Few places in the British Isles are varroa-free, but the Isles of Scilly, a group of islands 25 miles off the south-west tip of Cornwall and owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, can make such a claim. Dark bee breeder and BIBBA member Nick Bentham-Green was intrigued and wondered if a Scillonian dark bee might be worth nurturing. After an initial investigation in 2017, he returned in May 2021 with the support of Jilly Halliday, a fellow BIBBA member who had recently moved to the islands. Armed with DNA sampling kits, they were pursuing the idea of conserving and perhaps improving a Scillonian honey bee. Stephen Fleming, co-editor, was fortunate to be invited along…

The history of honey bees on the Isles of Scilly is shrouded in the mists of time. A monastic settlement was established on the island of Tresco in 946 and became a priory of Tavistock Abbey in 1114, so it is possible that honey bees were part of the scene 1,000 years ago. However, Tresco Abbey did not last even until the Reformation as it suffered from piracy and by 1351 the monks had fled.

Even if honey bees were not kept by the Tresco monks, bees are certainly on the old Abbey grounds today, in the world-famous Tresco Abbey Garden that is home to subtropical plants from almost every continent in the mildest climatic regime in the UK. Head gardener Andrew Lawson runs two small apiaries there.

There are known beekeepers on the four other inhabited islands and perhaps a few more colonies tucked away in gardens of the only substantial town on Scilly, Hugh Town on St Mary’s. We heard of (and saw) only two wild/feral colonies on our visit.

The provenance of Scilly’s current honey bee population is not entirely clear. In the past few decades, honey bee queens and occasional packages seem to have been imported from Hawaii as well as Greece or Italy. More recently, queens have been imported from the varroa-free Colonsay Black Bee Reserve and a few packages survived a journey from varroa-free Isle of Man.

With such a small number of colonies in Scilly, inbreeding is a potential concern. From conversations with Andrew Abrahams of Colonsay, Nick Bentham-Green believes that 12 colonies might be the minimum number to avert inbreeding. Fortunately, the bees probably island hop and, if so, the risk of inbreeding is reduced.

Forage of the Isles

Despite the Isles’ reputation for a mild climate, they are not spared the storms and sea mists of their remote Atlantic location. The islands are probably naturally treeless and there are expanses of ling and bell heather, ideal for late-summer forage even though the thin turf may compromise yields in dry years.

From the late 1860s to the early 1950s the islands’ economy was dominated by commercial flower growing, but today tourism is the main income. Important to the flower-growing was the New Zealand Pittosporum plant. As an evergreen, it makes wonderful shelterbelts and provides excellent forage for bees in spring.

The beekeepers we met reported quite different availability of forage across the islands and through the seasons. On St Martin’s, forage can be good in early spring and summer but there is a dearth in the interim. In contrast, managed flower-rich grassland on Bryher produces season-round forage.

Conscious of this forage variation, Nick is keen to ensure that if Scillonian bees are to be sustainable and avoid unhealthy competition between honey bees and other pollinators, colony density may need careful attention. Complementary plant and land use surveys are in prospect by both the Duchy of Cornwall and the University of Exeter.

The 2017 reconnaissance

When Nick Bentham-Green and Jo Widdicombe visited Scilly four years ago in search of a native dark honey bee, they mostly encountered honey bees that were surviving rather than thriving, of uneven temper and of uncertain provenance.

However, the honey bees had one remarkable characteristic: they were almost certainly varroa-free – and quite probably foulbroodfree too. Nick thought this presented a rare opportunity and considered instigating a local breeding programme. However, inter-island beekeeping communications were difficult to foster and maintain, so the idea of a Scillonian honey bee project was filed away as admirable but impractical.

Prospects improved, however, when Nick noticed that a BIBBA member and community asset Jilly Halliday and her family came to live on Tresco in April 2019. Jilly had become absorbed by beekeeping when living in Northumberland and developed an interest in the native dark bee through people like Dorian Pritchard. The potential of Jilly’s arrival on Scilly was not lost on Nick, so he looked at the project afresh.

Project 2021

With Jilly organising the logistics and garnering the support of many organisations and known beekeepers across Scilly, Nick, the research investigator and I, the observer, arrived on the isles in mid-May 2021. As with the rest of the UK, spring had been cold, but that week we – and the bees – were fortunate to have clear blue skies and even a hint of summer warmth. The schedule included visits to beekeepers on four islands and, at the last minute, to accommodate a visit by a celebrity and his film crew. (But we are bound to silence, so readers will have to wait until January to learn the who and what of that.)

