Time to give bees a chance

A new group aims to protect the endangered, and economically crucial, Irish honey bee

Thu, Jul 4, 2013, 01:00

Collective bargaining may no longer be de rigueur in our current economic climate but this has not prevented Irish bees from acquiring a representative organisation of their own.

The recently established Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS) is an all-Ireland body dedicated to conserving remaining stocks of the endangered Irish ‘black bee’.

Itself a sub-species of the dark European honey bee, the Irish honey bee is hirsute compared to its non-native fellows, enabling it to better survive our cooler, damper oceanic climate.

Black bees are also frugal in their use of honey stores, allowing them to withstand longer periods of climate-induced ‘austerity’.

Decimated

Since the mid-1990s, however, native bee numbers, have been decimated by the arrival of the Varroa mite parasite to Ireland’s shores-mainly on the backs of cheaper imported bees.

“The feral bee population has all but gone in many parts of Ireland,” laments Pat Deasy, the society’s Waterford-based Chairman. “Varroa is the cause of spreading many bee viruses and weakening the bee population; however, with help our native bees will in time learn to co-exist with it.

“We want to educate both beekeepers and the general public, that there is still a very strong black bee presence in various locations throughout the island. This was proved by the national morphometry and DNA-testing programme organised recently by the Galtee bee breeding group.”

The Irish Department of Agriculture estimates that the value of the bee as a pollinator of Irish farm crops is in excess of €85 million a year. Indeed, 60 per cent of food today relies on bees for its pollination with fruits like apples, raspberries and strawberries enjoying higher yields as a result.

Recent scientific research also points to the fact that one in three mouthfuls of food globally has been pollinated by bees. Many of those things that we take for granted, such as cereal in the morning and home grown apples, would become unaffordable to many without the tireless work of bees.

“The local beekeeper is the most important friend of the environment where both wild and agricultural flora depends on pollination to propagate,” explains Pat Deasy.

“If there was no pollination, some of the wild flora would disappear over time, agriculture-dependant crops would suffer with poor returns and fruit crops would be poorly formed. Every encouragement should be made to foster beekeeping as the environment depends so much on the bee.

“The main enemy of beekeepers is American and European ‘foul brood’. If this goes unchecked it will have disastrous effects on Irish beekeeping. In America, farmers are now paying over $100 per hive for pollination services and there is a worrying shortage of honey bees there.”

Irish farmers, in particular, have a huge role to play in preserving the land but the race to increase farm size and profit has been a huge factor in the declining health of the Irish bee.

The society hopes to play its part in advising farmers on the use of pesticides, the maintenance of hedgerows and the importance of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) in increasing forage for these tiny insects.

The society’s public relations officer Aoife Nic Giolla Coda spent three years as secretary of Co Clare’s Banner Beekeepers’ Association.

She argues: “The majority of Irish people do not know that we have a honey bee which is native to this island at all. Education, therefore, is vital for both the general public and beginner beekeepers, allowing them to understand how our native honey bee outperforms its rivals under testing climatic conditions.

Dire consequences

“Given that there has been an upsurge of interest in honey bees over the last few years some people have been tempted to import them from abroad. This can have dire consequences for our native bee stocks. The main threats to native Irish bees are without doubt the Varroa mite, associated viruses, and other diseases that could possibly reach Ireland due to importations.

“The Varroa mite was only discovered in Ireland in 1998. We were [up until then] one of the few remaining Varroa-free countries in the world, due to our strict controls on importing bees. The parasite was carried in by imports often in the misguided belief that they were somehow better than native stocks. However, the reality is that they do not acclimatise well to the Irish weather and thus need much more honey to keep themselves alive,” she says.

“Our society will be visiting both urban and rural communities in Ireland over the next few months giving talks about the native honey bee and the importance of preserving it,” says Pat Deasy.

“Children, as well as adults, have a great fascination for bees especially when viewing an observation hive. The NIHBS will be providing hands-on workshops covering all aspects of bee breeding while helping Irish beekeepers to observe best practice.”

For further information about the Native Irish Honey Bee Society, see its website: nihbs.org, email pro@nihbs.org or log onto its Facebook page.

Pollen count

The value of native Irish bees and their honey

There are more than 2,500 people registered as apiarists with bee associations in Ireland – an increase from 1,500 a decade ago. A similar success story is to be seen in the growing demand for Irish honey.

Annual production levels currently vary from 200 to 600 tonnes and the potential market for ‘run honey’ is estimated to be in excess of 1,000 tonnes per annum. Honey is also a lucrative commodity said to be worth in excess of £190 million (€221 million) a year in the UK and 60 times as much in the US.

Irish bees collect most of their honey from blackberry blossom – the common briars in the hedgerows – and from clover. There are many other wild flowers, tree blossoms and a couple of commercial crops from which bees collect and this bio-diversity has traditionally helped to keep them healthy.

In Ireland, disease transmission is often helped by poor weather conditions. Bees are unable to fly out in very wet weather, which means they are confined together in the hive for longer periods. Despite this, in terms of colony losses, Ireland is better off than many European countries.

Before the Varroa mite arrived, Irish bee-keepers could expect 10 - 15 per cent losses on average every year. After Varroa hit, however, many beekeepers experienced more than 25 per cent losses.

Some experts have termed this ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD) but the bulk of Irish beekeepers dislike using the term. CCD was first described in the USA, where factors contributing to the loss of bees are quite different.

In the US and parts of the UK and France, CCD is exacerbated, if not caused, by the proliferation of single crops (mono-cultures), long-distance transportation and the overuse of antibiotics and herbicides.