The native British Black Bee (pictured above in my apiary) was said to be extinct in England by about 1920 due to the ravages of the so-called Isle of Wight Disease. It was also said that only through importations from Europe could bees be kept going in England. However, writing 40 or so years later, Beowulf Cooper in his book 'The Honeybees of the British Isles’ describes many types of local British bee. Almost pure native British bees were certainly around in Southern England in the 1970’s as I owned two such colonies. A second demise of the local British bee was announced following the arrival of the varroa mite (ironically through imported bees), which has been a scourge of our bees since the 1990’s. We are said once more to be dependent on imports. As before, however, experience suggests the contrary. I know of beekeepers in several areas of the South of England who have bees in their hives that show characteristics indicative of the native bee.
All of these bees started as hybrids of imported and local bees. However, as any gardener knows, hybrids do not breed 'true'. Some of the offspring tend in their characteristics towards one of the pure breeds, some tend to the other, while some remain mixed. Over time, the amount of mixing tends to lessen and the amount of purity tends to increase. Eventually some of the offspring have characters near to one or other of the original pure lines. All of this happens naturally and produces the near native bees described above. There are two important influences that pull in different directions in this process.
The first is the notoriously variable British weather. Continental weather, by contrast, is far more predictable. The bees that are imported into the UK often come from Southern Europe or the Balkans. These bees have little or no idea how to react to British weather. Without constant input from beekeepers they can struggle to survive from one year to the next. By contrast, bees with a high proportion of local blood do rather well in our changeable weather, gathering honey and pollinating plants even in poor weather, something that imported bees cannot do. They can also reproduce (swarm) and mate in weather that would inhibit imported bees. Over time, British weather thus selects in favour of British bees. For this reason, if all imports of bees were stopped, it would not be long before all our bees had a high degree of local blood in them.
The second influence lies in those who have found a lucrative market in persuading beekeepers to buy imported bees. It is true that these bees do very well in their home countries. But in the UK the weather is against them. In a season when the weather is poor such bees need constant feeding if they are not to starve. Moreover, when these bees mate with local bees, the first or second cross is often a very poor performer and can be rather aggressive. The 'answer' that is promoted by the importers is to buy regular replacements of newly imported bees, creating a self-fulfilling and -for the importers- profitable circle.
Why should we care? The holy grail of current beekeeping is to find bees that are varroa resistant. There are now, in several areas of Southern England and parts of Wales, bees that can cope with varroa without constant beekeeper input or medication. Wherever one finds such bees, one generally finds nearby colonies of wild bees. Wild bees have never been treated by beekeepers. They have been through selection both by the weather and by the varroa mite. They have to cope or they die. Imported bees are neither weather-proof nor varroa resistant. The varroa resistance shown by wild bees is a highly valuable resource if we are to achieve more widespread varroa resistance in our kept bees. However it is severely diluted if non-resistant imported bees are constantly placed in their vicinity.
It is often said that agriculture relies on imports to have enough bees for crop pollination. This surely is an admission of failure on the part of beekeepers. Better by far to address the cause of the problem. Importing unsuitable bees only makes things worse. The Natural Beekeeping Trust's clear policy is that there should be no importation of bees or queens into the UK.
If you are a land owner, and there are wild bee colonies on or near your land, please check carefully with any beekeepers who wish to place managed colonies nearby. If they are using imported bees, or even locally bred hybrids -such as the Buckfast- that depend on imported genes, they could be doing considerable harm to the wild bee population and to farmers who depend on bees.