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Return of the black honey bee

A recent article in The Guardian tells about the rediscovery of the European black bee (also known as the German black bee) in areas of northern Britain where it was once feared extinct. The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association (Bibba) has been on the hunt for this once-common bee and is excited about the prospect of using its genes to strengthen stocks of British bees.

The black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is native to Great Britain and is, therefore, more adapted to the local climate. Beekeepers remember this hardy bee overwintering with small, strong populations even in the harshest of British weather. According to Wikipedia the black bee is hardy and gentle, with a low propensity to swarm and a high degree of predator (wasp) control.

The Guardian article reports that less than one percent of hives in the U.K. contain the genes of black bees. Apparently it is both easier and cheaper to acquire bees from southern Europe or New Zealand, so Bibba is hoping to organize a queen-rearing program to help reverse that trend. For now they are using genetic analysis to discover hives containing a significant amount of native stock.

The European black bee is larger than common commercial bees with longer hairs on its thorax and a distinctive vein pattern in its wings. The black bee was nearly wiped out by tracheal mites in the early 1900s and was subsequently replaced by other subspecies, such as A.m. ligustica, the Italian honey bee which is still in use today.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

European black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera. Wikimedia photo by Tauno Erik.

Comments

Sam
Reply

Strange we have a lot of black bees in our area, about 60 to 70 % of my bees are black some hives are exclusively black but they are just as small if not smaller then my italians.

Rusty
Reply

Sam,

The small black bees in North America are carniolans, Apis mellifera carnica, and they freely interbreed with the Italians. One queen may mate with both types which is why some of your bees are black and some are yellow.

Emily
Reply

Along with Italians, large numbers of continental dark bees were imported in the early 20th century from France and Holland to compensate for the heavy losses of bees due to the ‘Isle of Wight’ disease, so there should be some European dark bee genes here. My own bees are very dark but must be real mongrels, as neighbouring hives have yellow Italian type bees in from queens imported from New Zealand, so they will all be inter-mating.

I’m not sure Wikipedia is right about the original British blacks being gentle, as the books I’ve read mention them as being very moody!

Rusty
Reply

Millie,

This is from Wikipedia, “Hybrids have a defensive character and have the reputation of stinging people (and other creatures) for no apparent reason. Some colonies are very “runny” on the comb and so excitable that beekeepers consider them difficult to work with. This characteristic is not, however, one that has been traditionally associated with the dark bee breeds, which were previously known for their rather easy handling.”

I read variations on this in a couple of places. Most “authorities” tend to think the purebred black bees were docile, but once they hybridized with other bees they became defensive.

Emily
Reply

Hi Rusty, I was thinking of a book I own called ‘Practical Beekeeping’ by Clive de Bruyn (1997), a well known British beekeeper. He says “According to those beekeepers I have met who had personal experience of the native British Black bees, their temper was not always good….Many of the old-time beekeepers who remember these bees could not wait to see the back of them. As one gentleman said, ‘They could pin you to the wall if they had a mind to.’ ” He does admit that he has not had much personal experience with the British Black himself.

Another book I have, ‘The Honey Bee Around & About’ (2007) by Celia F Davis, another British beekeeper, seems to back what he says up. She says about the British Black that it is suited for cooler climates with harsher winters but also that “On the minus side, they are quite strongly defensive (or aggressive depending on how you look at it), although proponents of this bee would question this statement.”

My own dark bees are incredibly gentle but perhaps this is because they’re not first generation hybrids.

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

Thanks for the quotes. It sure would be interesting to talk to someone who worked with them before they began to hybridize. But even so, I wonder if the defensiveness would be acceptable in light of their better overwintering, etc. We might look at them differently now, knowing what we know.

Emily

I agree, there’s probably plenty of other things in their favour, especially in the wet, cold weather we’re currently having in the UK. I’m keen to keep letting our dark bees produce their own queens rather than importing in yellow New Zealand queens.

