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“The Lay of the Redesdale Minstrel” written by Robert Roxley in 1809 contains the following lines:
“Nor shall he pass by Ratten-raw,
The Smart-side and Ash-trees,
The Stobbs and Horsley, Thrisley Ha’
Mill-Haugh and Jamie’s bees.”
Jamie is described as an honest weaver, James Mair, whom the author would visit “in his garden amongst his busy bees and fragrant flowers, when tired with fishing in the Durtree-Burne”… .. and quaff with delight the hospitable weaver’s milk and honey”.
Durtrees Burn joins the Rede just north of Otterburn, where the A696 joins the A68 and from this and Jamie’s stated occupation as a weaver, we may infer that “Mill-Haugh” probably refers to the flood plain beside Otterburn Mill, where newly woven tweed was famously hung out to dry on tenterhooks.
We know the Romans had bees beside the Wall in the early fifth century, as an order has been found at Vindolanda Fort, penned on a sliver of birch wood, for “lini mellari”, cloths for filtering honey. Then in the late 1700’s Thomas Bewick recorded the style of local straw bee skeps and mentioned using them. The inhabitants of Otterburn Tower and West Woodburn also used them in the 1890’s, as there is historical mention of their “bee bole” shelters being occupied then. Probably all these bees, but certainly Jamie’s and Bewick’s were the native, Dark Bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, as foreign bees are thought not to have been imported into Britain until the middle of the 19th Century. There is some disagreement whether the Romans used local bees or brought their bees with them.
When I took up beekeeping forty years ago, all the old beekeepers, led by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey, agreed that the native subspecies was by then long extinct, wiped out by disease, bad management and genetic dilution by the sons of imported foreign queens. At that time, that was also the official view. However, recent DNA analysis indicates that the native British Dark honey bee still survives at the periphery of its original range. There, maladapted foreigners rarely survive, even with human help, and Northumberland is one of those special localities. The Scottish Government recognises existence of the native in Scotland, by establishment of a legally protected Dark Bee reserve on the Inner Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay. Eighteen years ago, a sample of bees from Cragside was shown to have mitochondrial DNA identical to that of the Colonsay bees.
The British native honey bee, alone of its species, is capable of foraging on and pollinating all our native wildflowers that require bee pollination. Like its ancestors over the last 10,000 years, it survives the foulest of weathers our climate can throw at it and is so economical and adept at collecting honey, it can gather a harvest in every summer. It resists nearly all bee diseases, even the virus-carrying Varroa destructor mite, which is currently exterminating honey bees worldwide. Research reveals the shocking fact that there is now scarcely a honey bee colony left in Europe that can survive, even for two years, without veterinary attention! But our Northumberland bees are the exception; they can still survive on their own strengths, free from human support or intervention.
Some 20 members of the Redesdale Beekeeping Group have now come together in a bid to secure the Dale as a haven for this rare member of the British fauna, and one of our greatest national treasures. The plan is to establish three new apiaries in the regions of Byrness, Rochester and Otterburn, stocked with authentic native honey bees and to manage these as a breeding resource and centre for distribution of native stock to neighbouring regions. An application was submitted for a grant from the Revitalising Redesdale Landscape Partnership’s Community Heritage Fund and has resulted in the maximum award of £2000 to support establishment of the first of these conservation apiaries near Byrness.
We have living representatives of 8 or more local stocks of what look like native bees and in order to authenticate their native status, samples of 12 workers from each of some 20 hives have been sent to a postgraduate research student at the University of Bangor, who will extract their DNA. He will then take this to Portugal for analysis in the World’s leading bee DNA laboratory. The analysis will tell us the percentage of foreign compared to native DNA in each sample and also distinguish the different queen lines to which they belong. Queen lines are families linked through maternally inherited mitochondria, rather like our families, with the difference that ours are normally identified by paternally inherited surnames. Our concentration on preserving queen lines should help prevent inbreeding, which is especially detrimental to bees.
The maintenance of these apiaries will go along with a programme of research, lectures and practical workshops in hive building, general beekeeping, bee wing morphometry (as a check on native status) and queen rearing aimed at non-beekeepers as well as developing beekeepers. We hope to attract intending young beekeepers and their parents who together can build their own hives, stock them with local bees and eventually, like Jamie and Robert, quaff with delight their own milk and honey.
We are most grateful to the Revitalising Redesdale Landscape Partnership for their understanding and generosity.