Bee Expert Discovers 800,000 Wild Honeybees Thriving in Ancient English Forest, Leaving Naturalists Buzzing With Hope

Even in a place as populated and developed as southeast England, there are still ecological surprises waiting for those willing enough to be patient and wander far enough.

A colony of 800,000 previously unknown bees were found in an ancient oak woodland at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, which experts say could be the last remaining descendants of the British isle’s original forest honeybee populations; if true, this would represent one heck of a second chance for the subspecies.

The insects were found living in the hollow of an oak tree, as England’s native forest bee species tended to do, only the hollow was tiny, and quite high up. Curiously, there had been no record of any bees living in Blenheim before, and immediate thoughts turned to escaped swarms from domesticated bees from nearby hives.

A bee-keeping veteran with more than 40 years under the hood, Filipe Salbany, would end up finding 50 separate colonies of bees in the estate’s forest, which isn’t open to the public, and which has had no gardening activity. He’s convinced they belong to the subspecies that probably should be called “Ye Olde Englishe Bee.”

“A wild bee that has adapted to the environment is called an ecotype, and this bee could be a very precious ecotype—the first wild bee that is completely adapted to living in the oak forest,” Salbany told the Guardian. 

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Smaller, darker, and furrier than imported European honeybees, the hermit hive members also displayed a resistance to temperatures as low as 39 °F (4 °C), about ten degrees lower than when normal bees will stop flying.

Blenheim Palace

“They are not from the imported stocks of bees that people bring in. The wings are smaller and their veins are very distinct,” says Salbany, who has almost finished his physical examinations. “They have had no treatment for the varroa mite—yet they’re not dying off.”

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The woods are a paradise of biodiversity, and no managed hives within the 400 acre estate are the main reasons which Salbany is giving for why the bees have likely remained strong through at least 200 years of history, that figure being the chronological age of the oldest tree-hollow hive found so far.

Featured image: Danny Perez, CC license

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