For decades, Britain's native black bee has been an outcast. The Victorians threw Apis mellifera mellifera out of hives in favour of more industrious foreign species. Modern beekeepers brand it lazy and aggressive.
Now, the nation's original honeybee is coming in from the cold. Scientists believe the insect that made honey for the tables of medieval kings could reverse the collapse of bee numbers that has imperilled the annual pollination of crops worth £165m.
The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders' Association (Bibba) believes the black honeybee, which has a thicker coat, could be hardy enough to survive the 21st century. Its researchers hope to map wild populations across the British Isles with a view to reintroducing it to commercial hives, which produce 5,000 tonnes of honey a year. People are asked to take pictures of it whenever they see it.
Bee populations slumped by 30 per cent in a single winter, 2007-08, the British Beekeepers Association (Bbka) says. The decline is unexplained but the potential causes are pesticides, disease, mites and milder winters that encourage them to forage too soon. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is spending £4.3m on research into the decline. Bibba believes the distinctively-striped black bee could be the answer. The black bee was used for centuries as the honey-producing bee but was replaced by more productive bees from Italy and eastern Europein the 19th century.
The Co-op Group, whose food stores sell apples, field beans and other crops pollinated by bees, is putting £10,000 into the project as part of its 10-point Plan Bee. "Native black honeybees are considered by some beekeepers to be more aggressive and poorer at producing honey than foreign strains," the Co-op said. "But over tens of thousands of years, the native black honeybee has evolved thick black hair and a larger body to help keep it warm in a cooler climate, and a shorter breeding season to reflect the UK summer. With careful selection, they are good-tempered and good honey-producers."
The research coincides with a £100,000 study at Sussex University which aims to breed black bees more resistant to disease. Beekeepers who think they have native or near-native black honeybees are asked to send samples to Bibba to test their origins.
Norman Carreck, of Sussex's Department of Biological and Ecological Science, said the location of the bee's remaining wild populations was unknown, but they were believed to be in the western British Isles, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Of the Bibba research, he said: "It's a very useful exercise because we don't really know much about their distribution."
Mr Carreck, a member of the BBKA's technical committee, blamed the aggressive reputation of the black bee on cross-breeding. When bred with the Italian honeybee, the docile black bee could be aggressive, and kept its dominant markings.
There are estimated to be 250,000 hives in the UK. With up to 30,000 bees per hive, the total number of commercial bees is about seven billion.