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Its all about the Queen Bee: Conservation of our Native Irish Honeybees

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

June 2023 by Gwen Earnshaw

Honeybees on a cell bar caring for developing grafted queen larvaequeen

The silly swarm season has been well and truly upon us for a while now, and the Queen Rearing Group for The Killinchy Beekeepers Association began its activities again last month.

Its been all go, and we now have our first set of Queen Bees in the apidea mating boxes and the second set of Queen cells tucked up snug in an incubator - due to hopefully hatch this Friday. If you have ever been involved in Queen rearing you’ll know the satisfaction we are feeling so far!

The hardest part of our endeavor's has been to maintain a huge colony of honeybees, on the verge of swarming, and yet NOT have it swarm…

The second hardest thing (yes it goes on…) is stopping the apidea honeybees from absconding ... to where, we do not know ...?

All in all, it’s safe to say that it’s all A LOT harder than it sounds, but we are a tenacious bunch of beeks and still rearing to go!

hands holding a queen rearing/ graft frame of empty cell cups

Our Queen Rearing Group was formed in the winter of 2021, with a small number of keen committee members and in collaboration with the Native Irish Honeybee Society's, Queen rearing program (1).

This incredible program is run over 2 years and has given us 2 winters of online lectures with expert beekeepers including, Jonathan Getty and Colm O’Neill.

It has provided all the start up equipment we needed, given ongoing mentorship and even supplied a Nuc of Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) bees to breed from.

Not having had a Queen Rearing Group within our Association before and to just get the group started, we’ve tried to keep our goals quite simple.

Over last year and this year, we’ve been learning and getting better at the various techniques of raising Queen Bees.

To produce the best Queens and, in bigger numbers, they are raised from 72 hr old grafted larvae in a starter-finisher colony and then open mated from apidea boxes.

A starter-finisher colony is essentially a very strong double brood box Queen right colony. Just before the grafts are ready to be inserted, the upper box is made temporarily Queen less with the use of a cloake board.

Once the nurse bees have started the cells, the cloake board is then removed - making the colony Queen right again. The bees will then continue to care for the cells as if they were supercedure cells.

In the coming years, we hope to focus further on bee improvement - that is the production of Queen Bees that make great colonies of honeybees, that are also gentle to work with AND don’t have a tendency to swarm.

We would like to further expand the size of our little group, to offer teaching to interested members and also produce enough Queens to be able to offer members, within our conservation area and beyond…

Free Queens- who wouldn’t like that!

hands holding a frame of honeybees from an apidea mating box

The Native Irish Honeybee Society or NIHBS was established in November 2012 by a group of beekeepers who wished to support the various strains of the Native Irish Honeybee (Apis mellifera mellifera) throughout the country.

It is a cross-border organisation, open to all and consists of members and representatives from all corners of Ireland.

One of the many aims and objectives of NIHBS is to establish conservation areas of Amm throughout Ireland and last month we were pleased to announce that in collaboration with the Lindsay family, who are the owners of Finnebrogue Estate and Fodder (2) near Downpatrick, we have been able to establish a Conservation Area around our own Association apiary site.

Having a conservation area is essential to be able to preserve the genetics of our Amm honeybees within this area.

As new virgin Queens take their mating flights in the open, we are keen that the drones they meet in this process are also of good Amm genetics.

Sadly, these days, it just takes one quick click on a keyboard to import any kind of Queen or package of bees into our little corner of Northern Ireland. Honeybee imports are source of disease and will further weaken the gene pool of any Amm that we already have in existence here.

Incidentally, it is mandatory to notify DAERA (3) before you import ANY honeybees into Northern Ireland.

It is a key principle of NIHBS is not to support imports of honeybees for these reasons and, we also agree that locally adapted Amm bees are the best way forward.

A map of agreed conservation area for Native Irish Honeybees in Northern Ireland

To begin with, we have agreed a Conservation Area of just a 3 km radius from our apiary site in Finnebrogue Woods.

Do you keep honeybees or know of beekeepers within or close to this area? Please have a look at the map which shows the approximate area that we want to include. If you are reading this and not familiar with the area, it is in rural County Down, Northern Ireland, just to the west of Strangford Lough, North of Downpatrick and South of Killyleagh.

If your colonies fall within or around this area, then we would really appreciate it if you could get in touch with us to chat about the type of bees you have. Any information that you give us will of course not be shared further than the key committee members of our group.

We really hope that you will work with us to help achieve our aims but acknowledge that this is not mandatory.

Our approach will always be to involve members with encouragement and one of the ways that we will do this is by our intention to offer our surplus of Amm Queen Bees at no cost to such members. We will also assist with everything around queen introduction.

It’s a win win for everyone!

Many thanks for reading, we wish you lots of success with your own Honeybees and Queens this season and may the wonderful weather continue!

If you need any more info, have any questions or would like to be involved then please don't hesitate to comment, reply or contact us.

1) The Native Irish Honeybee Society

2) Fodder (for the best Farm Shop, Cafe, Tipi and Trails)

Wonderful images with thanks to Conall McCaughey

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