Home » The Native British Bee

The native British Honey Bee.

(Apis Mellifera Mellifera)

Characteristics of the Native British Honey Bee.

The British honey bee has fewer swarms and replaces the queen approximately every 3 years. It has many important qualities that have evolved in the strain over thousands of years, making it entirely suited to our climate, over other imported sub-species;

  • Excellent winter hardiness

  • Gentle to handle at correct times

  • Low tendency to swarm

  • High longevity of workers and queens

  • Brood cycle maintained to suit our climate                                            

  • Well-managed colony collects significant honey crop

  • Can forage in bad weather

  • Maintain winter cluster temperature with less food consumption

The Dark European honey bee generally had a reputation for aggressive behaviour, but this was not the reputation of the British bee. Pure strains of Apis mellifera mellifera from different parts of Britain have been found to be docile and easily handled. Hybrids with other races are often highly productive, but they frequently show a fierce temperament and proneness to “following”, highly objectionable characters in densely populated areas.

It is well adapted to survive in a harsh climate. It is thrifty in its use of stores; brood rearing is reduced when the nectar flow is interrupted. It forages over longer distances than the Italian bee and can make better use of meagre food resources. It will be observed foraging both earlier and later than Italian bess (Apis mellifera ligustica), and will fly in dull and drizzly weather which would keep Italian bees indoors. It may also be that mating can take place at lower temperatures than in the case of the southern races.

The workers live longer and there is a higher ratio of foraging bees to hive bees. The wintering capabilities of the British bee are excellent; although colony size is at all times moderate, and the winter cluster is small, heat is conserved by the tightness of the cluster and the large bodies and long overhair of the bees. The “winter” bees of the northern race have the ability to retain faeces in the gut for long periods, due apparently to a greater production of catalase by the rectal gland in autumn. They are thus less dependent on cleansing flights in the spring. They are also less likely to be lured out of the hive by bright winter sunshine than Italian bees.

The native bee of the British Isles is renowned for the whiteness of the sealed honeycomb. The cappings are convex and a small air space is left between the honey and the capping. This prevents “weeping” and reduces the risk of fermentation which might give rise to dysentery. It forms a compact brood nest with pollen stored as close to the brood as possible, sometimes below as well as above the brood. Honey is stored outside the pollen circle.

The swarming behaviour is variable, depending on the region. In heather districts the local populations tended to be very swarmy, but some strains from the north of Britain have shown a low inclination to swarm, with the construction of only small numbers of swarm cells. Where the swarming tendency is low, queen replacement often takes place by supersedure (the replacement of an old or inferior queen bee by a young or superior queen).

The native honey bee makes abundant use of propolis to seal up small fissures and small gaps, and may even construct curtains at the hive entrance similar to the characteristics of the Caucasian bee, although in general it is not as free in its use of the resin as its European cousin.

One character of the Dark bee on which all authors seem to agree is its nervous behaviour when the hive is disturbed. It usually manifests itself by the bees running to the bottom of the comb where they hang in a cluster when a frame is removed from the brood chamber. This behaviour may be extreme with some strains; colonies of pure mellifera bees bred from feral bees from Skeldale in Yorkshire showed a marked tendency to run out of the hive when smoke was used at the start of a manipulation, although they were quiet and easily handled without the use of smoke. On the other hand , native bees from other parts of Britain have not shown this extreme reaction to smoke.


The Italian Honeybee

(Apis Mellifera Ligustica)

The British Bee has fewer swarms and replaces the queen approximately every 3 years. It has many important qualities that have evolved in the strain over thousands of years, making it entirely suited to our climate, over other imported sub-species and have been found to be easy to handle and docile.


The Caucasian Honeybee

(Apis Mellifera Caucasica)

The Caucasian honey bee is indigenous to the mountains and southern valleys of the Caucasus, to the Black Sea coast in Anatolia. The climate varies from subtropical on the coast to cool of the mountains, mountain bees are larger and darker, with longer overhair, than those from the lowland region 


The Carniolan Honeybee

(Apis Mellifera Carnica)

The Carniolan honey bee of Slovenia and Austria is the nearest relative of the Italian, but it is larger and darker, the characteristic yellow rings of the Italian Bee being replaced by dark bands. The carnica territory covers a large area of south-eastern Europe, and there are numerous regional variations. 

Get in touch!