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

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Bees and Bee Boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Today we visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan and saw the old ‘bee boles’. These are recesses in a wall big enough to hold straw skeps. The wall would have provided shelter and typically would have been south or east facing. At Heligan most of the boles have removable wooden doors in place. I would be interested to know how the wooden doors would have been used. I’m guessing they may have been in place over winter to provide extra protection from the wind and rain and then removed come spring?

The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) maintains a Bee Boles Register which currently contains records for 1589 UK sites, 58 of which are in Cornwall. So I have plenty more to find! And having just checked their Heligan Gardens record, it indeed says the wooden doors were closed in winter and hessian curtains added when very cold.

Skep making is a lovely skill and the skeps are beautiful objects which are still useful for swarm collecting. However I am glad the heyday of skeps has passed, since the bees were often driven out or killed in order for the beekeeper to harvest their honey and wax.

Bee hives were marked on Heligan’s garden map, so I was hoping to see some, but was disappointed to see a sign instead, informing me that the Heligan colony had died out over winter.

Black Honey Bee Colony, Heligan Gardens

There were several information posters about the Black honey bee…

The history of the Black honey bee

The history of the Black honey bee

Black honey bee better adapted

Black honey bee better adapted

European honey bees

European honey bees

B4 project

B4 project info

You can find out more about the B4 project at They describe themselves as a “group of beekeepers whose aim is to protect the UK’s native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera.” A native dark honeybee reserve has just opened on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, as featured in a recent Countryfile episode which I intend to watch soon (8 days left to watch!). From what I read on the BBKA Facebook group, the beekeepers filmed for the episode were not entirely happy with the editing of the show and the final quotes used.

Black honey bee population wiped out

I believe the disease referred to above is a mystery disease that ravaged British bees in the early twentieth century, the cause of which experts have since ventured a guess at. It was first observed in 1906 upon the Isle of Wight. Beekeepers there noticed that their bees were crawling on the ground around their hives, dying so fast that whole colonies were wiped out at the height of summer, when they should have been most strong.

The devastating affliction reoccurred at least three times from 1906 to 1919. By 1907 the disease had wiped out most of the bees on the island – it then spread to mainland England and wreaked havoc there. Huge numbers of bees had to be imported from Europe, so much so that some beekeepers claimed our black honey bee, the darker British subspecies of Apis mellifera, had effectively become extinct.

Looking back at 1906, when the disease first emerged, there was a gorgeously sunny April, drawing crowds to the Isle of Wight beaches. This was followed by an absurdly cold May – frosts and temperatures as low as -5°C (23°F), even in London. It was too cold for honey bees to venture out, at a time when colonies were full of young, spring bees. This created ideal conditions for a number of problems and parasites to take hold – such as dysentery (diarrhoea) due to the bees being unable to take cleansing flights. Of course if bees begin defecating on the combs this can spread nosema, if it happens to be present. Acarine mites can also spread easily from bee to bee due to the number of bees squashed in together tightly.

Although investigations in 1919 revealed the presence of acarine mites in all afflicted hives on the Isle of Wight, leading to the mites being identified as the likely culprit, it’s now thought that the crawling behaviour observed was probably due to Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV). It was in the 1950’s that Dr Leslie Bailey (who worked in the Bee Disease Section of the Rothamsted Research Station) first suggested that CBPV was spread by the mite, with many of the colony losses in the 1910s ultimately being due to attack by this virus.

Possibly the combination of unseasonably cold weather, CBPV and acarine mites was a potent one which proved too much for the bees. Diseases and parasites such as nosema, acarine and varroa may not always kill colonies outright, but can weaken the immune systems of the bees, allowing viral infections to take hold. We can’t know for sure what afflicted the bees back then, but the descriptions given by beekeepers at the time of crawling bees with trembling wings do sound like CBPV.

Anyway, I enjoyed my visit to Heligan and hope I can see some of the few surviving black honey bees soon, now that I’m living in the right place. Have any of my readers been lucky enough to spot them, perhaps in Cornwall or at the Black bee reserve on the Scottish islands of Colonsay & Oronsay?

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Wending my way west

I have a bit of news. A couple of weeks ago Drew, Tommy and I moved to Cornwall to be near family. Apologies to anyone in Ealing I didn’t manage to say goodbye to in person, in the end time seemed to rush by. Many kind-hearted people have helped me over the years since I first started coming down to the apiary and did the Ealing beginners course nearly a decade ago, back in 2008. I’ve enjoyed many a cup of tea in nice and not-so-nice weather, as you can see from the photos below. It was very sad to leave.

