Black bees on Countryfile – or are they?

I watched the Rame Peninsula Countryfile programme featuring British ‘black bees’ yesterday. It’s available to watch for five more days (only if you are in the UK though).

The show was keen to play up the romantic side of the Peninsula as Cornwall’s ‘forgotten corner’, a “well-kept secret best reached by boat”. They told us more than once that Mount Edgcumbe, a countryside estate in the Peninsula, was the location of Britain’s first ever reserve for the black honey bee (ahem that honour actually goes to Colonsay and Oransay – but never let a fact get in the way of a claim on TV). Mount Edgcumbe is however England’s first native honey bee reserve.

Ellie Harrison on Countryfile 10/09/17, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall

Black bees in Cornwall
The section on the black honey bees was presented by Ellie Harrison, who explained that a tiny population of these native thoroughbreds had survived in Cornwall since the ice age. Thought to be extinct in the UK by some until recently, it has been shown genetically that they still exist as a distinct sub-species of Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. According to Ellie, they are “hairier, hardier and way calmer than their continental cousins”. She talks to one of the directors of the black bee project at Edgcumbe, Nick Bentham-Green, and asks him “What’s the problem with hybridising?”, to which he replies that it makes a more aggressive bee. I’m not entirely convinced by this, having kept some incredibly sweet hybrids who would let me stroke them bare-handed like kittens. Perhaps it depends on what sub-species they are hybrids of.

B4/Plymouth university research
Nick told us more about a four year project which is underway, with researchers from Plymouth university looking at anecdotal evidence from beekeepers in the B4 group about keeping black bees. According to the beekeepers, the dark bees fly early, fly in wet conditions and don’t starve out in summer. For the first time this anecdotal evidence will be linked to genetic analysis to check how distinct black bees are in the region. See Plymouth University’s page ‘How do we protect our native bee species?‘ for more on this.

B+ for inspecting
We saw some inspections of the Edgcumbe bees being carried out by bee mentor Kathy Lovegrove and head gardener Lee Stenning. Kathy told us that she was looking for a dark queen, with dark offspring, without any gingery brown stripes from thorax to abdomen. They were also checking temperament and making sure the bees looked healthy, had food stores, eggs and larvae. The beekeepers at the Edgcumbe reserve are working to reestablish the breed, building up numbers of our native sub-species to protect them from hybridisation.

Although the bees being inspected looked dark, ironically the show kept cutting away to distinctly gingery looking bees on flowers. Many people on the British Beekeeping Association Facebook group commented that the shots of these bees were ‘library’ shots used for another programme earlier in the year.

Jo Widdicombe’s rare bees
The programme then went on to feature various other countryside topics, before returning to the black bees later (49 minutes in). This time Ellie visited Jo Widdicombe, who she described as a local ‘rare-breed farmer with a difference’, whose colonies have been found to be one of the purest strains of the dark honey bee in Cornwall. When his colonies were DNA tested, they were identified as almost 100% native black honey bees. It was these ‘genetically pure’ bees that kick-started the colonies at Mount Edgcumbe. He got one of his first sites on the Edgcumbe estate and has had them there about thirty years.

When Jo started looking at Edgcumbe bees, he realised they were quite different looking to his usual bees and had a very gentle temperament. He came across on the show as a steady and gentle man who’s doing good work to look after the bees, as well as providing an apprenticeship for a new beekeeper, Shelley Glasspool. Jo has since written a post for the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) about his experience filming for Countryfile: BIBBA Countryfile report. It sounds like a lot of the details he gave about working with the native bees got cut out unfortunately – “they just came back to their original storyline which included irrelevant facts like how long I had been beekeeping and how much honey I hope to produce”. 

What a shame that most of Jo’s footage got cut out. I don’t usually watch Countryfile but it comes across as quite a fluffy show, the One show of the nature world. I am not a scientist but would like to understand more clearly how the DNA testing for black bees works and how distinct they are as a sub-species. I know manual wing morphometry analysis is also often used to identify them as the veins within the wings of the black bees are supposed to have slightly different measurements.

Further reading

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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26 Responses to Black bees on Countryfile – or are they?

  1. rockgardener says:

    Hi Emily,

    In regards to gentleness of the black bee: Dorian Pritchard has done some excellent articles in the ‘Natural Beekeeping’ (great read) magazine. In issue 2 mentioned that he has found the first generation hybrids with the back bee to be ‘strong, vigorous and good tempered’ but when you get into F2 and subsequent generations, particularly with carnica and Buckfast crossed with mellifera: these have a ‘horrendous’ temperament.

    Cheers,

    Gordon

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  2. Drew says:

    Love reading your beekeeping posts Emily. Always very informative despite my lack of beekeeping knowledge.

