Without our honeybees we’d be in serious trouble. After two consecutive years of torrential summer rain, Northern Ireland has run short of honey — but that’s the least of our worries.
Ecology experts have been driving home the message for quite some time now. Without our bees, the world would be a very different place. They play a key role in pollinating many of our farm crops and it’s estimated that one out of every three mouthfuls of the food we eat depends on honeybees.
The National Trust has just announced a new push to encourage people across the UK to revive the practice of beekeeping. The trust is introducing 45 new hives at its properties, including one at its Northern Ireland headquarters, Rowallane on the outskirts of the Co Down village of Saintfield.
There the bees will thrive on the many unusual plants planted in the spectacular grounds, including the rhododendrons and azaleas for which the gardens are famous.
The hive will be built in the nursery area, visible to the public from a nearby walk but out of reach for safety reasons, gardener Lucy Bain said. The fortunes of the Rowallane bees will be followed by BBC Radio Ulster as part of the Bee Part of It campaign this summer.
“They love wild plants, such as bramble and dandelions, which are full of the pollen that the bees use to feed their young. There’s also the horse chestnut and the thorn trees are coming out as well,” Lucy said. “They love the sedums we have at Rowallane and there’s a single rose, Rosa moyesii, in the walled garden which they absolutely love.”
Between 1985 and 2005, the number of honeybee colonies across the UK have plummeted by half due to a host of threats — changes in land use, cold wet summers and the danger posed by the varroa mite, which sucks the bees’ blood and spreads viruses through the colony.
After a late start this spring, Northern Ireland’s beekeepers are hoping the weather is about to pick up and bring some long days of summer sunshine so that our honeybee colonies can recover.
David Wright, who chairs the Ulster Beekeeping Association and is working with the National Trust on this new scheme, said his bees were out and about yesterday.
“It’s the first really warm day and they are doing surprisingly well. If the cold weather has finally moved on and the the wind’s coming from the south, they will do well,” he said.
But people who looked after their bees well and treated them for varroa in time will find the benefits come through.
“The big concern at the moment is that we need to do more to produce and build up our own native Irish black bee stocks,” he added.
And it looks as though the great Northern Irish public have already heeded the call — with a significant surge in the number of new beekeepers entering the fray.
“This year we will have well over 130 people doing the beekeeping course, compared to last year when it was 105. It goes right across the whole spectrum of ages, backgrounds, interests and right across the country as a whole,” David said.