Britain’s first honeybee reserve is to be set up on the Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay.
A Scottish Government order aiming to protect the species from cross-breeding and disease will come into force next January,
It will make it an offence to keep any species on the islands other than the British black honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera. The measure comes after a public consultation saw widespread support for a reserve.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse said the reserve should help preserve the black bee in the UK.
Mr Wheelhouse, who signed the order, said: “The Bee-Keeping Order illustrates how our non-native species legislation can be used to protect our native wildlife,” he said. There are currently around 50 colonies to be found on Colonsay and adjoining Oronsay.
The Government’s move is part of a ten-year Honeybee Health Strategy and has been welcomed by Colonsay beekeeper Andrew Abrahams. Abrahams has been working with bees on the island for more than 30 years and has campaigned for the islands to be recognised as a bee sanctuary.
“The reserve is important,” he said yesterday. “We’ve been working a long time to get it set up. The purpose is to conserve genetic material for the future before it’s all gone, to conserve the black bee which is the native bee of Scotland and of the whole UK.”
The black honeybee can vary in colour from black to brown and is hardy enough to survive the harsh climate of Scotland’s west coast. “It is adapted for Scottish conditions and to wet conditions and cooler conditions,” according to Dr Phil Moss, bee health convener of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association,
Most of Britain’s native bee species – with the exception of a few pockets – were wiped out early in the 20th century by the Isle of Wight disease, caused by a parasitic mite. As a result, said Dr Moss: “There was a lot of importation of foreign bees from all over the world.”
These were then interbred with the native bee. Only pockets of native bees remained intact as a result. “Colonsay is reckoned to be one of the purest,” Dr Moss added.
The Scottish Beekeepers Association fully supports the reserve proposal, he said, seeing the move as an important step at a time when bee numbers are falling.
Britain’s bees are currently under threat from the varroa mite, first discovered in the UK in 1992. It has destroyed many colonies.
Colonsay was chosen as a reserve because its bees are free from the disease, and for its genetic purity. It was originally chosen as a site for an experimental breeding station back in 1941.
The decision to protect the black bee comes as countries across Europe have seen up to a quarter of honeybee colonies disappear in recent years. Pesticides, loss of habitat and disease have all been blamed. Bees are also under threat from global warming and changing climate.