Citizen scientists to be kept busy with Irish honeybee watch

Citizen scientists to be kept busy with Irish honeybee watch
Under Irish law, the Irish wild honeybee is deemed a domestic animal and therefore not protected.

Ireland’s wild honey bees are defying the odds, and experts want to know why. Citizen scientists have been asked to participate in a new online survey to record sightings of the distinctive northern black “free living” bee.

There is only one native wild honeybee among the 99 species of bee in Ireland, and scientists at NUI Galway and Limerick Institute of Technology confirmed two years ago that it is not extinct.

Wild colonies of honeybee have been all but wiped out in most of the rest of northern Europe, but Ireland’s sub-species, called Apis mellifera mellifera, is surviving in its pure form.

Grace McCormack of NUIG who is leading the new survey, explains that the main threats to the honeybee internationally had been the Varroa parasite, which can destroy entire colonies in several years, and imports of other strains of honeybees.

She and her colleagues are studying the wild honey bees in Ireland to discover the number and distribution of their colonies and devise strategies for their conservation. Honeybees are not a protected species, due to EU trade laws and this State’s laws, which deems them as domestic animals.

The new online ‘citizen survey’ is the first in Europe and is being run in collaboration with the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Native Irish Honey Bee Society and the Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations.

Participants are asked to record sightings online of wild honey bee colonies — also referred to as free-living or unmanaged bees — which are living anywhere other than a beehive. The researchers are seeking a photo/description of the colony entrance, its location, and how long it has been there.

Other useful information includes how high off the ground the colony is; what direction the entrance is facing; and whether the honey bees are behaving aggressively or not. The researchers would also like to know if a beekeeper has taken a swarm from the colony.

A report on their pilot project in 2016 had elicited a very positive response, with more than 200 reports from Dublin to Kerry and Galway to Fermanagh, said Prof McCormack.

The researchers have been able to monitor the survival of some of these colonies since then, and have noticed that they are resistant to the deadly Varroa destructor parasite, which usually kills a colony within one to two years unless chemically treated. Some of the wild free-living colonies appear to survive for over three years without human intervention.

“Ireland’s native black honey bee forms the bedrock of our country’s long heritage of beekeeping culture and is also an important component of our natural pollinators,” said John Little, chairman of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.

NUIG research Keith Browne said: “We are hoping people all over Ireland will take part in this conservation project, and allow us to build on our current data which, whilst promising, needs to be more extensive.”

To participate in the survey and record sightings, visit: records.biodiversityireland.ie/record/wildhoneybeestudy

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