The aim was to sample a few colonies and introduce the research methodology so that the other colonies could be completed by Jilly and the beekeepers of Scilly later in the season. We visited colonies on four different islands (St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s and Bryher). Unfortunately, the bees of St Agnes could not be included on this trip as the beekeeper was self-isolating in the pandemic. After his previous visit with Jo Widdicombe, Nick had come prepared and not a little apprehensive. He has a vivid memory of simply looking in at the entrance of one colony to see the colour of the bees and suddenly having to sprint down a long field and into a barn where the angry bees still managed to follow. But this time, all the bees across all of the visited islands were on their best behaviour. Nick had come armed with a score sheet for temper and movement on the comb and was pleased to find all the inspected colonies scored remarkably well on both criteria. Something seemed to have changed to improve the bees’ temperament.

The sampling

To discover the genetics of colonies on the islands, seven drone pupae at the purple-eyed stage (after capping but at a relatively early in their development) were taken from each sampled colony, put into vials containing 95% ethanol to be sent to honey bee genetics specialist Dr Mark Barnett of Beebytes Analytics CIC (beebytes.org) based at the Roslin Innovation Centre in Edinburgh.

Dr Barnett explained: “We aim to sequence seven drone pupae from each colony – drones at the pupae stage so that we can be certain they come from that colony. Ideally, we would take more samples but whole-genome sequencing costs are prohibitive. The results should give us the DNA sequence of each drone and the queen‘s DNA.”

Dr Barnett’s colleague Dr David Wragg added that the analysis of whole-genome sequence data of drone (haploid) pupae, which inherit only maternal DNA, is less challenging than sequencing workers (diploid), which inherit both maternal and paternal DNA. A lower-cost option is to sample drone pupae antennae for DNA genotyping, which targets a handful of genetic markers to obtain a percentage probability of carnica/mellifera lineage ancestry.

Sampling is relatively simple, and Nick and Jilly were soon expert at selecting drones at the correct stage of development by assessing the colour of the cappings. Samples of 30 worker bees were also taken to look for the presence of disease.

Next steps

Having visited and sampled four island apiaries, the results from Beebytes Analytics are eagerly awaited. Nick’s views of the Scillonian honey bees have changed, not least because of the dramatic change in their temperament and on hearing of the recent experiences of the islands’ beekeepers:

“Four years ago, we were talking about A.m.m. – Apis mellifera mellifera. ‘Let’s bring in more from the Isle of Man and Colonsay, let’s go black,’ I thought. Now, I believe we should aim for locally adapted bees and further imports to improve the gene pool seem unnecessary."

The project now aims to help create balance and sustainability for honey bees in this partially closed island ecosystem. “If we do this for five years,” says Nick, “we aim to end up with a Scillonian honey bee that is locally adapted and varroa-free – and one that is gentle and productive too. It will have its own distinctive DNA and be in balance with other pollinators in the islands’ ecosystems.”

Nick and Jilly are thrilled with the local support. “Across the islands, the support for the project has increased our motivation,” explains Nick. “We consult with the Duchy, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, botanists, the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, the Isles of Scilly AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty) and the islands’ communities and schools. We are keen to show that the project is not just for beekeepers and they are all enthusiastic.”

“We could not have come this far without the support and backing of the Duchy, the Dorian-Smith family who lease Tresco, the B4 (Bring Back Black Bees) project, the islands’ beekeepers, and the project lead co-ordinator Jilly. We have hit the road running.”

As the observer, I am extremely grateful for the generous hospitality and welcome of everyone, especially Jilly Halliday, who organised a complex schedule seemingly effortlessly. BeeCraft looks forward to publishing the DNA results in a forthcoming issue.

Left: View from the top terrace of the Tresco Abbey Garden 1 The four inhabited and scores of uninhabited Isles of Scilly, once a single island of granite. Some now can be waded between at very low tides. 2 Pittisporum shelterbelts bounding the narrow sheltered fields of St Martin’s 3 Vipers bugloss (Echium x scilloniensis) appears in the dunescapes and is loved by many types of bee 4 Pittisporum crassifolium flowers provide early spring forage 5 Sampling drone pupae for genetic analysis 6 Heather abounds on thin turf on the often windswept isles Credit: Scilly Flowers St Martin's 7 Jilly Halliday and Nick Bentham-Green preparing to send the samples to Beebytes in Edinburgh 8 Jilly Halliday with her Bees welcome sign at her Tresco home

Andrew Lawson, Tresco Abbey Garden

Andrew Lawson arrived to work in the world-famous Tresco Abbey Garden in 1985 and helped with swarms in the first few years. He thinks they may have been Ligurian bees back then but cannot be certain. By 1994, he had been promoted to head gardener – and with that he became the beekeeper.

This season he started with two colonies, one above the Abbey ruins and, about 350 metres away, one in an olive grove, ideal he says with a wink: “Swarms are easy to catch when they hang up in small olive trees.”

Swarming has been a constant issue for him right through the season and he says he inspects almost weekly to try to manage that urge. As we stood admiring the colonies above the Abbey ruins, those frequent Scillonian honey bee predators, remarkably bold wild birds, joined us showing no fear of us or the bees.

