Scottish Native Honey Bee

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Scotland’s native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, is at serious risk of disappearing by being genetically swamped by cross-breeding with the non-native types now found across the country, rather like our native wildcat. Over many millennia, this honey bee adapted to our changeable and often windy climate on the Western fringes of Europe. These bees are often said to be stocky, dark, frugal and with particularly hairy backsides! All these traits can be useful to an insect needing to forage, survive and even mate in our cool, windy climate.

Why is there a problem?

The renewed interest in beekeeping has created a strong demand for stocks of honey bees. The wide availability of non-native and imported stocks has taken such bees to almost every corner of Scotland, jeopardising remaining pockets of pure native honey bees. Although the trade in non-native honey bees has continued for over a hundred years, in recent years this has accelerated and penetrated new areas. In addition, commercial bee farming, using bees mainly bred for productivity, has expanded in terms of territory and numbers of stocks held. These bees are Carniolans, Buckfast, other non-indigenous types and their hybrids and further erode the status of the native honey bee where they are taken. In addition to the loss of heritage, such mixing often yields very bad-tempered and hard to manage stocks.

Like other types of honey bee, pure native honey bees can be selected to be gentle, productive and an absolute pleasure for beekeepers to handle. 

Our native honey bee has a number of characteristics which make it ideally suited to our climate:

  • A larger body size than its mainland European counterparts with long hairs, noticeable on the abdomen
  • A characteristic wing structure that may better enable flying in windy conditions
  • It flies at lower temperatures than bees from warmer climates which is just as well as honey bees mate in flight
  • It is frugal in character and stops brood rearing in periods of poor weather and throughout winter, hunkering down in a tight cluster to use its honey stores with great thriftiness
  • It tends to collect and store more pollen than bees from other regions thus making sure it always has protein stores available for rearing young when needed
  • It takes a cautious approach in Spring, building up its colony size slowly in line with forage availability and is generally in peak condition for the summer and heather crop.
  • These traits mean that it is less likely to starve in periods of poor weather or dearth and needs less sugar feed than the commercially traded types

Where are we now?

  • The Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay have one of the few pure and isolated populations of our native honey bee in Europe. Established during the 1970s and 80s from mainland Scottish stocks, their importance to genetic conservation was recognised by the Scottish Government when they passed The Beekeeping (Colonsay and Oronsay) Order 2013. This prevents other bees being brought onto the island.
  • There are native stocks on Orkney but as yet they have not been awarded any protection so unfortunately could be lost if more non-native stocks are brought onto the island. We would like to see Orkney awarded the same status as Colonsay.
  • Breeding groups on the mainland of Scotland are now trying to establish pockets of native bees on land away from other beekeepers. This is incredibly challenging as bees mate in flight and there is a need for several miles isolation for pure mating. By establishing these remote sites SNHBS hope to be able to offer native stocks to many more beekeepers.

Want to help?

  • If you are a beekeeper we would always urge you to buy local stocks of bees and queens.
  • Careful consideration should always be given when moving stocks of bees in case breeding groups are working in an area or the local beekeepers have native stocks.
  • Landowners should be cautious about which beekeepers they allow on their land.

We are always keen to welcome new members with a passion to help conserve our native honey bees.

SICAMM 2021: the online conference that’s got everyone buzzing

With over 200 delegates, the first SICAMM online conference about dark European honey bees has been a huge success.

SICAMM has held conferences every two years “to support the survey, conservation, management and breeding of all extant ecotypes and geographical variants of the dark European honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, SICAMM was unable to hold the planned 2020 meeting in Ireland and, so the SICAMM committee organised and held its first online conference beginning on 23rd October, 2021. It has been followed with a weekly lecture series held every Wednesday evening at 6pm GMT. These sessions run until 22 March 2022.  

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2021 Survey for Scottish Native Honey Bees

Open to all beekeepers in Scotland

We hope 2021 will see a gradual easing of restrictions as the Covid pandemic comes under control. We have planned an extended search for native honey bees this year which involves an easy to use initial photo screening and further assessment by a team of experienced Conservation Project assessors.

Our aim is to find good strains of native and near-native honey bees that are endemic to Scotland.

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Threatened imports of non-native honey bees into Ireland ….

Recent reports in the media of threatened imports into Ireland of non-native honey bees has Irish beekeepers up in arms. The Scottish Native Honey Bee Society share the concerns of beekeepers in Ireland who have worked tirelessly and devoted a lifetime of beekeeping in bringing the native honey bee to the unique position it now occupies. To find out more please follow this link to the Native Irish Honey Bee Society …….

Conserving Black Bees

(Apis mellifera mellifera) in the Hebrides, Scotland

By Andrew Abrahams

We are grateful to the author Andrew Abrahams and the editor of the American Bee Journal for permission to use this article.

Readers might ask, why on earth spend much of a lifetime con­serving what most beekeepers perceive as an aggressive, unproduc­tive race of honey bee — a race per­haps left behind by history? I was fortunate, often by chance rather than grand design, to gather up some pure remnants of Scotland’s native honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) in the late 1970s and since then I have managed over decades to improve this popula­tion in the isolation of the remote is­land of Colonsay, which lies 16 miles off the west coast of Scotland (see

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Queen rearing: five stages to manage

Queen rearing can be a hugely rewarding aspect of beekeeping when successful and the most exasperating when it does not go to plan. I recommend you embark on it willing to learn incrementally from your experience and not be deterred by disappointments. Success generally follows careful application and practice of sound guidance.

There are five basic stages to plan and manage, from the laying of eggs to successfully mated queens laying eggs in their own colonies. I will explain each of these, briefly, highlighting key aspects. These stages involve the raising of queen cells from fertilised worker eggs rather than using swarm, supersedure or emergency cells already drawn by bees.

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The Moorfoot Group

The Moorfoot Group currently comprises six beekeepers setting up an isolation Amm mating apiary in the Moorfoot area. We aim to develop approximately 20 Amm colonies to overwinter in the the Edinburgh, West Linton, Gordon, Penicuik and Kirknewton areas. At present we have approximately sixteen queenright Amm and hybrid/ Amm colonies, mostly grafted by us from Amm frames kindly donated by Kate Atchley and John Durkacz  with additionally five grafted Amm queen cells which are awaiting local mating. The locally mated hybrid/ Amm  colonies are to supply Amm drones and will be transferred to Moorfoot next April before local non Amm stowaway drones can hitch a ride.

The philosophy of the group was to site the apiary where no sensible beekeepes would want a colony.

However we have found that if the transferred colonies can manage the harsh springs there is ample forage for a good honey crop that will help the site to be self sustainable. 

We’re grateful to have recieved a £400 grant from SAMMBA and thank John and Kate for their generous assistance.

Jim Lindsay

SNHBS 4th Annual Meeting

Loch Leven Community Campus, Muir, Kinross – 14 March 2020

By Justine Swinney

Thanks to everyone who attended our Annual meeting on 14 March at the Loch Leven Community Campus in Muir, Kinross.  Considering the uncertain situation we were in just nine days before the full Covid-19 lockdown, we had an impressive turnout; and thank you to everyone for following the guidance at that time in terms of vigilant handwashing etc. 

Jo Widdicombe, President of BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) valiantly journeyed up from Cornwall and gave us two inspiring talks on bee improvement (read more about Jo’s presentation here).

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