Meet the Cornish Black Bee

Could the Cornish Black Bee be an answer to the decline in bee population in the UK?

The sad fact is that bees are in real trouble. In recent years the news coverage of their plight has become increasingly worrying. It is now estimated that of the roughly two thousand species of bee in Europe one in ten of those is now endangered. There is no single cause for the bees’ decline. But studies have pointed to changes in climate, pesticides and a rise in devastating diseases, such as varroa, as the probable root of the problem. Frighteningly some figures estimate that bee populations have fallen by a staggering 75% in the past century.

Cornish black bees

My mother has kept bees for going on 30 years and I grew up enjoying our own honey. My mother uses it as a bit of a cure-all. Sore throat? Have some honey. Cold? Have some honey. Feeling a bit wished? Have some honey. Bad day at work? . . . Have some honey! So I have also shared in her fears for these wonderful, essential creature’s future. I decided to find out what we can all be doing to help. How we can make a positive impact on these special insects who play such a vital role in our delicate ecosystem.

The British Bee

You can be forgiven for not knowing that Cornwall has its own native bee. Up until quite recently they were thought to be extinct. Most of Britain’s native bee population was wiped out in the 1920s (along with most Northern Europe’s honey bee population) by the deadly Isle of Wight disease. After this disaster British beekeepers were forced to import bees from southern Europe. the new colonies came mostly from Italy and surprisingly this is a trend that has continued. In recent years however small colonies of our native bees have been located in isolated pockets in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.

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Britain has nearly 300 different species of bees but most of them are the large furry balls we all see bumbling around the garden. They are Solitary, Humble or Bumble bees and they don’t produce honey for us, although they do do the important job of pollinating our plants and flowers.

Unfortunately our honey bees are often mistaken for wasps, they are much smaller and slimmer than wild bees and have similar stripy abdomens – so try to think twice before you swat and remember a honey bee will only ever sting you as a last resort because unlike wasps she will die afterwards.

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A busy honey bee – not to be mistaken for a wasp

Did you know that of the 60 – 80,000 honey bees in a hive nearly all are female? There are a few males called drones but they only make up about 10% of the colony. And as Bob puts it “all they do is hang around waiting for a chance to mate with the queen!” Being a bee is no holiday for the females though. A single (lady) worker bee will travel up to 5 miles from her hive in search of pollen and it takes around 55,000 bee miles to produce just one jar of honey.

The Cornish Black Bee

Beside the hybrid bees that most bee keepers seem to favour the Cornish bees look more black and white, like a Saint Pirans flag! The Cornish honey bee is actually a variant of the British Black Bee (Apis Melifera Melifera) but importantly they have slight evolutionary adaptations which mean that they are naturally better adapted to our unpredictable Cornish climate.

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A native Black Bee, image credit: The Barefoot Beekeeper

Cornish Black Bees are especially hardy and can survive colder winters than their European cousins. Vitally they will also go out and gather pollen in poor weather, even a bit of mizzle doesn’t put them off. They are placid, generally good-tempered, so less likely to swarm. But perhaps most importantly they seem to show a particular hardiness to the varroa mite. Black bees are hairier which means the mite finds it more difficult to get to their skin. These unique qualities mean that their promotion amongst and adoption by local beekeepers could potentially mean a securer, healthier bee population in our county.

You can find out a bit more about our native Black Bees below:

Bringing Back the Cornish Black Bee

Bob Black who I spoke to a while ago about beeing keeping has Cornish Black Bees at 5 sites across Cornwall. And is passionate about promoting the humble Cornish bee:

“The more people that take on board this native bee, not importing, and working with the strains that work best in their area you are going to naturally develop over 30 years or so a really good strain of local bees that are going to be dominant.”

Bob works with projects such as the B4 Group, the Bee Improvement Programme in Cornwall (BipCo) and the Cornish Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Group (CBIBBG) as well as individual beekeepers to protect and promote our native bee and help with bee conservation as a whole. You can find out more information HERE.

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“In Cornwall with our wonderful peninsula, the west of the county could have pure native bees within a generation, very easily and then we wouldn’t have to send off for bees we could get them from the local area.”

Besides providing us with their wonderful sweet, golden harvest bees are also vital to the natural world, to our own survival and many conservation groups are keen to encourage more people to take up beekeeping. I asked Bob about this, he agreed “It’s good to see more younger people, especially those in their 30s and 40s, are getting into beekeeping but there is a lot to learn. I recommend taking a course over the winter at Duchy College or similar to properly understand the complexities of bee colonies.”

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BEE FACTS:

Bees are truly amazing creatures, and it is important to remember that a bee will NEVER sting you unless it is their absolute last resort as they will die soon after.

  • Bees can fly up to 15mph
  • They navigate using the sun
  • Bees communicate by dancing
  • A bees sense of smell is so acute they have been trained to detect drugs and bombs
  • Each foraging trip a bee will visit between 50 and 100 flowers
  • Each colony of bees has its own distinctive smell, that’s how they recognise each other

Some Simple Ways to Help Bees:

Here are a few simple ideas that we can all try to help our native bees:

  • Try to buy organic
  • Chose locally grown produce
  • Avoid using pesticides in your garden
  • Leave a patch of lawn free from mowing to let wild flowers grow
  • Plant bee friendly plants
  • Support your local beekeeper by buying local honey. (It’s also great for people with allergies, hay-fever or asthma.)

Some Bee Friendly Plants:

  • Clover
  • Lavender
  • Honeysuckle
  • Buddleia
  • Fruit blossom – apple, cherry, plum etc
  • Rosemary
  • Heather
  • Willow
  • Hazel
  • Dandelion

Further Reading:

Cornish Honey Harvest

Ten Top Birdwatching Sites in Cornwall

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2 thoughts on “Meet the Cornish Black Bee

  1. Lovely article about my favourite food – honey!!! Hope the honey bees survive in the wild as well as in aviaries forever. After all honey is the only food that does not go bad even after thousands of years.

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