Rare wild bees find has English country estate buzzing

Published November 26, 2021 - Updated November 26, 2021 07:32am
Bee conservationist Filipe Salbany climbs an oak tree to survey a honeybee colony in the High Park in Oxfordshire.—AFP
Bee conservationist Filipe Salbany climbs an oak tree to survey a honeybee colony in the High Park in Oxfordshire.—AFP

WOODSTOCK: Hanging halfway up an ancient oak tree, peering into a small, dark hole in its enormous trunk abuzz with bees, Filipe Salbany can barely contain himself.

“Amazing — the queen’s laying!” the 55-year-old shouts down, as he dangles around 15 metres (just under 50 feet) above the grounds of Blenheim Estate, secured by ropes and a harness.

“This is a real classroom. This is fantastic. Unbelievable!” The South African conservationist has spent much of the last 18 months scouring for hives in the ancient woodlands of the estate, near Oxford, in south central England.

His unbridled enthusiasm stems from his belief that these are no ordinary bees.

He has identified them as a rare ecotype — a distinct form of a species, occupying a particular habitat — with a suspected centuries-old lineage in the self-contained corner of the Oxfordshire countryside.

DNA tests are now under way to confirm the finding, but the potential discovery of wild descendents of so-called native bees has Blenheim and beyond buzzing with excitement. It was thought such populations had largely disappeared due to disease, pesticides and competition with foreign imports.

Salbany believes their continued existence has global implications.

“If we can do this in more ancient woodland, different countries, if we can find local subspecies of bees... we can learn so much more about the environment and improve agricultural systems,” he said from his tree perch.

“Whether it’s Romania, Bulgaria, France, we need to look at the species that are surviving and understand the factors that are affecting the bees, whether it’s chemicals, pesticides, human intervention.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2021

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