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  3. Pingback: Black bees on Countryfile – or are they? | Raising Honey Bees

  4. simonqrice says:

    Emily,
    Good blog. I agree with your sentiments about Countryfile, about the lack of detail, but it is surprising how many people watch it and this article about black bees sparked lots of conversations with me about bees. My own particular gripe about Countryfile is the splitting of articles during the programme. Not sure why the editor does that. I can concentrate on one thing for more than 15-20 minutes.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I can understand the lack of detail as the general public probably doesn’t want to hear about the intricacies of bee DNA testing and breeding. We need another show just for beekeepers! Great that people started talking bees to you because of it. I think the splitting of articles may be a technique to keep viewers tuned in, otherwise you might switch channels after the bit you wanted to see was over.

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  5. Pingback: Black bees on Countryfile – or are they? | Beginner Beekeeper

  6. Nice report, many thanks!
    Cubital index (very low, average 1,7-1,8 ) and Discodial index (negative value) together give quite a good picture of purity when considering if black bees found are really anywhere near pure Apis mellifera mellifera.
    Typical visible things: Black (not grey) colouring, round abdomen tip plus they fall of the combs when inspecting, and that should have been seen in the film too.
    The club of black bees in Sweden: http://www.nordbi.se/

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  7. Mike says:

    Spot on Emily ! The press seem to latch onto something and then run away with themselves. They also have their favourite “knowledgeable” beekeepers who they get to do the rounds. Chris Packham and Martha Kearney spring to mind ! We have a lady here on Anglesey who makes very dubious statements and they interview her relentlessly! It’s not a good situation.

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  8. greenster93 says:

    Hope you are settling in your new home.
    I liked reading your article and i missed that episode of country file. I try to watch country file as it is one of my favourite programs. My colones are all hybrids with attitude but that comes with territory.
    Are you going to keep bees. Best of luck

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Liam, slowly getting used to not being in London and having fields and cows around me. Hoping to get some bees down here in the spring. Didn’t want to put our London bees through the long journey and I know they’re in good hands with Emma. Will be in London in November so might get a chance to visit the apiary then.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Kernowspringer says:

    Good blog Emily – hope you are enjoying wonderful Cornwall. I was a bit “Yes but…” too, would have really liked more science. I know Mount Edgcombe well, and Rame head is beautiful – I grew up 17 miles from there. For what it’s worth, here is Northumberland we tend to breed dark bees (near natives), my own are dark, small and very very calm 🙂

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Oh wow, it must have been nice for you to see the countryside so close to where you grew up. I haven’t seen that end of Cornwall much at all. Lots to explore! Glad to hear you have some nice dark bees.

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  10. I have my doubts on the purported gentleness of the black bees as my mongrels are very calm. In fact I had a beautiful yellow queen that reared a very gentle, productive colony of mongrels. I have taken photographs of wings and found very close ratios with the black bee ratios in some of them. I have seen no studies of the accuracy between wing morphology ratios and DNA testing, that would be interesting. I tend to lean toward genetic diversity to see the bees through their problems. Amelia

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Interesting Amelia. Certainly honey bee queens try to mate with as many drones as possible, so obviously genetic diversity does have advantages for the bees. On the other hand when left to their own devices before humans started importing bees it was the dark bees that dominated here. I would like to see imports stopped because it increases the chances of bringing in pests and diseases. Then natural selection would kick in and we could see what happens when the bees are left to their own devices again.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for giving your reaction to this programme, Emily. You sum it up well as “fluffy” which applies to so much sciency stuff on TV nowadays. I do wish they would credit us with having a functioning intellect.
    I had a look at the B4 project results and the DNA analysis work done with FERA does not seem to have gone very well, suffering from technical difficulties. Little attempt is made to explain the work clearly on the web site. So we await the new project with the University of Plymouth.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Philip. I guess maybe the average viewer doesn’t want to know all the details but it doesn’t hurt to try. Thanks for the B4 info. Hope the Uni project offers some insights.

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  12. B+, generous methinks!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Brian Skeys says:

    Countryfile has become a fluffy urban based programme. Only Adam Henderson has any real contact with the working countryside. I think it would be wonderful if the black bee could be bred pure and reintroduce via queen sales to the rest of the country. When I kept bees Brother Adam, years ago, was hybridising bees to improve all traits including temperament.

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  14. Now you live in the West Country, paying a visit to the black bee apiary would be a realistic proposition for you? I would love to know more about this project. I plan to write a piece about the Isle of Wight Disease, primarily from Mr Woodley’s perspective but also the parallels between the carnage on the (black) honeybee-front and the carnage on the Western Front (WWI). Thank you and I did enjoy this blog entry.

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