I’m just back from a long day attending a DARG (Devon Apicultural Research Group) meeting at Yelverton on the far side of Dartmoor, over 80 miles away, a long drive! Normally I share transport with my apprentice, Sarah, of Bee Happy Plants but she was too busy on her nursery this weekend. I’ve just been exchanging texts with her and she tells me that she has planted 90 fruit trees, including apples, pears, plums, gages, damsons, cherries and quince; all heritage varieties.
Driving there, the bossy lady on my gps ordered me to go via Plymouth and turn right. I disobeyed her, ignoring her instructions to ‘Turn around when possible’, and turned off the main road just before Buckfast, following signs for Princetown and Two Bridges that took me the spectacular way across Dartmoor. This involves hills of 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 and narrow roads and bridges. I had to stop and reverse on one bridge to allow somebody coming the other way to get through. The same thing happened on the way back but that time the other car reversed for me. Although there was other traffic, I saw more Dartmoor ponies than cars.
I got to Yelverton with some minutes to spare, with only a couple of cars before mine in the Village Hall car park, so, in need of some exercise to restore circulation to my nether region, I strolled down the road a quarter of a mile or so to bag a geocache that I had looked up last night. I was the 5th person this year to find it.
I got back to the Hall and still there was only a couple of people there, one of whom was Lea Bayly who was to lead today’s discussion on black bees. She was very pleased when I showed her on my portable telephone a picture I had taken of a notice I saw at the Eden Project a couple of days ago. It reads:”B4 ~(Bringing Back Black Bees). This Cornwall based conservation organisation works to promote the qualities of the native black honeybee Apis mellifera mellifera to beekeepers across the South West peninsula. for more info visit http://www.edenproject.com/bee-friendly”.
More people arrived and, after cake and cuppa, we began when there were nine of us. I was a little worried when Lea drew the curtains for a powerpoint presentation as I usually drop off to sleep on such occasions, but this time the discussion was sufficiently animated to keep us all awake.
Before Lea’s presentation, Glyn Davies updated us on our Drone Laying Queen project. There was a DLQ (+ a few attendant workers) present which Lea had brought along for Richard Ball to play with. Our 2012 survey was incomplete (despite getting us some prize money from Vita) but the observations were interesting. We need some more to see whether the strangeness in the spermathecae persists, and also some laying queens for comparison. I suggested a source of healthy queens, a commercial beekeeper who requeens every year. Declan Schroeder the virologist of Plymouth University is happy to continue his involvement.
Back to B4. I saw from the first slide that Lea is a Director of the project. In case you haven’t already twigged B4 describes the acronym of Bring Back Black Bees or, as we say in Latin: Apis mellifera mellifera. Lea described the local ‘hole in a wall’ feral bees of which she is aware. Dr Catherine Thompson of York University did some work on ferals as part of her PhD project and then concluded that there was no such thing as ferals and they were just an illusion caused by swarms re-occupying a site after the previous colony had died out. We were told that she may now be having second thoughts!
Lea showed us slides showing the amount of AMM genes in the country compared with other sub-species 45% AMM nationally and 50% in the South West The B4 bees are 68% AMM. It is quite easy and cheap to identify probable AMM bees through appearance (black and hairy) and wing morphometry but confirmation requires DNA analysis which can cost up to £200 a time!
There was some animated discussion of the merits or otherwise of breeding AMM. Glyn Davies (former BBKA Chairman) favours a mixture of strains as genetic diversity can be useful in climatologically troubled times and modern agriculture with vast acreages of oilseed rape demand bees with an early spring build up, which AMM doesn’t usually provide. He was contradicted by Richard Ball (former BBKA Chairman and National Bee Inspector) who wants all imports banned!
Discussion moved onto Drone Congregation Areas. How do queens find them? Do the drones give off pheromones to attract queens? Why do honeybees have such a risky mating procedure compared with, for example, bumble bees (Bombus)? Besides the chances of being lost or snapped up by a swallow, there is an increased risk, through multiple mating, of picking up a sexually transmitted disease (some viruses are carried on sperm). The answer is connected with honeybee queens being part of a perennial superorganism rather than an annual individual.
Next month, again at Yelverton, Declan Schroeder is coming along to talk with us, and in May we will be playing with drone congregation at East Devon. If anybody wants to join us to learn more about bees, please do. Look at our website for details.