Lindy
Reply

Good Morning Rusty,
I wrote to you on Sunday regarding our attempt to start a protection area for the Apis Mellifera Mellifera Bee (AMM for short) I tried to explain our initial goals and to say to anyone interested we can use all the help we can get for this. We want to make an Internet page so that we can easily be found. Perhaps at some point a wonderful BLOG like yours Rusty (Rosy coloured dreams) When I was searching for black bees to start again for myself after losing my Carnicas it was very difficult to get information in this country. We hope to change that. We have seen that in Germany, Scandinavian, Belgian and British countries there are enthousiastic movements in her (their) benefit. Now we have to get that enthusiasme going here in The Netherlands. Our group at this moment consists of 4 beekeepers. One man who has been keeping AMM for many years and thinks they are the bees knees. His neighbour who is now switching from Buckfast to AMM so that there can be neighbourly co-operation. A fruit grower who always had the hives of first man on his land but has as yet no bees. I make member No. 4 so very unknowledgable as yet. We have to get many things going and I have been asked to write a PR piece…. Eeeek they don’t realise I am totally fazed by this request……. This in order that we can make contact with organizations for financial sponsoring and making available of a large area of land for AMM Queen fertilisation (a drone station I mean) that is sufficiently separate from BuCa’s to develop a strong gene pool for our AMM’s. I hope I have been clear (consise is not my strongest (gene)) All constructive ideas very welcome. Thank you everyone who is interested enough to read this. kind regards, Lindy

Mark
Reply

I have just seen three black honey bees pollinating along side normal honey bees. This is happening here in Pomona, California

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

They may be Carniolans. Some are stripped and some are nearly all black.

Vicki
Reply

I’m pretty sure we have them here alongside my golden honey bees. They are a bit smaller comparatively but look exactly like the honeybees except for the color. They are also hyper. We live in northeast Missouri.

auburn packwood
Reply

I was out early this morning here in SW Missouri and small black honey bees are very busy pollinating. They are solid black and about two-thirds the size of the europeans.

Rusty
Reply

They could be Carniolans.

danielle
Reply

I saw my first “Black Honey Bee.” I live in Goose Creek, South Carolina. Amazing. It was covered with pollen in my Zinnias.
I am going to keep an eye on plants to see more and follow up with our local honey growers.

Kathy
Reply

Hello everyone,

I am new to the world of bees. I’m finding out so many fascinating things about them. One thing I did hear on television is that there is a very small colony of black bees (about 10 hives) that a man is caring for on an island near Sicily. This is in order to keep the strain pure. According to the person who was talking about this, the honey and the royal jelly is 10x more potent than that of any other honey producing bees. The person talking about this is one of the owners of Perlier bath and body products. They buy all the honey they can get from this man and are supporting him in increasing the numbers of black bees there on the island.
I live in America and want to have one hive to start. I live by the California coast. These bees are supposed to be very hardy and, according to this person, very docile. How do I go about getting some black bees and a black queen? Does anyone know? I want to help combat the hive collapse syndrome. Is it happening in Europe, as well? Anyway, I would like to do my part.

Rusty
Reply

Kathy,

The Honey Bee Restriction Act of 1922 prohibits the importation of honey bees into the United States. The law has been amended several times, and there are some exceptions, but basically it would not allow you to import a hive of bees from Europe.

Joel Simpson
Reply

I recently purchased a new queen from Gardner’s Apiaries, Baxley, Ga, USA. This queen is laying many black bees. Some have pure black rear bodies, some are heavy black with some yellow strips. They do not seem to be aggressive at this time.
We have had some very warm days lately and my bees are out of the hives so I have to feed them. No nectar to forage yet.

Sumter, SC, USA

Marie
Reply

I am not a beekeeper, but we have a situation on our property, particularly around our house with the European Black Bees. This is the first time that we have seen these bees. They are very aggressive and making life generally unpleasant on our 2 acres. We do not desire to harm. We try to be earth friendly. We have considered trying a starter hive, but have generally been researching American Honey Bees. Could sure use some guidance on how to corral or at least move these guys to a safer distance. There is a large number of them, but they seem to be independently nesting in any crevice they can find, even coming into our home.

Jellico, TN USA

Rusty
Reply

Marie,

The European Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is not found in the United States. Also, you say the bees are “independently nesting in any crevice they can find” which does not sound like a honey bee but some kind of a native bee or wasp. If you can get a close up photo of one of these insects, I may be able to help with the identification.

Bettie
Reply

I have these little buggers trying to nest in everything on my porch. They are fairly aggressive, and very evasive. I have no idea what I should do about them. I certainly do not want to kill them, but I wonder if they are eligible for capture and relocation.

