Irish bees untroubled by colony collapse


IRISH BEES have turned out to be more resilient than their cousins in other countries in withstanding the phenomenon of “colony collapse disorder”, according to research carried out at Limerick Institute of Technology.

Coinciding with the International Year of the Honeybee, the study shows that the indigenous Irish honey bee population is healthy and may not currently be at the same risk of colony collapse experienced in other parts of the world.

“We don’t believe things to be all that fraught,” said Dr Michael Geary, of the institute’s department of applied science. “Our study shows we have a robust native strain of Apis mellifera mellifera [the dark Irish bee] still alive and, more importantly, dominant in Ireland.”

The research will feed into a five-year nationwide survey being conducted by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group led by Micheál Mac Giolla Coda, one of the leading experts on bee-keeping in Ireland, which is being part-funded by the Department of Agriculture.

Researcher Conan McDonnell, who is a bee-keeper himself, said the indigenous Irish bees had “adapted their lifecycles to be super-efficient at making the most of what is available . . . without putting pressure on the environment or the colony”.

He warned that the bees’ habitat was under pressure from intensive agriculture, diseases introduced by non-native bees, use of pesticides and the elimination of hedgerows that would “change what has been the bee’s ecosystem for millennia”.

While some Irish bee-keepers have seen high losses, Mr McDonnell said it was difficult to establish if this was part of the worldwide trend worrying many scientists or due to bee husbandry or the introduction of non-indigenous species.

The study looked at wing samples submitted from bee-keepers across Ireland over the past three years, using morphometry to examine vein patterns. Set patterns can be used to determine the percentage purity of the bee in terms of its species.

As well as producing honey, bees are responsible for up to 30 per cent of the food we eat or export because of the service they provide in pollinating plants. Thus, farmers have a vested interest in ensuring their survival.

A second study at the Limerick institute found that locally produced honey is healthier than blended honey stocked, in terms of its shelf-life and hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) content, which results from heat treatment to delay crystallisation.

“Our results show that the local artisan honey had the lowest levels of HMF and was significantly below the EU limit of 40 milligrams per kg, while the two honeys of international origin were at the upper limits of the 80mg/kg EU limit,” said researcher Saoirse Houlihan.