A new future for the dark bee?

DDB works with the indigenous European dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). We see an increasing interest in this bee, which is hardly surprising for it fits perfectly in the modern approach to beekeeping, in which conservation issues are so important. This subspecies of the honeybee is seriously threatened through unlimited spreading of other subspecies (carnica!) and artificial races (Buckfast!) in the past century.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, from the Pyrenees to Finland, this robust, vital and modest bee has settled in virtually every ecological niche and adapted to all climate changes since the ice ages.

The dark bee can be distinguished from other bees clearly. First of all by her dark appearance, the broad and rounded abdomen with narrow felt bands and the long dark hairs. She can also be typified by her characteristic wing venation.

Selection characteristics

Which characteristics can be used as selection characteristics? There is a more or less general agreement about body characteristics. Their margins for the pure dark bee have been established fairly clearly. However, it is a problem to select for body characteristics with a fair degree of confidence in a hybridised population. The reason for this is that, for example, divergent combinations of wing venation characteristics can not always be interpreted correctly, leading to false positive or false negative results.

Behaviour

The way in which we observe behaviour strongly influences our judgement. It is difficult to measure behaviour in an objective manner. The observer may have a preference for a certain type of behaviour and prefers colonies that answer this characteristic. The dark bee is not overly aggressive, but her hybrids are by all means, just as hybrids of other ‘pure’ subspecies are. This is a persistent misunderstanding among beekeepers. Also, the number of interventions in a colon and the way we carry these out has a big influence on the behaviour of a colony.

The behaviour of the dark bee is often judged quite variably. Small wonder, for variations in the environment (climate, geography) have a big influence on this. Behaviour depends on ecological conditions. Phenotypic differences may have the same genetic basis. In other words, the same genes may lead to quite some phenotypic spread.

The dark bee reacts strongly to changes in the environment and adapts her brood nest to these. During nectar flow periods brood production is never abundant and during dearth periods the queen even completely stops laying eggs. Because of this, brood care normally is excellent and workers are long-lived, in summer up to 10 weeks. As a result of the relatively small population size spring development of the colony lags behind other subspecies: the dark bee is first and foremost a bee for summer and autumn nectar flows. At the same time their longevity and small brood nest leads to a relative abundance of foragers. Therefore, the dark bee can render excellent pollination services in spring, also because of her strong focus on pollen gathering to replenish pollen stocks in the colony.

All in all, we are dealing with a cautious bee.