Andrew has been a generous source of bees for some of the other island beekeepers wanting to start beekeeping, and the regular splits combined with the current swarming issues mean that his own honey harvests have never been great. But it’s not as if the bees don’t have a selection of forage in the Abbey Garden. ‘Exotic’ barely describes it – from the eucalypts to proteas, the seven-hectare (17-acre) garden has been described as a perennial Kew without the glass, home to 20,000 plants from more than 80 countries. Andrew counted more than 200 different species in flower one New Year’s Day.

Ruth and Graham Eggins, Bryher

Moving from St Neot on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall in September 2015, Ruth and Graham Eggins took on the tenancy of a farm on south-facing slopes on Bryher, the smallest inhabited island of Scilly. Ruth had been a nurse and Graham a farmer. On moving to the island with their three children, they established a 16-hectare (40-acre) mixed farm on what was once a flower farm. They also have environmental grazing rights in association with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust on a further 57 hectares (140 acres). With two hectares of fruit and vegetables, they are very environmentally aware and leave as much to grow around their crops as is feasible.

Bees were a natural addition to their farming mix. They had always been on Ruth’s mind, especially after a course 25 years ago that she had never quite followed up.

Today, in a sloping field between their house and the sea, Ruth and Graham manage three hives, having started with one colony from Andrew Lawson on Tresco in 2017. They also have an eye on one of the very few feral/wild colonies we saw in a nearby building. They are quite pleased with their stock and harvested 18kg (40lbs) last season, mostly from their best-established colony.

On the visit, one of their colonies was preparing to swarm, so a split was performed and the resulting nucleus with queen cell was ferried to St Martin’s for open mating at Ben’s apiary.

Ben Gillett, St Martin’s

Ben Gillett originally moved with his partner from Mertsham in Surrey in the early 1990s, having spent many childhood holidays on St Martin’s. “As a kid, I always wanted to grow up and be a flower farmer/crofter on Scilly. Be careful of what you wish for!”

After working for six months on Scilly in the late 1980s, Ben returned a few years later to live permanently. Arriving as a tree surgeon, today his main income is from a 100-person very popular campsite on St Martin’s.

For almost as long as he can remember, Ben had wanted to keep bees. Then in June 2010 he received his first nucleus from Mike Hicks, a beekeeper on the neighbouring island of St Agnes. Today Ben runs up to 15 colonies in two typical Scillonian fields. About 40m long and 15m wide, the fields are bounded by high Pittosporum hedges which protect the bees from storms and high winds, and provide good spring forage.

Ben laughs as he describes his bees as having ‘two main flavours’: docile but not great honey gatherers. And the others? Well, not so docile. He thinks his bees are quite a mix: perhaps Hawaiian from the 1980s, some introductions from the black bees of Colonsay and the Isle of Man.

Harvesting around 70lbs (30kgs) last summer, Ben discovered through the National Honey Monitoring Scheme that 90% of his honey is bramble. Although the bees have some early forage, he expects to have to feed them until the June-July bramble flow. Heather provides winter stores.

Although Ben, like others in Scilly, has no varroa, there are other pests. “Two blackbirds sit at the entrances to my hives and pick off my bees!” he grins. The other is Braula and to control them, he uses tobacco smoke.

Kylie Carter, Salakee Farm, St Mary’s

Kylie Carter is, among many other roles, the beekeeper on the 14-hectare (35-acre) Salakee Farm. Following family holidays, she came to live on St Mary’s eight years ago and now helps run the farm which has been passed down through three generations to her partner, Dave. A native of Devon, Kylie was key in ringing the farming changes. Once a flower, dairy and potato farm, Kylie jokes that she “came in and ruined all that”. It is now predominantly a no-dig market gardening and wood-pasture beef-and-poultry enterprise using some polytunnels and employing a young enthusiastic, committed and significantly female workforce.

Kylie started keeping bees about four years ago in a field just below St Mary’s Airport, on the south side of the largest and most populated island of Scilly. Nick Bentham-Green remembers those bees well. They sent Jo Widdicombe and him sprinting for cover. “Why does this keep happening?” Kylie asked.

Since then, Kylie’s beekeeping activity has been interrupted by pregnancies, but she now has two colonies, both beautifully behaved on the day we visited. Her bees had an unusual pest to deal with – spiders. If the bees don’t immediately occupy a super, the spiders soon set up home and declare several frames-worth theirs. The bees don’t argue.


July 2021

Other articles this month included:
Pollen: the secrets of the honey bee diet by Marin Anastasov, NDB
Fiesty bees: dealing with bees that aren't quite so friendly by Richard Rickitt, Co-editor
Queen rearing: marking, clipping, mailing and introducing queens by Duncan Simmons

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