We all know how important honey bees are. You may not realise, however, that we in Ireland have our own subspecies of honey bee. The island of Ireland has one native honey bee subspecies, Apis mellifera mellifera, or the Dark European Honey Bee. The native Irish honey bees are very well suited to the Irish climate; they have long bodies and hairs to keep them warm, they can forage in dull or drizzly weather, and they produce a surplus of honey, giving them good winter stores to survive a hard winter.
Irish honey bees may live longer than other races and have different forager honey bee to hive honey bee ratios, allowing them to take advantage of the shorter nectar flows during unsettled weather. Queens can also mate at lower temperatures than some other races, resulting in better mated queens and a greater likelihood of queen supersedure, which is when an old queen is replaced by a younger one.
Unfortunately, our native Irish honey bee is under severe threat. Non-native honey bees from abroad have been and continue to be imported into Ireland, exposing our honey bees to many new diseases that have wiped out many Irish colonies. The bigger threat however is the risk of hybridisation, which occurs when the native Irish honey bee cross-breeds with imported bees. The valuable characteristics, as discussed above, that the Irish honey bees have developed over many years are diluted and lost, resulting in a huge loss of biodiversity and fitness associated with thousands of years of evolution.
The extinction of the honey bee may sound insignificant to some. What they fail to realise is that around 75% of our global crops depend on pollinators to provide quality food sustainably, and 90% of wild plants depend on pollinators to reproduce. The Irish honey bee has co-evolved with the Irish flora for thousands of years, and so they are best suited to pollinating Irish flora. The decline and loss of the honey bee will have a significant impact on the entire Irish ecosystem, affecting everything from the smallest plants to our bigger mammals.
So, this is why we, as a nation, should care. These small insects that have a seemingly small impact on our daily lives are quite possibly one of the most important creatures in Ireland today, and they are in grave danger. It is only when you and I start to care about, advocate for, and protect the native Irish honey bee that we will be able to save our beautiful bees. Legally, getting recognition and legal protection for our native Irish honey bees would be a huge help in ensuring the future of our native Irish honey bees.