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Sustainable Honey Bees

By September 12th, 2020No Comments

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Sustainable Honey Bees: An interview with Andrew Brown of the B4 project

by Aimee Rigby/13th-Sep-2020

We’re here with Andrew Brown, managing director of the B4 Project, can you tell us a little bit about what the B4 project is?

So, the B4 Project is a community interest company, representing beekeepers whose aims are to protect the UK’s native dark honeybee, Apis Mellifera Mellifera.

The purpose of our project is to conserve, protect, and increase the population of these bees; and in doing so, we’ve set up reserves with like-minded people. We are working closely with scientists and we are working to inform the public and influence decision makers which involves trying to reduce the amount of importation of foreign honeybees and their pathogens.


Why does bee keeping need to be more sustainable?

I think the easy way to answer that is to give my experience. I didn’t buy imported bees, I bought a hive of bees from a local bee keeping association, and they turned out to be hybrid bees, which were very active, productive, they were quite gentle, and they were bright yellow.

I researched honeybees in Cornwall, and, to my surprise, I found that we had a native honeybee. I personally have an interest in organic farming and sustainable native bees and alike and thought: “Well, why don’t I try one of our native honeybees.” And so, I sold on the hive that I had got and bought these native honeybees and was amazed by the differences of the behaviour.

Which brought me to ask myself, why do they behave differently, what are the two types of bees, and what have they adapted to and what have people got in their hives? And so, that then brought me onto how do people bee keep, and what was the background of all of this and pretty soon, I realised that we used to have quite a population of feral bees; we used to be able to collect swarms from these feral bees and pretty much after 1980, the environment around farms became so toxic that honeybees don’t survive for more than two or three years as feral living in colonies independent of humanity. It kind of brought me up short,

I thought: “but I’m living in an area of outstanding natural beauty! How could the area around me be so toxic that honeybees couldn’t exist?

What are we doing that has brought this about?” And from there on, I started working with Plymouth University and we started the B4 Project and institutions like Eden, Heligan, Paignton zoo, Paradise Park, bit of the National Trust, all sort of piled in and showed an interest, and now we’re looking a bit more deeply at the genotype of our native bee and how it’s adapted to the Cornish weather, how it’s adapted to the pathogens that we have normally existing, how importing southern European and Alpine bees in enormous quantities with their pathogens is upsetting the balance, and not allowing local populations to be able to come to an equilibrium.

Andrew Brown Managing Director of B4

So, would you say that eco farming is an area we need to focus on to help save the honeybees? You said that the toxic environments cause them to die really?

Well yeah, the toxic environment is a bit of a soup of lots of different things. We’re using much more powerful pesticides, we’ve introduced a mite which is a vector for transmission of existing diseases and viruses, and we’ve introduced novel viruses into our population of honeybees. The question you asked me was how that squares with the eco farming, I think just being much more holistic about what we do and considering the implications of what we do is a good start. I started with a flock of sheep and manage them organically, and very soon realised that if you kept moving different populations of sheep in and out of your herd you would increase the number of diseased individuals you had.

Whereas, if you allowed the sheep to become climatized to pathogens within the herd, and you culled ones that succumbed to disease, and you rotated them so that they weren’t eating their own… re-infecting themselves with worms, and you put other herbivores in rotation with them and other management options in rotation, that you could reduce the amount of insecticides that you were using to keep your sheep healthy.


What effect does importing foreign bees have on UK populations of bees?

I think first, you have to say well why would you import bees? And the answer to that lies in how you look after the bees in the first case. Alpine and Italian bees are well suited to warm summers and building up enormous colonies, and those enormous quality colonies can, over short hot summer with lots of flowers, produce lots of honey. Well here in Cornwall, we’ve got wet and windy, cool winters and summers can be a bit wet and windy as well, and so our native bee exists quite frugly and exists quite happily in our winter and stores enough stores to take it over the winter; it has quite small colonies during the winter, and during the summer it doesn’t expand enormously with the hope of having a heatwave, it just gently expands and lays downs stores so that it can weather any close down in the weather. Now, the imported bees we use require feeding. So, what you would do is: you would, over the winter, you would feed them sugar, and in the spring, you’d feed them sugar again. You’d bolster up the number of bees by pumping in sugar and then when the hot summer comes you’ve got an enormous number of bees that can then can forage and even then it’s quite normal to have to feed Southern European bees in June, when there’s a bit of a dip in the nectar from our flowers; but nevertheless these bees do produce a lot of honey, but they have large inputs and you need to also treat for diseases as well.


