Black Bees

I was called out to a swarm at Pevensey Bay, which is right on the beach here in East Sussex. It was in someone’s garden, and they had no idea where it had come from, and didn’t know of any beekeepers locally. I do know of one nearby, but hers had not swarmed.

The bees were low down on a shrub, suspended from a single branch so it was an easy collection, or rather – would have been if I hadn’t seen the queen sitting on a leaf, and then another queen dallying around outside on the other side of the shrub…

They did start going in to the box, and left them for the rest of the evening to settle. The problem with swarm collecting at this time of year is that waiting for it to be cool and dark can be quite late! We collected them at about 11pm and brought them back to the apiary.

The following day, I went to check they were getting to know the area, and I realised that every single bee was actually black. Not just dark as many of my bees are, but black.

The Bee Sanctuary at the school apiary that I run began with 6 colonies of black bees that had been brought in from France, with the intention of conserving the native Apis mellifera mellifera (known as Amm) here in Sussex. Sadly, as all bees open mate, it is impossible to preserve genetics unless there is restricted access to hybrid drones which obviously is not the case when there are so many hives and colonies with a combination of imported, managed, mongrel, and feral bees dotted throughout the landscape. Are these a relic from one of those colonies, given they are only a few miles from that apiary? Or are they a quirk of local selection?

In any case, there is some contention regarding the ‘native’ view of honey bees, whatever their colouration, or rather, the relevance of the indigenous subspecies. Amm genetics are more suited to our climate and conditions, and tend to be more responsive, as they are adapted to dealing with a more variable set of conditions. For instance, Amm queens will go off lay when nectar flow is reduced, and swarming tends to be less frequent as it is a risky tactic if sufficient forage can’t be guaranteed. Some feel that introducing black bee genetics to the local population is beneficial but as most people are only concerned with honey production and temperament, until we change the focus from this over to more resilience and local adaptivity I’m not sure there is much point. There is also the difficulty of F2 aggression which can happen when we start unknowingly mixing different races of bees, and given the ease with which one can purchase a queen which is highly marketed but of dubious parentage, it can be a real problem. I have seen aggression which well could have stemmed from exactly this situation, and they are not for the faint-hearted.

As you may have gathered from my previous posts, I am a big believer in the methodology being key and I don’t make a particular effort to attribute characteristics to a type of bee: if they perform well–that is to say look after themselves–and deal with the challenges thrown at them, I don’t consider their heritage too deeply. I am also not overly concerned with a desire to have bees that are so docile they can be handled without a suit as I want my bees to be able to defend themselves from intruders, and if there are times when they regard me as one, so be it. Judicious, timely, and respectful handling go a long way to ensuring inspections are calm and effective, and it always frustrates and saddens me when I see footage of bees ‘behaving badly’ when they are clearly distressed, and being banged and crashed about with mutterings about requeening. If any other animal were treated in such a misguided manner, there would rightly be uproar (and don’t get me started on using a leaf blower to clear bees from honey supers…).

I will be interested to see how this colony performs, and to see if they are discernibly Amm: how do they get on with Varroa? They are certainly constructing comb quickly: will they build up and overwinter successfully? Who will the queen mate with, given this is a cast swarm; I wonder she will make of my apiary’s mongrel drones. This, of course, will affect the black bee proportions so I will watch and see if any orange markings seep in to the next generation.

Here are two resident bees on the exuberant geraniums in my garden – one black, one orange:

And as an aside, here is one of my bees removing propolis from an old frame. Watch how she moves it from her jaws to persist in to her pollen basket with deft leg movements:

2 Replies to “Black Bees”

  1. I’m fascinated by these black bees. My colonies tend to be dark and one colony is made up of very small bees, but I have never seen truly black ones before. Will be interested to hear how they are going on!

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