Darryl
Reply

Good afternoon everyone,

I just saw a black honey bee for the first time. I took a few photos of the bee. The black bee was pollinated next to a regular honey and a jumbo honey bee on my azaleas. I don’t have any knowledge of this type of bee. Can someone help me?

Darryl
Reply

By the way I’m in the Pacific Northwest (Portland,Oregon )

Rusty
Reply

Darryl,

The black or German honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is not found in North America. You probably saw a Carniolan honey bee, Apis mellifera carnica, which can be almost all black and are common in North America. I don’t know what you mean by jumbo honey bee, as most honey bees are pretty much the same size. Maybe is was something else?

Grace
Reply

Hi,

I’m a 4th year beekeeper. We only keep 2 hives and do it for pollination of our garden and to help propagate healthy bees hopefully! One of my hives which was a swarm catch-maybe feral, maybe not, is yellow and just looks like a poster child honeybee. Our other hive which is 4 years old started out looking the same but 2 years ago started having black, bigger bees in it mixed in. Now, the entire hive is black, black and larger bees that look longer in the body. I know our queen must have changed out and bred with new blood. But what kind of bees are they now? I know they are mutts, but what else? They are so docile and are not good honey makers except this year they finally produced an extra super after 4 years of never making much of anything. We don’t mind because we never take more than a couple frames anyway! Just wondering if anyone knows what is up with my hive of black bees!? They have over wintered every year here in Ga even when other beekeepers in our area lost more than half their hives.

Rusty
Reply

Grace,

I’m guessing, of course, but perhaps they are part carniolan. The carniolans are dark bees that overwinter well with small colonies and produce less honey than the yellow Italians. Many beekeepers have them so it wouldn’t be surprising to have some (or a mix) mate with one of your virgin queens.

Grace
Reply

Well that certainly sounds like them! Thanks!

RICHARD
Reply

I was very fortunate to have captured and hived a swarm of very dark to solid black honey bees. They are a bit bigger than my Italians and are a very curious bee. You might assume they might be more aggressive as they will meet you when you go outside and fly around you a lot. It’s a bit annoying as they are very persistent and usually there are 4 to 5 in a small group. I’m used to them but they freak my wife out. I have seen these bees around before and were hanging around my Italian bees to take their sugar water. They fly even faster than the lighter smaller Italians. I have observed on cooler days the black hived bees are out while my Italians seem to sleep in. Could this bee be the European black bee? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

The European black bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is not found in North America. What you are seeing may be Carniolans or a Carniolan cross.

RICHARD
Reply

I forgot to add that this swarm was very large at about 14 lbs in weight and has nearly filled my 4 foot top-bar hive since April 29th.

Russell
Reply

I wanted to add my comments to those above. Looking up I see too many identifying any kind of black bee as being AMM. AMM also have longer hairs on their bodies and are larger.

There is several points i wanted to reiterate so that people are not led astray….

There are many species of black bee that could be mistaken for AMM by people talking about bees in the U.S. : Russian bees are black, Carniolans are black….

Also any crevace you can find…and very aggressive sounds like possible africanized honey bees which don’t follow the same nesting procedures necessarily as other types of bees.

Feel free to correct me if I miss anything but getting AMM, Carniolans, and Russian bees mixed up with these other aggressive bees could lead people to underestimate what qualities they have and what they are good for.

Also I’m interested if there is a legal way to get AMM allowed into North America. It seems a shame to have AMM face extinction. I have been reading several old bee books and many of them in the history sections claim the AMM bees were all the rage before people discovered the Italian bees.

Rusty
Reply

Russell,

The Honey Bee Act of 1922 and subsequent amendments restrict the importation of honey bees or honey bee semen except by special permission. See 7 U.S. Code § 281 – Honeybee importation.

Dave
Reply

Russell I do believe your on point. My black bees bodies are exceptionally longer than my Cordovan’s. Also they are much more aggressive and I have to walk around the yard and few extra minutes to shake them from following me. These hives you must have gear on to enter and do your damnedest not to smash even one. They become so overwhelming you just want to put the box back together and get away. However very productive bees, they dominant the open feeders when I’m feeding syrup/pollen substitute. Night and day difference between them and VSH high breds and Cordovan breeds.

