North African Bees
The Various Races found in North Africa and
the Outstanding Characteristics of Each.
If you prefer,
By Phillip J. Baldensperger,
Vice-president of the Apis Club
When something over forty years ago I received the first black bees from Tunis I thought that it was an established fact, at least on the African Continent, that this black variety was acknowledged as a North African speciality. However, most North African beekeepers seem labouring under the same erroneous idea that this bee is the same as the brown European Continental bee.
I had passed a few years in company and in correspondence with Frank Benton, who, after his vain effort to domesticate the big Asiatic bee — Apis dorsata — had come from Java and Ceylon to settle for some time at Beyrouth (1879-1882). Hours or rather days we chatted about the difference between Cyprians, Syrians, Holy Lands, and Egyptians, four subspecies [Apis mellifica cypria Pallmann (Cyprian); Apis mellifica syriaca (Syrian); Apis mellifica terra-Santle (Baldensperger) and Apis mellifica fasciata Latr.] with marked characteristics of their own. On one of his travels Benton landed in Tunis, and from thence sent me a “Tunisian queen,” as he then termed the bee, in one of his newly invented and full-fledged “Benton Mailing Cages”.
The, “Tunisian queen” soon developed the colony into which she was introduced, into a strong honey hive. During the orange blossom honey flow, 1886, the Tunisian colony gathered 40 kilos of honey. My brothers remarked justly that the colony was neither better nor worse than any other choice Holy Land colony, of which our apiaries exclusively consisted. Holy Lands — greyish yellow — of course, showed so much the more their bright colours, as the Tunisian was very dark. The negro someone called her, was kept for several years, till she grew dim and her wings tattered and torn. Two years after her death the last trace of African tint was gone. These Tunisians have no superiority to the Holy Land, perhaps no inferiority either. The bees were as rash stingers as their Holy Land cousins; they lose as early as the natives; they defended themselves against wasps and hornets, the terrible bee pests of the Orient. They wintered as well as the others in the mild maritime … plain, where winters are hardly such as to compare with European winters. They were of the same size as the small Holy Land bee, they only differed in colour and in their robbing tendencies. Since those days I visited Tunis, and the whole north of Algeria, and found the same black aggressive bee everywhere along the coast. I took some twenty hives of “Algerian bees”[Apis mellifica st. unicolor-intermissa n. var, to distinguish them from the Apis mellifica st. unicolor Latr., from Madagascar and other black bees.] with me to France in 1892, and for several years observed them at Nice and in the Alps. They proved a hardy race, their stinging propensities were somewhat calmed by the introduction of European bee blood. I tried their qualities to withstand bee diseases without any success. But I may say in their favour, somewhat as the traveller in Cloches de Corneville though varying, « J’ai fait trois fois de tour (du monde) de la Méditerranée, etc. », and met « Italiennes, Circasiennes, Algériennes, et Syriennes, ou blondes ou brunes … et de chacune — j’étais épris. In fact I found qualities in each. Selecting each is the best of policies. Yet the Holy Land, Egyptian and North African are irritable from beginning to end.
We know that the black North Africans were called “Tunisians” by Benton because he saw them first in and about Tunis — Punics by another traveller who sang unmerited praises for his new “race” — Algerians by myself because I brought them from Algeria, and so forth. The African-European beekeepers never distinguished them from other European bees. Since a few years I have visited the whole of North Africa north of the Atlas range: and found the same black bee all along from the Gulf of Gaber to the Atlantic. This entitles the bee to a better name as she is found all along the “Tell”, or cultivated country — as the Romans called the “Tellanim” — to « Abeille Tellienne ». (Apis mellifica st. unicolor … intermissa n var). Truth to say, this bee is found far south — to central Africa — perhaps originating around the Kilimancharo. Herr V. Buttel-Reepen, in his “Apistica,” distinguishes her from the “Apis mellifica unicolor” of Madagascar find the “Apis mellifica lehjeni” of the heather regions on the frontiers of Germany and Holland as “Apis mellifica st. unicolor intermissa n. var” The Latin name is long, but the ordinary name can be shortened into “Tellian.” The bee of Tripoli is most likely the same, as I heard from Arab travellers of that country. Beyond the Libyan desert is the small greyish-yellow Egyptian bee “Apis mellifica fasciata Latr.,” well known to readers of the Bee World. This bee is of decidedly inferior quality in comparison with all other Mediterranean bees. Probably on account of the absence of winter in lower Egypt, they never gather big stores, but wait for the return of flowers to trouble for more stores — when it is necessary. To come back to the black “Tellian” — they are, so to say, isolated from the African continent — in Djaziret er Gharb — as the first Moslems called the North African conquest from Tunis to Morocco. The Atlas range in the south shuts them off from every contact with the Saharian region. Naturally the bees cannot progress towards the south as there is an arid and vast plateau of steppes inhospitable to bees covered with Alfa [Stipa tenacissima], Diss [Ampelodesmos tenax] and Drinn — not flowering grasses — camels and sheep alone drive along hundreds of miles with their Bedouin owners, who have their families in tents, and where water is scarce between the Tell and the Atlas, an average of 1,200 metres above sea level. The same natural barrier which keeps the “Tellian” bee in the north also withholds the “Saharian” bee from progress north.
