A Precious Gift: The Native Irish Honey Bee

Bees are an ideal society, that we, as humans, can learn something from. They work well together, are cooperative and care for one another. We are also more reliant on bees than we would like to think. Bees are guardians of biodiversity and ecosystems and are considered the invisible helpers of farmers across the globe. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. They also play a significant role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. By acting as pollinators, bees promote biodiversity (Goal 15) and fight hunger (Goal 2). They provide decent jobs (Goal 8) in agriculture and other sectors, advancing Goal 1, no poverty.

Unfortunately, current human activities are detrimental to bees and other pollinators. Extinction rates of bees are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal. This decline in bees can be mainly attributed to human activity. The use of pesticides and loss of habitat due to farming and urbanisation are the most prominent causes. Bees’ survival and development are also threatened by climate change. Across Europe, bee populations and honey stocks have been falling since 2015, in some places up to 30 per cent annually.

According to FAO, maintaining bee habitats and committing to more sustainable agricultural practices, including the use of indigenous and local knowledge and avoidance of pesticides, are key to safeguarding these species. Each of us can choose local organic produce when possible, and plant pollinator-friendly plants, such as shrubs and daisies, in our gardens. Even small, urban gardens can be instrumental in conserving bees.


“A precious gift”

The United Nations designated May 20 as World Bee Day to raise awareness of the threats to bees and their contribution to our planet. This year’s theme is ‘bee-engaged’: celebrating the diversity of bees and beekeeping systems. 

What is interesting about bees is that the greatest diversity is in the temperate zones. Unlike almost every other creature, bees are more adapted to temperate climates, so the greatest diversity is in the belts across Europe and North America.

To mark this year’s World Bee Day theme, UNRIC focused on bees and beekeeping in Ireland. We spoke with Thérèse Scanlon, Secretary of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS). NIHBS is an all-island organisation whose aim is to promote the conservation, study, improvement and reintroduction of Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) throughout the island of Ireland.


What strain of bee can be found in Ireland? 

The Native Irish Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is a strain of the Dark European Honey Bee which was once widespread across Northern Europe. Tragically they are now scarce in most areas due to cross-breeding with other strains of the honey bee and diseases from imported bees. It is the only honey bee strain native to Ireland.

Dark in colour and resilient to our unpredictable weather our sturdy little native bee has many attributes that specifically aid it in prospering here including an ability to tolerate long periods of confinement to the hive in winter and an ability to fly at low temperatures and in drizzle or light rain. Clearly, our native bee is admirably adapted to life in Ireland!

We are extremely fortunate that a strong and genetically diverse population of our native bee still exists in Ireland, but it needs protection if it is to continue to survive and thrive.

A bee sitting on a pink flower
An Apis mellifora mellifora (native Irish honey bee) sitting on a pink flower, copyright © John Thorp

What are the greatest obstacles to the introduction and conservation of native Irish honey bees? 

The single biggest threat to our native Irish honey bee is the importation of non-native honey bees into Ireland.

Imported bees bring the risk of cross-breeding which harms biodiversity and the ecosystem arising from the introgression/crossing/cross-breeding of the native Irish honey bee.

In addition, the importation of honey bees has in previous times brought deadly diseases and pests, such as the varroa mite, which have devastated our native honey bees and can have a detrimental effect on other bee species also.


What are some of NIHBS’s successes that you’d like to highlight? 

(1) Conservation

In the area of conservation, NIHBS has worked tirelessly to encourage the establishment of conservation areas for our native bee. The number of conservation areas now numbers more than twenty and new conservation areas are being declared every year. Most conservation areas have been established by beekeeping associations but there are a growing number of conservation areas now being set up by other types of organisations such as social enterprises, and community groups.


(2) Education 

The education of both beekeepers and the public is especially important to NIHBS and every year several workshops, seminars and conferences are held to promote our native bee and support and train beekeepers committed to keeping native bees.

In 2020 a Queen Rearing Group Scheme was launched to establish a network of self-sufficient native Amm bee breeding groups throughout the island. Initially, thirteen groups of beekeepers partook in the scheme and a further sixteen groups have since joined. It is hoped that this initiative will continue to grow and expand the network of beekeepers dedicated to the protection of our native bee.

female beekeeper
A beekeeper and her Apis mellifora mellifora, copyright © John Thorp

Education is further supported through NIHBS publications. There is a quarterly magazine and monthly newsletter distributed to all members. A range of booklets and leaflets have been produced containing valuable material relating to conserving, breeding, and protecting our native bee. In addition, an excellent book called ‘The Native Irish Honey Bee’ was launched last year and is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the conservation of Amm. This book is not just a beekeeping book for beekeepers. It is a book written by beekeepers, but about a bee, and for the sake of a bee: Ireland’s native bee.


(3) Research

Scientific research plays an important role in the work of NIHBS and the society has supported a wide range of research projects relating to our native bee, Amm. Strong links have been forged with institutions in Ireland, notably Limerick Institute of Technology and the National University of Ireland, Galway. Significant resources have been invested by NIHBS into a range of relevant research studies including research on DNA screening and Varroa resistance. NIHBS has gained international recognition for its work and has established strong links with international organisations and individuals whose work and aims are in alignment with those of the society.


What are some of the projects you have planned for the future? 

The Protection of the Native Irish Honey Bee Bill 2021 

NIHBS has always campaigned for a ban on the importation of honey bees into Ireland. Hence the introduction of a private members bill by Senator Vincent P Martin in 2021 entitled the ‘Protection of the Native Irish Honey Bee Bill 2021’ was a momentous event for the society.

This bill seeks to ban the importation of non-native honey bees to reduce the threat to and adverse impact upon biodiversity and the ecosystem arising from the introgression/crossing/cross-breeding of the native Irish Honey Bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, due to the importation of non-native species or sub-species of and/or strains derived from Apis mellifera.

Apis mellifora mellifora beehives, copyright © John Thorp

Currently, the bill is at its second stage before Seanad Eireann.

Much work lies ahead to support the progression of this bill in the hope that finally our native honey bee will be afforded some protection under the law and that this precious genetic treasure can be conserved for future generations.


What can people in Ireland do to help support native Irish honey bees? 

Learn more about our native honey bee by checking out the NIHBS website.

Here you will find lots of information on our native honey bee, the work done by NIHBS to preserve it and how you can join in that work.

Also, you can support our native Irish honey bee by buying honey from beekeepers who only keep native bees. Many beekeepers clearly label their honey as ‘Irish Honey’ but is that honey made by native Irish bees? If you are in doubt ask.


What would you like people to use World Bee Day 2022 to reflect on? 

We would hope that people would reflect on the precious gift we have in the form of our native honey bee and in so doing, realise that this tiny creature is deserving of protection and conservation for its own sake and for future generations.


Click here for more information about the Native Irish Honey Bee Society and its work, including information about membership. Follow the Native Irish Honey Bee Society on Twitter and Facebook.

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