Bring Back the Black Bee

The Sicilian black bee or Nera Sicula (Apis mellifera siciliana) is native to the island. Descended from an African strain, it was very common until the 1970s, and then almost completely abandoned in favor of the Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica), which was more suited to commercial apiculture.

Italian bees now produce almost all of Sicily’s honey. The bees used to be kept in rectangular wooden beehives, but with the switch to the Italian bee, these were replaced with modern hives. During the following decades, the Sicilian bee risked total extinction, but was saved thanks to the work of a Sicilian entomologist, Pietro Genduso, who studied the bee for many years following Montagano’s classification in 1911. Genduso passed his passion on to a student, Carlo Amodeo, the only breeder of Sicilian bees. Amodeo found the last surviving hives of black bees in a farmhouse in Carini, where an elderly farmer was making honey using the old system. The hives contained some families of bees belonging to the three genetic lines that Carlo Amodeo kept isolated, first on Ustica and then on the islands of Vulcano and Filicudi. In 2008 Slow Food established a Sicilian Black Bee Presidium, which currently has eight beekeepers.

Last Saturday, January 14, the project to reintroduce the Sicilian black bee, funded by the Agriculture and Forestry Department of the Sicily Regional Authority, was presented at the Sicilian Zooprophylaxis Institute in Palermo.

With the support of the Regional Authority and the collaboration of research institutes, primarily CRA-API in Bologna, the beekeeping research unit of the Italian council for agricultural research and experimentation; the University of Palermo and Catania; the Sicilian Zooprophylaxis Institute; the Collesano SOAT (operational section for technical assistance); and Slow Food, the hope is to increase the number of beekeepers willing to raise the Sicilian bees. There will be no extra costs for the beekeepers—the hives will be provided for free while stocks last—but they must commit to following specific rules regarding beekeeping and join an association for keepers of the black bees which will be set up within the project’s first year.

The bees will be reintroduced into the northwest of Sicily (the provinces of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento), where there are fewer nomadic professional beekeepers, reducing the risk of crossing with Italian bees.

The project also involves research into new genetic lines, invaluable for combating serious problems like inbreeding. Breeding stations will be established in isolated places on the island, because the costs of conservation on the smaller islands are too high and discourage the beekeepers. The black bee’s performance will also be evaluated and compared with the Italian bee. The beekeepers raising the black bees have already noticed the almost complete lack of colony collapse disorder in Sicily and greater resistance to high temperatures and disease. The Sicilian black bee has acclimatized over the centuries to the island’s hot climate and often difficult conditions, building on the hardiness that comes from its African origins. The data that will emerge from this project will establish if the native breed can compete with the Italian bee.

The FAO has calculated that out of the 100 plant species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees. The Sicilian bee’s characteristics make it highly suited to pollination in polytunnels, used by many Sicilian farmers. The potentially greater hardiness of this native breed could be of great value in tackling the problems in the beekeeping sector, which is continuing to struggle in Sicily. In terms of sensory qualities, the honey from Sicilian black bees is no different from the honey of Italian bees and other breeds or hybrids.

Over 150 beekeepers from all around the island attended the conference. Some critical observations were made by the beekeepers from around Catania, where the Italian bee is raised on almost industrial levels. They were worried that a public project could have negative consequences for those working with the Italian bee. Nonetheless the day overall was marked by high levels of participation and interest. The CRA-API speakers clarified that the project did not involve any obstructions for nomadic beekeepers or Italian bee breeders, and that it is open to anyone who can guarantee contamination-free beekeeping. Repopulation will take place in areas not used for nomadic beekeeping and far from potential sources of contamination.

The project will last three years, and hopes to bring good news to Sicilian beekeepers. The results might show that the Sicilian bees are less productive, but this could be compensated for by a reduced need for disease treatments and hardiness. The revival of the Sicilian black bee may yet prove to be an unexpected resource for the island.

For more information about participating in the project, contact the CRA-API directly (Raffaele Dall’Olio and Cecilia Costa, tel. +39 051 353103 or [email protected] and [email protected]) or the Collesano SOAT (Maricetta Catalano, tel. +39 0921 661732 or [email protected]).

The Sicilian Black Bee Presidium is a Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity project.
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