We thought that Irish honey bees were gone for good but a team led by NUI Galway researchers has hopes of finding them. And they have a plan.
A type of bee called "dark European honey bee", also known as apis mellifera mellifera or AMM, once lived all over Europe, but their population has decreased in recent times.
“We have a subspecies in Ireland that is endangered in Europe, and Ireland is likely to be the last stronghold of this species,” said Prof Grace McCormack, from the Molecular Evolution and Systematics Laboratory at NUI Galway.
Finding these native bees could be more important now than ever, considering many beehives are affected by infection with mites. The varroa mite is particularly harmful, forcing beekeepers to chemically treat their colonies several times a year. The treatment is bad for bees and affects health.
A possible solution to this problem would be to find wild bee colonies that are naturally resistant to this and other infections. For this reason, Prof McCormack’s team is searching for bee colonies that not only live in the wild, but have done so for a number of years.
These bees that are living on their own without being treated could hold the key to beehive survival, Prof McCormack said. They could act as genetic stock for beekeepers, who are able to mix their bees with the wild ones to increase the natural resistance of bees to infections.
Helping beekeepers though is not the only reason. “By increasing the numbers of bees living in the wild, we can increase biodiversity,” Prof McCormack said. Biodiversity could help with future challenges such as other types of infections.
To do this, the researchers are calling for the help of all bee enthusiasts out there. They are asking for people to contact them if they find any unmanaged beehives in the area that have been continually active for more than two or three years.
Probable sites in which to find these bees are old abandoned houses and castles, outside buildings in residential houses and woodlands, particularly those around estates and manor houses. “People who are out and about and see colonies, they need to contact us,” Prof McCormack said.
Once these wild bees are found, the researchers will study their health status and their genes, and try to find out whether they are really “Irish honey bees”. If these bees have actually lived out there and remained healthy despite no treatment, they may just be the answer to many bee problems.
“We are trying to develop a bee in Ireland that doesn’t need treatment,” Prof McCormack said. “If we can find wild colonies escaped from whenever, they will not necessarily be the original stock but they are important as they managed to survive without treatment.”
Since the project started, Prof McCormack and her team have sampled 20 wild colonies reported by the public. Some of these were pointed out by old beekeepers who remembered bees in a particular location for the last 20 years.
If the researchers identify wild bees which are persistent, then government agencies will have to step in and try to protect them as endangered species. Only farmed bees are currently being protected.
This project is supported by the Native Irish Honey Bee Society and funded by the Eva Crane Trust, a charity that supports beekeepers.