The beautiful orange coloured bee which I first saw on the 16th of h March, 1921, in the Oasis of Tiguig, South Morocco, resembles mostly the Cyprian bee in colour at least. Maybe she has some connection with the southern or central African yellow bee. “Apis mellifica adansoni”, which Adanson found in Western Africa in the eighteenth century. Yet her colours are brighter and there is no mixture of black blood in her. Isolated as she has been for over twenty centuries in the north western corner of the Sahara, she is found in all her purity only there, and she deserves to have a name of her own. Even if she is nearer related to “A.m. adansoni” than to “cypria” she is a “saharensis” after all. The Saharian bee is of a bright orange colour and the two last segments are black. The drones resemble mostly the Cyprians with big yellow and black spots on the lower part of the abdomen. The queens are dull leather-coloured. But bees and queens bear the golden scutellum, or shield, as a distinguishing mark of their Cyprian origin.
We know that in Abyssinia East, or in Senegambia, West of Africa, both the adansoni and the intermissa are found, and that there are no really pure ones of the one or the other. Frère Jules, stationed in Abyssinia, in Apiculteur, explains the two colonies of black and yellow bees in the same hive — daughters of the same mother — simply because “he supposes a double mating to have occurred.” But we know that these phenomena are current — where races are crossed — and the offspring resembles now the male, now the female parent. Mr Mathieu, of Chateauraux, who received a Guinea Queen by aeroplane, writes to say that the males of her offspring are as dark as dark can be. This only proves that the “Guinea Bees” he received are crossed with the “intermissa” of the country where they come from.
The “Saharian,” which lives in a southern country, meets with extreme cold in winter nights and extreme heat in summer or only sunny days. These queer meteorological ups and downs have made a hardy bee of her. Scarcity of food has taught her frugality. Some palm trees in the oases afford the only food when these trees bloom, somewhere in April and May, according to the exposure. The bees living in the plains very often resort to the far-away mountains and fly for miles in search of some scanty food. Those who live in rocky recesses of the mountains go down to the plains when the scanty thyme and white broom (Genista retema retem) is over, as I have remarked in my different trips to Air-Sefra to Tiguig and to Colomb-Bechar. This has developed their wings to reach the food, and the sense of smell to smell the flowers far away. There is hardly a more quiet bee — at least to my knowledge — than this Saharian beauty. She is « la douceur même » (gentleness itself). Very likely because natural enemies — such as wasps, hornets, foxes, badgers, lizards — are rare in the desert regions. Certainly the bee has a sting and formic acid as painful as any, when she inflicts a wound, but she will not easily attack — unless she is handled roughly. Crosses of these bees differ greatly. The crosses with Alpine drones in the South of France are very quiet, whilst crosses with Tellian drones, such as I met at Algiers are as vicious as pure Tellians. On account of her strength of wings, her highly developed sense of smell, and her activity, the bees in the dry Alpine region have been flying for miles in search of their food, when the native bees had given up the quest for honey. Their wintering qualities have been described by several persons as superior to those of any other race, One man writes from the Lake of Geneva that the swarm he received had wintered well and sent out a swarm weighing 1.800 kg in June. Another one writes from the environs of Metz that his swarm wintered better than the Italians, and that he had two swarms this year from the wintered hive. In their native land, the Berbers keep the bees in hollows made on purpose in the inside of the walls. The houses, all built with sand, and straw-stones, « pisé », dried in the sun, have courtyards. The bees are put up inside to be protected against thieves. The natives use very little smoke to open the hives, but their manipulation is always very short, as they only cut out, a few combs in harvest time, and then plaster up the opening to leave them in peace till next season.
I have not seen over twenty hives in one place, and more often only a hive or two belonging to the same man. This makes it very difficult to obtain hives in the far south.
The Tellian bee is very frequent, in some places at least, all along the region lying between the sea and the Steppes before the Atlas; all depends on the melliferous flowers which are to be found in the vicinity.
I never remarked anly difference in the bees’ power to raise queens of different sexual characteristics — the so-called half-queens, quarter-queens, and so forth sometimes mentioned — Tellians, Egyptians, Holy Lands, Syrians, Cyprians, raise any amount of virgins, up to several hundreds. By the dozen the virgins run about in the hives, and the bees are not in a particular hurry to drive them out till one is surely fertilised. The Saharians are more sober in raising extra virgins, but will not allow virgins to loaf about the hives for even a day. They are also very prudent in raising drones, whilst Tellian, Holy Lands, and to some degree provincial bees in the South of France will raise about ¼ of drone comb to ¾ worker comb in spring. I could not force the Saharians to do the same, as I badly wanted plenty of drones. Giving empty frames between brood comb in spring invariably resulted in worker comb being built.
Their swarming propensities are the same as those of our French bees. If kept in small hives they will swarm readily and in big hives they will develop long before they think of swarming.
The Bee World, 5,
April, 1924 pp 175-176, and
May, 1924 pp 189-190.
Phillip J. Baldensperger,
Vice-president of the Apis Club