No one knew they existed’: wild heirs of lost British honeybee found at Blenheim

9th November, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 

Filipe Salbany with a swarm of wild bees

Thousands of rare forest honeybees that appear to be the last wild descendants of Britain’s native honeybee population have been discovered in the ancient woodlands of Blenheim Palace.

The newly discovered subspecies, or ecotype, of honeybee is smaller, furrier and darker than the honeybees found in managed beehives, and is believed to be related to the indigenous wild honeybees that foraged the English countryside for centuries. Until now, it was presumed all these bees had been completely wiped out by disease and competition from imported species.

While feral honeybee colonies – usually created by swarms of non-native bees that have left a nearby managed hive – are occasionally found in the UK, there was no evidence that self-sustaining colonies of native, tree-nesting honeybees still existed in England, and no record of the wild subspecies living in Blenheim.

Filipe Salbany, a bee conservationist who found 50 colonies of the rare honeybees in Blenheim’s 400-acre estate, said: “These bees are quite unique in that they live in nests in very small cavities, as bees have for millions of years, and they have the ability to live with disease. They have had no treatment for the varroa mite – yet they’re not dying off.”

The varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on and attacks honeybees, arrived in Britain in 1992 and decimated the UK’s population. Salbany believes the bees he has found have evolved to survive. “We are not seeing the deaths we would expect to see with varroa.”

Unusually, the bees swarm with multiple queens – up to nine in some cases – to ensure the colony’s survival, and have been recorded foraging for honeydew on the treetops in temperatures as low as 4C. Most bees will stop flying at 12C. “A wild bee that has adapted to the environment is called an ecotype, and this bee could be a very precious ecotype – the first wild bee that is completely adapted to living in the oak forest.”

The results of DNA samples taken from the bees are expected within the next three to four weeks, but Salbany is confident it will show the bees are descendants of an ancient native species. “I think the majority of the genetics are going to be of an old English bee, of something that was here many, many years ago.”

His preliminary analysis of the wings of the honeybees strongly suggests they are related to indigenous honeybees that once lived in Britain. “They are not from the imported stocks of bees that people bring in. The wings are smaller and their veins are very distinct.”

The bees’ cubital index, a method for differentiating breeds of honeybees, also confirmed they are “more of an indigenous bee” than anything else, he said, but their adaptations have made them unique and peculiar, and they have very little banding. “Supposedly, wild tree-nesting honeybees which can sustain themselves do not exist, so nobody knows what type of wild, self-sustaining honeybee is actually left in the UK.”

One of the nests he found was at least 200 years old and he estimates that the bees have been living on the Blenheim estate, which dates back to the middle ages, for “quite a few” centuries. Unusually, they have built their nests in tree cavities a quarter of the size of a normal beehive, 15 to 20 metres off the ground, and despite several ecological surveys over the years, “nobody knew they existed”. The entrances to the nests typically have a diameter of less than 5cm.

There are no managed beehives on the estate, which Salbany thinks has played a critical role in the wild bees’ survival, while imported bees from hives nearby are likely to have been deterred from flying to Blenheim to forage by the landscape. “It’s a closed environment, in terms of bee access, because there are damp and humid valleys which form physical barriers.”

The woodlands, which Salbany describes as a paradise of biodiversity, are not open to visitors and no planting or gardening takes place there. “There’s very little human interaction.”

The wild bees seem able to live in balance with the environment and in harmony, not only with each other but with wasps and bumblebees that live in the forest. “For the 50 honeybee colonies that we have found, we probably have 500 empty sites for them to swarm into. They do not populate every single site: they’ve reached an equilibrium with their environment

Remarkably, he found two colonies of wild bees living within five metres of each other, in a single tree – right next to a wasps’ nest. “That is quite unique.” He thinks wasps don’t try to rob the bees because the bees build their nests very high up the trees and make their entrances so small: “There’s enough forage for the wasps in the forest not to go and bother the honeybees.”

As a result, the bees are extremely relaxed and he does not need to wear any protective equipment around them. “I can put my hand in the nest. They are very calm.” Their honey, he said, tastes “incredibly pure”. It is very floral as the bees like to feed on dandelions, blackthorn and sunflowers. “The smell of it is just extraordinary.”

He now suspects there may be other colonies of wild, tree-nesting bees in the UK that have not yet been discovered: another reason, he says, that “we need to protect our ancient woodlands. Because that’s where we are likely to find these bees.”

In total, about 800,000 wild bees have been discovered. Salbany hopes the news will have wide-ranging implications for Britain’s large, imported population of managed honeybees, which can “decimate the countryside” for native pollinators when they forage. “This species could be used as stock for beekeepers.”

Dr Rob Stoneman, a director at the Wildlife Trust, said the discovery of the wild bees was “extraordinary” and demonstrated the value of the UK’s ancient woodlands. “These kinds of stories give us hope and motivation to create a wilder future.”

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