Staci
Reply

Hey Rusty,

A gentleman linked me to your site regarding German dark bees. Dr Delaney did genetics on feral colonies and actually found a natural reservoir of German farms near Raleigh, NC. It was pretty cool to see they’ve survived. Their susceptibility to American Foulbrood left most thinking the strain had been wiped out despite having been imported from the time of the earliest settlers on through the 1850’s.

However, the existence of German bees in the US wasn’t why I’m writing. We have an issue with Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus in the states this time of year which has confused numerous newer beekeepers into thinking their hives, previously Italian, are now German darks. I think you are a font of knowledge, know a lot of folks refer back to you for info, and have, at times, used you as a resource myself so… What criteria would you use to differentiate a healthy German dark bee from a bee with ‘hairless black (or chronic bee paralysis) syndrome’?

Rusty
Reply

Staci,

I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but the bees I’ve seen with CBPV looked obviously sick. They could walk, barely, couldn’t fly that I noticed, and looked wet, greasy, and of course black. But none of these looked like healthy bees so I can’t imagine confusing one with a healthy German black bee. That said, I’m sure that there are beginning stages of the disease where the bee isn’t quite as sick and may act normally, but at that stage they wouldn’t look black and greasy either.

Kathy J.
Reply

Hi, I am a new bee keeper with my first hive of Italians in Michigan. The bees are on swampy property that has been in the family since the 1850’s. My grandmother had hives in the 1950’s but they died. My hive requeened in the summer and some of the bees are now black. I have found at least one feral bee hive in the area. I am also trying to determine if the black bees are Carolinian or if they could possibly be German. Were Carolinians popular in the 1950’s? Could they be surviving German blacks from the early settlers?

Rusty
Reply

Kathy,

I assume you are seeing Carniolans. As far as I know, no German black bees exist in North America. There is a low probability of stock surviving from the 1950s because most (but not all) feral stock was wiped out by the first wave of varroa mites. Of the colonies that remained, I’m sure they were a mix. Pure stock could not exist all those years without beekeeper intervention.

Steven
Reply

I was out on the roof-terrace where I currently live in the south of the Netherlands (in a considerably large city) and saw a myriad of these black bees going about their business, collecting nectar, a pair of them hovering over the terrace spotted me and I saw clearly how the bee that flew about a yard away from where I sat down had it’s stinger out.

Last year in the summer I spotted only 1 bee on the terrace, only on that one occasion, and before that, a whole decade went by where I had not seen a single bee, of any kind, despite having moved a lot in that decade, and also having spent significant amounts of that time in the northern suburbs where blossoming wild growth, and neatly kept gardens maintained by the neighborhood’s large population of retired and elderly residents are in a huge abundance. And also spent a large portion of that decade living in smaller towns, in rural areas of the Netherlands and Belgium.

My last memories of seeing any bees at all were from my childhood, the last around the time I was 12 years old, and just today I’m seeing tons of bees like I did when I was a kid. Intrigued i decided to look into it a little and found this page full of people in my country and neighboring countries working to make this sudden comeback of these creatures.

As for the aggressive/docile issue regarding black bees, yellow bees and the myriad of hybrids, a universal trait in animals is that defensive and pre-emptive displays of aggression are expected when bees go through phases of decline and recovery of their population, and the North American killer bee disaster from crossbreeding European honey bees with African worker bees resulted in a particularly aggressive breed of bees.

As with the many health issues that plague many species of dogs bred by mankind, it might be best to let bees crossbreed on their own accord, and not meddle with things we have little understanding of.

All the factors involved that cause attraction and crossbreeding between subspecies of an animal, or different species of animals all together is too complex, and as people we can only attempt to understand it through observation and analysis, like reverse-engineering. DNA analysis transmitted through pheromones, sweat, etc is only understood in a crude sense, and we don’t have the inside scoop of what makes or breaks a successful or unsuccessful crossbreed.

I am undoubtedly overlooking things you will be keenly aware of as i am no specialist on bees in particular, tho I have a decent understanding of evolutionary biology, and crossbreeding being the main driving factor behind the Cambrian-explosion responsible for kicking evolution in ‘warp speed’.

Glad to see people are helping these diligent creatures make a return! Felt some input on hybridization might be of some value, or perhaps not, nonetheless.

Kind regards!

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