Protecting black bees in the south-west

George Mitchell is a 24-year-old insect enthusiast who recently embarked on an apprenticeship in the Rame Peninsula looking after Cornwall’s very own black bees.

Mitchell is interested in all types of insects, but is primarily concerned about the decline of bees. He has decided to work 4 days a week finding out all he can about them to prevent their demise. Studies have shown that the decrease in the number of black bees, like all bees, comes from pesticides, climate changes and devastating diseases.

The endangered black bee is the UK’s original native honey bee. Dwindling populations are currently only found in remote areas of the country. However, almost pure and distinctive populations have been discovered by BIBBA (Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association) on the Rame Peninsula. BIBBA aims to conserve our native honey bee and strive for a better environment.

The black bee is a subspecies of honey bee originally from Northern Europe, but over time it has adapted to thrive in the Cornish climate. Mitchell said, ‘At one point the black bee was classified as extinct but a couple were found in the UK. The owner and my employer, Jo Widdicombe, really wanted to push to bring back these native bees as he knew of the environmental benefits they would have.’

He added, ‘Widdicombe came from an agricultural background. He noticed most average bees weren’t doing that well later on in the season, such as the Buckfast bee and other bees down here in Cornwall; they only lasted a couple of years before they had to be replaced. We get cold weather and long winters, which is not good for the bees.’

‘If the storm is so bad, the bees can’t get out to feed the rest of the huge hive, so are less sustainable to the climate than solitary bees.’

Mitchell went on to explain black bees, on the other hand, can fly in colder conditions and have smaller colonies which therefore means, less mouths to feed to survive. They are darker in colour, a bit hairier and can be smaller in stature. ‘The black bees are prepared for a storm, are much slower and won’t go into hyperdrive like the classic honey bee will.’

‘The first week of December, when we had that really cold morning, the black bees were still out flying’, the 24-year-old noted.

Bee Facts:

 Bees can fly up to 15mph.

They navigate using the sun.

Bees communicate by dancing.

Bee products including honey, venom and royal jelly were effective in reducing the growth of cancerous tumours. Honey can also be used to treat burns and other injuries.

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 — thats how they recognise each other.

When asked about the average colony size of black bees he keeps, Mitchell said, ‘it can be anything from 20’000 to 80’000 worker bees in the hive. Also, the standard honey yield is 11kg per hive.’

‘You cannot tell the difference in colour or taste of the black bee’s honey in comparison to a traditional honey bee’s; it just depends on what flowers the bees are feeding on.’

When working with such a large volume of bees, correct attire is essential ‘I wear marigold gloves and a “Sherif” bee keeping suit to tend to the bees. Sherif originally designed bras for women’, Mitchell joked. ‘One day, the bees found a way into my boot and I got stung 15 times on the ankle.’

BIBBA is planning to expand and sell as many black bees as possible to help the environment and increase pollination, but summer and spring are the peak times to do this. ‘Our bees can be bought in nucs, which holds 6 frames, costing around about £170 depending on hive type.’

Originally volunteering, George Mitchell was so devoted to the bees he would travel 50 miles a day and has been working throughout the lockdown, alongside Jo Widdicombe and another employee, Shelly Glasspoole. The three of them tend to the bees all over the peninsula. ‘We have hives all over Saltash and some over in Port Eliot. It’s a lot of work and in the summer we had to be in everyday.’

Due to this time of year, Mitchell and the team are focused on the maintenance and upkeep of the bees, cutting the grass, sanding and painting the hives. But they are also selling honey and Christmas trees for winter, so business is still great.

The trainee beekeeper also explained how the bee community works as a whole. ‘The queen bee, who is much bigger in size, stays inside the hive. The main bees who leave the hive are the female worker bees. In most insect societies the female does the most work.’ Why am I not surprised?

‘The male bees have huge eyes that cover their entire head, they are bulkier in order to power their flight muscles to be able to catch the queen. They do nothing in the hive except eat, but they will go out each day to visit mating sites.’

‘The queen will lay around 1500 eggs a day which you can just about see. She cannot fly very well, so the only time she leaves the hive is to swarm, which means, the hive has found a new queen. The old queen will leave with half the hive to look for a new home.’

Simple Ways to Help 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 such as; clover, lavender, honeysuckle

buddleia, fruit blossom (apple, cherry, plum etc), rosemary, heather, willow, hazel and dandelions.

Support your local beekeeper by buying local honey. (Its also great for people with allergies, hay-fever or asthma.)

 George Mitchell also sells his very own black bee honey at Gunnislake Post Office in Cornwall.

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