Our Native Honey Bee - Alive and Buzzing!
Native Honey Bee Alive and Buzzing!
by Valentine Hodges
“Do you know that we have our own native honey bee here in Ireland?
There was once the popularised misconception in the early to mid twentieth century that the native honey bee had become extinct. However modern techniques such as DNA testing show that Ireland has a relatively large and diverse population of native honey bees.
There are several threats to our native honey bees.
The gene pool has been drastically reduced by the varroa mite – an exotic parasite which originated in Asia. Up until the mid nineties the island of Ireland was one of the few varroa free zones left in the world. It arrived in the country with imported honey bees. The tiny little mite has resulted in the near eradication of feral colonies of honey bees that existed in the wild from time immemorial.
We also have an upsurge in a brood disease (AFB) that could be the equivalent of “Bubonic plague” affecting Bees, if not brought under control!! Importation of honey bees is a practice which beekeeping bodies and most beekeepers do not condone, as many more bee pests and diseases could enter the island in a similar way.
In the future and indeed at this time we are facing a new threat from the “Small Hive Beetle” which has been recently discovered in Italy!
There has been an notable expansion of interest in honey bees in the last few years and some people are tempted to import honey bees. This can have dire consequences for the native bees which can cross breed with them and become aggressive with a loss of the good traits of the native bees. This in the long term could have a devastating effect on the sustainability of our native honey bee.
The Native Honey Bee is often called the ‘Black Bee’ as it is generally dark in colour – although the colour can vary. It is a strain of the Dark European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) which is indigenous to Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia and parts of northern and central mainland Europe.
What makes it so special? It is naturally adapted to our cool, damp, oceanic climate. These bees are very good at sparing their honey stores in bad weather. More exotic strains of honey bee eat through their honey stores more quickly, which could lead to starvation. Native honey bees are better at flying out and collecting nectar and pollen in colder, damper days in the summer, whereas honey bees imported from warmer climates generally need a higher temperature before they can do so. Being naturally adapted to our climate, they have developed resistance to many bee diseases. They are also much hairier, which helps them to cope with cold, wet summers, yet they also perform exceptionally when the temperature rises. They are also excellent honey producers and will give a crop of honey even in mediocre summers. While we had several bad summers recently our stocks of native honey bees have coped reasonably well delivering an acceptable crop of honey.
Here in County Down there are a number of dedicated “Black Bee” enthusiasts and it is our intention to establish the Ards Peninsula as the first “Black Bee Conservation Area” in Northern Ireland. To do this we need the help of everyone who keeps bees in the local area and especially those beekeepers who are not active members of a local Association. While we favour the native bee we are not advocating removal of non native stocks but we hope to try and convince our colleagues that the “black” bee is best suited for us all!!
Over the last three years we have been breeding Queens and Drones and have hives set up in strategic areas to effectively be able to “lock” the Peninsula for the good of the native bee. We would like to arrange a meeting of fellow beekeepers to discuss the practicalities and benefits of doing just this.
Assisted by the National Trust at Mount Stewart who have been exceptionally supportive in terms of allowing us to use their grounds for placing hives and for on-going beekeeper and public bee education we are holding an informal meeting on Tuesday 23rd February at the “Gardeners Bothy” Mount Stewart at 7.30pm.
If you are a beekeeper or would just like to know more please come along or contact Valentine on 07793 023643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The location will be sign-posted from the front gate.It is in all our interests to ensure the survival of the native bee and what better place to set up a conservation area than on the Ards Peninsula.