Exciting times up in the orchard, where my first colony of Cornish black bees arrived this week. There can be few people more ignorant about bees than me. Until about six months ago, I did not even know that there were more than 20,000 different species of bee, far less that some are rare and endangered, and that one of those is the Cornish black bee.
I realise that I am now in danger of becoming a complete Bee Bore, but the story of these black bees really is quite remarkable. Apparently, until about 100 years ago, they were the dominant bee throughout Britain and Europe, and had been for thousands of years.
Along with wild bees, the European Black Bee was responsible for pollinating the natural landscape and effectively selecting which wild flowers we still see today. But sometime between 1906 and 1912, something called Isle of Wight disease, caused by the accidental import of Italian bees, all but wiped them out.
Although at least 20 species went extinct during the 20th century, somehow the essential genetics of the black bee survived and a few years ago there was a determined effort to re-establish them in areas with suitable habitat. Fortunately one of these habitats is the area of North Cornwall where I live.
So now, in between writing stuff for the paper, I watch bees going in and out of their hive and listen to their happy buzzing. There are worse jobs.
Black bees are much darker than their cousins and have thicker, longer hairs which help keep them warm in cooler areas. But the main threat to their existence – a threat faced by all bees – is the loss of flower-rich meadows during the second half of the last century.
The great yellow bumblebee, for example, has disappeared from 80% of its historic UK range. It now relies almost exclusively on the low-lying grassy plains of Western Scotland. Britain’s rarest solitary bee, the large mason bee, is on the brink of extinction in Wales. The solitary potter bee, which flies very fast and darts between flowers, and which digs burrows to lay eggs in, is on the point of vanishing from the south coast of England (I did warn you I was becoming a bore.)
The disappearance of flower-rich meadows in many areas is an inevitable consequence of development, and of course houses have to be built somewhere. But much of our remaining agricultural land has for decades been drenched in pesticides and herbicides in our quest for cheap food – a quest which has been spectacularly successful.
Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”
Last year FoE counted no fewer than 104,280 bees. I hope that this year, I can help make that number a bit higher.