To Bee or Not to Bee

To bee or not to bee?

 …that is the question in Cornwall at the moment. Whether tis nobler in the mind to encourage the native dark honey bee or continue allowing interlopers to flit from flower to flower across the county. Pondering this question is Andrew Brown, a fervent supporter of Apis mellifera mellifera -the European dark bee -who heads up the B4 Project which is aiming to bring the indigenous species back to Cornwall.

 I’m at “Bee Central”, a room kitted out with scientific equipment at Andrew’s farm not far from Cotehele House in the Tamar Valley. Andrew and fellow bee boffin Dave Ledger are demonstrating how to artificially impregnate a Cornish queen bee, a fairly delicate operation involving a number of male bees, a microscope and a steady hand. In this surprisingly hi-tech environment of incubation units, DNA studies and drone bees ready to give their all in the name of science, the aim is to find out the present population of Cornwall’s native bees and how to develop their proliferation.

Outside, as we head towards several hives located next to a flock of grazing sheep, Andrew explains his interest in the humble honey bee. “I grew up in the Pennines, in a Gerald Durrellesque environment and have always been a bit of a bug lover. As a child I had an avid interest in beetles, caterpillars and butterflies”. After doing a dentistry degree and spending several summer holidays in the West Country surfing in Devon and on the north coast of Cornwall, he chose to set up a practice in Tavistock.

Eight years ago Andrew with his wife Kate, a well-known local opera singer and their three children moved to Newton Farm and it was here that the family decided their new home of 20 acres would be a haven for sustainable, organic living. “I saw it as a great opportunity to make a positive contribution to the environment by conserving and treating the land properly”, explains Andrew. Reinstating old hedges, using natural fertilizers and planting indigenous species of fruit trees the farm became an ideal location to implement Andrews’s next idea. Making honey.

 “Initially I bought a hive of imported Italian bees which were enormously fecund. They bred quickly and divided into different colonies; a good, solid species, a bit like the bee equivalent of the Friesian cow”. After reading up more on the subject of bees and bee keeping practices Andrew came across advice from the Soil Association that recommended using local sub-species and it was only then that he became aware of the heritage of Cornwall’s own bees.

Once upon a time, as Dave explains, the European dark bee, or black bee as it is also known, was the only species found in Cornwall. “Around the 1860s, intrepid plant hunters were bringing back all sorts of exotic species from the Far East and South America to beatify Cornwall’s stately homes. At the same time, within the zeitgeist of all things new and in an attempt to make hives more productive, sub-species of bees from across the world were introduced and started to take over the meadows, gardens and hedgerows of Cornwall”.

In the early 20th Century there were also two events that reduced the native bee population even further. During WWI bee keepers went to the front never to return resulting in many apiaries across Cornwall being abandoned and in the 1920s a disease originating from the Isle of White almost wiped out the entire population. Even during WW2 the dark bee was maligned and breeding stocks in Central Europe were destroyed by order of the Nazis, who considered their honey yields not high enough and wanted to improve the bee stocks. The end result was that only small pockets of native dark bees were left in remote parts of the country and new colonies from Holland and as far away as New Zealand were imported to replenish the decimated population “We now have Mediterranean bees, Alpine bees and Hawaiian bees which are short and fat, due to hula dancing no doubt”, jokes Dave. “And bee keepers still import 10,000 Italian queen bees into the UK annually which continue to dilute the dark bee’s genetic heritage”  

So what makes the dark bee better for Cornwall than its cousins from over the channel and beyond? It’s an early spring day but not warm by any stretch of the imagination and yet there are a number of bees buzzing around the hives. “That’s the reason”, smiles Andrew. “They have excellent flight strength even in cold, wet and windy weather. Hybrid bees and imported bees don’t have the genetic adaptations to cope with the cool, damp climate in Cornwall so produce colonies that are less likely to survive wet winters. Continental bees often need feeding in the spring  and early summer because they lay large amounts of eggs early on and then are not able to get out to forage because of the wet and windy conditions we can experience in Cornwall so they feed all their stores on their brood and starve to death themselves! Also our Cornish bees are thrifty, long-lived, have a low tendency to swarm; they’re defensive against invaders such as wasps, have a careful, measured “maritime” brood cycle and possess a strong drive to collect pollen”

 “They are also very docile”, adds Dave. “Mixing sub-species can often result in extremely aggressive colonies which are difficult to control. I can remember having a hybrid Italian/Balkan Carniolan queen that turned out to be the bee from hell producing a colony of thugs!”

With so many positive assets to recommend the dark bee, I have to ask the question as to why there aren’t more flying around my garden. “In the UK, there are only a few suppliers of dark bees and these are relatively small operations”, explains Andrew. “The majority of large bee retailers, import bees in huge numbers from breeders in Southern Europe or elsewhere overseas.  A queen, four frames and 2lbs of bees that are totally unrelated to the queen drop on your doormat from somewhere in the world and you’re good to go. It’s a cheap and easy way to get started”

 In an effort to champion the Cornish dark bee and to discourage imports, Andrew set up the B4 Project two years ago to demonstrate the benefits of the native sub-species and to encourage bee keepers in Cornwall to use the Cornish strain to strengthen local stocks.

The B4Project has recently been awarded almost £10,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  “With the grant money we can now throw a lot more science at the project”, says Andrew.  “We are working with local bee keepers collecting data in order to see how widespread the native bee is and how we can work together to help develop the population. The Food, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee is organising the DNA analysis for us and in our lab we identify bee species by visual identification and more precisely by measuring specific wing configurations via a computer program. In addition we are monitoring twenty locations around the county to see how our breeding program is progressing. The main objective of the project is to encourage bee keepers to join us on a voyage of discovery celebrating the unique bees they have and to keep breeding local, producing colonies that are distinctive to Cornwall”.

 To promote the project and to get the public involved, observation hives have been set up at Heligan Gardens, Paradise Park at Hayle and the Eden Project where visitors can see Cornish bees in action.  “The Cornish are proud of Cornwall and all things Cornish”, says Andrew. “We are using ground breaking science to find out exactly what lives in the hives around our county, helping to conserve and increase the population of Cornwall’s special bees for everyone”

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 This article featured in Cornwall today Magazine June 2014