However, it is exciting to discover a new area, especially one so close to the beautiful briny sea. We have had an offer on a house accepted and at the moment my plan is to get bees in the spring once we are settled in. I may do a BBKA module exam meanwhile too to make sure I don’t forget everything!

We will have a little garden which I want to make as bee-friendly and generally wildlife-friendly as possible. It will be my first time having a garden of my own so I have a lot to learn. If any readers have tips for keeping bees in Cornwall, let me know. I want to join the local association here as I think that will be the best way to get some nice local bees.

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Our bees need you

A shout-out to highlight a crowd-funding campaign by Newbattle Beekeeping Association up in bonny Scotland: Our Bees Need You. One of the Association’s members, Malcolm, left me the nice comment below asking me to mention their campaign to raise money for a hut for their Bee Academy which will house their library and microscopes. Well, I’m a librarian and my surname is Scott so I couldn’t really say no! There’s a range of perks available depending on the size of your donation, including getting to see a demo Flow Hive.

Hello Emily,

I read your Adventuresinbeeland Blog with interest. I find your posts interesting and helpful. I am a member of Newbattle Abbey Beekeepers Association in Scotland. Our teaching apiary is in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey College. We have an excellent relationship with the college and the principal does all she can to support us. We have been offered a WW2 ex army hut to use as our meeting place and to house our library and microscopes. We are very keen to take up this offer but it needs to be refurbished and the Association needs to raise the funds to do this. I am writing to you in the hope that you will find this story to be interesting enough to include in your blog. We are trying to raise £25,000 through crowdfunding and we have made a reasonable start but we need to widen our net to get our story out in the hope that those interested in beekeeping might be persuaded to contribute to our crowdfunding effort. To find out more please visit our campaign page at:

We attempt in our story to emphasise the importance of the honey bee in pollination of our food crops and how the Association is instrumental in training the next generation of beekeepers. Our proposed Bee Academy will help us to do this.

I do hope our story will interest you and that you will be able to give us a mention in the next posting of your blog.

Warm regards,

Malcolm Evans

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Photos and bee notes from a pollinator day at Kew

A couple of weeks ago I had a day off while Tommy was at nursery. Time to myself! Trying not to feel guilty, I went to a ‘Pollinator day’ on 20th July at Kew.

The day involved lots of talks by bee experts, along with display tables to visit, a chance to flutter between honey tasting to a nest of bumblebees to seeing hand pollination in action. My favourite honey was made from coffee flowers, a rich dark honey. You can see tweets from the day by looking at the #pollinatorday hashtag on Twitter. Kew were running a Twitter competition asking people to guess how much honey the average honey bee produces in her lifetime – as beekeepers reading this will know, it’s a tiny 1/12 of a teaspoon.

1/12 teaspoon of honey

Bee hotels talk

An expert from the University of Reading gave a talk on creating solitary and bumblebee hotels. I learnt new things at this talk and was happy to hear people with gardens asking for advice on how to attract bees. We were advised that garden centre solitary bee hotels often use bamboo tubes that are too big. The tubes should be between 4-10mm in diameter to attract British bees, although there is one British species that will accept tubes up to 12mm in diameter.

Solitary bee tube

A model of a solitary bee nest (not life-sized!)

Solitary bees have interesting life cycles. Each species is slightly different but their eggs are often laid in tube-shaped cavities which solitary bee hotels replicate – in the wild this might be holes in wood or dug in the ground. The females are laid first, as they are most valuable, followed by the more expendable males, which are laid closer to the entrance where predators are most likely to attack. The growing eggs are provided with food in the form of pollen and then each little chamber is sealed up by their mother with a wall of mud or chewed leaves. There might be 7-8 eggs inside each tube.

The adults only fly about 150 metres to forage, so having a good supply of flowers in that area is really important. The males hatch first and hang about the nest site waiting for the females to emerge. As soon as the poor females hatch out they are jumped upon by the eager males. Most of the females then stay in the area and lay eggs which will survive over the winter and hatch out the next spring. However around 30% of the females go into a ‘dispersal phase’ and fly further away to start nests in a new area. This presumably helps prevent in-breeding.

