Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

To bee or not to bee ... why fight is on to save a native species

Hive of activity: Beekeepers have been called on to help save the black honeybee

Beekeepers across Ireland have been urged to save the native black honeybee from the brink of extinction.

The species was almost obliterated by disease nearly a century ago but was recently found still to be clinging on in corners of the UK where it had been thought to be extinct — including counties Londonderry and Donegal.

The native bee was largely wiped out by acarine disease in the 1920s, after which beekeepers were forced to rely on imported honeybee subspecies to revive their hives.

Many of the remaining native bees became mongrelised after foreign subspecies were bred with them, according to Norman Walsh of Dromore Beekeeping Association.

He said bees in counties Antrim and Down are less genetically pure but local beekeeping associations have been bringing in native queens that have survived in county Tipperary to head new colonies.

Now a new honeybee society is being set up to boost the native black bees that cling on in isolated pockets of Ireland.

According to the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, the more modern strains of honeybee derived from imported stock are being decimated by the parasitic mite Varroa and the only hope is to turn back to the native bee.

“This Irish population of the dark European honeybee is unique as it is the chief remaining repository of this sub species of Apis mellifera mellifera that at one time populated the whole of Europe north of the Alps, ranging from the islands of Great Britain and Ireland across the Ural Mountains in Russia, and northwards through the Baltic States and Scandinavia,” a spokesman said.

“Throughout most of these areas this subspecies has largely been hybridised due to importations of other European subspecies, particularly from southern Europe and the Mediterranean area. Fortunately, we in Ireland have large remnants of this wonderful heritage still surviving in its pure form in the apiaries that are being managed by Irish beekeepers.

“Recent surveys entailing DNA analysis and a countrywide morphometric survey undertaken by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group on a nationwide basis have proved beyond doubt that these bees can be regarded as pure Apis mellifera mellifera.

“However, our population of native bees is constantly under threat from imports of other subspecies into certain parts of this country. As we have no way of controlling the mating of queens by these foreign drones, there is a great danger that our native stock will be irretrievably contaminated.”

The new society is to meet at the Maldron Hotel in Portlaoise this Sunday at 2pm, bringing together beekeeping groups and individual beekeepers from across Ireland who are keen to preserve the Irish strains of native honeybee.

“The primary aim of this society will be the conservation, study, improvement and restoration of the native Irish honeybee,” the spokesman said.

“It is on this native honeybee population that we plan to build, develop, improve and expand our beekeeping industry. Furthermore in due course it is hoped, with the united effort of Irish beekeepers, to identify strains of native bees that are capable of tolerating the Varroa mite that has been responsible for the decimation of all our wild colonies of honeybees.

“If this can be achieved there is a possibility that local strains of Apis mellifera mellifera will recolonise those nesting sites formerly occupied by feral colonies and from which Varroa tolerant swarms will issue forth to repopulate the countryside and carry out the necessary pollination of all flowering plants.”

Factfile

  • The native black honeybee is uniquely suited to surviving in the harsh Irish climate.
  • It has evolved a larger body and has the longest dark abdominal hairs of all the European races, to help keep it warm in a cooler climate, and has a shorter breeding season to reflect the Irish summer.
  • It will be found foraging earlier and later and over longer distances than the Italian bee and will fly in dull and drizzly weather which would force the Italian bees indoors.

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