The black honeybee (also known as the European dark bee) was long thought to be extinct in the UK, but the species was recently rediscovered and found to be better suited to surviving the British climate. Researchers studying the species believe that it could hold the key to reversing colony collapse, which has caused declining numbers of bees worldwide.

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The black honeybee is native to the UK and Eastern Central Europe, although it was thought to have died out in all but the most remote reaches of northern Britain. Happily, it was recently found in North Wales, East Anglia, and as far south as West Sussex. The discovery has led the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (Bibba) to claim that the species could hold the key to reversing the dramatic decline in honeybee colonies in Britain due to its ability to withstand climate change – unlike the Southern European honeybee subspecies commonly used by many UK beekeepers.

Speaking to The Guardian, Terry Clare, president of Bibba said: “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence among our 300 members that the survival rate is higher for black honeybees. They are hardier and have smaller populations going into winter, so they need less food to survive, and they also have fewer mouths to feed during a cold spring snap.”

The theory has been supported by Francis Ratnieks, professor of apiculture at Sussex University, who said: “People claimed the black bee went extinct, but it’s good that this research proves that their genes are still around. It makes sense to use native bees because they are better adapted to the local climate.”

He added: “What is needed now is a large-scale queen-rearing programme on a commercial scale. Otherwise it will still be easier for beekeepers in Britain to get Italian honeybees exported from New Zealand than it is to buy native black bees.”

The difference between normal honeybees and the black bees are not very noticeable to the untrained eye. The black bee has much thicker, longer hair and a larger body than its golden-coloured, southern European cousins. This unique difference, the scientists believe, has helped it to survive in cooler climates.

The new discovery has led Martin Tovey, president of the British Beekeepers Association, to encourage its 22,000 members to do local breeding rather than importing bees from southern Europe. “More bees bred from black bees would be a good thing as they survive the winter better, but I’m not sure they alone will reverse the collapse of colonies we have been suffering,” he said.

Could thedecline in European bee populations be coming to an end? Watch this space.


Via The Guardian