European dark bee

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European dark bee
Bee October 2007-1.jpg
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Genus: Apis
A. m. mellifera
Trinomial name
Apis mellifera mellifera

The European dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is a subspecies of the western honey bee, whose original range stretched from west-central Russia through Northern Europe and probably down to the Iberian Peninsula. They belong to the 'M' lineage of Apis mellifera[1]. They are large for honey bees though they have unusually short tongues (5.7-6.4mm) and traditionally were called the German Dark Bee or the Black German Bee,[2] names still used today[3] even though they are now considered an Endangered Breed in Germany[4]. Their common name is derived from their brown-black color, with only a few lighter yellow spots on the abdomen[5]. However today they are more likely to be called after the geographic / political region in which they live such as the British Black Bee, the Native Irish Honey Bee, the Cornish Black Bee and the Nordic Brown Bee, even though they are all the same subspecies, with the word native often being added by local beekeepers, even if the bee was introduced[6]. It was domesticated in Europe and hives were brought to North America in the colonial era, where they were referred to as the English Fly by the native american indians[7].

The A. m. mellifera can be distinguished from other subspecies by their stocky body, abundant thoracal and sparse abdominal hair which is brown, and overall dark coloration. Overall, when viewed from a distance, they should appear blackish, or in mellifera, rich dark brown[8]. For breeding pure A. m. mellifera details of the wing veins (wing morphometry) are still considered to be a reliable distinguishing character[9], although it has now been established that the formation of wing veins are influenced by temperatures that capped brood are exposed to[10].


The A. m. mellifera is descended from the M lineage of Apis mellifera, of which all bees to a greater or lesser degree have a strongly defensive instinct (from the point of view of the bee) or strong aggression (from the point of view of the beekeeper), especially when compared to the C lineage[11]. A. m. mellifera hybrids have an even greater reputation of aggression amongst beekeepers, which can increase in subsequent generations, if left unchecked[12], although this characteristic can be overcome with continual selective breeding over some generations[13]. They are nervous and aggressive to the extent that routine inspections will take longer, decreasing the enjoyment of managing their colonies[14]. This characteristic is one that has been traditionally associated with A. m. mellifera going back to the old British Black bee before the early 1900's[15][16]: To quote Brother Adam who was the only beekeeper with first hand experience that committed his findings to paper,[17] "The native (British Black) bee had undoubtedly many extremely valuable characteristics, but equally so a great many serious defects and drawbacks. She was very bad tempered and very susceptible to brood diseases and would in any case not have been able to produce the crops (of honey) we have secured since her demise"[18].



  • defensive against invaders such as wasps[citation needed]
  • "maritime" brood cycle
  • good pollinators, as they visit a wide range of flowers.[19]
  • higher longevity of the worker bees and queen[citation needed]
  • good flight strength even in cold weather[citation needed]


  • susceptibility to acarine mites due to their larger tracheas[20]
  • difficulty entering smaller flowers due to their larger size[21]
  • difficulty collecting nectar from longer flowers due to their shorter tongues[22]
  • poorer pollinators of fruit trees and bushes.[23]


Apis mellifera mellifera

In northwestern Europe, A. m. mellifera was the first honey bee to become established until the introduction of other bee subspecies considered more suited to modern beekeeping, such as the Buckfast bee, a breed of bee whose ancestry originally included the remnants of the old British black bee (a strain of A. m. mellifera), which became extinct due to Acarapis woodi, a tracheal mite.

In the United States, research based on DNA sequencing analysis found DNA from the 'M' lineage of honey bees in the feral population of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Missouri, believed in part to be the DNA from imported bees of over 100 years ago (DNA from the other bee lineages was also found in these feral populations, suggesting that they likely came from escaped swarms from apiaries at unknown times in the past)[24].

Promotion and Conservation Areas[edit]

Dedicated organizations[25][26] are today working on establishing conservation areas for the A. m. mellifera also breeding groups have been set up to "establish racial purity" of "native strains"[27] and others running courses to train beekeepers in being able to calculate the "racial purity" of their bees through "wing morphometry"[28]. Other organizations are attempting to establish that the A. m. mellifera in their local geographic region are a distinct "variety"[29], some even claiming it is a separate subspecies[30] from that of A. m. mellifera in northern Europe, but to date no published research has been able to show this, however through morphometry and DNA analysis local geographic strains may be able to be identified, albeit not consistent across the geographic population, in which the strain's characteristics show less morphometric variation and therefore less environmental adaptability[31]. With one group even starting a "project to develop their own native breed of bee"[32]. Even though DNA analysis has been able to show that the amount of non-A. m. mellifera DNA within local populations of A. m. mellifera remains relatively low[33], with an Irish survey showing that "97.8% of sampled bees were determined to be pure A. m. mellifera"[34], a further study across eight northwest European countries showed that their A. m. mellifera populations were genetically pure[35].

