The indigenous dark bee

Egbert Touw / DDB

De Duurzame Bij wrote the following text about our indigenous dark bee for the website of the Stichting Zeldzame Huisdieren (SZH), the Dutch equivalent of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK. See also www.szh.nl (in Dutch).

We distinguish in The Netherlands two more or less isolated populations with honey bees corresponding closely to the Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM) characteristics: the islands of Texel and Terschelling. These populations are seriously threatened by extinction and hybridisation, but can still be maintained as pure populations through rigorous selection programmes. Elsewhere in The Netherlands, the dark bee must be considered as extinct. There are now local initiatives being set up to build up populations with ecotypes from Norway, Sweden, Poland and Belgium.

Characteristics

Dark bees can easily be distinguished from other bees in The Netherlands by their dark appearance, their broad and rounded abdomen with narrow felt bands and the long dark hairs on the head and thorax. The cubital index of the dark bee is clearly less than 2.0, the Hantal index is less than 9,32 and the discoidal shift is always negative. Dark bees have a short tongue in comparison with other European honey bees.

Distribution

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, from the Pyreneans to Finland, this robust, vital and modest bee has settled in virtually every ecological niche and has adapted to all climate changes since the glacial periods. The group of mellifera ecotypes is the only representative of the Western honeybees to have been able to adapt to such a vast area.

Origin and relationship

The Western honeybee has developed in response to the ice age that took place some 1 million years ago. Before, there were many more bee species resembling Apis mellifera. Worldide, only four species remain: mellifera, cerana, dorsata and florea. In Asia the ancestors of Apis mellifera survived the ice age, which subsequently spread over Africa and Europe in four main groups:

  • Westward via Northern Africa to Western Europe – a group among which Apis mellifera mellifera.
  • Southward two groups towards Northern and Southern Africa.
  • Northward to the Balkan and the Apennine peninsula – Apis mellifera ligustica.

DNA analysis has shown that the differences between AMM ecotypes are considerably larger than between ligustica and carnica ecotypes. This proves that mellifera and ligustica are ‘old’ bees and that carnica is is a more recent off-shoot of the ligustica group.

Some 150 years ago the survival of the dark bee came under attack with the search by beekeepers for a ‘superior honeybee’.

Current situation in The Netherlands

In The Netherlands the survival of the indigenous honeybee has been strongly influenced by developments in Germany, where honeybee research and professional beekeeping are regulated by the government. In no other country a domestic animal being part of Europe’s natural and cultural patrimonium has been eradicated so effectively as in Germany. At the time, the aim to create a ‘mellifera-free’ zone in German-speaking countries has been reached completely. In neighbouring countries, such as The Netherlands, the number of dark bee colonies is diminishing rapidly, partly due to hybridisation partly because of the Dutch beekeepers’ preference for the characteristics of the allegedly superior carnica bee.

In addition, the West-European dark bee is threatened in her original distribution area, including The Netherlands, by the introduction of hybrid honeybees, the selection of which has been strongly influenced by professional beekeepers, putting the emphasis on characteristics such as productivity and gentleness.

Characteristics

  • Winter hardiness.
  • Resistance to enemies and diseases.
  • Pause in brood rearing in winter and during lack of nectar flows.
  • Collects much pollen of a great variety (local adaptation).
  • Long-lived.
  • Large flying range (over 5 km even when loaded with pollen and nectar).
  • Efficient use of stores of honey and pollen.
  • Quick adaptation of population numbers to nectar flows.

Particularities

Dark bees that have been managed in straw skeps for hundreds of years have developed into an ecotype with a tendency to leave stores and brood when disturbed, and to collect at the lower sides of the combs and to drop to the floor together with the queen. This trait was used in the heath-land beekeeping system to transfer a colony into another skep. In modern beekeeping with its movable frames this characteristic is not particularly appreciated. Dark bees kept in modern hives since long, such as is the case in Switzerland, do not show this restless behaviour. Pure-bred dark bees can be managed without veil and gloves.

Organisations

The De Duurzame Bij Foundation and the foundation ‘t Landras (http://www.landras.nl – in Dutch) are committed to the conservation of the dark bee. De Duurzame Bij selects dark bee colonies not only on the basis of their conformity to the morphological standard, but also aims at selecting Varroa-tolerant colonies that can survive without treatment against this mite.
De Duurzame Bij has been operating the mating station at the Neeltje Jans island in Zeeland. Since 2015, dark drone colonies have been placed there originating from the island of Texel.
The foundation also works on beekeeping methods developed especially for treatment-free beekeeping with the indigenous dark bee.
De Duurzame Bij registers participating beekeepers and also queens and drones that are being used in the selection programme.
Since 1980, ‘t Landras operates a mating station near Haarle, where virgin queens are fertilised by pure-bred drone colonies. A sof 2018, drone colonies are also stationed in the Leuvenum forest near Harderwijk.

Literature

Delforge B. and Guerriat H. (2012). Pollen Spectra of Buckfast and Dark Bees. Proceedings SICAMM meeting. Mellifera CH Magazin.
Ruttner F. Naturgeschichte der Honigbienen, 2003 edition.