Parasite from Siberia is chief threat to our bees

 

ANOTHER LIFE:WE’VE A few weeks to wait for spring, at least on our side of the hill. The odd primrose has blinked on and off for most of the winter, but brighter mirrors for the sun are called for: brassy celandines, fiery dandelions, the lovely sulphur haze of willow catkins. These have the nectar to feed the first queen bumble bees, hungry after hibernation, and the early foragers returning to Ireland’s colonies of honeybees – some 22,000 of them.

The number of beekeepers, now well over 2,000, could be in for a boost, as raising honey at the bottom of the garden appeals to self-sufficiency – also, perhaps, offering the promise of distraction and adventure. But what of all the bad news about bees? Why invest in sweet-smelling cedar hives, frames of beeswax, smoker and veil, and other arcane appliances of the craft, not to mention time spent in learning, only to surrender to summers of deluge or disease?

Honeybees are notoriously under siege from a host of global ills, some still deeply mysterious. Both the US and UK report losing a third of their bees last year; in Italy it was nearly half. In France, an average of 300,000 colonies have disappeared every year since 1995. The Bee, the Sentinel of the Environment is the sober theme of this year’s world beekeeping conference, Apimondia, in Montpellier next September.

Little of this gloom, however, found its way into the speech of Trevor Sargent TD when, as junior minister for Horticulture and Food, he opened last year’s annual summer course run by the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations in Gormanston, Co Meath. “The importance of bees is something I feel very strongly about,” he promised, and Ireland’s National Apiculture Programme, urged upon member nations by the EU, was going well.

Indeed, our apicultural scene could be a great deal worse. The UK’s flooded summers have not, in general, been shared by Ireland, and modellers of future climate predict much bee-friendly weather, at least in the east and south. The US’s catastrophic syndrome of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which bees unaccountably abandon their hives and disappear, has not reached these islands so far.

A 2007 research report for Teagasc on pretty much all the ills that bees are heir to, from CCD through numerous potential pests, viruses and lethal pesticides, confirmed that the chief menace to Ireland’s colonies remains varroa, the parasitic mite from Siberia, the size of a pin-head, that has now spread everywhere but Australia.

Its arrival in Ireland in the late 1990s, weakening colonies and leaving them vulnerable to viruses, has led to considerable losses and a running battle between chemical treatments and mite resistance. The mites came with imported queen bees of European races, notably Italian, supposedly superior in performance and amiability. While such imports have long been banned, at least in the Republic, some have continued illicitly – this despite the protestations of beekeeping organisations North and South.

Quite apart from the risks of more and new diseases, the big concern is to protect Ireland’s exceptional asset of indigenous races of the dark European honeybee, Apis mellifera mellifera. The island could be unique in its great reserve of pure native strains of the bee, once widely thought extinct and replaced by bees from France and Holland.

As related by Micheál Mac Giolla Coda on the Irish Beekeepers’ Federation website (www.irishbeekeepers.com), the widespread survival of the native honeybee was not fully appreciated until some 30 years ago, when three schoolgirls won the Aer Lingus Young Scientist Competition, having “actually measured 22,000 bees’ wings”. With other, more conventional, research, this encouraged the selective breeding of queens from native strains.

Mac Giolla Coda himself, advised by geneticist Dr Jacob Kahn, has been engaged in this since 1991 at his apiary at the foot of the Galtee Mountains. He has recruited dozens of beekeepers to selective breeding over much of Leinster and Munster, and secured funding under a government scheme for conservation of genetic resources.

While the dandelion provides the first appreciable nectar for the native Irish bee, it goes on to thrive on heather and ivy and usually provides a honey surplus even from cool and windy summers. Unlike the Italian bee, it knows when to stop rearing more young if the weather turns bad, and usually settles for no more than 35,000 bees in the colony rather than the 50,000 mentioned in bee books.

Its generally amiable temper is compromised, apparently, only in hybridisation with introduced Italian or Buckfast bees. I wish we had known this in our early ventures into bee-keeping, with stocks of Italianate origin. As an innocent bystander, I was often chased down the garden, especially for playing the wrong music out of doors, and the beekeeper herself had to nurse too many allergenic stings. The real Mellifera, on the other hand, if we can trust Mac Giolla Coda, can be almost as sweet as it sounds.


EYE ON NATURE

I have a nestbox seven feet high on a north-facing wall beside a laburnum for one and a half years, and I’m so disappointed that I haven’t got a tenant.

Eileen Reynolds, Kilkenny.

Move it to a northeast to southeast-facing direction, protected from cold winds and shaded from hot sun.

The wrapping came loose on a pallet of new, empty PET bottles in my yard and they squeaked as they rubbed on each other when I tried to rewrap them. An owl silently swooped down and circled me several times. The squeaky bottles must have resembled the chattering of mice in the grass.

David Llewellyn, Lusk, Co Dublin.

I discovered a pygmy shrew in a mousetrap. Is it common for them to come into the house, and what can they eat when the ground is frozen?

Janet Cavanagh, Co Clare.

Shrews come inside in desperation when they cannot find food outside. They eat a wide range of insects, mainly beetles and woodlice. If they fast longer than three hours they die.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. E-mail : viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address.