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Bees find sanctuary in church roof

20 July 2012

by a staff reporter

 A TYPE of honeybee, thought to be extinct, has been found alive and well in a small church in Northumberland.

It had been thought that the British black bee had been wiped out by a strain of Spanish flu in 1919, but a small hive has been found breeding in the roof of Holy Trinity, Whitfield, 800 feet up in the Pennines. It is thought that they have been there for up to a century.

The rare bees, Apis mellifera mellifer, were discovered after some dead specimens were found on the floor of the church. Experts called in to investigate a possible nest found hundreds in the roof. But a closer look revealed that the bees were darker than normal honeybees.

The conservation officer for the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders' Association, Dorian Pritchard, said: "They are generally a lot darker than the European bee, with pale, thin stripes across the abdomen. It takes a specialist beekeeper to recognise them. These were the bees native to Britain after the Ice Age, but in the 1830s we started to import foreign bees. An epidemic wiped out 90 per cent of the population after the First World War."

Experts had planned to coax the bees out into a hive in order to rehome them, but the bees refused to move.

The Rector of Allendale, the Revd Jonathan Russell, whose parish includes Holy Trinity, said churchgoers had not particularly noticed the bees. "The church is in a countrified spot next to a beck, and you don't notice the odd insect in the church. It's nice to think that they have survived here in this church."

Another of his churches in the valley is home to a rare type of lichen.

He said that parishioners were happy for the hive to be left in the roof, although the resident bees far outnumber the current congregation. "They don't bother us, and we don't bother them. I'm sure apiarists of the world will descend on us to have a look. I hope they might leave a donation - or perhaps a jar of honey."


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