Sting in the tale for future of bees

A third of Ireland’s 99 species of bees are under threat. Essential to our eco-system, a plan is pollinating to protect them, says Helen O’Callaghan

Over the half-century that Michael Kiely has had a passion for bee-keeping, he has seen a “frightening” drop in the number of bees. Based in Ovens, Co Cork, he is not happy with his hives.

“I’m down to five now and they’re struggling. The queens seem to be in trouble — they can’t get mated,” says the 86-year-old.

For the first time ever, he has had to introduce chemicals to his hives to kill the varroa mite, a crab-like parasite that can’t fly and that was brought to Ireland in a hive of bees in the 1980s.

“A few mites can wallop out a hive. It wiped out 20 of my hives,” says Kiely.

But the varroa mite isn’t the only threat to our bee population, which in Ireland numbers 99 species.

“We have one type of honey bee, 21 kinds of bumblebee, and 77 different kinds of solitary bee. One third of these 99 types are threatened with extinction from the island of Ireland,” says Una Fitzpatrick, project co-ordinator with the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, an initiative that calls us all to create an Ireland where pollinators can survive and thrive.

The threat to bees is a very real problem, says Fitzpatrick.

You can bring in more honey bees but if the wild pollinators disappear, you can’t bring them back.

She cites three major reasons for minding our bees: “Bees pollinate our crops — the free service they provide is worth €53m a year in the Republic of Ireland. And if we didn’t have pollinators, it would be very hard to have a healthy, balanced diet because it’s the fruit and vegetables that need to be pollinated. Three-quarters of our wild plants also need to be pollinated.”

Globally, people see Ireland as green and colourful. Yet we need our bees to maintain this.

“Without bees, our landscape would be much less attractive for us, for tourists, and for the way we brand our agricultural produce abroad,” says Fitzpatrick.

“Crops farmers could grow would be limited. It’d be impossible to grow our own fruit and vegetables at home. Wild flowers would disappear, making our countryside less colourful.”

And according to David Attenborough, if bees were to disappear from earth, humans would have just four years left to live.

Bees are in danger because we’ve drastically reduced amount of food (flowers) and safe nesting sites in our landscapes. The year-on-year decline in common bumblebees since 2012 is 3.7%.

For Michael Kiely, modern farming methods are not bee-friendly: They’ve rid the countryside of the old ditches of briar and wild flowers.

Briar and clover are one of the principle sources of honey. But we’re prairies now — the old ditches have been broken down. It’s all strip-feeding with electric fencing. Silage has removed cutting of hay — and silage cuts grass terribly tight. It does enormous damage to long grass and to clover.

Pesticides and sprays also play havoc with our bee population, while Kiely contends that mobile phones are proven to affect bees. “Electrical impulses interfere with the bees’ own finely attuned navigation system — they become disoriented, unable to find their hive.”

Kiely’s fascination with bees is compelling and contagious.

“When you keep bees, you witness all sorts of antics. You truly appreciate how intelligent and diligent they are,” he says, adding that hive life is way ahead of us.

“Bees have had a GPS navigation system and mobile communications for centuries,” he says, explaining how this works for the foraging bee.

“When a forager emerges from the hive to hunt, she’s looking for a nectar or pollen-yielding shrub or weed. The plant’s colour attracts her. She collects pollen, storing it in two baskets attached to her back legs. Returning to the hive, she deposits her load, then dances in a figure of eight.”

The dance attracts fellow foragers, informing them where to find the best nectar. It’s highly accurate and based on the perpendicularity of the hive.

“If she dances at a 45-degree angle to right of the perpendicular, the bees will fly to the right of the hive to the sun at 45 degrees. The length and intensity of the dance tells them the distance to the bush yielding the pollen/nectar. In no time at all, the bush is covered with bees.”

Jack O’Toole, 4, with beekeeper Michael Kiely, 86, ahead of the Cork Summer Show this weekend. Picture: Clare Keogh

A retired engineer, Kiely’s a font of bee knowledge: Honey bees hibernate in a cluster, but bumblebees and wasps don’t survive winter — only their queens do. In spring, the one queen starts up a new nest alone. She builds a golf-ball-sized nest and lays about six eggs. In the case of the wasp, it develops to football size and contains several thousand wasps. Bumblebees follow the same ritual but don’t end up the same size.

Bee-keeping isn’t for the faint-hearted.

“It takes special courage to open a hive of 50,000 bees and expect them to smile at you — they won’t!” says Kiely.

“When a hive becomes overcrowded, it decides to split — the queen and half the bees leave to set up a new home. Because the queen hasn’t left the hive for a few years, the bees aren’t sure she can fly, so they perch on a branch within 50 yards of the hive and wait for her to join them: The bee-keeper’s opportunity to catch the bees and establish a new hive.”

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan calls us all to save the bees, whether we’ve got the smallest window-box or the largest farm, says Una Fitzpatrick. “We can all play a role, whether on council land, business properties, farms, schools, at home.”

Since its 2015 publication, over 80 government and NGOs have agreed to support the plan. “At end of year two, 91% of the actions were completed or in train,” says Fitzpatrick.

Actions include:

  • Department of Agriculture agree to incorporate pollinator-friendly actions in agri-environmental schemes;
  • Some councils agree to reduce mowing on roadside verges;
  • Tidy Towns agree to incorporate pollinator award in their competition — 70 Tidy Towns groups entered for the award last year.

    There is hope, says Fitzpatrick. “We’re seeing huge interest across all different sectors. People are getting on board and taking action. And the beauty of it is: if we all take very small actions, the impact will be huge.”

  • Michael Kiely will give bee-keeping masterclasses at Cork Summer Show, June 16 and 17.


    Help bees —

    How to help bees in your area:

  • Pollinator-friendly gardens provide food in form of flowers, shelter for nesting and safety from chemicals. Identify and protect spots in garden already providing food/shelter for pollinators, e.g. patches of wildflowers, “weedy” plants, flowering hedgerows (food); bare soil on flat or sloped ground, long grass, dry stone walls (shelter).
  • Dandelions are a vital source of spring food for pollinators. Avoid cutting grass until mid-April, after they’ve flowered but before they set seed. Mow grass every six weeks, allowing pollinator-friendly flowers like clover to bloom. Reduce mowing to create wildflower patch/strip/meadow.
  • Bramble, thistles, ivy and nettles are important sources of food for all pollinator types. Keep small section of garden for these plants to grow.
  • Plant is likely to be pollinator-friendly if single instead of double-flowered, if perennial rather than annual, if pollinators already visit it. Look out for Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, used by many garden plant suppliers.
  • Grow pollinator-friendly herbs in pots – borage, chives, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme.
  • Grow plants that flower from spring through autumn. Good pollinator-friendly bulbs to plant for spring include snowdrop, crocus, allium, grape hyacinth, single-flowered dahlia (especially Bishop series). Also for spring: comfrey and wallflower; for summer: catmint and lavender verbena; for autumn: heathers and rudbeckia.


  • Giving bees their buzz back

    This time of year bees can look like they’re dying/dead, but they’re just tired, which may hamper return to their hive. Revive exhausted bee by mixing two tablespoons white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon water. Place on spoon for bee to reach.

    (Sir David Attenborough)

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