NUIG wants to bring the native Irish honey bee back

Gerard Coyne with a frame of honey, demonstrating at queen-rearing workshop.

The bee is a most underrated species; without it our food sources would disappear and we would starve – and yet no native Irish honey bees survive in the wild, due to foreign viruses being brought in on imported bees.

NUIG has joined forces with NIHBS (The Native Irish Honey Bee Society) to breed a strain that will be tolerant to the devastating Varroa Destructor parasite.

“I have no doubt came it in on the back of an imported honey bee,” says Cleggan-based Gerard Coyne, chairperson of NIHBS.

“Connemara, due to its isolation, was one of the last areas in the country to get this Varroa mite.”

The parasite attaches to the body of the bee, and weakens it by sucking ‘bee blood’ or hemolymph. A severe infestation can cause the death of an entire colony.

When it was first discovered in Ireland in 1998, it played havoc with the native Irish Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), which has been devastated in its native wild environment.

“There are no honey bees living in the wild anymore – they can only live where they are protected,” Gerard adds.

“All the feral colonies have died out – one of last colonies was Connemara, as we didn’t get the mite until 2009. Two years after its arrival, all the wild nests were gone.”

Beekeepers treat their honey bees with organic products but, as in humans, the parasite builds up a resistance and the battle seems impossible to overcome.

While the importation of foreign bees continues, it will never be resolved.

“They do not suit our wet conditions, especially here on the west coast – when they cross-breed with our breeds, you have total confusion, and they get aggressive and unmanageable – people have drifted away from beekeeping due to the aggression in bees.

“The bee likes to go about in private, so they like a nice secluded spot that animals or people can’t interrupt. Bees do things by instinct – they’ve been doing it for millions of years, and they don’t like interference. Too much manipulation disturbs them, stops them working, and makes them aggressive.

“Honey Bees are not naturally aggressive, they will only protect when they feel their home is under threat, or when they’ve got lots of brood, honey, or stores to protect. When they are out foraging, they are totally docile, and are not interested in humans or animals.”

NIHBS, which represents beekeepers from the 32-counties – is lobbying the Department of Agriculture to stop importing bees – that is one of its main aims and objectives.

“The bee we have here is superior to any imported one, and why we can’t protect and conserve it is beyond belief.

“All the bigger beekeepers in Ireland, that produce honey, are using the native honey bee, because it fares out better. Importing bees is a useless exercise – you can’t keep them from going to the wild, and breeding with other bees.

“You must breed from your locally-adapted bees – our bee evolved after the Ice Age, and they have stood the test of time.

“But man always thinks that faraway hills are greener – there’s nothing wrong with bees from other areas, but they have a longer foraging climate; our bees only have a window of 4-5 weeks. When we cross-breed, we get mixed genes, the bee doesn’t know what to do, should I be in Connemara or the Mediterranean? That bee is confused, it gets aggressive, and is more prone to disease because its stressed.”

Evolution has made the Irish bee dark, to attract the sun, whereas the imported bees are yellower.

Our ancestors certainly recognised the importance of the bee for survival, which has sadly been largely forgotten by later generations.

“The honey the bee produces is minute compared to its other values – bees are important for pollinating, they are underrated for their value to farming and crops.

“Without bees, we would starve, our food would start to disappear slowly, and if the bees disappeared – and they are getting scarce – a lot of our food would disappear, and other animals would get weaker, and over time there would be less food, so it is vital for survival.

“Once something leaves the food chain, others will weaken, and after a while our immune system will break down as we won’t have a balanced diet.

“They are wild creatures, but we have domesticated them, and put them under pressure asking them to produce more honey – that’s their winter stores, they will always produce a surplus of honey, and that’s what we steal – we call it harvesting.”

A major aim of NIHBS is to eventually breed a strain of honey bee that will survive in the wild, which is their natural habitat.

With this in mind, scientists at NUI Galway, headed by professor Grace McCormack and PhD student, Keith Browne, have asked beekeepers to send samples of their bees – before any Varroa treatment takes place – to them by May 22.

Beekeepers use the sugar shaker method (the mites fall off) to count the percentage of Varroa mites in their hives. Then, they send a sample of 10 bees to NUIG for analysis.

As part of the breeding programme, beneficial traits such as grooming, temperament, honey production, and disease resistance, are selected.

A second count will take place at the end of August.

“If we can determine Varroa-tolerant bees, and breed from there, hopefully we will keep out other diseases – there is a pest in Italy (Small Hive Beetle) – if we continue to import bees it will arrive on our shores. Then that’s another problem on top of what we have.”

NIHBS and the Connemara Bee Keepers Association run courses and events to promote the survival of the native honey bee.

A ‘Queen-Rearing’ workshop will take place in Oughterard on Sunday, June 12, at Sean Osborne’s apiary (it will be signposted). There will also be demonstrations for beginners, who may be interested in taking up this hobby.