“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 morphometry and DNA testing show that Ireland has a relatively large and diverse population of native honey bees. These different strains of native bee which are being found all the time, will ensure the maintenance of its genetic diversity for many generations to come.
There are several threats to the native honey bees in Ireland. The gene pool has been drastically reduced by the varroa mite – an exotic parasite which originated in Asia. Up until the mid nineties, 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. Importation of honey bees is a practice which beekeeping bodies and most beekeepers in Ireland do not condone, as many more bee pests and diseases could enter Ireland in a similar way in the future.
There has been an upsurge in 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 the native honey bee in Ireland. Some parts of Ireland have larger populations of pure native bees than others. It is hoped in the future, that these localities will become conservation areas for this endangered sub species of European honey bee.
The Native Irish 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, 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 the Irish 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 a bad summer last year, the reports have shown that the native honey bees have coped reasonably well with most beekeepers having a reasonable crop of honey from their native honey bees.
The Native Irish Honey Bee Society, Apis mellifera mellifera has been recently established to promote its conservation throughout the island of Ireland. The society also hopes to raise public awareness of this honey bee and its importance in Ireland. It will also act in an advisory capacity to groups and individuals who wish to promote the native honey bee. It is an All-Ireland organisation with representatives from both North and South. The society will publish literature in the near future. For further information please contact www.nihbs.org, or log onto their facebook page, Native Irish Honey Bee Society.