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Black Bees 07/01/21

Black Bees 07/01/21

Black Bees – ‘The Past or the Future?’

A talk by Jo Widdicombe on 7th January 2021, via Zoom

Also participating were West Dorset Beekeepers group and Somerset BKA

Participants 241

Alastair Bruce, Chair of East Devon Beekeepers, introduced Jo, who is the President of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA). The aims of BIBBA are

‘the conservation, restoration, study, selection and improvement of native (Apis mellifera mellifera) and near-native honey bees of the British Isles’

What are Black Bees?

Jo first of all showed some images of Black Bees, workers and queen, which clearly showed the characteristics that set them apart from the mongrel bees that exist in most of the British Isles. These features can be seen in the screen shots from the talk.

The hairs on the thorax tend to have a yellow/brown tinge

Black bee hairs

The queens are dark

Black bee queen

If mated with drones of the same race then all the bees in a colony look similar

Black bees

The workers have only narrow lighter bands on the abdomen

Black bee abdomen

Black bees are the native sub-species of honey bees, sometimes called the Dark European Honey Bee, and famously declared extinct by Br. Adam. Prior to about 1850 the Dark European Honey Bee predominated in France, UK, large areas of central Europe and extending northwards as far as Sweden. Since then, imported bees with distinctly different characteristics have flooded into the British Isles to produce the mélange of characteristics we have today.

The genetic makeup of our bees

The genetic makeup of our bees was studied by Dr. Elleanor Burgess and Dr. Catherine Thompson who found that about 45% of UK bees had mellifera genes, the rest being a hotch potch of genes from all round the world.

Breeding in this very mixed population often produces problems of ‘defensiveness’ and ‘uselessness’, so where do we go from here? Do we try to put the clocks back to 1850, or find the best way to move forward?

Finding a way forward

Imported bees are the root of the problem and they also pose a high biosecurity risk (Isle of Wight disease, Varroa, SHB, viruses, to name a few). Although crossing sub-species has the advantage of hybrid vigour the resulting subsequent uncontrolled matings will not breed true and are likely to cause ‘defensiveness’ and other unwanted traits. Also, the imported bees are brought in from other climates with no local adaptation and prevent us developing the best bee for local conditions.

The National Bee Improvement Programme (NatBIP), a BIBBA Initiative

NatBIP came about because of concerns about declining bee populations after Varroa was discovered in 1992. DEFRA’s ‘Healthy Bees Plan’ of 2009 aimed to achieve a

‘sustainable and healthy population of honey bees for pollination and honey production in England and Wales…’

The Plan identified imports as a biosecurity risk to our bees. Unfortunately, since 2009, imports have more than trebled!

Queen Rearing Working Groups (QRWG) were set up to identify the reasons for the popularity of imported queens. These reasons turned out to be ready availability, generally cheaper, good quality. Given the perceived advantages of imported queens

‘a good reason is needed for beekeepers to favour home-reared queens’


NatBIP is an attempt to refine our honey bee population with the aim of:

  • Reducing imports
  • Improving the quality of our bees
  • It is a proposal for a sustainable programme of bee improvement
  • BIBBA is not proposing a ban on imports, but is aiming to provide an alternative to imports, and a reason for not using imports.

Can sustainable improvements be achieved?

The aims can be easily stated:

  • A self-supporting and sustainable system, able to maintain and improve quality over successive generations.
  • Maintain genetic diversity but within a useful framework.
  • Encourages ‘local adaptation’ producing bees suited to, and thriving in, its local environment.
  • Aims to produce a hardy, docile and productive bee.
  • Produces a bee that adapts and evolves over time to changing conditions – a bee for the future, not the past.

How can we implement a system that fulfils all these points?

Beekeepers and bees must both benefit for a sustainable system to emerge. The major prerequisite is participants should avoid the use of imported stock, or offspring of recently imported stock. The Programme is based on the best available local bees, built on ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection. Nature selects for survival. Beekeepers select for the qualities they want.

Outline of how the Programme will work

Participants will keep a record of their colonies’ performance (this is not a management record). This will allow the selection of ‘breeder queen’ to produce the next generation.

Image of record card

The key to the system is the ‘breeder queens’ because the daughters reared from good breeder queens produce good drones, so selected breeding or mating zones can be flooded with these superior drones to develop a local strain.

Example of record sheet

Diagram of cycle of drone management


The advantages of breeding from ‘what we’ve got’ are a reduction in biodiversity risk, avoiding the introduction of new and untested genes. There will also be a gradual reduction in hybridisation as the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection shapes the population. As bees start to breed true the result is more rapid progress. Open mating helps maintain genetic diversity so the end result will be locally adapted bees with enough genetic diversity to select any qualities we want.

Summary of NatBIP

All beekeepers can benefit from a sustainable programme of bee improvement thereby reducing biosecurity risk. The programme will be based on current stocks and use a combination of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ selection to develop better quality bees. The Improvement Programme will not use imported bees or the offspring of recently imported bees.

BIBBA will produce a Guide Book with suggestions and ideas for beekeepers to choose and adapt to suit themselves.

To join BIBBA go to their Website and follow the links.

Useful reference: The Principles of Bee Improvement by Jo Widdicombe

An online poll was carried out during the meeting. See results sheet below.

Poll of bee imports

During the Q&A session Jo gave details of the mating nucs he uses. They are made by Abelo and are big enough to overwinter small colonies. Abelo UK website

Our thanks to Jo for this information-packed talk and for permission to use the images. Our thanks also to Lynne Ingram for organising the Zoom meeting.