshire decided to use an isolated site for a more controlled mating. We bring hives onto an isolated site from May to August to provide suitable drones, in sufficient numbers, to enable queens to be produced which have little or no cross-breeding. Our project enables other beekeepers in the area to use our queen bees, to further strengthen the native colonies. Eventually we hope that the introduction of new bloodstock into the local bee population will lead to the re-establishment of our native honeybee throughout the Clwydian Range and the Vale of Clwyd.