Black Bees return to Wiltshire

The BeeHolder, Autumn 2013

MOD beesAn abandoned village that was commandeered by the army during the war has its first new residents in 70 years - colonies of rare native honey bees. The deserted village of Imber on Salisbury Plain has been picked as the ideal location for a project aimed at boosting the population of the endangered British black bee. About 95 per cent of bees in the UK are non-native and were introduced into the UK in the 1920s after Isle of Wight disease virtually wiped out the indigenous honey bee, Apis melifera melifera.

With help from the MoD, the decline in population of native bees may be reversed. Beekeeper Chris Wilkes, a 61 year old retired army major from Salisbury, has been given special permission by the MoD to set up 14 colonies of black bees on their land (photo page 20). Mr Wilkes said: “Imber is a very isolated area with not a lot of feral bee colonies about, in fact there isn’t one in a four or five mile radius. It is very difficult to breed pure lines of bees because it only takes a few feral ones to give you a mongrel breed. But Imber gives us a great chance to breed a pure strain of British black bees.”

Black bees can easily survive British winters – unlike the non-native varieties that are vulnerable to prolonged harsh and cold weather as we had last winter.

The isolated hamlet of Imber is surrounded by a wealth of untapped, nectar-rich wildflowers on the vast Salisbury Plain. The area is very rich in wild flowers. Eighteen of the 22 top nectar producing plants in the UK are there, including clover, sainfoin, viper’s bugloss, knapweed and melilot. There is also no interference from the public which will give the black bees a chance to breed a pure strain. If successful, this could be repeated all round the country.

Unexploded beesBritish black bees are much darker than their golden-coloured cousins that originate from southern Europe and have thicker and longer hair. Mr Wilkes said: 'Black bees make up about four per cent of the bee population of Britain. It is a shame because they are ideal for the British climate because they survive our winters very well.”

“It is the native bee and the one that has been selected by nature to be the best type for this country. Southern European bees need a lot of feeding up in August and September to get them through the winter but they really struggle when you have harsher, prolonged winters. A lot of bees did die out last winter which means there is a reduction this year in honey production and produce that depends on being pollinated by bees.”

Arthur Finlay, adapted from Suzannah Hills (Mail-on-Line, 19 August 2013)