It was surprising to hear that the cocoons can survive a bleach bath! Indeed they can survive most conditions apart from being squashed. At Reading university the bee team clean solitary bee cocoons to remove parasites and then put them back into the wild (you don’t need to go this far with your own nests if you don’t want to!).

We were also given advice on creating bumblebee nests. Avoid most of the commercial bumblebee nests as they don’t get used. You can make your own using polystyrene and soft hamster bedding within a terracotta flowerpot. Bumbles in particular need to avoid moisture building up in their nests. Unlike honey bees they never collect water, as their nests create lots of condensation. They need somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight to nest but not somewhere damp or soggy. Their nests only last between 16-20 weeks.

Bee myths: Busted

I liked these snazzy postcards produced by the University of Reading, who had provided lots of the resources and displays available on the day.



I managed to spot plenty more pollinators on the way home – here’s a little bee bottom poking out of himalayan balsam.

Bee in himalayan balsam

Bee inside Himalayan balsam

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Messing about with wax

We all have tasks we put off doing. One of mine has been having a go at melting beeswax to make candles. I had a feeling it might be a long and messy job. And I wasn’t 100% sure how to do it either.

Well, I had some time off recently and Tommy was in nursery. So I finally had no excuse to put it off any longer. With the help of the brilliant book ‘‘The Bee Book‘ (co-written by several talented beekeepers including Emma Sarah Tennant) I improvised… not quite in the right way… but the wax did melt!

Melting wax 2

I set up a bain marie over a Thornes double boiler. I was surprised about how long the wax took to melt and turned to the kind beekeepers of Facebook’s Beekeeping Questions UK group for advice (a really helpful group which has just one rule that so many beekeeping forums lack: ‘Be nice to people’). This is what they revealed to me:

Simon Croson screenshot


Yep. I had completely missed that water went in the spout. There are even instructions on the Thornes website which explain this! In my defence, I did buy the boiler pre-Tommy.










I also got some great advice from lots of other beekeepers, such as Candida Williamson’s comment below. It’s important to use rain water if you are in a hard water area because hard water causes soap to form, which affects the quality and appearance of the wax (Reference Mid Bucks Module 2 study notes 2015, p.34).

Double boiler info






Well, as you can see from the photo below, eventually the wax did melt, even using my botched method. And one little candle was produced! It’s on the dark side, but still a candle.

How do you melt your wax? In an oven, a bain marie, steamer, microwave or perhaps a solar extractor? Perhaps you use tights or baked bean cans? Many of these methods remain very mysterious to me but I know the best way to learn is by doing.

Candle making

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A day spent talking about bees

I started July off by helping out at the annual Northfields allotment open day. Tom usually goes along with his observation hive and honey for sale but he couldn’t make it this year. He had warned me it would be busy but I hadn’t realised quite how busy. There were over 700 visitors and it felt like nearly every one came to see the hives! I’d borrowed a deckchair but it went unused as I was on my feet for four hours straight with queues of people waiting to come by.

Me at Northfields allotments open day - photo by


What do people ask about bees?

There were some common themes…

  • Do you get stung?
  • How much honey do you get?
  • How do the bees find their way back home?
  • What are the bees in my garden/wall/floorboards?

Some of the children were budding honey experts; one little boy was telling me all about his visit to France where he visited a honey farm. A few children didn’t like honey but most did and wanted to try some – I had a couple of different honeys for them to try. I discovered I should have brought wet wipes as towards the end everything got very sticky!

I had some photos up of some of the different solitary and bumble bee species and it was nice to see how amazed people were about the number of bee species we have here in the UK. It’s around 250! And only one of those is the honey bee.

Most people were very friendly and interested by the bees. I did get a bit frustrated by people who got grumpy about me not selling honey. That’s my personal choice! And I’m quite glad not to have spent days before hand labelling up honey and then an afternoon having to find the right change for people. A recent charity event I helped out at where someone ended up scamming us over a cash payment has put me off that kind of thing.

Many visitors were telling me that local honey helps their hay fever, privately I wonder if this is mere placebo effect but I wasn’t going to tell them not to buy it. Even if it doesn’t help it’ll taste good! The Apiarist has just published a blog post – Honey and hay fever – which sums up some of my reasons for being skeptical about it. For instance, most hay fever sufferers react to grass pollen – which of course honey bees don’t collect, because grasses are wind pollinated.

Anyway, it was a nice day, good to see people enjoying the allotments and appreciating the bees.

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