Isle of Man[edit]

In 1988 the Importation of Bees Order made it illegal to import bees or used bee equipment into the Isle of Man. Originally this was done to prevent the Varroa mite from arriving on the island; in 2015 the EU "declared the Isle of Man officially free of the bee pest Varroa".[36] However in 2015 the Isle of Man Beekeepers' Federation launched the Manx Bee Improvement Group, to promote the "Manx Dark Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)". They work closely with the BIBBA with the stated goal of eliminating "foreign strains" from the island through regular inspections of hives.[37] Beekeepers on the Isle of Man are now compelled to register their bees in line with the Bee Diseases and Pest Control (Isle of Man) Order 2008, they must inform the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture of any movement of bees or bee equipment and the creation of new hives; failure to register or comply risks prosecution.[38]

Isle of Læsø[edit]

In 1993 a conservation area for A. m. mellifera was established on the island of Læsø in Denmark, where it became illegal to keep and import any other type of bee other than the Apis mellifera mellifera, this was met with protests and a legal battle lasting eight years from other beekeepers of, A. m. ligustica, A. m. carnica and Buckfast bees as they did not "want to become a custodian of poor bees", they also stated that the A. m. mellifera were "unproductive" and "not worthy of protection". They lost their case in 2001,[39] and negotiations between the A. m. mellifera beekeepers and non-A. m. mellifera beekeepers were concluded in 2004, splitting the island in two between them, ending a "history of sabotage of bees" on the island.[40] The A. m. mellifera supporters claimed that they had "introduced apartheid on Læsø for the bees".[41]

Islands of Colonsay and Oronsay[edit]

In 2013 the Scottish Government introduced the Bee Keeping (Colonsay and Oronsay) Order, making it an offence to keep any other honeybee [42] (Apis mellifera) on either island other than the subspecie Apis mellifera mellifera.[43] The Environment and Climate Change Minister said at the time, "The Bee Keeping Order illustrates how our non-native species legislation can be used to protect our native wildlife. The order is a targeted measure to protect an important population of black bees on Colonsay from hybridisation" (the "non-native species legislation" was used because Apis mellifera are considered to be non-native to Colonsay, but considered native to Scotland as it was the first honey bee to be introduced for use in beekeeping).[44] The islands are home to fifty to sixty beehives (a minimum of fifty colonies of unrelated bees are required to prevent inbreeding)[45] and are referred to now as the "Colonsay Dark Native Bee"[46] even though they were collected from across Scotland in the previous thirty years and genetic analysis has shown introgression from Australian and New Zealand A. m. ligustica.[47] In 2018 it was claimed by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group (GBBG)[48] based in Ireland in County Tipperary that they had "sent bees to Colonsay", ealier DNA evidence had confirmed a genetic link between the two populations.[49]

In the media[edit]

In the documentary More than Honey the bee kept and bred by Swiss (German) beekeeper Herr. Fred Jaggi was the A. m. mellifera, referred to as the "local black breed", in which he strives to maintain "racially pure" bees, lamenting when he discovers yellow coloration in the colony of one of his queens, meaning that she has bred with a drone from a different subspecie and produced "little half-breeds", she is subsequently killed[50]; we see in the documentary his pure bees succumbing to a brood disease and having to be gassed then burned: Herr. Jaggi abandons the local black bees and the goal of racial purity, choosing A. m. carnica bees instead, with an apiary that includes hybrids to enhance genetic diversity[51], which are found to be "more disease resistant".[52]

In 2012 a story began to circulate online[53] and in some British newspapers[54] (in which Dorian Pritchard the Conservation officer for the BIBBA[55] and President of SICAMM[56] was interviewed and quoted) that the Old British Black Bee (a strain of A. m. mellifera) was not extinct and had been discovered in the rafters of a church in Northumberland, there were numerous inaccuracies in the story, including: 1) The Old "British Black" bee was "wiped out by a strain of Spanish flu in 1919"; the Spanish flu only affected humans, it was the Isle of Wight Disease between 1904 through to 1945 that wiped out the original Old British (and Irish) Black Bees of the British Isles: 2) "the Spanish flu which wiped out...every single bee in the UK", no beekeepers at the time made this claim, what was claimed was that the original pure A. m. mellifera of the British Isles was wiped out, hybrids with other non-A. m. mellifera bees often survived, notably the A. m. ligustica and later the Buckfast bee bred by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey, also continental A. m. mellifera, imported in subsequent years to repopulate the country, showed stronger resistance to the Isle of Wight Disease[57]: 3) "The British Black bee is different from other bees ...ideally suited to the British climate...more so than the European Black bee", this suggests that the "British Black Bee" found in the church is a different subspecie than the "European Black Bee" the A. m. mellifera, while in fact they are the same subspecie, as acknowledged by Philip Denwood writing in SICAMM's (International Association for the Protection of the European Dark Bee) magazine in 2014 (as a member of BKKA and the BIBBA) " the last decade DNA studies... have conclusively shown that modern specimens of Dark Bees from the UK and Ireland fit into the genetic specification of Apis mellifera melifera (the European dark / black bee)"[58].


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