Why the native bee?

Apis Mellifera Mellifera

Our native Dark Honeybees has many important qualities that have evolved over thousands of years, making it uniquely suited and well adapted to survive in a harsh Irish climate. It has evolved a larger body and has the longest dark abdominal hairs of all the European races, to help keep it warm in a cooler climate, and with a shorter breeding season to reflect the Irish summer.

It will be found foraging earlier and later and over longer distances than the Italian bee and will fly in dull and drizzly weather which would force the Italian bees indoors. Brood rearing is reduced or stopped when the nectar flow ends and the Brood cycle is then maintained to suit our Irish climate. There is no point in rearing brood when they is no food coming into the hives and this way it can makes better use of meagre food resources.

My hives in the snow
My hives at -16 °C
(Click for larger photo)

Apis Mellifera Mellifera forms a compact brood nest with pollen stored as close to the brood as possible, sometimes below as well as above the brood. Honey is stored outside the pollen circle. The workers and queens live longer with is a higher ratio of foraging bees to hive bees. Queen mating can take place at lower temperatures than in the case of other races, resulting in better mated queens and they have a greater tendency towards queen Supersedure. These characteristics, together with a population of long living worker bees, provide an optimum number of foragers ready to take full advantage of any short nectar flows during periods of unsettled weather.

Native bees should be able to produce surplus honey every year, even when the summer is cold and wet, where other races of bees with large brood nest have to be fed with sugar syrup to keep the alive. Heather honey and ivy is unsuitable for winter stores for other races and causes dysentery and soiling within the hive. Our native bee has evolved to thrive on heather and ivy as winter stores.

In late summer, the amount of biopterin in the larval food is greatly increased and 'winter bees' are formed, in which protein and fat accumulate. These bees are still physiologically 'young' in spring and so can act efficiently as nurse bees. It is therefore not necessary to produce brood in the depth of winter in order to have nurse bees in spring, as is the case with imported bees. The "winter" bees of the northern race have the ability to retain faeces in the gut for long periods, due to a greater production of catalase by the rectal gland in autumn. They are then less dependent on cleaning flights. Such bees, confined for long periods in winter without the possibility of a cleansing flight are less liable to develop dysentery and soiling within the hive.

The wintering capabilities of the Dark bee are excellent, with heat conserved by the tightness of the cluster, and can maintain the temperature with a lot less food consumption. In Ireland the native honeybee was practically wiped out a century ago by what is known as the Isle of Wight disease, this disease has been equated with the acarine mite. Beekeepers replaced their empty hives with the Dutch honeybees which were most likely to have been of the same dark northern European race (Apis mellifera mellifera) as our own bee. There were still isolated pockets of black Irish bees dotted around the country. Such bees are the descendants, not only of those which survived the 'Isle of Wight' disease, but also of those which have survived on this island for the last 10,000 years.

The Native Bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, still exerts a dominant influence over most of the Ireland, in spite of importation of foreign races, owing to its better adaptation to the Irish climate. It has a genetic inheritance different from other races and under Irish climatic conditions the Native Bee will always prove superior in honey yield. It is certainly better equipped for surviving "hard" winters. Cold springs and wet summers. The importation of bees only makes worse the present unsatisfactory situation. Far better to stop importing all foreign bees, and concentrate on a general improvement of our honeybee stocks by selective breeding from the best of our native colonies.

Far away hills are green and several races of imported bees were tried, they were unsuited, and many of them did not survive climatic conditions that were not suited to them. It made it very clear that we needed bees that could survive and produce good quality honey regularly in our variable climate. We cannot control the climate, but we can breed from bees that are already adapted to it.