Irish honeybee’s future looking sweet

IS there a more authentic sound of summer in Ireland than the drone of bees?

Yet, amid concerns about the plight of the global bee population, people fear this unmistakable sound might not be heard in the future.

Fear not. A study being carried out at the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), which coincides with the ‘year of the honeybee,’ is showing that our native honeybee population is healthy and may not be at the same risk of colony collapse as those in other parts of the world.

Because of its key role in pollination, the honeybee is responsible for about a third of the food we eat or export. Ireland is not immune to pressures on bees. Some of our beekeepers have seen high losses in the past 25 years, but it is difficult to establish if this is part of the worldwide trend.

Dr Michael Geary, of the LIT department of applied science, says: “we don’t believe things to be all that fraught in Ireland. Our study shows we have a robust native strain of Apis mellifera mellifera (the dark Irish bee) still alive and, more importantly, dominant in Ireland.” Conan McDonnell, the LIT student carrying out the study, is a beekeeper and he says the Irish bee makes the most of our conditions and has established itself here over a long period.

He says: “they have adapted their life cycles to be super efficient at making the most of what is available at that particular time of year, without putting pressure on the environment or the colony regarding critical elements like population, space and food pressures.” A worry is that the introduction of non-native bees, or the migration of such bees into Ireland as a result of climate change, could threaten the native species. The study looked at wing samples submitted by beekeepers from around the country in the last three years.

The group examines vein patterns on the wing of the bee. Set patterns can be used to determine the percentage purity of the species. A five-year nationwide survey is being conducted by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group, led by Micheal MacGiollacoda, an expert on beekeeping. This study is being part-funded by the Department of Agriculture and shows that the native Irish bee is still dominant. Conan has concerns for the future and the increased pressure that we are putting on the bee’s native habitat.

Intensive agriculture, diseases that could be introduced by non-native bees, use of pesticides and the elimination of native hedgerows will change what has been the bee’s ecosystem for millennia, he says. Such changes, even over short periods, lead to the collapse of species and so it could be with the native Irish honeybee, he says.

On a related matter, a recent LIT study conducted by Saoirse Hickey Houlihan, a final year BSc (Hons) student in drug and medicinal product analysis, shows that locally-produced honey is the healthiest by far. As part of her project, Saoirse analysed four honey samples for both physical and chemical properties.

Two of the honeys, which were international in origin, were selected from a supermarket’s own-brand range. Of the two Irish samples investigated, one was described as being a blend of 100% pure Irish honey and was sourced from a health food shop. The fourth honey sample came from beekeeper, Tom O’Brien, of Shannon, Co Clare.

Hickey Houlihan found the Irish honeys to be healthier and to contain levels far below the EU limit of a chemical found in honey. Commenting on the study, Dr David Sutton, of the LIT department of applied science, says it was fascinating to investigate a product that we take for granted in everyday life and to discover that there are significant differences between local, national and internationally-produced honeys.

“It really does emphasise that, often, the quality of local produce is superior,” he says.

Meanwhile, scientific experts are no nearer to discovering the cause of the mystery virus, colony collapse disorder (CCD), or apian atrophy, which has decimated the bee population in many parts of the world — up to 35% in some cases.

Many are putting it down to the use of agricultural pesticides and chemicals in crop spraying. Bee experts are warning the global community cannot afford to waste any more time, given the importance of the honeybee to food production.

The spread of CCD around the world has been much faster than expected, worsening the food security fears in many producing countries. Some believe it is potentially a bigger threat than global warming, but stress it can be solved if governments act quickly.

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