Another Life: A landscape fit for our native honey bees

A plan backed by 68 organisations shows the plight of pollinators is moving up the agenda

It looked like a miniature bumblebee, about the size of my little fingernail. Then, lifting from a starry blue flower no bigger than itself, the furry, yellow-banded insect made the sudden shift in the air, the magical bilocation of hoverfly aeronautics. Powered by some long-promised sun, it was the first of the Syrphidae family I had noticed in many weeks, abroad rather late in its own brief season.

Volucella bombylans, if the name matters, is one of the commoner of 180 hoverfly species native to Ireland, notable, if unconsidered, allies of honey bees and wild bees that nourish our wild flowers, crops and fruit. They get full credit in the new All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020, this also published a bit late in the year but still emphatically welcome.

That this could gather commitments from 68 organisations, governmental and nongovernmental, north and south, shows that the plight of our pollinators is moving up the wildlife agenda. Led by Dr Una Fitzpatrick of the National Biodiversity Data Centre and Dr Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin, it offers 81 actions to contemplate – or even do something about – before the spring.

Roadsides and hedgerows as pollinator highways; parks and gardens as pollen pit stops: these can seem more immediately likely options than changing the wider farm landscape. Among the 68 partners, it is good to see the Ulster Farmers' Union valuing pollination's "free service worth over £7 million a year for apples alone" and publicly pledging to help create "a landscape where pollinators can flourish".


This is from a region where closely barbered hedges and tightly tailored fields have seemed to leave so little room for nature. In the Republic, on the other hand, the Irish Farmers' Association appears to have been as morose as usual, leaving it to Teagasc to shape the plan. The Republic's organic farmers are signed up to it, their untidy and flowery holdings already shown to be pollinator friendly. The IFA, however, appears just once, as an organisation to be invited to a subgroup discussing "best ways" of maintaining pollinator populations.

The plan has no shortage of voluntary actions for farmers, of course, most of them already well rehearsed, such as leaving blackthorn in the hedges, for example, and dandelions and other weeds around the farm to offer early flowers to emerging queen bumblebees.

Something new, in which gardeners, too, can help, is to offer undisturbed ground and bare, sun-warmed banks where many solitary mining bees can burrow to make nests. Although it’s quite a green fashion to mount clusters of open, woody stems in the garden for the benefit of other cavity-nesting solitary bees, 62 of Ireland’s species are mining bees, which simply need bare surfaces of soil, sand or peat. The females do the burrowing, raising little volcanoes of excavated soil, then lay their eggs in the hole and leave a food supply of pollen before dying. The young then overwinter in a cocoon and emerge in spring.

This exceptionally wet summer has been hard on Ireland's honey bees, so that many hives need all the honey they hold to keep the colony alive through the winter. The extra rainfall of climate change strengthens the case for restoration of Ireland's native honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, which is supported by the pollination plan through the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

Widely considered extinct by the middle of the last century, this amenable native bee lost its place in honey production to imported European strains of honey bee and, with them, parasites carrying disease. Today, as the varroa mite increases overwintering losses in the island’s hives (now numbering some 24,000 in the Republic), efforts to breed and multiply pure strains of the native honey bee have redoubled.

As related by Micheál Mac Giolla Coda, a notable pioneer of this development, the widespread survival of the native honey bee was first realised more than 30 years ago, when three schoolgirls won the Aer Lingus Young Scientist competition, having “actually measured 22,000 bees’ wings”. As geneticists now analyse their DNA and explore its distribution, restoration of the bee has spread from Mac Giolla Coda’s hives at the foot of the Galtee Mountains to those of dozens of beekeepers in the southeastern counties, with a special concentration in a “conservation area” of south Wexford.

Its many champions claim that, restored to full genetic health, the darker, hairier native honey bee is more resistant to disease. Adapted to the Irish climate over thousands of years, it gives a good crop of honey even in mediocre summers, flies out on cold, damp days, forages longer in the season on heather and ivy flowers, and is slower than exotic strains of bee to gobble its honey stores in bad weather. It can be also be very gentle, allowing manipulation without protective clothing. Indeed, a very honey of a bee.