Native Irish Honey Bee

The Native Irish Honey Bee

Apis mellifera mellifera, (A.m.m.), also called the Black Bee or the Dark European Honey Bee was originally widespread throughout the whole of northern Europe but sadly is no longer prevalent there now, due to hybridisation with other sub-species.

Status

Scientific research and DNA analysis has confirmed the Irish A.m.m strain to be both pure and distinct in the paper ‘A significant pure population of the dark European honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) remains in Ireland (tandfonline.com)

The Black Bee is thankfully still very much alive in Ireland and is the one kept by most beekeepers BUT it is severely threatened due to hybridisation with imported non-native sub-species as well as the potential detrimental effects of diseases that may be imported with non-native bees. Along with other bees and pollinators generally, it is also struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use and intensive agriculture – sadly, 1/3rd of all Ireland’s bees are at risk of extinction.

The importance of protecting local bees is now being recognised throughout Europe; in March 2018, an EU Report on Prospects and challenges for the EU apiculture sector (2017/2115(INI)) “Calls on the European Commission and Member States to put in place measures to increase legal protection and financial support for local honey bee ecotypes and populations throughout the European Union, including by way of legally protected locally endemic honeybee conservation areas.”

We are happy to be associated with the Irish Native and Rare Breeds Society, INRBS. We very much support their non-intensive methods of farming and feel that native honey bees would happily complement their ethos of working with breeds most suited to maintaining wildlife habitats, biodiversity and generally being kinder to nature. Instead of being penalised, farmers should be incentivised to protect and improve biodiversity, they should be encouraged to keep excellently maintained hedgerows which are essential corridors and habitats for a healthy wildlife population.

Key Characteristics

Our Irish bee A.m.m. is defined by, and equipped with, a unique suite of morphological characters, behaviours and responses that allow them to thrive despite the weather and make them particularly important as pollinators of crops in Irish agriculture.

Characteristics include:

  • Rapid response to changeable weather
  • Ability to forage at low temperatures – even in the rain
  • Frugal over-wintering
  • Rapid spring build up
  • Good, dependable honey producers. Research by Teagasc showed that Irish A.m.m. produced an average of 70 lbs (32 kgs) of honey p.a.
  • Low-swarming tendency
  • Placidity.

History

Ireland’s honey bee evolved and adapted over thousands of years and thrives in our particularly changeable oceanic climate. There are 99 species of bees in Ireland but there is only one native honey bee. This bee still exists in the wild and is also kept in hives by beekeepers. Not only is it an important native pollinator with a special place in the functioning ecology and biodiversity of the Irish countryside but the honey bee is deeply rooted in the history and heritage of rural Ireland.

Ireland has a long tradition of keeping bees, going back to the Brehon law days; many of us have stored memories of having bees in the back garden and honey on the table.

A destructive mite, Varroa was imported with some bees into Ireland in 1998 and along with a number of viruses brought in with it, spread with devastating effect throughout the resident honey bee population ever since, although we are now managing it. Prior to that, there were lots of honey bees living in the wild. Many of the wild colonies were killed by the Varroa mite but we now know that not all died out and thankfully, they are again on the increase – it appears the native bee was able to adapt, survive and recolonise.

As a result of the severe bee decline in Ireland, a massive effort was made by the Galtee Bee Breeders Group and others to halt this decline and following many years of hard work, co-ordination, encouragement and research, they have progressively improved the purity of stock year by year to achieve excellent examples of A.m.m. which are now highly sought after. Indeed, there is a growing demand from Northern Europe for Irish honey bees but for the moment we are not even producing enough to satisfy domestic demand.

Following on from this initiative, many Voluntary Conservation Areas have been set up by Beekeeping Associations throughout the whole of Ireland where they have decided to only work with native bees and agree not to import other sub-species, see map below & further info here Voluntary Conservation Areas | The Native Irish Honey Bee Society (nihbs.org)

Uses

Ireland’s native honey bee forms the bedrock of our country’s rich heritage in beekeeping culture and is also an important component of our natural pollinators. Crops such as apples, strawberries, clover and oilseed rape all benefit from pollination by bees and other insects; the value to the economy has been estimated at €53 million per year.

Bees cannot thrive in intensive farming situations – they starve from lack of food and loss of habitat. Monoculture, single species grassland mean there is no forage for bees or other pollinators. An intensively farmed area is like a desert to bees – even though they can fly up to 3 miles for food, in the long term, this is not sustainable for a tiny insect.

The simple fact is that bees need flowers for pollen and nectar – they entirely depend on flowering plants and the old fashioned hay meadow is ideal, along with hedgerows, edges of fields and roads, scrub etc., where they forage on hawthorn, blackthorn, willow, sycamore, gorse, hazel, lime, bramble, clover, rose bay willow herb, heather, ivy etc.

We realise that it is important not to overstock an area with too many honey bees so they do not impinge on existing bumble and solitary bees or other pollinators like butterflies, wasps, hoverflies, moths etc., The best pollination happens when there is a good mix and wide diversity of pollinators.

It must be said that not much money can be made from beekeeping but as part of mixed farming, it can create extra income, not to mention the pure satisfaction of keeping bees and helping nature.

INRBS farmers wishing to avail of grant aid for having native bees on their land could possibly get financial support to take up beekeeping if they are also members of NIHBS.

Case studies –  highlighting how the breed is being farmed in Ireland

Irish Native and Rare Breeds Honey Bee Case Study by Pauline Walsh
Irish Native and Rare Breeds Honey Bee Case Study by Gerard Coyne

Breed Societies

The Native Irish Honey Bee Society, NIHBS, set up in 2012 is an All-Ireland group. Our primary aim is to “promote the conservation, study, improvement and reintroduction of A.m.m. throughout the island of Ireland.” To achieve this we aim to establish areas of conservation to preserve A.m.m. and to work for a ban on the importation of bees and queens. Currently we have approximately 400 members from all counties of Ireland, North and South.

For further information about The Native Irish Honey Bee Society the website is http://nihbs.org/ or contact our secretary, Loretta Neary by email nihbs.secretary@gmail.com

If you would like to support us, new members are always welcome, whether beekeepers or not, you can join here and will get our quarterly newsletter, news updates and be part of the conservation of the native Irish honey bee – Membership | The Native Irish Honey Bee Society (nihbs.org)

Suitable Habitat Types

Grasslands

Woodlands