Bees at Blenheim and more biodiversity

Image description: Blenheim Palace grounds

Filipe Salbany, a self-described ‘bee-sultant’ with over 50 years of experience working with bees in Africa, Europe, North America, and the United Kingdom, has recently discovered 50 colonies of rare bees in Blenheim Palace. What makes these bees rare is that they exhibit particular behaviors which Salbany believes are more in line with wild species of bees than with the usual domestic honey bee used for apicultural purposes. 

Some context is needed to understand the importance of Salbany’s find. I take it that most of us have encountered, in some shape or form, a narrative about the importance of ‘saving the bees.’ Pesticides, over-farming, over-consumption, etc. have all placed a huge strain on the population of honey bees, and we, as conscientious consumers, ought to invest in products which contribute to the well-being of honey bees (or perhaps, if we are feeling adventurous, try our hand at apiculture ourselves). 

But in fact, this narrative is not nuanced, for it prioritizes the well-being of only one type of bee: the honey bee. But in fact, there are over 4,000 genera (types of) known bees. And as a 2020 report by State of the World’s Plant and Fungi warns, we need to take into consideration not just the honeybee as a monolith in our narrative, but the interactions amidst the plethora of bee species and the environments they depend on to survive. 

Already, the aforementioned narrative concerning equating ‘saving the bees’ with just the honeybee has led to some consequences. As the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group points out, “most British honey bees are now, for better or worse, cross breeds.” This can be attributed to globalisation and the rise of honey bee imports. When bee conservation groups speak of the growing pressure on bees, they mean primarily the pressure that exists for native, wild bee species– not necessarily domestic honey bees. 

Biodiversity is important. Native wild species of bees are important for maintaining local ecosystems. Furthermore, we have a vested interest in biodiversity as opposed to a monoculture, for an increased variety of animals and plants increases the resistance of a population generally. This includes resistance to things like pests, diseases, and natural disasters. Thus, it is important to maintain areas that are conducive to both honeybees’ and wild pollinators’ continued survival. 

Insofar as Blenheim is an isolated estate of about 2500 hectares of woodlands, it provides the perfect environment for wild pollinators to thrive. Furthermore, its very isolated nature reduces the contact that wild bees have with honey bees, which makes it more likely that wild bees will thrive. Honey bees tend to out-compete wild pollinators because of their ‘voraciouspollinating nature. Further, honey bees can sometimes carry diseases which negatively impact other bee populations. 

These wild bees present a unique opportunity to study the behaviour of native populations of bees. Already, these bees have a series of behavioural characteristics that more closely resemble African bees. For example, the bees tend to have multiple queens, which is quite rare in honey bees. Their swarms are much smaller in size and have narrow openings.

The bees of Blenheim palace also appear to have specifically adapted to survive to the environment in such a way that other native species did not. In 1992, the varroa mite decimated the honey bee (and other bee populations) in the United Kingdom. Unlike other bees, this particular subgroup of bees at Blenheim appears to have evolved in such a way as to be able to resist the varroa mite. 

Appearance-wise, these bees look different from honey bees as well, which clearly points to their descendance from a native species of bees. Their bands are much darker and their wings are strongly reminiscent of bees that were once indigenous to Britain and which were thought to be extinct. 

Finally, as the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group points out, perhaps the most exciting parts of Salbany’s discovery of these Blenheim bees is an opportunity to study their high level of adaptability to their particular environment and their interrelatedness to other pollinators in the area. Specifically, the Blenheim bees are able to coexist harmoniously with other bumble bees and wasps in the area– something which is quite unusual. This is likely attributable to their smaller nests built at lower elevations. Thus, their high level of adaptability coincides with their high degree of interrelationship with other insect species at Blenheim. 

Spaces like Blenheim Palace, which are arguably somewhat ‘pristine’ biotic spaces, are important for furthering our understanding of, in particular, native flora and fauna. As our world becomes increasingly globalised, it becomes easy for one species (such as the honey bee) to overtake all other species in the ecosystem. We should seek to reserve spaces for the sake of preserving wild species, such as the honey bee, even if the sole purpose of doing so is to learn more about other plants and animals (though there are a number of other benefits to maintaining biodiversity).

Image credits: James Hetherington via Flickr