So, can you tell me a bit about our dark honeybee and why we need to conserve it?

So, our honey bee hybridises with other bees, and although it’s gentle, well suited, frugal, easy to keep- if you introduce these commercial bees, the drones from the commercial bees hop over the hedge and mate with our bees and you get hybrids, which in the first instance they’re quite prolific. But sadly, the hybridised bees are tricky to deal with- their temper is not good, and they lose their ability to be able to be frugal in the winters; but then you get into the cycle of having to feed them and having to look after them. So why is it important? Well diversity is important. At the moment, commercial bee keeping are using quite a narrow gene pool of these Italian and Alpine bees because when you breed tens of thousands of bees, you’re mating them in the same way that we open mate and will be easier using constricted gene pool. So why should we conserve our bee? We should conserve our bee because it is biodiverse and represents an ancient gene pool that has adapted to our climate and our environment here, and we will lose it and it will be gone and there will be no way back, we will be left with commercial bees which aren’t able to survive outside of the hives and require intensive looking after to look after.


So, can you tell us a little bit about your event, ‘Sustainable beekeeping: a future without imports 2020’?

Ok, so once a year, we’ve been having a little conference and each year we’ve had different venues. The year before last we had the Eden Project, last year we had it here in East Cornwall. We’ve been inviting academics from the different regions of British Isles who are also interested in the biodiverse native bee within their area. So, we have a professor from Galway, Bangor, researchers from the Roslin Institute, the Edinburgh University, from academics from Sussex University, and academics from Plymouth University; and B4 is in partnership with a PhD student from Plymouth University under Doctor Mairi Knight, again studying biodiversity. So the sustainable beekeeping conference, it brings together those academics, that I’ve described, with beekeepers mainly from the South West but not all, but some from further afield so that we can exchange ideas, so that beekeepers can network, and so the beekeepers can look after our native bee, and also to help new beekeepers who want to join in, and who want to keep native bee stock. But this year, we’ll have, on the 20th of February, we’ll have an online virtual conference which is going to be a bit more international, because speakers have been just from the British Isles so far, and this new reality that we live in actually enables us to be able to ask much more widely flung contributors to our conference. So, I think we might be hearing from Sweden and the USA this time.


Above images;

Twenty native dark honey bee colonies have been established on Duchy land in Lostwithiel and near to Callington in Cornwall.

These sites have been chosen as they will hopefully provide ideal conditions for the successful breeding of native dark honey bees.

​Heligan Black Bee reserve 

The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall will become a Native Bee Reserve. A launch event is scheduled for 26th September. As well as meeting like-minded people and local dignitaries, there will be a tour of the beautifully set up mating apiary which includes mini-nucs and an observation hive.If you are a supporter of the project, a beekeeper and/or a member of the public interested in supporting the B4 Project, you are welcome to come along to this invitation only event for free.

Conservation meeting of different organisations  being held in Cornwall

Fantastic. So where should people be buying their honey and bee products, such as beeswax, for example?

I think you have to think in terms of supporting the beekeeper. If you want to buy something as a commodity, then you go to Tesco or ALDI, but I think what I would do, and not only just for bee products as it were, I would look around your local suppliers and see if you can support them and some of them will have an interest in our native bee, some of them will use local bees, not everybody can easily keep native bees, it really depends to be successful you really need to have a network of people around you who are also keeping the bees. These mate with your next-door neighbour’s hives, and if your next-door neighbour is keeping different bees then you’re going to have a bit of an uphill struggle. So, the areas that do best are West Cornwall and South East Cornwall and also actually North Cornwall, it’s got some great areas, and those areas where the local beekeeper is trying to bee keep in a sustainable manner… that’s where you should be buying your products to support them.


Great! So finally, where can people get involved or follow your project online?

So, we’ve got a website, the B4 website. We’re fairly active on Facebook, and from the website, you can email us if you have particular questions, you want to be introduced to beekeepers who can supply different things, then that would be a start. The B4 Project is a facilitative organisation, we are all unpaid volunteers; our aim is really to help conservation, the academics, and the artisan beekeepers. So, it’s a kind of a conduit, so if people want information then just email us and we’ll pass you on to the actual either academics or the artisan beekeepers who are working with us.


Fantastic! Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

T’is a pleasure.

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