Research discovers that native British black Honeybee may be holding on right across UK

April 18, 2012

The native British Black Honeybee, which could hold the key to reversing the dramatic decline in honeybee numbers, may be holding on in areas of the UK where it was thought to be extinct, according to research issued today (18 April) by The Co-operative Group as part of its Plan Bee campaign.

Experts feared that native black bees, with characteristics far more suited to the UK’s colder climate, were only to be found in remote northern areas.

However, a three year research project funded by The Co-operative and carried out by the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (BIBBA) has discovered that the British Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), is seemingly alive and well across the UK, including parts of Southern England, East Anglia, Lancashire and North Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This first round of testing which involved examining physical attributes such as abdominal colour, the length of body hair and the pattern of veins in the wings will now be followed up with genetic analysis involving DNA testing.  

Over the last ten thousand years, the native sub-species evolved thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in our cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK’s summer. This makes it less susceptible to the vagaries of the British weather which some experts suspect is a reason for a reduction in honeybees, nature’s most important pollinator, by up to 30 per cent in recent years.

Following the identification of a variety of viable native bee colonies across the UK, The Co-operative will now fund a new breeding programme to increase the availability of native queen bees to beekeepers. The funding will support training to beekeepers with existing native colonies on queen rearing techniques and the purchase of nursery hives to support their production. The new colonies will be monitored by BIBBA to ensure that they retain their native characteristics.

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 British bees and in turn help reduce the losses experienced in recent years.”

Terry Clare, President of BIBBA said: “We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there are more British Bee populations than we suspected and this will hopefully persuade many more beekeepers to use British bees.”

The researchers studied 117 hives, believed to be native colonies, across 40 locations and found that more than half of them had significant native characteristics.

In addition to the research into the native British Bee, The Co-operative’s Plan Bee campaign supports the growth of urban beekeeping, takes action on pesticide usage, and is giving away a further 300,000 packets of wildflower seeds in 2012 to provide pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinators.  Plan Bee is an integral part of The Co-operative’s Ethical Plan which was launched re launched in February.

Additional Information:

Native and near-native British black honeybees (with 10% or less genetic introgression from other sub-species of honeybee, determined through morphology testing) where found in:

  • Londonderry
  • Isle of Man
  • Argyll and Bute
  • Denbighshire
  • Fife
  • Lancashire
  • Preston
  • West Sussex
  • Cambridgeshire 

Contact Information:

Dave Smith                                                                      
The Co-operative Group Press Office
Tel: 0161 827 5614
Mob: 07702 152771